With The White Stripes, The Ravonettes and Whirlwind Heat already proving that three's a crowd, does the world really need another simplistic rock duo? When that bass-less twosome happens to be The Black Keys - an Akron, Ohio-based blues-rock duet that spits out some of the nastiest rock, seasoned with the gut-bucket soul from Northern Mississippi - the answer is a resounding hell yes!
Formed by guitarist / vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney when they were still in high school, the band has slowly progressed, over the years, away from some of their early rural blues influences, incorporating a more direct, stripped-down form of honest rock 'n' roll, as proven on their latest album Thickfreakness. But as both members will attest to, the blues is still a main ingredient in their recipe, it's just not necessarily the first thing to hit the palette.
Both Auerbach and Carney spent some time backstage with Livewire's Tony Bonyata following their recent performance in Chicago to talk about some of their influences, the state of rock and...Renaissance Faires?
Livewire: I just saw your show and you guys deliver an unbelievable amount of raw, intense energy onstage. I think that a lot of that energy also comes through on your new album Thickfreakness as well.
Livewire: Your music has been described a lot of ways by the press. How would describe it?
Patrick: Just rock 'n' roll, I think.
Dan: Yeah, just rock 'n' roll.
Livewire: How long have you two been playing together?
Patrick: We've been playing off and on since 1996, when we were like 16 or 17.
Dan: We've been pretty much doing this full-time for about two years.
Livewire: And that's when you came out with your first album?
Dan: Yeah, it was a little over a year ago, last May.
Livewire: What makes Thickfreakness different from your first album?
Dan: It's a bit more laid-back. I think it's a little bit more in the groove than the first one.
Patrick: It's a little heavier.
Dan: The last one was our first album and we really didn't know exactly what we were doing, so it was a little edgier.
Livewire: Has it always just been the two of you. Have you ever had a bass player or any other musicians?
Patrick: It started out just the two of us, and then about two years later we had one of our friends practice with us a few times, but it didn't work out. But he did play on a few songs on our first record.
Livewire: So what made you decide on going out, just the two of you?
Dan: Well, it's always pretty much been like that, anyway. We never really thought about it. There wasn't anybody that we knew immediately who could fill the roll, so we just started playing as a two-piece and recorded ourselves over at Pat's dad's house when we were in high school. We just become accustomed to hearing ourselves playing together as a two-piece. When we had that guy come and play organ the couple times he did, it didn't really feel right. It didn't click, I guess.
Livewire: You describe your music as simply rock 'n' roll, but you've also got a big, heavy blues sound as well. When you first started out did you immediately gravitate towards the blues?
Dan: I was listening to a lot of blues and I was teaching myself how to play guitar. I was really getting into early electric blues. So that's my main influence. That's definitely become one of our main things.
Livewire: When you say electric blues, are you talking Muddy Waters or Stevie Ray Vaughn and Clapton?
Dan: I'm talkin' like early '50s - Howlin' Wolf and Sun Records. It was still country but they just plugged in. It still had that country feel where they still finger-picked the guitar, but it was definitely electric.
Livewire: It sounds as though The Black Keys still retains that soul of the Delta. What was the first thing you heard as a child that was like a light bulb in your head?
Patrick: My dad used to make weird tapes of stuff from the '60s like Frank Zappa, The Beatles and Rolling Stones, but I think the main thing that got me wanting to play music was when he got Jimi Hendrix' Smash Hits tape when I was in sixth grade. That's what made me want to play guitar. That and my friends playing.
Livewire: So you started out as a guitarist and not a drummer, Patrick?
Patrick: Yeah, I started out playing guitar.
Dan: I grew up listening to my dad's records and my mom has a big family, and whenever we'd all get together they'd play bluegrass. I think that had a big influence on me wanting to play guitar and sing those kind of old songs. It just felt good to me.
Livewire: You've been getting your fair share of positive press over the last couple of years. Were you surprised at being so well received?
Dan: Yeah, we really didn't expect it. We're definitely working harder than ever.
Patrick: We're pretty fortunate.
Livewire: Were your parents always supportive in your choice to become musicians?
Patrick: My dad's brother is a musician who has struggled... not struggled, but has been reaping the benefits and also at the same time going through the hard times that you experience when you're a musician. So I think my dad wanted me to play music, but he also wanted me to have a college degree as well, because he didn't want me to have to struggle. That's one of the concerns of being a musician; you don't really know when your next paycheck will be.
Livewire: Dan, I understand that your father was so supportive, in fact, that he drove you down South to hear the rural blues that you love so much.
Dan: Yeah, both my parents have been very supportive. I went on a trip to Mississippi with my dad. I wanted to go see Junior Kimbrough. I got his album in '98 when I was in college my first year. So that summer I went with my dad to Mississippi and tried to find Junior Kimbrough. He owned this club he played at every Sunday night. We went there and even though we never did see Junior Kimbrough, we saw some music and it was a great time.
Livewire: Junior's club isn't there anymore is it?
Dan: Yeah, it burnt down a few years ago.
Livewire: When you were down there, however, you managed to hook-up with T-Model Ford.
Dan: Yeah, that was actually a different time. I've gone down a few times and dragged different people along with me just to go listen to music.
