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FILTER 46: The Black Keys Work: A Brief History of Making Do

By Breanna Murphy; photo by Danny Clinch on December 6, 2011


FILTER 46: The Black Keys Work: A Brief History of Making Do

“It just happens that the last year has been a breakthrough year, which is almost the complete opposite of what normally happens to bands. Normally, you break through in the first couple of years and then it’s just a slow decline. Our history’s been a little bit different.”

Pat Carney has already given away the ending, but you’ve got to learn the beginning before you get there.

And so it begins: Take a band and put them in a rubber factory. No. Too soon. Put them underground in a disgusting basement in West Akron and leave them there with nothing but a drum kit, a few guitars, a borrowed Audio-Technica four-track recorder from the 1980s and a ridiculous quarter-inch Tascam 388 that could plug into a mixing deck…if they had one.

Thickfreakness, The Black Keys’ second album, starts with a big come up (though it came a year after The Big Come Up, their 2002 debut) thusly: a single held-out note extension on an electric guitar that could be leading you towards Jimi Hendrix or maybe Eddie Van Halen. Or, maybe… But the rise collapses under its own weight into a drop-beat blues riff and then Pat Carney’s drums come barreling in. Dan Auerbach’s voice appears, moaning unintelligibly, wonderfully. It’s just the two of them. It sounds like shit. The recording warbles inconsistently, fading in and out, changing the composition and rhythms entirely. The musicians miss notes from time to time, or sound like they do. They drop a tempo, and it’s only slightly noticeable before they rush a beat to catch it again. Who knows what it actually sounded like when they laid down the tracks. “Fuzzed out” does it a disservice because it’s so much worse than that.

But it cooks.

On the liner notes for Thickfreakness, a curious mention is made under the brief recording history of the album: “All songs recorded and mixed in December 2002 by Patrick Carney in Akron, Ohio, at Studio 45 using his patented recording technique called ‘medium fidelity.’”

“That’s because we were stupid,” says Carney matter-of-factly, speaking from Nashville. “I was, like, 22, and didn’t know shit. There was no way to learn how to do stuff unless you taught yourself. I assumed it would sound best if I took the tape and dumped it into this really cheap digital recorder I had and mixed it on that, and I thought, at the time, it was really fancy shit. I think it ended up making it sound worse in a good way.” He’s not practicing any particular brand of “aw, shucks” self-deprecation. The recordings speak for themselves; the band had no money, no savvy—at least when it came to recording—but they did have drive.

“Worse in a good way” was never touted as “lo-fi” or “D.I.Y.” even though that’s exactly the environment Auerbach and Carney were dealing with in that disgusting basement during the recording of The Black Keys’ first records. 2004’s Rubber Factory was named for the recording space the duo inhabited for their third LP, and it’s not an amusing nickname for a studio in Akron. It was a coal-burning power plant.

For what little money they did collect in record advances from their indie label, Fat Possum, Auerbach and Carney bought secondhand, unreliable recording equipment and paid out their landlords so they could tour the country, crisscrossing the landscape in a beat-up van. With each subsequent record, more recording junk was accumulated (“a mass destruction of crap, basically,” Carney clarifies), but the sound was becoming clearer; not hi-fi, oh no—the guitars crunched just as rough as ever, the drums still sounded tinny and muted—but The Black Keys were coming into focus.

“The whole mentality with the band is always to make the most out of what we have,” Carney says. “Accidentally, we didn’t really have much.”

Next: Give a band a structure, let them learn from those they love. But don’t get admiration confused with loyalty. Give a band a structure, and let them ignore it completely.

“When we first started, we were both totally messing around and didn’t know what the fuck we were doing,” says Auerbach candidly, also speaking from Tennessee. “I didn’t how to write a song. I hadn’t even thought about it.”

But they had foundations.

Between Rubber Factory and the band’s next LP, 2006’s Magic Potion, The Black Keys put out an EP of Junior Kimbrough songs called Chulahoma. Covers were nothing new to the band; they had mixed them seamlessly into their catalog previously, covering The Beatles’ “She Said, She Said” on The Big Come Up; Kimbrough’s “Everywhere I Go” on Thickfreakness; as well as The Kinks’ “Act Nice and Gentle” on Rubber Factory.

“So many people just copy songs note for note. For covers, that’s so strange. We’re both so lazy, so we don’t really want to learn how they played it,” Auerbach laughs. “We’ve covered a bunch of songs where we don’t even get the chords right. Not even close to being the same.”

For Auerbach and Carney, playing songs they love isn’t so much about the tribute as it is the deconstruction, improvisation and complete takeover. And the Keys’ covers are some of their most recognizable tracks. Auerbach may not have written the lyrics to “Have Love Will Travel,” but the song became part-theirs as soon as they hit “record,” disregarded Richard Berry’s “bom-bom-bom” doo-wop and let the distortion rip through the amps.

It’s with that same method that all Black Keys songs sound immediate, as if every time you put their records on, you’ve also just accidentally stuck your head into the wrong door and glimpsed them at rehearsal, in a spontaneous moment of concoction. Each time, it could be different.

Magic Potion would be the band’s first album for a new label, leaving Fat Possum for Nonesuch, a Warner Brothers subsidiary. They recorded and self-produced in the nest where Carney and Auerbach’s hoarder collection of equipment had made a home, at a studio belonging to Carney called Audio Eagle in Akron. No covers appeared on Magic Potion—a Black Keys first—with the band opting for all original songwriting...which meant mostly unstructured, roughly sketched-out jams between Carney and Auerbach in-studio. A handful of semi-hit original singles broke through the din and into the popular consciousness, including “Your Touch” and “You’re the One.” For the last time, the Keys would work entirely self-contained.

