The Black Keys
A conversation with Patrick Carney
Interview by Adam McKibbin
After recording 2004’s Rubber Factory in an abandoned tire factory, The Black Keys—drummer Patrick Carney and singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach—returned to the basement to make Magic Potion. Despite the rumblings that it would be, at long last, the sell-out album that found the band cleaning up their lo-fi act—a worry that was exacerbated by the band switching labels from the blues-championing Fat Possum to the Warner-backed Nonesuch—Magic Potion is as uncommercial and inscrutable as ever. It’s a transitional record, but unmistakably a Black Keys record at every point along the way.
Prior to setting off on the road, Carney talked about Magic Potion’s shift away from strict blues, the perils of outside collaboration, and the ever-controversial decision to license songs to prominent television commercials.
How did the timeframe of Magic Potion compare to its predecessors? I know that thickfreakness was made during a marathon session, for instance, while Rubber Factory was a longer process.
I guess we took about as much time with this one as with Rubber Factory. We spent about two months recording and writing, and about a week making demos.
Do you enjoy handling the technical aspects [Carney also produces the Keys], or is that a matter of necessity because you can’t find anyone else who fits the bill?
I always was into it, yeah. I got my first four-track when I was still in high school. We both enjoy recording. Recording The Black Keys is so much different than most other bands, because we’re hesitant to overdo it. That makes it that much more fun because of those limits. But, yeah, we did this one in the basement, and for the first time ever, we had equipment that didn’t break every other day.
Have you tried letting someone from the outside come in and man the controls?
We’ve never considered it for actual records, but we’ve done stuff like that. Fat Possum once rented a studio for us for a day, and we recorded there with an engineer. The guy that owned it was a nice guy, but Dan and I just didn’t get along with the engineer. He was in a really foul mood. We were trying to basically overdrive the compressor to get a gritty sound, and he was fucking losing it like we were going to break the compressor that was designed to do that. He eventually got to the point where he would let us start touching the knobs; he thought we were going to break everything. It was fucking awful. Then he ended up taping over one of our songs. Dan and I definitely don’t have the understanding of recording like this guy—he’d been doing it for like 30 years—but he’s recording over songs and treating us like shit!
The only other time was with this guy who recorded the Killers record. Way before that band probably even existed or was created, this guy wanted to sort of manage us. It was really early on. He flew us out to San Francisco to record some demos, and at the time, it was kind of a cool free trip to California. So we went. He was super nice, but he was really into us trying to sound like a modern rock band. We did like five songs, and it ended up sounding like there was absolutely no personality to the recording. By the third day, there was no way to change anything because he was controlling everything, and then you start convincing yourself, “Oh, maybe it sounds alright, maybe it sounds alright.” We went home with the copy of it, and we got in the car when we landed in Cleveland, and we put it in and started shaking our heads. You can really get mind-fucked by working with other people. They can totally lead you astray. I think that ever since that experience, we’ve always been guarded about getting involved with people unless we know that they respect what we’re trying to do.
When it comes time to release the all-important lead single, how do you choose?
I don’t know. I guess, for us, our first single is “Your Touch” because we made a video for it. But Dan and I aren’t fucking nuts, and we realize that a single in Black Keys terms is like an album track for any other bands. There’s no way—for us, releasing a single is almost silly because we know it’s not going to get radio play or MTV play. If the world worked in the way that Dan and I think it should, maybe “Your Touch” would be an actual radio single. At the same time, we’re not trying to make radio singles. There’s one modern rock station in Cleveland and Akron, and every once in a while you’ll hear a decent song, but I listen to it just to get mad. It’s all a bunch of emo bands that sound the same. They all sound like babies. Maybe we need to auto-tune and put Dan’s voice up about three octaves.
That’s a great idea. How many ideas do you scrap? Are you pretty efficient as songwriters, or do a lot of songs not make the cut?
