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Black Keys Rising

How two Rust Belt refugees became an arena-size, super-charged stomp machine

Brian Hiatt Feb 27, 2012
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No one in this busy Hollywood organic coffee shop looks like they might have just sold out Madison Square Garden ”“ least of all, perhaps, the compact, thick-bearded dude in the jean jacket shuffling toward a corner table. Dan Auerbach’s looks are striking enough: sharp-angled nose, bright blue eyes, floppy reddish hair. But his denim-on-denim outfit says “parking-lot attendant” as much as it does “rock star” (“I’m not afraid of the Canadian tuxedo,” he says, though at least the pale-blue jacket doesn’t match his black jeans) ”“ and he carries himself with an almost willful lack of flamboyance.

Sitting down with his coffee, he begins to process some news he got via -e-mail a couple of minutes ago. “Do you see my brains coming out of my ears?” asks Auer-bach, 32, who’s the singer and guitarist for The Black Keys ”“ as well as the bass player, at least in the studio. “Oh, my God! What the f*** is going on?” Effusiveness isn’t his style, but Auerbach has his reasons. After seven albums and a decade of hard touring, his two-man band from Akron, Ohio, has completed an improbable journey from basement recording project to arena-rock act: This morning, The Black Keys filled New York’s biggest venue in less than 15 minutes.

Nevertheless, no one here is paying the slightest attention to the band’s frontman. “That’s my whole thing, man,” Auer-bach says, pushing hair off his forehead with a glance at his oblivious fellow customers. “Maybe if I had on a velvet suit and a top hat and cane ”“ some kind of look, you know what I mean? Everybody who reaches that kind of level always has a look. Are glasses and beard enough? I don’t think so.”‰.”‰.”‰.”‰It’s not supposed to happen to bands like us. It’s really not. It’s crazy.”

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It kind of is. The Keys ”“ Auerbach and bespectacled drummer Patrick Carney, 31 ”“ released their first album, The Big Come Up, back in 2002: It was a funky, fuzzy low-fi riff-fest that drew heavily from the eccentric Mississippi blues of Auerbach’s hero, juke-joint performer Junior Kimbrough ”“ while adding incongruous touches like hip-hop beats and a tossed-off cover of the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said.” At that point, both Keys insist, they hadn’t heard the music of another bluesy Rust Belt duo that was getting a lot of attention that year. But that hardly stopped people from dismissing the Keys as an off-brand White Stripes, and even Jack White has beef: “I’m a lot more to do with Jay-Z than The Black Keys,” he told me in 2010, and though Auerbach won’t talk about the incident, White apparently blocked him from entering his studio in Nashville not long ago. (Responds White: “Anything you’ve ever heard anyone say about me is 100 per cent accurate.”)

As the decade progressed, trends came and went ”“ garage rock, dance rock, emo ”“ while the Keys stayed in their own sealed-off world, their sound gradually evolving. “I wasn’t even thinking about songwriting on the early rec-ords, just music and the groove,” says Auer-bach. “It was absolutely just f***ing around ”“ taking old blues riffs, making up lyrics on the spot, and turning it into a song. Then we started sort of digging into these records that we love, and trying to figure out why it is we love them so much, besides the sonics.” Auerbach countered his high–testosterone, hellhound-trailed growl with a sultry falsetto and elastic crooning; influences from Memphis soul to T. Rex to rockabilly came to the forefront; their hooks got sharper ”“ especially after they recruited Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton as an on-and-off partner in 2008, and began recording in studios instead of basements.

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They put all they’d learned into 2010’s Brothers, unearthing fully formed, deep-grooved, almost spookily timeless pop songs that captured the dusty vibe of the soul-sampling RZA productions they loved. With rock at one of its lowest commercial ebbs, they became one of a very few young guitar bands to reach the -masses. And unlike, say, Kings of Leon, it looks like they’re doing it with two smash albums in a row: Brothers won three Grammys and sold nearly a million copies; their new album, the sleeker, more relentless El Camino, just debuted at Number Two ”“ blocked from the top only by a Michael Bublé Christmas album that Carney suggests would be a good choice to soundtrack a suicide.

Their new ubiquity has had predictable consequences. There are sellout grumbles in indie-land, and some fans from the old days are feeling alienated: “My Black Keys shirts have now become undershirts,” one wrote, in a message-board post best imagined in the voice of The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy.

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