You know their type. They’re not nice people. Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach once decapitated a man with a lightning-quick swipe of his broken guitar string, a none-too-subtle warning not to talk or even cough too loudly at his gigs. (He was acquitted thanks to the now-famous “Twinkie and Pabst Blue Ribbon” defense that no one subsisting on such a diet could possibly be considered in his or her “right mind.”)
Drummer Patrick Carney’s got an equally dark past, unfurled in a series of institutions and fast food gigs stretching back to the age of 10 when he was orphaned by his parents’ unfortunate meeting with a speeding truck, its driver as high as Whitney Houston on the fumes of a fermenting burrito that’d been sitting too long on his dashboard.
Trust is but a stranger in the night to this duo, and they’d just as soon offer you the blade as their hand. Pain like theirs spoils something inside you, and from that dark, fetid place springs a truth few can know, but anyone would recognize. Isn’t that what the blues are about?
Dropped from the loins of sleepy Akron, Ohio, many years after its musty environs birthed Devo and David Allen Coe, Auerbach and Carney spill their youth (both are in their early-to-mid 20s) with the primordial pulse that stretches back to the crossroads and beyond. Churning out fuzzy loaves of distortion and singing with a gruff cheek that belies his age, Auerbach warns that “you know what the sun means when the lights go down,” asks “what about the night makes you change from sweet to damaged,” and admits he’s “too far down in this ditch, too far gone to ever switch.”
They’re hard to get ahold of, which is all the better for their frequent brushes with the law. When Metro Times finally raises them, hours after the scheduled time, they’re tolling down the interstate putting Phoenix, like their past, into the rearview mirror.
“Phoenix was hotter than hell,” Auerbach complains. “My brain was boiling out of my ears. It was disgusting. I don’t understand how people live there. There was this guy at the club, a large guy, and he’d just moved there from Chicago. I was like, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You’re gonna kill yourself.’
“People were just walking around with blank expressions on their faces. We saw at least one speed freak babbling about numbers. We also saw a cop chase on a highway. A dude on the motorcycle flying by us with a suburban cop car on his ass. He swerved over four lanes down the exit. It was cool as hell. I figured he was a speed freak. Aren’t all motorcyclists?” asks Auerbach, with a knowing laugh.
He and Carney have been partners in crime since their pup days when Auerbach lived down the street from Carney’s reformatory. They would practice in the basement, masterlocking the door behind them to ensure privacy. What went on down there he won’t say, but their rebel spirit is captured on countless tapes, four-tracked from those teenage years to today, on a tape machine Carney kyped from an acquaintance.
For kicks, Carney and some pals, who called themselves the Deprogrammers, would hijack coffee shop folk shows, stealing the mike, heckling the audience and mimicking their simpering sadness with a verbal kick to the groin. Meanwhile, the morbidly self-obsessed Auerbach hid in his room, learning to connect guitar dots through the blues of Son House, Lightning Hopkins, Robert Johnson and so on.
“I was pretty much on my own. People always seem to think punk rockers are the outcasts, but in my high school if you listened to punk rock you always had a lot of people who listened to punk rock. I didn’t have anyone that listened to the blues,” he says. “I don’t identify with the outcasts, but I was definitely alone in my liking of blues music. … I try not to know anybody. It’s my thing.”
The band moniker was nicked from a street urchin/artist by the name of Alford McMoorer. “That’s one of his sayings, ‘black keys.’ When he sees something that’s shady, he calls it a black key, and that’s what he called us,” Auerbach confides.
He admits they don’t know much about recording, which perhaps contributes to the redoubtable drive of their music. The gritty sound could’ve been recorded in an abandoned warehouse in the shitty part of Akron. Which is precisely where they went for this year’s Rubber Factory — after they were kicked out of their rehearsal space following the release of 2003’s Thickfreakedness.
Pressed for time and anxious to record Rubber, the boys of Black Keys spied a “For Rent” sign on the old General Tire factory, and jumped at the opportunity. Up on the second floor, above a steel smelting operation, the floors were discolored by dark unidentifiable goo, and the air reeked of solvent. The atmosphere not only infects the album, but the duo as well. Auerbach claims he was coughing up black shit for months afterward (though he does brag that they didn’t have to worry about freezing in winter.) Then again, the singer never expected to live long when he was young, so he brushes over this fact with studied nonchalance.
A few months later, they shot their new video, “10 a.m. Auto,” in New York, directed by actor/comedian David Cross. The vid sees the Keys perform for a gaggle of senior citizens who paw at them like teen chicks at an ’80s Jovi show, before bouncers forcibly push them from the stage (how very Crossian). Given the pair’s low tolerance for ungainly behavior, Carney is loath to reveal details of the shoot.
“There aren’t any stories I can disclose. We had to sign a release form to even look at his face,” Carney confides, in reference to Cross.
Auerbach, though, is more forthcoming about 80-something bluesman T-Model Ford, another guy said to have killed a man. He and Auerbach have developed a friendship despite the age difference, and Auerbach can sympathize with the way the press seems more concerned with his exploits than his playing.
“When you manufacture a CD it turns into a business whether you want it to or not. People are going to latch onto certain aspects of what you’re selling, and it’s much more interesting to write about how T-Model has scars on his legs from a chain gang than what an awesome guitar player he is,” Auerbach says.
It’s a fitting comment, for if Auerbach and Carney were just two kids with a ken for the blues and a scrubbed suburban appearance like Matt Stone and Trey Parker (minus the seventies disco-’fro wig), would their music be any less appealing? Isn’t its universality what the blues is all about?
Because if you’re the type who believes anything they read or buys into titillating media-spawned tales about rock star misdeed and debauchery, rather than letting the music do the talking, then you’re a gullible goob ripe for dupe by any label PR flack or Weekly World News headline. Don’t believe half of what you hear, or most of what you read, and this story is no exception. Except the part about the Black Keys being a great, primitive blues-inspired act.
“Make sure you let people know that both me and Pat have killed a man. It might get more people out,” coos Auerbach, before taunting me with yet another stereotype. “You know, we’re selfish rock ’n’roll stars, and we get what we want, when we want it.”
But, of course.
The Black Keys perform Sunday, Sept. 26, at St. Andrew’s Hall (431 E. Congress, Detroit) with Cuts. Call 313-961-MELT for info.Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org