After Years Apart, The Black Keys Get Back To Basics

Jun 30, 2019
Originally published on July 3, 2019 8:47 am

Between their formation in 2001 and last album in 2014, guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney released eight LPs as The Black Keys and became household names with songs like "Tighten Up" and "Fever." When the duo took a break from recording and touring after years and years on the road, rumors flew that the two men had had a falling out.

According to the band, the truth is much simpler: "It was about time," Auerbach says. "We needed a little bit of normalcy."

In the time since 2014's Turn Blue, both musicians have been busy. Auerbach launched his Easy Eye Sound record label, released his sophomore solo album, Waiting on a Song, and co-founded the oddball side project The Arcs. Carney produced albums by artists including Calvin Johnson and his now-wife, Michelle Branch, and created the theme song for Netflix's BoJack Horseman. But this week, the wait for new music is over.

Released June 28, The Black Keys' return to the studio is titled "Let's Rock," quotation marks included. During the lead-up to the album, the two couldn't help but poke fun at the gossip over their purported breakup: In the video for the song "Go," the band is sent to a spiritual retreat by its record label to learn to get along. ("They had validated parking, so that's what got us there," Auerbach jokes.)

Fans who have followed the band since the beginning may think of "Let's Rock" as a return to form: stripped-down, chugging, blues-rock that recalls their early days playing in garages and basements in Akron, Ohio. They say shedding the layered production that has characterized their later work was a natural move.

YouTube

"We got together in the studio and it was like it was already agreed upon, but we hadn't even spoken about it: It was just going to be a guitar and drums record," Auerbach says. "There's no keyboards, no other musicians, no outside producers, just the two of us. After so many years apart, that was the way that it had to be."

"We learned to play music together, basically," Carney says. "I wanted to be a guitar player. I had this drum set at my house that I bought from washing dishes, so that I could have a friend play drums, and I would play guitar. But it soon became apparent that Dan was my only friend that wanted to come over and play music, and he was a much better guitar player, so I got moved to the drums. You know, we just kind of taught ourselves how to make records together."

"We just have always had this connection, where we can make music without really talking or thinking about it," Auerbach adds. "When we were 16, that's what we realized right away. We just started playing, and it worked."

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

When The Black Keys took a break from recording and touring after years and years on the road, the rumors flew. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney had a falling out. They're sick of each other. They've split up. So Dan and Patrick figured, why not have a little fun with all that gossip and speculation? So they produced a video in which the two sullen-faced rock stars sit in an office with their therapist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As therapist) You haven't spoken to each other in five years. And according to your contract with Warner Brothers, if you continue not to speak to each other, they retain the option to send you to the next level of mediation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so it's off to a hippy-dippy spiritual community. But, really, the video is just a chance to launch their new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO")

THE BLACK KEYS: (Singing) In the summertime, getting hot outside. The streets are bare. There's no one there, and the valley's wide.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's "Go" from The Black Keys' first release in five years. It's called "Let's Rock," which is what singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have been doing together for almost 20 years now. And they join us from Nashville.

Welcome to the program.

PATRICK CARNEY: Thank you for having us.

DAN AUERBACH: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just to set the record straight, you guys aren't sick of each other, right?

AUERBACH: No.

CARNEY: No, not officially.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Not today (laughter). I'm just wondering if your stint at the Happy Trails Intentional Community & Spiritual Retreat worked.

AUERBACH: Yeah. Well, it did. They had validated parking, so that's what got us there.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you have been playing together since you were teenagers in Akron, Ohio, so maybe you earned the right to some time apart. But what did take five years? Why so long?

CARNEY: Well, we just - we took three years off, but it's five years between albums. And so...

AUERBACH: It was about time. We needed a little bit of break. We needed a little bit of normalcy. I called Pat. We put a session on the books.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me what that phone call was like.

AUERBACH: Well, it was like, Pat, what's up?

CARNEY: Hey. What's going on?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

AUERBACH: You want to make a record?

CARNEY: Yeah, OK.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

AUERBACH: Cool. I'll tell Drew.

CARNEY: Sounds good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BLACK KEYS SONG, "LO/HI")

CARNEY: It went something like that. That was a dramatization.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Thank you for that live reenactment of that phone call.

CARNEY: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That feels like I relived history in the making right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LO/HI")

THE BLACK KEYS: (Singing) Out on a limb in the wind of a hurricane, down at the bar like a star in the howling rain, nobody to love you, nobody to care.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The songs in this collection are straightforward and tracked live. You say you took a simple approach and trimmed all the fat like we used to. Was it liberating to shed a lot of the production?