We usually only record a song if we’d like to listen to it. On Rubber Factory, I think we had one extra song. For this one, we had eight extra songs, and that’s the most we’ve ever had. In a way, they all kind of fit on the record, but we each picked our favorites, and the 11 that we both liked a lot are the ones we put on the record.
Would Magic Potion have worked on Fat Possum? It seems to take a few more steps away from the stricter definitions of blues.
Well, we made the record before we decided what label we were going to be on. By the time we signed with Nonesuch, the album had been mastered and the artwork was almost complete. But we were always hesitant to sign with Fat Possum because there was a blues influence in our music, for sure, but we didn’t want to get pigeonholed as a blues band—because we’re not. In a way, [Magic Potion] also reflected the stuff we’d been listening to; Dan was getting much more into rock music versus blues or blues rock. I think we were both listening to stuff that had more to do with rock and riffs than the blues.
You were both pretty heavily influenced by music that your fathers listened to as you were growing up. What did that do for your rebellious period? Was there a time where it was like, “I hate this Stax music, old man”?
I’ve never had the need to rebel against my parents. Like any kid, I’d fight about wanting to stay out later, you know, but I respect especially my dad’s taste in music. He’s the one that got me listening to the music that I listen to now. We disagree on stuff, just like me and my friends. My dad has a secret obsession for smooth jazz. (laughs) It’s a guilty pleasure. But he also likes Cream and Captain Beefheart.
You and Dan make a lot of music that is ripe for road trips. When you’re out on the road—and you’ve been out on the road a lot—do you feel like you’re able to take it all in?
Well, always the most fun thing about being on tour is being in the van and stopping at the standard rest stop and buying air fresheners of half-naked cowboys or whatever, and just observing the fucking total weirdos. At the same time, we probably are total weirdos. I mean, my least favorite part of touring is the hotels. Hotels are a complete bummer.
One of the topics on your online forum that generates the most attention and feedback is licensing songs for commercials. Do you sympathize with the concern that fans have about where your music ends up? Or does that seem like an irrelevant discussion?
Well, I remember when Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” was in that Volkswagen commercial, and I thought that was very strange. I mean, you feel like you’re the only one that likes Nick Drake, when in reality there were thousands and thousands and thousands of people who have been fans of his for a lot longer than me. And because of that commercial, a lot of people know who he is. Maybe he’s rolling in his grave—I think that might be questionable when you’re dead. For us, it’s easier to justify doing a commercial. Modest Mouse did a commercial for Nissan, we did a commercial for Nissan as well. I was a fan of The Shins before their first seven-inch even came out, and they had a song on a McDonald’s commercial. I see no problem with it—at the time, no one knew who those bands were. Now people do, and I think they make awesome music. It obviously hasn’t corrupted them. Rancid got nearly two million dollars to do a shampoo commercial—I don’t know, maybe that’s the punkest thing they could do. If someone offers you enough money to buy a new guitar and pay your rent for a while, and you don’t have to do anything for it...the only thing you have to do is take the flak. We’ve turned down ads, we don’t take everything we get. We turned down a Hummer ad. We finish records in a basement, we live in Akron, Ohio. Not too long ago we were making five bucks an hour.
Well, I will say that a lot of those people who are making the decisions on music in films and advertising are pretty genuine music fans.
Oh, for sure. The dude that signed Hilary Duff is a genuine music fan. He probably has way more knowledge and a way sicker record collection than I have. That’s the thing that can really fuck you up, man. When you’re meeting people with these labels, you realize that they actually have really good taste, and you think, “Well, maybe it isn’t such a bad idea to make a record with these people.” That’s the sort of mind-fuck. We meet a lot of bands that are totally immersed in the L.A. scene. That’s why Dan and I stay in Akron, Ohio. There isn’t even a radio station here that plays our music. I’m fucking serious. If you heard “Float On” on the radio—I’m talking about now, two years after the record came out—it would be kind of a big deal.