The Black Keys
The Black Keys have moved to Nashville. What does that say about them — and what does that say about us?
Keys to the City
by D. PATRICK RODGERS
March 31, 2011
The Black Keys — the two-man blues-rock wrecking crew and favorite sons of Akron, Ohio — were up for four Grammys this year. Two of these they won: Best Alternative Music Album, and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals. Their art director, Michael Carney, also won Best Recording Package, and their producer, Danger Mouse, brought home a trophy for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical.
Their single “Tighten Up” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs and Rock Songs charts. It remained No. 1 on Modern Rock radio for 10 weeks. That helped make 2010’s Brothers their first RIAA-certified Gold Record (not to mention iTunes’ Album of the Year). Factor in international tours, the festival circuit, appearances on Letterman, Fallon, Colbert and SNL, being named Spin’s 2010 Artists of the Year and earning the No. 2 spot on Rolling Stone’s Best Albums of 2010 list, and the past year has belonged to The Black Keys.
So they did what any chart-topping, cutting-edge rock act would do after grabbing the gold ring. They moved to Nashville. Only nobody’s laughing at the thought.
Why here? Why now? “Why not?” seems to be the group’s reply — and it’s that casual acceptance, more than any dramatic lifestyle statement, that may signal a major shift in the way the city’s music scene is regarded outside Nashville. A decade ago, the city was aggressively (or desperately) trying to promote itself as “more than country music.” Today, one of the hottest rock acts going moves to town, and its frontman, himself an in-demand producer, sets up a top-notch recording studio within the city limits.
But that’s not the big difference. The big difference is that 10 years ago, a group like the Keys coming to town would have been the story — the detail that put the city on the map for non-country media. Today, as part of a landscape that includes both homegrown and relocated pop superstars, they’re a story. If anything, though, that makes them even more important. They’re proof that what’s happening here isn’t a fluke.
“I think The Black Keys are a major component in helping people think of Nashville in some way other than contemporary country music,” says Mike Grimes, co-proprietor of Grimey’s and The Basement. “The Black Keys and Ke$ha and Kings of Leon — all these people who are making very, very big marks internationally certainly help change that perception.”
Talk of Nashville being “The New L.A.” (ugh) went around briefly a couple of years back. For a time, some folks even sported T-shirts with that sentiment. (The website that once sold them now appears to be little more than an abandoned kiosk.) Longtime Nashvillians generally laughed the trend off, as most agreed that we aren’t L.A., we never were, and we never really want to be.
But with monolithic mainstream rock and pop acts like Kings of Leon, Paramore, Ke$ha and Taylor Swift emerging from Middle Tennessee, while acclaimed indie acts such as Lambchop, The Features, JEFF the Brotherhood and Those Darlins continue to gather steam — and let’s not forget our brave emissary from the North, Jack White, who made rock scribes the world over rub their eyes and go, “Nashville?” — locals are crossing their fingers that our rock scene just might finally shake off its yoke of novelty.
Nine years ago, the latest hopes for a less country-centric Music City — one long and lean, the other built like a Southern-rock mountain man — stood on the fifth of five street corners in East Nashville’s Five Points, unknown to all but a growing following of sharp-eared early adopters. Back then, Mike Grimes owned a much-loved venue by the name of Slow Bar — a space now filled by popular Five Points watering hole 3 Crow Bar.
In late 2002, Grimes was “bombarded,” as he puts it, with a series of emails from a Black Keys representative seeking to fill a hole in their tour schedule, and hoping to secure a $100 guarantee. He balked: “I said, ‘Man, I can’t pay this band a hundred bucks. I haven’t even heard them before!’ … This is before MySpace and everything.”
The rep sent Grimes a copy of The Big Come Up, The Black Keys’ May 2002 full-length debut via Alive Records. It’s a record that’s peppered with covers of tunes by legendary bluesmen such as R.L. Burnside and Muddy Waters. More striking, though, were the originals — The Keys’ arrestingly spare and gritty first efforts, powered by bludgeoning drums and snarling Rust Belt garage-blooze guitar that made up in force what they lacked in manpower. Grimes loved it. Not long after, the two-piece played the Slow Bar, opening for local act The Alcohol Stuntband.
“I was like, ‘God damn! These guys are fucking awesome!’ ” Grimes recalls. “So the very next day I emailed their agent back. I was like, ‘OK. You got me. They’re incredible. When can I get them back?’ He was like, ‘Oh man, sorry. We just got the Beck tour, and then we’re gonna do this and that.’ So we got them right before shit started taking off for them.”
The Keys’ memories of their first Nashville show are somewhat less lucid.
