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Why Do The Black Keys Still Feel Like Underdogs?

After six Grammys, countless commercial spots, a handful of world tours, and one hilariously misattributed VMA, it’s weird to think of The Black Keys as underdogs. And yet, that’s how drummer Patrick Carney says he and singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach now see themselves.

“When we took five years between records, it felt like an eternity, and I think we kind of got to underdog status again, which is where we thrive,” he recently told The Daily Beast about the hiatus that followed 2014’s Turn Blue.

And while a lot’s changed in the musical landscape in the ensuing years—including the diminishing popularity of rock music as a whole—The Black Keys have managed to emerge stronger, more united, and more focused than ever. Their 2019 comeback record, Let’s Rock, was mostly a throat-clear, paving the way for last year’s Delta Kream, a collection of hill-country blues covers that reignited Carney and Auerbach’s spark in the studio. Now, they’re full steam ahead on Dropout Boogie, which arrived on Friday, a day before the 20th anniversary of their blazing DIY debut, The Big Come Up.

This is the duo’s 11th album, which makes them, perhaps improbably, surviving champions of the early-aughts garage-rock grind. That might be because Carney and Auerbach aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. As lead single “Wild Child” proved, they can still make a simple, sub-three-minute song electrifying without overthinking it (a few of the tracks on the new album are first takes, with imperfections left in). But that’s not to say they got too cushy for Dropout Boogie, which marks their most collaborative album to date, with contributions from Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Greg Cartwright of the Memphis rock band Reigning Sound.

Below, Carney talks to The Daily Beast about getting comfortable with outside collaborators, his love of Devo (and subsequent frustration with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), and how he and Auerbach came to the realization that they’re “each other’s best friends.”

If Let’s Rock was an exercise in getting the band back together, and Delta Kream was more of a spontaneous one-day session, then what is Dropout Boogie? What’s the energy you brought into this one?

You know, we took 2016 and 2017 totally off. It wasn’t even something that we discussed. We had reached this burnout, and we both went away and did our own thing for a while. We never talked about breaking up or anything. But in 2018, I was like, we should do something, and Dan’s like, yeah, let’s make a record. So that was exactly what Let’s Rock was—it was kind of a transitional record and us figuring out how to work together again. It was fun, but I knew we could make a better record. When Dan called me to do what became Delta Kream, it was exactly what we were looking to get out of music. It was totally spontaneous. And it was really the first time that I had socialized with grown men in like a year, because I was living in my house with my teenage stepdaughter, my wife, and her sister, and it felt really good to like, get around Dan.

During the making of Dropout Boogie, we bonded harder than we ever have in the past. I guess as you get older… guys just have a hard time making friends, and I guess Dan and I just realized that we’re each other’s best friends. And it felt that way in the studio. This record is us completely on the same page, having fun, and being really creative and working really efficiently. I guess maybe there was a little bit more ego from both of us going into Let’s Rock because we hadn’t worked together in a while, and maybe there was a little insecurity there. But for this album, it felt like when we made Brothers. It was just flowing out. And we’ve been in the studio working since we finished this record. We just never stopped.

You’re still working on new music now?

Yeah, we’ve just kept recording.

I guess Dan and I just realized that we’re each other’s best friends. And it’s felt that way in the studio. … It felt like when we made ‘Brothers.’ It was just flowing out.

Just for fun, or do you think that will turn into anything?

I mean, we have most of another record complete. We’ve learned over the years that when it’s happening, to just let it go and let it happen. When we finished Brothers, I knew that it was our best record, but I knew that we had a lot more fuel in the tank then that we didn’t really capture because we spent it all on tour. But luckily we did cancel some shows and get in the studio, and we made El Camino. This time, it feels similar to that and, you know, touring is way less of a commitment than when we were in our late twenties. So we’ve been able to spend a lot of time in the studio.

You’ve talked before about how this is the most collaborative album you’ve ever made. Was it that you and Dan didn’t feel like you needed to involve a lot of other people before, or you just didn’t want to?

When we worked with Danger Mouse, that was fully collaborative. And I think we never even considered anybody else. We knew we didn’t want any other producer. We never have problems with the music; it’s not really an issue, the music just flows. But sometimes Dan likes to have some help with lyrics. He vocalized that to me, and I was all about it. My MO with the band is it should be enjoyable, and also you can’t knock it till you try it.

