Chances are high that your initial Black Keys education came from the following two albums: 2010’s seductively bluesy Brothers or 2011’s garage-rollicking El Camino. Remember that dancing guy from the “Lonely Boy” music video? Memories! But guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have now been at this for nearly 20 years, leaving behind a prolific rock superhighway from their hometown of Akron to their current Nashville hub — in addition to being one of the few non-boomer rockers who can actually sell out an arena, a marker of success that still surprises Carney to this day. (Not to mention a second life as in-demand producers.) Now, though, the Black Keys are looking backwards for their future. On May 14, the duo released Delta Kream, an album consisting entirely of formative hill country-blues covers that influenced their early sound and even earlier influences. (There’s a lot of Junior Kimbrough love.) To mark the occasion, Carney walked us through the best and worst of the band.
It changes pretty frequently for me, but “I Got Mine” is my favorite song to play live. That might have to be my best song, then. If I get really nervous before a show or something, I’ll focus on that song. We played this pay-per-view boxing match the other day and we were a bit off because there was no audience. It made me a little bit nervous, just because nobody was there. The opposite of what you anticipate happening. So I put “I Got Mine” first on the set list because it’s so fun to play. It’s not a really known song and there’s no expectation of what it should sound like. It becomes an exercise of playing rock and roll loud, which is a lot of fun to do, and it reminds me of how visceral music can be. It takes me into a caveman state.
Song you wish the Black Keys never recorded
Any song that I have trouble performing live we’ve taken away from the set list at this point. I like every song that we’ve recorded, but I’ll say this: Covering the Beatles on our first record [The Big Come Up’s “She Said, She Said”] was something that only a band that doesn’t know what’s happening around them would do. [Laughs.] We were so naïve to the fact that it was something that maybe you should never do, but we did it anyway. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t do that again.
Song you hope becomes a blues classic
I hope that at some point, maybe, years from now, there’s a song that works its way into the depths of the music vocabulary. I think “Too Afraid to Love You” has a lot of potential. It’s moody and dark. That kind of music seems to resonate with me and Dan. I don’t know why I think about that song for blues, but I think about where we were when we wrote and recorded it. We were in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in the dead of summer. It was a million degrees. It was too hot to be outside, and we were in this room without windows. It was the most fitting place to make a song like that — dark, swampy, and hot as hell.
Song that sounds the most like Akron
“Heavy Soul” from our first album feels very Akron to me. It’s rough around the edges. We really weren’t sure how to play our instruments yet, especially me. It’s rough-and-tumble, but it’s endearing. I’ve always thought that Akron never had a particular sound. The most famous musicians from Akron are Chrissie Hynde, Devo, and I guess us. I have a hard time finding similarities between the three of us. In a place like Akron, the beauty is that there’s a lot of interesting things about the city. You’re slightly off the grid. Especially when we were growing up before the internet. It was harder to find stuff and there wasn’t much to do, so you would find some buddies and focus on playing music. That’s what a lot of people I know did. Other people I know would gravitate toward hardcore music or math rock.
We were the two guys who were gravitating toward Captain Beefheart and Junior Kimbrough — a much different musical direction. We would go play shows in Cleveland and all the bands were playing such different stuff, but there was still a camaraderie because we all were just into music. The common thread, musically, from Akron would’ve happened in the early ’70s, when all the proto-punk bands formed. Like, Electric Eels and Peter Laughner. That was a scene. There was talk of an “Akron scene” in the ’70s, but really it was a collection of bands doing different things. Some New Wave, some punk, and that’s still the case today.
College radio has come a long way, too. You know what the hot songs for me in college were? The omnipresent songs at my lame college were “The Thong Song” and “Back That Azz Up.” Dan and I are both on the University of Akron alumni page, but neither one of us graduated or really enjoyed being there. We had no other options. We were both so miserable there that we made this demo and we both decided to drop out of school to start a band. It was better to potentially be destitute for the rest of our lives than to stay at the University of Akron for one more year.
Most underrated song
The reality is this: When we started, we never even intended to be a type of band that sold a couple thousand records. The fact that we even have songs that are certifiable hits is bizarre to me. I wouldn’t want to get greedy and say that certain songs should be heard more, because we’re heard way more than we were ever expected to be heard. But, you know, “I Got Mine” is a song that I always thought was a winner that I thought people would like more. I would’ve liked to have heard that on the radio.
Nerdiest song for drummers
I’m not a technical drummer at all. I’m the opposite. I don’t really even understand how triplets work. [Laughs.] I’ve never taken a drum lesson in my life. Drums, to me, are a soulful instrument that help propel songs. When I watch someone like John Bonham, he’s the perfect rock and roll drummer. He happens to be very technical but he’s not showing off, so it happens in a very natural way. There’s a lot of raw, natural talent that goes into that, and I clearly don’t have it. I’ve never made a song that another drummer should be jealous of. But I do think that when we’re playing concerts, that’s where I really excel at the instrument — when I’m scared shitless. What’s always inspired Dan and myself are self-taught artists.