AUERBACH: We never even really talked about it, to be honest. I mean, we just got together in the studio. And it was like it was already agreed upon, but we hadn't even spoken about it. It was just going to be a guitar and drums record, you know? And there's no keyboards and no other musicians, no outside producers - just the two of us. And after so many years apart, that was the way that it had to be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I like a quote I found from you, Dan. Back in 2012, you told Interview Magazine, "bands from Akron have a sense of humor and don't tend to take themselves too seriously. We could do whatever we wanted. It wasn't about trying to impress anybody because there was no one there to impress."

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Poor Akron. Is that the key to your success - not taking yourselves too seriously?

CARNEY: The thing is in Akron we were more likely to get our [expletive] busted if we were to do anything that took ourselves too seriously as well, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Like if you were putting on airs? Like, you thought you were...

CARNEY: Yeah. People would call us on that easy, you know? That's part of being from Akron.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you carry that with you? Wherever you go, is it sort of like...

CARNEY: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

AUERBACH: That's the thing that Pat and I, like, bond over is like when we see other musicians acting too serious.

CARNEY: Oh, my God.

AUERBACH: (Laughter) You know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me what that looks like. I need another reenactment of people - musicians taking themselves too seriously. What do they do? What does that mean?

CARNEY: You know, I don't know. It's just like - it's like what Voltaire said, right?

AUERBACH: (Laughter).

CARNEY: It's like - they're like, everything's, like, meaningless.

AUERBACH: (Laughter).

CARNEY: I don't know. It's like that. Then, like, our eyes turn to Xs, and...

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've brought in lots of other people to work with you over the years, but, basically, you've remained a duo - just a drum set and a guitar. How come?

CARNEY: You know, to be fair, Dan and I started playing as - it was just the two of us in high school. We would get together and record these cassette tapes on something called a four-track recorder. So we would, like, put guitar and drums and then vocals and make these old records for fun. But when we decided to, like, really start a band, we actually had a neighborhood friend of ours join the band for a minute. And he...

AUERBACH: We had, like, neighborhood tryouts.

CARNEY: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Really?

AUERBACH: It was like "Little Rascals." It was like "Little Rascals." We put a sign up on the side door.

CARNEY: But we were, like, 21. We weren't, like, 8.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You weren't 12, yeah.

CARNEY: But - and a friend of ours got in the band. And he shortly, after that, quit. And I think we realized at that moment that we should just keep it the two of us. We've done it before in the basement. And I think, honestly, it was - it's the smartest decision we ever made because if we would have had one more member, it would have been too impossible to just keep the band together for 20 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAKING DOWN")

THE BLACK KEYS: (Singing) I went out on the town and I stumbled. I got caught in the trap of something.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How has that creative process evolved over the years? I mean, it's still the two of you. But what have you - what's changed?

AUERBACH: Not a whole lot, to be honest. I mean, we just kind of have always had this connection, where we can make music without really talking about it or thinking about it. And when we were 16, that's why - that's what we realized right away. We just started playing, and it worked, you know? And that's just how it's always been.

CARNEY: You know, we learned to play music together, basically, is what it kind of is. I wanted to be a guitar player. I had this drum set at my house that I bought from washing dishes just so that I could have a friend come over and play drums, and I would play guitar. But it soon became apparent that Dan was my only friend that wanted to come over and play music, and he was much better as a guitar player.

(LAUGHTER)

CARNEY: So I got moved to the drums, and, you know, we just kind of taught ourselves how to make records together. So the creative process has kind of always started the same, but I think we've gotten a lot better at it. And we've gotten, you know, more toys along the way and understand how to do different things that we couldn't do. So when I listen to the - our early records, they're a trip because technically, they're the most difficult thing we could have accomplished at those points, you know? And I think now we've experimented in the studio, trying different things in the past because we have gotten better. But I think this record - it made the most sense just to keep it simple and bring it back to the basics, which was just guitar and drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BLACK KEYS SONG, "EAGLE BIRDS")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are The Black Keys. Their new album is called "Let's Rock."

Thanks so much.

CARNEY: Thank you.

AUERBACH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EAGLE BIRDS")

THE BLACK KEYS: (Singing) See twin eagle birds up in the tree. One for you, and there's one for me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.