Karl Puschmann travels to Nashville to meet the garage rock survivors as they prepare to unleash their new album.
If it's true that rock music is dead then The Black Keys couldn't be happier.
"When the electric guitar was in its heyday they were making more music that I hated than at any other time period," Dan Auerbach, vocalist and guitarist for the garage rock duo says with steely conviction.
"One hundred per cent more," drummer Patrick Carney spits. "When I was 17 I hated every single f***ing band on the radio. Straight across the board. There wasn't one I liked."
Auerbach casts a bemused look at his old school pal and bandmate of 18 years and laughs, "I know!"
"It's true." he says, turning back to me. "And that's when rock was alive."
"Alive?" Carney questions, still visibly disgusted. "It was f***ing thriving."
"It was f***ing horrible," Auerbach agrees.
"All the bands that I liked were not getting played on the radio that's for sure," Carney adds before Auerbach gets more serious and says, "The great shit never gets that kind of attention. It's always the underdog."
Do you guys, I ask, still feel like the underdog?
"Yes," Auerbach immediately answers. A pause. And then he says, "I think that we always will. I don't know why. But we will."
The Uber driver is confused. We're in The Gulch, a famed music area in Nashville, and have just pulled off the incredibly busy 8th Avenue and on to a dusty, loose gravel back road that really has no business being in the middle of a heavily urban part of town. The road sort of just trickles away so as there's nowhere further for him to drive I jump out and start walking towards a towering jet-black fence that's wearing a jagged spiral of barbed wire on its head like a thorny crown. A sign warns that security cameras are operating. There is no welcome mat.
I spy an intercom but before I can press it there's a low rumble and a portion of the fence shakes for a second before revealing itself to be a gate and sliding open.
I walk into the compound, past a brown American muscle car that's parked next to a dark grey, nondescript BMW sedan, ascend a flight of wooden stairs and enter the control room of Easy Eye Sound, the recording studio owned by Auerbach.
The vibe in the studio is in contrast to the intimidating outer fortifications. With its light blue walls, big rugs and op-shop couches, it's cosy, comfy and incredibly cool. The room feels cobbled together and is filled with trinkets and drool-worthy guitars, synths and recording equipment. All vintage, of course, and all in service of the studio's cheery slogan "Good sound comes back around!".
This is where the band recorded and mixed their new album, Let's Rock. I peer through a big window that's in front of a giant mixing desk and looking directly into the recording room and see the pair chatting on a couch, waiting to tell me all about it.
"It's uh ... I don't know," Carney says before trying again. "If we didn't feel like ... "
Carney, who is the more boisterous and gregarious, is caught in a rare moment of floundering so Auerbach jumps in.
"We were underdogs for so long that it's just in us now," he says.
Where Carney fills the room with his raucous stories and physical presence - he's a big dude - Auerbach is the opposite, quieter and carrying a thoughtful demeanour. But there's no mistaking the fire in his belly when he starts talking.
"We toured five albums before we even had a record that anybody paid any attention to or got on the radio. We kept seeing bands come and go and headline festivals and then they're f***ing gone. We're opening for them and then they're f***ing gone. And we're still here."
"We were like abused women, in a way," Carney says. "We had a manager who was like, 'You'll never be a band who will sell records. You'll never sell 250,000 records."
"He beat us down," Auerbach says, exasperated. "Who tells their client that? It was like Spinal Tap."
"It was crazy," Carney says. "We were 25 years old."
"We were like, 'why are we giving you 25 per cent of our f***ing income?'" Auerbach says.
"Yeah, so ... clearly we're successful," Carney says gesturing at the stack of vintage guitar amps set up opposite the couch he's sitting on in the recording studio his bandmate owns, "But there's a thing where if you stop feeling like underdogs then you think you can do anything you want. The minute you stop feeling "underdog", you get the orange Lamborghini."
Auerbach explodes in laughter at that, making me think this is a true story about someone they know.
And that's when it all goes downhill, I ask?
"F*** yeah," Carney says. "Literally."
For the full interview with the band listen to our TimeOut in Conversation podcast below:
When I walk into the room to meet the Black Keys, Carney is in the middle of a story and Auerbach is hanging on every word. Carney is a natural raconteur, highly engaging, with a slightly craggy viewpoint and always talking towards a punchline. For his part, Auerbach appears constantly amused by the stories, punctuating them with a loud laugh that spurs on Carney. It's pretty easy to see why they became friends and to see how they would both get on each other's tits after a while.