That’s kind of what Delta Kream is. We’re paying tribute to musicians who taught themselves how to play. Our band is named after a self-taught artist [Alfred McMoore]. What’s interesting to me, for anything, is the nuance. I love watching baseball because it’s a group effort and a comedy of errors at times. I don’t like watching the Olympics because it’s just to see who’s the best at something. How boring is that? Music isn’t a competition. It’s a strategy to see how you can take whatever deficits you have and set them aside to try to make the best possible song.
Most stubborn song to finish
We have quite a few of those, but they’ve never been released. We’re not the kind of band that sits around, writes songs, makes demos, practices them, and then goes right into the studio. We write and record at the same time. Essentially our demos are on our records, always. We usually get through a song in one day, maybe two days. But there have been a few songs that have stretched into a three- or five-day realm. They would’ve been singles if we finished them, but they were just so stubborn that we couldn’t finesse them into something that both of us were happy with. So our most stubborn songs are unreleased and will never be heard. There was one song in particular on Turn Blue that would’ve for sure been a single, but we couldn’t break it. We got fried on it.
Best song you produced for someone else
I just made a record with Michelle [Branch, Carney’s wife] that comes out next year. There’s a couple songs on there that are contenders. I don’t think I can pick the best one, but almost a decade ago, in the summer of 2011, this band called Tennis contacted me and asked me if I wanted to help them make a record. That was the first time someone had done that. We went to a studio in Nashville and made a record called Young & Old. It was so cool. I really helped Tennis at the time and helped open up their sound. The song “Origins” is my favorite.
Album that gave you the most validation as a musician
100 percent it was Brothers. It was our sixth album and we had gone through a bunch of personal stuff leading up to it. Dan had put out a solo record; I went through a divorce. The band kind of became a place of salvation rather than a source of stress like it had been in previous years. I was able to really clear my head when we were making that record and focus on the music. There was no drama or distractions. There’s a lot of depth to Brothers. There was almost like a desperation behind it. We weren’t trying to write hits, we were just trying to express ourselves. That ended up becoming our first hit record. It really connected with a lot of people. That validated a lot of feelings to me. Brothers felt very deep to me, and the fact that it connected with so many others … it was a perceivable, authentic thing. As a musician, that’s ultimately what I was trying to achieve. Not through technicalities or whatever, you’re trying to make music that resonates emotionally in the simplest way possible. Brothers seemed to have done that.
It was surreal, really. We did six albums in eight years. When you’re 30 and have been doing something for so long in your life, it feels like a very long time. We put a lot of time in. We felt like seasoned pros. At that point, we had existed longer than a couple of my favorite bands. So to have success then, it was a complete blessing, because we really appreciated it. But it was also scary. We weren’t anticipating it happening. Things changed based on perception. We played Lollapalooza five times before 2010, but then we got out there on the main stage in front of 50,000 people who wanted to watch us. It was like, What the fuck is happening? As my dad said, it’s a good problem to have.
Weirdest place you’ve heard “Lonely Boy”
There’s been a lot of times, more than I’d care to admit, when I put on a movie and heard our music. I just totally forgot that we said yes to letting them use our music. [Laughs.] You know, I don’t have a specific “Lonely Boy” story, but the first time I ever heard us on the radio was completely unexpected. It wasn’t a college station, it was the proper radio. We were driving through the middle of northern California near Arcadia. This must have been 2006 and “Your Touch” came on the radio. We had a day off from driving and it came on while I was scanning the radio. It was like a ghost coming in to taunt us. We should’ve moved to the town that was playing it right there.
Lingering thoughts about the duo’s drama-filled Steve Miller induction at the 2016 Rock Hall
The reality of that situation is the Rock Hall, for better or worse … well, I’m into it. I’m into any museum that celebrates music. I think it’s cool to acknowledge people’s careers in certain ways. That night, though, wow. Like I said, I’m a college dropout and I don’t know how to write shit. When someone asked us to induct Steve Miller, I didn’t know that much about him. I was like, Okay? I never even watched one of these ceremonies, so I didn’t really know what to do. So I Googled Steve Miller and it said that he was born in Milwaukee. So I wrote one line in the speech that was, “There’s been a lot of Millers made in Milwaukee, but only one Steve Miller.” I thought it was hilarious. But nobody laughed. All right, fine, this isn’t a roast. Then I learned later that Steve Miller had a long relationship with some people who were on the board of the Rock Hall and he was bitter that it took him so long to get it. It’s all politics.
Stories behind the album-cover cars
The car on the El Camino cover was chosen because it was the same year and model of the first vehicle we toured in, which was a ’94 Grand Voyager. Everyone in America thinks “El Camino” is the car, but it means “the road.” For Delta Kream, it was just by accident. It was more of the image that we liked. It was a photo taken by William Eggleston sometime in the late ’80s. It really resonated with Dan and I; we loved everything about it. We weren’t even going to title the record — just call it The Black Keys and have it implied that the name was Delta Kream, but we made it easier for everyone to title the record after the photograph.
More From The Superlative Series
- Jessie Ware on Her Best, Most Classically Disco, and Melancholy Songs
- The Weirdest, Gayest, and Most Unconventional Pop of MARINA
- Liz Phair on Her Best Songs and Humbly Defining Generations of Indie Rock