So we started with Greg Cartwright, and it was insanely productive and helpful and so much fun, that it kind of opened up this other door where Dan and I realized, wait a second, when we’re not working on Black Keys stuff, like when I’m producing and Dan’s producing, all we do is co-write with other people, so we should be doing this more with the band. It’s not like we’re bringing in a matrix here. We’re bringing Greg Cartwright, legendary garage rocker. I kind of wish we started doing it earlier, because there’s so many people I wish we got a chance to work with, like David Berman, who’s a friend of ours. I never got a chance to write with him, and he passed away a couple of years ago. But that’s where my head went, was just like, we have a very deep Rolodex, and we should be tapping into our friends.

I was always curious, why did you stop working with Danger Mouse after that hot streak you guys had together for a few years?

I think it just had run its course. Brian and I are very close friends. We’re in a fantasy football pool together and we text a lot. And I think it was just time for us to… I mean, we took kind of an inadvertent break, and when we reconvened, we knew the situation between Dan and I was a little bit too tense to bring a third person in, because we had to work on our relationship. And it worked, because here we are.

I knew that our relationship had gotten back on track, where it should be, because there were years where we didn’t really have phone calls. We would text and hang out backstage and joke around, but we were getting sick of each other. We were spending too much time together. But now, we talk on the phone twice a day, just to shoot the shit. And I realize that honestly, the band is amazing. It’s my life’s work. And it’s also very lucrative. But really, when it comes down to it, at this point, my relationship with Dan is the most important aspect of it. So I think it just feels like the way it’s supposed to.

You’re coming up on 20 years as a band, which seems especially wild considering that a lot of the bands you came up with probably aren’t even together anymore. Has that surprised you, seeing so many of your peers come and go?

You know, when we first started the band, I was very aware of histories of bands. So it feels like a big milestone, hitting 20 years and 11 albums. But then if you just think about, like, Guided by Voices, it’s like, oh, OK, they’ve been around for 35 years and they’ve made 50 records. I mean, I think it’s cool to see bands like Interpol, whose first record came out right around the same time as ours, still making music. And The Strokes, obviously.

I think that for me and Dan, we’ve always tried to be more of a vital band… you know, we want to be heard, that’s the whole point. We spent so much time not being heard that I think it was so important for me to get things back on track because we put so much time into this band. We switched management a couple months ago, which is a little scary because we were with the same manager for a long, long time. But we wanted to prove to ourselves that we can still do it on our own. Because that’s how the band really started, as a DIY project. And here we are. I mean, we’re millionaires, obviously, and have, you know, fancy-ass studios, but we’re still doing everything ourselves.

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Do you and Dan ever reminisce about the early days of the band, outside of when you’re asked to in interviews? Are you ever sentimental or nostalgic about it?

I’ve only ever seen Dan sentimental a couple of times. But we get nostalgic in a way. We go so far back that, you know, years before we started the band, we grew up in the same neighborhood. We got picked on by the same motherfuckers, we dealt with the same bully and got ripped off by the same kids when we were trading our baseball cards. When I watch, like, The Wonder Years, it’s actually not that far off, really. I mean, the music was a lot worse, it was a lot of Vanilla Ice. But we were definitely just riding bikes, playing Wiffle ball, lighting off firecrackers.

I think the one thing that we do reminisce about is like, I think around 2009, it felt like we’d been doing it for a long time and we hadn’t broken through. And when we talk about everything that’s happened, I think we’re both very grateful to have spent so much time in that zone in the early 2000s struggling. It always put a really good perspective on success. And when we took five years between records, it felt like an eternity, and I think we kind of got to underdog status again, which is where we thrive. Especially being from Northeast Ohio. It’s hard to win. We’re taught how to lose and to take it on the chin. I was telling someone recently that Cleveland sports fans are just so good at losing. We lost the name of our baseball team, and we were all fucking cool with it.

I actually grew up in Cleveland, so I feel you on a deep level there.