Livewire: That's definitely the place to hear some great music. My wife and I took a trip down ourselves last year.
Dan: Where did you go?
Livewire: We actually did the whole Highway 61 thing - from Memphis down to New Orleans. Of course we stopped off at Clarksdale and Greenville [MS] and stopped off at Dockery Farms and Charlie Patton's gravesite.
Dan: Cool. It's a different world down there.
Livewire: You actually played with Ford down there, correct?
Livewire: How much of an influence did that experience have on the music that you're playing now?
Dan: It's really just the whole idea of how he played - with just drum and guitar and the simplicity of his music. That definitely influenced me. But as Pat and I progress, I think the influence has become less and less. But it's still there.
Livewire: Have you made the pilgrimage down South, Patrick?
Patrick: Yeah, we've been down there, but just for a day.
Dan: We played this horrible college bar in Oxford. Because before we signed with Fat Possum [Records] we went to Oxford to play a show.
Livewire: Don't they have a scene down there for music?
Dan: Oh god, it's so bad. But the cool thing was that all these college dudes with Polo shirts and sandals on are walking straight out of the club while we're playing. We knew that the guys from Fat Possum were also there, and we were so depressed. But later they said that's how they test their bands - if everybody from Oxford walks out then they sign 'em (laughs).
Livewire: So the thumbs up from the Oxford Polo shirts isn't a good thing.
Livewire: Do you keep in contact at all with Ford?
Dan: Yeah, I've seen him a couple of times at shows.
Livewire: Does he remember you?
Dan: Yeah, I had to remind him. He doesn't have a great memory. He drinks a lot too.
Livewire: I recently saw him open for Johnny Winter.
Dan: Really? That's right. I heard they had to carry Johnny Winter on stage.
Livewire: It was real sad.
Dan: Heroin, man.
Livewire: Well, he also broke his hip not too long ago. Of course, maybe that's why he broke his hip. He had a pretty hot band that picked up the slack, but it was still sad to see an old legend like that in that kind of shape.
Dan: But, T-Model's great. Great soul.
Livewire: It sounds as though you've got the soul of black man in your voice.
Dan: Pfffft (laughs).
Livewire: You do, though. I mean, how old are you, in your early twenties?
Dan: I just turned 24 in May.
Livewire: Well, you certainly don't sound like a 24-year old white kid.
Dan: Thank you...I dunno.
Livewire: Has that sound always come naturally, or was it something that you've tried to emulate?
Dan: Kind of. When I first started playing when I was like 17 I had those tapes and my voice is higher. But it's the same kind of thing, I just tried to sing naturally.
Livewire: Do you have a single favorite blues artist or artists?
Dan: So many different people.
Patrick: Devo's my favorite band.
Dan: Yeah, Devo's from Akron.
Livewire: When are we going to hear that influence on your music?
Patrick: I think it's there.
Dan: You just have to listen for it.
Livewire: You've just recently signed with Fat Possum Records. It must feel nice to be sharing the same label with artists that you admire, such as Junior Kimbrough and Fred McDowell.
Dan: It's cool. It feels really good. Fat Possum's been great to us, and Epitaph, especially, has been really supportive of us. We try and stay away from the whole blues thing though. We try and play rock 'n' roll clubs and that was our only question when we signed with Fat Possum, "Are we gonna be placed in the blues bin at the record stores?î It would be easy for them to put us in the blues category and have us play blues festivals. People want to hear someone play like Stevie Ray Vaughn at a blues festival. We don't want to hear that and we don't want to play like that, so we stay away.
Livewire: I go to the Chicago Blues Fest every year to catch one performer, [David] Honeyboy Edwards.
Dan: I love Honeyboy Edwards! I read his book [an autobiography entitled The World Don't Owe Me Nothing]. It's fucking great! His memory is so intact.
Livewire: It still is. I recently interviewed him at his Southside home and he was telling his tales of Robert Johnson and what life was like in the South early last century like it was yesterday.
Dan: He's like T-Model. He's got those rosy cheeks and that gold-capped smile.
Livewire: As a bass-less duo playing blues-rock, do the comparisons to The White Stripes bother you?
Patrick: We can't control what we get compared to. We don't mind it so much. There's definitely worse bands to be compared to. I'm a fan of those guys, but I don't think that we sound anything like them. I think that any band gets a little frustrated when they get compared to other bands constantly. I think every band wants to stand on their own. You never hear Radiohead getting compared to anybody.
Dan: Coldplay (laughs).
Livewire: Do you feel that the heavy blues / rock sound you're doing fits into this whole rock renaissance thing.
Dan: No, I don't like it, really. It's gonna be gone in about a year, I think. It sucks to be lumped in with anybody. Hopefully we can stand on our own.
Patrick: We do play Renaissance Faires.
Livewire: With the chain-mail suits and the swords?
Dan: Yeah, and a guitar with the family shield on it.
Patrick: So, if you'd like, you can lump us into that Rock-Renaissance Faire thing.
Livewire: Do you see a long-term future for blues-rock?
Patrick: Well, it's been going on now for like 40 years and rock 'n' roll's been around for 50 years, so yeah.
More Black Keys
Concert Review - UIC Pavilion, Chicago, IL June 11, 2003