“Didn’t we do an in-store at his old store?” asks Dan Auerbach, sitting inside a booth at Hillsboro hangout Brown’s Diner, breathing the same air John Prine probably breathed around the time of Sweet Revenge.
“No, it was that [current] spot,” says Patrick Carney, the Keys’ drummer half and Auerbach’s gangly foil. Auerbach — well coiffed, significantly stockier than his counterpart and wearing a near-identical leather jacket — doesn’t give. “No, I mean, like, way back when,” he shoots back.
“No, we played at the Slow Bar,” returns Carney. “That was our first show in Nashville. December ’02. That’s when it was. That’s when we met [Grimes].”
The cliché “old married couple” doesn’t quite do the chemistry between these two justice. As the most recent addition to their catalog suggests, their dynamic is close to fraternal. Their jovial ribbing is rooted in a shared past as childhood friends, and they’re uncannily like-minded.
“No, we didn’t meet him there,” says Auerbach. “We met him at that Abbey Pub? What was it called? It was that pub in Chicago, when we opened for Bobby Bare Jr.”
“No, he opened for us.”
“Whatever,” Auerbach concedes. “Fuck, I don’t remember that show. I just remember meeting [Bare and Grimes]. They were so nice. Grimey’s fuckin’ incredible. Honestly, that guy’s commitment to that spot and the music scene is insane.”
They don’t value that sort of commitment lightly. The Black Keys took almost a decade to succeed overnight. They’re a quintessential case study in slow-but-steady ascension to stardom. In keeping with the blue-collar ethic of their hometown, they worked like dockhands to master and transcend their blues-rock roots — culled from influences like Robert Johnson, Link Wray and Canned Heat — via a series of collaborations, side projects and increasingly sophisticated but grounded records.
Some purists argue that the homegrown, DIY aesthetic of early records like The Big Come Up and Thickfreakness disappeared with The Black Keys’ two most recent releases, Attack and Release and Brothers. And yes, in the back half of The Aughts, the duo did in fact climb out of the home studios, dank basements and abandoned factories that they called home for so long.
They began incorporating auxiliary instrumentation and the more refined production techniques of noted producer and performer Danger Mouse, who’s known for his work with Beck, Gorillaz, MF Doom and Sparklehorse and as Cee Lo Green’s counterpart in Gnarls Barkley. Auerbach released a solo record, 2009’s Keep It Hid, and produced stellar records and singles for artists like former Tennessean Jessica Lea Mayfield and Nashville’s own (by way of Los Angeles) The Ettes.
Carney, meanwhile, formed and played bass for the band Drummer and established a label called Audio Eagle Records, through which he released albums for bands like Houseguest and Knoxville’s Royal Bangs. Carney and Auerbach even participated in a collaborative rap-rock outfit, Blakroc, whose eponymous 2009 debut featured contributions from hip-hop heavyweights like Raekwon, RZA and the late, great Ol’ Dirty Bastard of Wu Tang Clan, along with Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash.
But what some see as The Black Keys turning their backs on the unrefined production techniques and aesthetic that made them stand out, others see as evolution. Their work with Danger Mouse produced fleshed-out, hook-laden rock numbers like Attack and Release’s “Strange Times” and Brothers’ “Tighten Up.” These songs feature the same powerful vocal melodies, accessible lyrical content and dynamic influence as the early numbers, but with a keener ear for production.
In that regard, Brothers was a huge breakthrough. From thumping, mid-tempo barnburners like “Howlin’ for You” and “Next Girl” to rich, soul-inflected cuts like “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “I’m Not the One,” Brothers adds nuance to the earlier records’ blunt force. Auerbach’s vocals are nimble and evocative, from guttural, heart-wrenching howls to pensive falsetto stabs. Carney’s drumming is more organic and dynamic than ever, supplementing instrumentation that borrows as much from old Stax and Volt artists as their past releases borrowed from Delta blues.
“It’s kind of interesting that [their move to Nashville] happened to coincide with their first record to kind of get huge,” says Michael Carney, Patrick’s brother, The Black Keys’ art director, and the proud owner — well, as soon as it shows up in the mail — of a brand-new Grammy for his work on Brothers’ flatly literal and heat-sensitive package design.
“I look at it as kind of a new chapter in the story of The Black Keys,” he explains. “You get to a point where you realize what you’re inputting into your brain or your eyes or your ears is influencing what you’re outputting. Your environment influences what you do. A lot. I think Dan and Pat know that.”
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney agreed to meet for our first interview on Jan. 26. It was the day Charlie Louvin died, and, according to Carney, the third time he’d eaten at Brown’s Diner in just 24 hours. They’d designated this their “meeting space,” as Auerbach thought it looked more like an Akron burger dive than anywhere else he’d been in Nashville yet.