So you get it. I think it’s part of that Northeast Ohio thing. It’s not a contrarian state of mind. It’s just, you know, failure. I think watching Devo not get into the Hall of Fame was the most Northeast Ohio thing of all time. It was like, if the fucking Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, can’t even get one artist from fucking Northeast Ohio in there. I mean, they’re the most influential band, possibly, aside from like, The Clash and The Sex Pistols. But you know what? It’s comforting to see them lose. Because I know that they need that energy. It’s probably gonna make them live longer.

I think in general the Rock Hall is getting further away from its roots. I mean, the induction ceremony is in L.A. this year, which probably tells you all you need to know.

I think that, you know, I don’t know the ins and outs of how they vote on who gets in, but I think there’s a panel, and I guess it’s just about who you put on those things. Like if you put people who really know their shit about music, could you make an argument that Pat Benatar shouldn’t be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? I don’t know. I don’t really know anything about Pat Benatar.

I do know, watching the Grammys every year, it’s the most infuriating thing because there’s only one award given to the type of music that I listen to, which is I guess alternative. I was asked to be on this Grammy blues panel where we were tasked with deciding which Grammy records belonged in traditional blues or contemporary blues, and it was the most infuriating nonsense that I was ever subjected to. It lasted eight hours over two days, and it was some of the worst music I’ve ever heard in my life. People arguing about what was contemporary and what was traditional. No one had a definition. Ultimately, I was like, this is crazy that there’s even two album categories for this genre. I mean, there’s not a lot of creativity going on. There’s not a lot of new growth there. But alternative, there’s tons. It’s weird. But then again, I think it’s all rigged anyway.

So did you watch the Grammys this past year? You guys were nominated, right?

We were nominated for Best Contemporary Blues. Even though we were playing songs that were like 60 years old. I don’t fucking know. Nonsense. We lost to some guy who I’m sure could use a Grammy more than we could. It’s all good. But you know, when I see the record that won, the Jon Batiste record, I don’t know one person that listened to that record. I just don’t.

I still haven’t, admittedly.

I don’t think many people have. But I do wonder, did that really get all the votes? Because I don’t know one person. I’m a musician, and I’m only friends with musicians, and I don’t know one person who listened to that fucking thing. So I don’t fucking know what’s going on. Everybody I know voted for Billie Eilish, including me.

When I see the record that won, the Jon Batiste record, I don’t know one person that listened to that record. … So I don’t fucking know what’s going on. Everybody I know voted for Billie Eilish, including me.

That was a great album. And a great performance, because she brought some much-needed rock representation to the show. I feel like people say it every year, but there’s consistently a significant lack of rock on the Grammys telecast, although this year that was partially because the Foo Fighters couldn’t perform.

Yeah, and I think rock is such a tour-heavy genre, and I think everybody postponed their records that were due to come out. But I think this year’s gonna be really good for rock. There’s already been… like The War on Drugs record, I liked the record by Midlake, the Spoon record’s really good, what I’ve heard of the Arcade Fire record is really good. I keep waiting for my stepdaughter, who’s 16, and her friends to get turned on to that type of music. One of them likes emo a lot, and I’ll take that, that’s fine.

Yeah, well, punk and emo is what seems to be making the biggest splash on TikTok these days, so that’s not surprising.

I was into that. I’m going to see Jawbreaker tomorrow. I was into Dear You when I was 14, 15, 16. Yeah, fuck it.

You know, I always thought the Rock Hall was a great place for a crash course in that kind of music. Just growing up in Cleveland, I used to go there a lot as a kid. What about youcoming from Akron, did you go when you were younger?

I think it opened when I was about 14, and I’ve only ever been to the lobby.

Really?

I’ve never been inside, yeah.

You just never wanted to?

No, I just… every time I went to Cleveland I went late at night to a concert or something. It’s actually one of my biggest regrets about the time I spent in Ohio, was that I didn’t get up to Cleveland more often, because it is one of my favorite cities. I find myself just naturally drawn to the Midwest. I feel truly at home there.

Well, it’s only another five years or so until you’re eligible to get into the Hall, so maybe you’ll see it then.

I know, maybe. But I don’t know, it might destroy our energy to win.

It wouldn’t be very Northeast Ohio of you.

Honestly, the last time we won stuff was like the Grammys in 2013 when we were making Turn Blue, and we were really struggling to try and find inspiration. Now it’s just coming out, it’s flowing.

Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images

Does that contribute to the whole “underdog” mindset you talked about before? It’s kind of a shallow thing, but do you want more recognition for your recent work?

Of course I want people to hear it, but I don’t need recognition. But I do still get excited when people like it, and it’s always been a thrill to hear our stuff at a baseball game or something.

Actually, the first thing I thought when I heard “Your Team Is Looking Good” was that it would make a fun stadium song.

The story behind that song is amazing. It was the very last thing we recorded for the record. We had already sent it off to mastering but Dan was like, I think we should do this song. We had these field recordings from Mississippi of these blues performances from the ’70s. Dan was listening through these cassettes and found one from a high school marching band, and there was this song that was like, “Holly Springs, you’re looking good, but not as good as us.” It was this whole cheer squad. Dan got the melody caught in his head for days, so we went and recorded this song and just changed one word. I called our lawyer afterwards and I’m like, hey, we just recorded a field recording of a marching band from Mississippi from the ’70s, and you’re going to have to figure out how the publishing is credited. That was in November, and they just cleared it about a week ago.

That’s cutting it close!

Well, all the money goes into a fund that will go to the people that they deem wrote the song. Because it’s impossible to figure out who wrote those words. We hired a musicologist who determined that the melody comes from a Little Richard song.

Speaking of good stories from this album, I have to imagine you have one about Billy Gibbons. What’s it like in the studio with him?

We first met him when we were playing a show in Columbus. We had played Louisville the night before and his manager called us on our way up and asked for us to stop at Skyline Chili and buy eight cans of chili for him. So the first time I ever met him, I handed him like 10 pounds of Skyline Chili. We ran into him here and there, and then last year Dan got wind that he was in town and we invited him to the studio. He brought a bottle of wine, popped it, and poured himself a glass. And he stayed as long as that wine lasted, which was about an hour.

We got a guitar in his hands and we sat down and we just jammed. The way we write songs is we come up with a riff or a drum part and just jam. By the time he left, we had about 30 minutes of music recorded and three strong song ideas, and the one that was the most formed was “Good Love.” And you can hear at the very end of the song, Billy’s guitar kind of goes away. I think he ran out of wine and put his guitar down and stood up and started walking out the door.

Like, “OK, I’ve done my part, bye?”

Yeah, exactly. But he was awesome. He was very complimentary to me, which took me by surprise, because all Dan and I do is bust each other’s balls.

Has there been anyone else like that over the years who you’ve been surprised to learn is a Black Keys fan?

There was a time where every time I opened up a magazine on a flight, I would see our name get mentioned by an actor or something, which… I didn’t really watch that many movies. But yeah, Brad Pitt name-dropped us once, and Jennifer Lawrence said we were her favorite band one time. But I also attribute it to, like, a misquote, because that does happen. So I don’t know.

What, like they meant to say The Black Crowes instead of The Black Keys? Give yourself some credit!

I’m just saying, like, “favorite.” I don’t really have a favorite band. I’m willing to say maybe five or six bands are my favorite band, but I truly don’t have a favorite band.

Not even Devo?

Not Devo, because I only really like the first two records and the live stuff before that. They’re one of my biggest inspirations, because as a kid my dad got me Devo Live: The Mongoloid Years, which was a CD compilation of three early Devo performances. There’s this one from Kansas City from 1977 and there’s a whole story in the liner notes about them driving from Akron in their van to New York, and how David Bowie came to the show, and Iggy Pop and Andy Warhol, and how they played the show and then drove right back. And then their phone started ringing and it was Richard Branson at Warner Brothers. As a kid, this was like my bedtime story. I would read it over and over again and be like, how amazing is that? All I wanted to do was be in a band.

And then when Dan and I finally got the band going, I find myself in a van, driving to New York, and then driving straight back, not unlike the Devo thing, although there was no Andy Warhol, there was no Lou Reed. It was just some shitty fucking ska band that we had to open up for in Brooklyn. But still, we did get that phone call from Seymour Stein [former VP of Warner Bros. Records]. He ended up flying in to check us out right around then. And when we first got that buzz happening, I mean, it was magical. I’ll never forget coming home and waiting by the phone for calls from Warner Brothers. And we ultimately decided to not sign with them and we chose a label in the middle of nowhere Mississippi. So we basically signed up for the minor leagues. Which is probably smart.



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