Then: Take the band out of Akron, put them on the road. Let them make some friends, some co-conspirators. Talented ones. Invite them into the studio. A nice one, they deserve it. Change nothing but give them everything…

Before the band prepared for their next record, The Black Keys were approached by Brian Burton (known widely and warmly as Danger Mouse) to work on a collaboration with Ike Turner. Burton had already well-established himself as a genre-obliterating master of performance (with Cee Lo Green in Gnarls Barkley and MF Doom in DANGERDOOM) as well as production (Beck, Gorillaz, The Rapture). By the time of Turner’s untimely death in 2007 and the project with Auerbach and Carney had been permanently shelved, Burton had established such a relationship with the Keys that he accepted the role as producer of their fifth album when offered.

“We wanted to work with the right person that we could integrate into the band in a way that wasn’t so intrusive,” says Carney of the band’s outreach. “We became friends instantly, we got along and trusted each other’s instincts.”

“We said, ‘Why not? We’ve done enough records on our own,’” Auerbach adds. “It was also the first time we ever went to a real studio. We had a real studio polish on the record. And that was huge. All of a sudden, [they] sounded like [songs] that could get played on the radio.”

Attack & Release was then the Keys’ biggest record to date. Polished? Yes, that’s one word for it. They had lost all the crappy makeshift, collected equipment and were able to apply all that they had learned by way of self-sufficiency alongside an educated and experimental producer. But, in truth, not much had changed at all.

As Auerbach puts it, brusquely: “We are who we are, that’s going to come out no matter what format or how we record. We’ve come to the conclusion that, when Pat and I play together, we have a certain sound—and that’s what we sound like.”

And that sound, no matter the price tag you put on an amp or a deck, will always be worn and gritty, sounding as though well past its expiration date, soaked deep in blues and amplified by rock and roll with a raw edge—cutting deeply and unforgivably. Attack & Release was critically acclaimed and landed itself on the Billboard 200. Out of the basement, indeed.

By this point, it should be realized that the Keys don’t waste time—ours or theirs or anybody’s. After a tour in support of the record, and side projects from both members (Carney formed Drummer, and Auerbach released his first solo album, Keep It Hid), the band spent 2009 in preparation for Brothers. They went back to recording in studios alone, though Burton did lend his talents to lead single “Tighten Up.”

 “We like working the way Brian does, but we also like working on our own,” Carney says. “Our pace is faster and much more haphazard.”

Auerbach, meanwhile, dug deep into a newfound sense of songwriting for Brothers. “Before, it was sort of, I don’t know, just jamming away. Creating sounds in the studio more than actually creating songs,” he says. “For Brothers, it was the first time for The Black Keys I can remember where I felt like I really wrote songs instead of just messing around.”

“Truthfully, 90 percent of the time when we make music, there’s no structure. There’s nothing,” says Carney. “Dan might have lyrics, or he might have a melody. But when we write, [that’s when] we get together and come up with something.”

For anything that had come before from a band that had titled their debut The Big Come Up, Brothers was nothing less than magnificently sky-high. The record debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200, went certified Gold and won the pair a Grammy for Best Alternative Album. Burton won at the same ceremony for Producer of the Year.

Yes; The Black Keys—the noisy kids with the tinny drum kit, warbly guitars and shitty four-track recorder in  the depths of a gross basement—had found themselves, six LPs later, at the most prestigious music awards ceremony on the planet, accepting a trophy at the podium. And they didn’t have to sacrifice a single thing.

…and the songs remain the same.

So what next? If you haven’t caught the historical precedence by now, Auerbach can educate:

“I really like making records,” he says simply. “I don’t know what I like better: playing shows or making records. If we had more free time, we’d probably make two records a year. Bands used to make two records a year. I don’t know when it got shifted into making a record every three or four years. It’s stupid to me.”

Just over a year from the critical and commercial successes of Brothers, the highest acclaim and attention paid to The Black Keys so far, and there’s no rest sought. There have been, however, more changes to their imperfect methods but, naturally, not too many. Akron’s Black Keys have since moved to Nashville, where no basement or rubber factory was solicited for the making of their seventh. Auerbach has his own studio there now, Easy Eye Sound, where Burton rejoined the band full-time and where the duo that famously makes recordings fast and dirty took time for a long, extended haul for El Camino.

“We spent 38 days in the studio, which is twice as long as we’ve ever spent. That said, this is the first time that we made a record at a studio that wasn’t ‘out of town’ or in a basement,” Carney says. “But when you’re working in a basement, you want to get the fuck out of the basement as soon as possible, so I think you tend to get more done quickly. There was a little bit more comfort because it’s down the street from our houses, and it was Dan’s place, so.”

For a band that previously recorded as quickly as possible—due to preference, as well as circumstance—the extra time and resources for El Camino is worn well. The songs on the new record are fast and melodic and as seemingly unstructured as they ever have been. For all that they have gained over their 10 years, The Black Keys have remained thankfully the same, just inheriting new tools for the same work. The band still rely foremost on chemistry—not technology; entering the studio (or basement) with nothing but a feeling, they prepare with nothing to make an end result that is truly something.

“It’s really important to get the first or second take. And not try to perfect, which can ruin the soul of the song, or the original intent,” says Auerbach, in an insightful moment. “You can beat a horse to death when you’re in the studio. We try to avoid that. When you’re too comfortable, it’s going to feel like that on the record. Like you’re not taking your risks. We never rehearse, we never practice. We make a record, and it’ll be what it’s going to be. We’ve always done that.”

Yes, The Black Keys work.     F

This article is from FILTER Issue 46