The 2011 Grammys were only two-and-a-half weeks away. Sitting there at Brown’s, Carney soon admitted that the prospect of being nominated for multiple awards was somewhat surreal.
“I think it’s kind of weird,” he says. “I never thought we would get nominated for a Grammy. I have been having kind of anxiety dreams about it. I keep having dreams that we lose all the Grammys and I say something really fucked-up about it. … We’ll see what happens. I think maybe the only way we will win something is if we, like, witness the head of the Grammys murder somebody. He’d owe us.”
Evidently, the president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences murdered someone — two people, in fact — for weeks later, there the Keys were with matching statues. From their awards, it looks like Danger Mouse and Michael Carney witnessed the crime too.
Yet for rock stars with newly minted Grammys and a freshly certified Gold Record under their belts, they’re a modest, easygoing hang. Both Auerbach and Carney retain an earnest, unassuming air of reverence regarding their status in a town ruled by session legends. “Somebody came up to me the other day at a party, and they were like, ‘Oh, you’re that guitar player!’ ” says Auerbach. “And I was like, ‘Not anymore. Nuh-uh.’ ”
Auerbach is prone to rave about artists he’s in awe of — guitar gods and songwriter types, mostly — and when the subject of Nashville-based performers comes up, he doesn’t hold back.
“I saw John Prine [at The Station Inn],” he recalls. “That was absolutely amazing. Prine kinda blew my mind.” Auerbach has basically two categories for encounters with (and performances by) Nashvillians such as Cowboy Jack Clement, BR549 and Marty Stuart: “awesome” and “fucking awesome.” He considers his meeting with Ralph Stanley “a dream come true,” and points out that he wants to “meet that dude Kenny Vaughan,” the session player and member of Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives who’s blown Auerbach’s mind a time or two.
Auerbach moved down from Akron in August, and Carney followed suit shortly after, relocating from New York City in October. But the working-class, self-reliant traditions of industrial Ohio have long been a part of The Black Keys’ aesthetic. Their 2004 release, Rubber Factory, was literally recorded in a deserted tire factory, and Ohioan imagery frequently permeates their album art and live shows — though they currently have no plans to replace their giant, inflatable Goodyear tire stage prop and tread mark-riddled backdrop with an inflatable cowboy hat.
“Well, we will always be from Ohio, and that’s always gonna be a humongous part of who we are and what we are about,” Auerbach says. “That sort of working-class town, small town. If you want to do something you gotta do it yourself. … [The DIY thing] is how we did it. That’s how we started.”
“I think, for a long time, living there we kind of defined ourselves as an underdog type of band in an underdog type of city,” Carney adds. “I think that’s also just part of being young and naive, I guess.”
Auerbach and Carney agree that Nashville’s familiar, small-town feel was a significant part of what brought them here. It felt like home, but with a different set of roots. “I feel like the time when [their respective moves] happened it seemed really natural,” says Michael Carney. “Nashville has a similar feeling [to cities in Ohio], but Nashville has much more of an identity. It has a culture and a history, and that culture is a musical one.”
The Keys certainly still retain a reverence for the musical traditions of Ohio — from The Breeders to Guided by Voices and Devo, they acknowledge their Ohioan forebears. But Patrick Carney notes that his band’s long history in Ohio led to strained relationships and, frankly, boredom.
“There are tons of awesome Ohio bands, but almost all of them except for Guided by Voices have left,” says Carney. “I think we both just wanted to go to a place that has more than two restaurants that you can eat at. But then again, we end up at [Brown’s Diner], the one restaurant that is most similar.”
Carney’s brother also points out that Auerbach’s father is a musician and a prolific folk-art collector. That, paired with growing up amid the sights and sounds of northeast Ohio, significantly informed the band’s aesthetic.
When asked if they have anything to say to Nashville now that they live here, Auerbach deadpans: “Stay the fuck out of our way.” He and Carney laugh and go on to explain that they’re simply looking forward to settling in, getting to work and “exploring the city.” They are, however, already friendly with some of Nashville’s rock elite, having toured with both Kings of Leon and Third Man Records’ The Greenhornes.
Carney frequently pals around with KOL drummer Nathan Followill, and Auerbach points out that Patrick Keeler of The Greenhornes and The Raconteurs functioned as his de facto “tour guide” when he was looking for a studio space. As much as it might fulfill many a local audiophile’s fantasies, however, Auerbach says The Keys have no current plans to work with Jack White or any of his Third Man cadre.
