Black Keys’ breakthrough year: Here’s how they did it

Greg Kot/ Chicago Tribune  12/21/10

The Black Keys – singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney — have been doing the slow, steady build since their 2002 debut album. By the end of 2009, they had released seven albums and were big enough to sell out the 2,500-capacity Riviera twice at year’s end.

Then things got out of hand. Their eighth album, “Brothers” (Nonesuch), yielded their first radio hit, the whistle-stoked, Danger Mouse-produced “Tighten Up.” Four Grammy nominations followed, including nods for best rock song and best alternative album. The band’s audience exploded; Carney and Auerbach will close 2010 with three sold-out concerts at the 4,500-capacity Aragon Ballroom.

“Tighten Up” capped the “Brothers” recording session and was a conscious effort to nail down a song that might get some spins on commercial radio, Carney says. It injected a few more hooks into the duo’s trademark sound: a blues-based minimalism that embraces moaning-at-midnight vocals and trance-like grooves.

“We felt the album was the best we’d done, but there wasn’t a single,” the drummer says. “Everyone, including Brian (Burton, aka Danger Mouse), told us that there is nothing that will change your career more than getting a record played on radio. You can make all the great records you want, but your audience will stay basically the same. There is a limit to how far you can go without a radio hit. So we spent 14 hours total over two days working on one song; we’ve made whole records in that amount of time.”

Now that the song is a hit, Carney is wondering how long the buzz can last. “Brian was right – ever since the song hit, we’ve been playing to a lot more people. But I’ve seen it happen to other bands: It blows up and it goes away. I realize there is nothing more special about Dan and I that would prevent that from happening, especially now. It’s all propped up by a song on radio, and we’re not a radio band.”

On the contrary, the boyhood friends from Ohio built their career the old-fashioned way: One listener at a time. “The first time we played Chicago we were at the Beat Kitchen, the first out of four, five bands, and played to 12 people. We did that same trip 20 times over the first year and a half. The first time we sold out the Empty Bottle was mind blowing.”

The duo took a big step last year when hip-hop mogul Damon Dash invited the Black Keys to collaborate with an array of hip-hop MC’s – including Mos Def, RZA, Raekwon, Ludacris, Q-Tip and Pharoahe Monch – on the “Blakroc” album.

“We developed a slightly different way of making music that carried over into ‘Brothers,’ ” Carney says. “We used to come up with whole song structures, but on ‘Blakroc’ we worked with fragments and loops, simple hooks and doing variations on those. We had been writing songs with parts, and each part had to be completely different. Sometimes you force yourself to make a change that doesn’t have to be there. We started looking at songs as one continuous thing rather than a series of big dramatic chord changes.”

Carney says he and Auerbach are hip-hop fans, but he fears for the genre’s survival. “It is an art form that is totally at risk of dying,” he says. “With the decline of record sales, that genre is exposed. There never really was a live hip-hop scene. When you think about rock ‘n’ roll, you think concerts. With hip-hop, you think albums. Other than Jay-Z, hip-hip shows aren’t big business. I feel bad for a lot of rappers we work with because they have a hard time making a living. Promoters don’t want to put on hip-hop shows because a few (unreliable) rappers have screwed things up for a lot of other rap artists.”

Playing shows is what the Black Keys do best, and it has kept them afloat even through a decade when the market for recorded music has collapsed.

“We make 85 percent of our money from shows,” Carney says. “Our record-company advance for this last record was pretty small; we’ll make twice that amount on New Year’s Eve in Chicago. I won’t lie to you. Being on tour sucks. It’s hard. There’s a level where it’s fun, the concerts are great, and then I’m in a hotel room by myself watching the Lifetime channel and texting my dad, who I haven’t seen in six months. It’s an insane way to make a living, but you can’t not do it.”

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