Nevertheless, Auerbach and Carney remain impressed by the local talent. When touring in support of his solo record, Auerbach brought Nashvillian country-punk starlets Those Darlins along as openers, and he and Carney were both impressed by local DJ Wick-It’s mash-up of Brothers with Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty — appropriately named The Brothers of Chico Dusty by Wick-It.
“[The mash-up] is tight,” says Carney. “He did an awesome job.”
From the roof of his brand-new studio, christened Easy Eye Sound System, Auerbach points east of Nashville’s skyline to where he says the moon comes up each night. He’s standing within an open-air patio of sorts, furnished with just a picnic table and a couple of chairs.
“We’re gonna get Bobby Flay up here and shit,” he jokes.
The patio — along with everything inside the studio itself — is akin to what an adolescent with dreams of rock ‘n’ roll stardom might envision. Auerbach’s a somewhat stoic character, seldom punctuating his understated quips with anything more than a wry half-grin. But as he leads a tour of Easy Eye, it’s easy to feel like the cool new kid in the neighborhood has granted you a sneak peek of his clubhouse.
He bustles around the main tracking room — lined with disorientingly gorgeous vintage gear — before setting down his coffee mug to fiddle with some drum hardware or strum a few chords on an old Martin D-18 acoustic guitar.
“You know how some people collect, like, messed-up pets?” he asks. “I collect messed-up instruments.” He relates the story of a Rickenbacker guitar he came into possession of through an acquaintance — the acquaintance’s significant other once stabbed it several times with a kitchen knife in a fit of rage.
He points out a ’53 Les Paul, beat to hell, along with a ’58 Stratocaster, a 12-string Rickenbacker that was given to him as payment for recording San Antonio’s Hacienda, and even a comically diminutive drum kit that he says belongs to his young daughter. Next up are the two bathrooms of Easy Eye — one with plaster walls, the other tiled in order to “impart different reverb characteristics” — where he mentions he’s already recorded hand-claps on a project.
In the control room, Auerbach shows off his 1969 Quad-Eight console and points out his pride and joy: a pair of rare program equalizers built by audio-engineering cult hero Dan Flickinger. To his knowledge, he says, there’s only one remaining Flickinger console in Nashville — and that belongs to Wayne Moss of legendary Nashvillian outfits Area Code 615 and Barefoot Jerry. In giddy gear-nerd mode, he’s at his least guarded and most approachable.
Yet ever since the installation of his new, low-end-friendly speakers, Auerbach says, all he wants to listen to in the studio is hip-hop. He removes a disk by Detroit psych-rock icons and Stooges contemporaries SRC from the CD tray, replacing it with the Notorious B.I.G.
As Auerbach excitedly inserts the disc, it’s clear the guy obsesses about music in all its many forms: about consuming it, about creating it, and about being surrounded by it at all times. Mike Grimes mentions that Auerbach frequents his record shop, often exiting the store with armfuls of old R&B, blues and funk records. Auerbach is clearly overjoyed to have his studio open and all of his gear set up, and he mentions that he has recently produced a record for Brian Olive, a former member of The Greenhornes and The Soledad Brothers. In the coming months, he hopes to produce albums for both Hacienda and The Parting Gifts — the latter an outfit featuring members of The Ettes as well as Greg Cartwright of garage-rock heavyweights The Oblivians and The Reigning Sound.
While Carney and Auerbach admit they’re in the process of writing and demoing new Black Keys material, they remain relatively tight-lipped about other projects in the works. Told that Danger Mouse had been spotted in a Nashville restaurant, Auerbach admitted that his producer friend had spent some time with him while in town checking out Questlove’s recent DJ gig at Mai. But he wouldn’t say whether or not Danger Mouse will be back to produce The Black Keys’ next effort.
Nevertheless, the indefatigable Auerbach says that he and Carney are here to work, and they’ve already started. Work, after all, is something guys from Ohio know how to do.
“They just were in their little van, kicking it all over the country with just the two of them, playing for a hundred bucks less than 10 years ago,” says Mike Grimes. “And now they’ve ascended. … It’s so great to see somebody who just started from the ground up: two dudes who have just stuck to their guns, and now they’re majorly successful. The ultimate story.”
For Auerbach and Carney, the personal reasons for their move don’t seem complicated or glamorous. They’ve both spent a significant amount of time in bigger cities, but the small-town feel of Nashville — and the fact that it’s saturated with musicians — appealed to them.
But perhaps that says a little more about Nashville than even they realize. If you want to be a film or television actor, you move to Los Angeles. If you want to be in theater or comedy, you move to New York, or perhaps Chicago. But if you want to be a working musician — performer, producer, songwriter, or all of the above — you don’t move to “the new L.A.” You move to Music City, regardless of your genre of choice.
So welcome, Dan and Pat. We left a light on for you. Make yourselves at home.