Carney's story is about a pal of his who worked at Amazon in its formative years. As part of his contract he had a deal that saw him get shares in the fledgling online bookseller. The number of shares he got ramped up with each year of employment, maxing out at five years.
"He decided to quit when the stock was worth a million dollars," Carney says. "And that stock ... he would be worth $80 million today!"
Shaking his head in mock sorrow he says, "Dumb. Mother. F***er."
Auerbach is almost shaking with laughter but somehow splutters, "He cashed out?"
"He did," Carney confirms, stonily straight-faced, which sets Auerbach off again. Eventually he asks, "How much did he get?"
"After taxes, $750,000," Carney says still shaking his head in disbelief. "He literally would have got 100 times more money if he'd just worked for a couple more years."
Auerbach stops laughing and sighs sadly at the thought of all those missing millions.
"He was a stockman. Zero skill," Carney says, filling the silence. "Now, they've got robots."
Although their new album does indeed rock, hard, The Black Keys called their ninth record Let's Rock as a joke.
"It's like something we wish we could just say but don't have the balls to say," Auerbach says.
"It works on a lot of levels for us," Carney agrees. "One being the absurdity. It's so absurd. When we announced the record in front of our manager he was like, 'Are you really calling the record Let's Rock?' I was like, 'Dude! I know right!' I think he was checking my sanity."
They both start laughing and Auerbach says, "I loved that," and Carney replies, "I loved that too," and they both laugh again.
The other level the title works on is somewhat more gnarly. The first week they started recording Auerbach was reading the newspaper and saw a headline that said, "Let's Rock".
"It was this crazy story that the day before, they'd executed a prisoner in Nashville, in town, where we were, by electric chair," he says, still sounding a bit shocked by the proximity. "It was the first time they'd done that in the state of Tennessee in more than a dozen years. They asked him if he had any final words and he said, 'Let's rock'. It was a crazy story and it stuck with me."
It's certainly a badass thing to say on the way out, I say.
Auerbach exhales and says, "Tell me about it ... "
What would your parting words be, I ask.
"Pleeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaase, I don't want to die!" Auerbach pleads with mock anguish.
"Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoooooah," Carney says, shaking his hands "stop" in front of him.
The jokes acts as a release and the pair crack up at their answers and then Carney says, "We almost called the record that."
Let's talk about the numbers around Let's Rock. It's the band's ninth album, their first in five years and ends the four-year hiatus they initiated so they didn't self-destruct personally and/or professionally.
"Hadn't really thought about it in terms of numbers," Auerbach says, shrugging.
"I never thought about it either," Carney says, before diving into how they got here.
"We made a pact that no matter what, we had to figure out a way to get along and do this. It was early on, 2003/2004. I think we were opening up for Sleater-Kinney. We saw they were getting paid $50,000 for a show and were like, "If we ever get paid $50,000, no matter what, we have to figure this out. From memory we were getting paid $200 that night."
"But you know what the thing is, man?"Auerbach asks. "What we do is so much of who we are that we can do it forever. Like, if you're a rapper, once you get old it starts to get weird."
"Unless you're Big Boi," Carney says, interrupting, before adding, "But especially if you've got misinformed face tattoos and you're from the suburbs. That might not last ... "
Auerbach laughs heartily at that, quietly repeating, "misinformed face tattoos", before catching his breath and continuing.
"I don't know. I feel comfortable that the stuff we do is not really about an age restriction. I saw Link Wray when he was almost 80. Blew my f***ing mind. And I was 18. He changed my world. He was 80, nobody gave a f*** about him, he hadn't had a hit record since the 50s."
"We were inspired as 20-year-olds by an 80-year-old playing guitar," Carney says.
Their new album is pure stomping garage rock. It kicks ass. Jettisoning all the extraneous elements of their most recent couple of records the pair got back to basics. Voice, guitar, bass and drums. That's it. Let's rock.
"I was excited to play some loud electric guitar," Auerbach says, when talking about creative influence for the album. "And I wanted to see Pat when we played. That's about it."
"For the last year and a half I became obsessed with the guitar again," Carney says, which, as he's the drummer, comes as a surprise.
"It's the instrument that got me into playing music in the first place," he explains. "I begged my dad for an electric guitar and he finally got me one. But I never got that good at it in high school so when Dan and I would get together and play I'd always get relegated to the drums."
Maybe this is news to Auerbach as well because he looks over at Carney and cracks up.
During their hiatus, Carney said that their unhealthily relentless "tour/release album/tour" lifestyle had left them both with PTSD. So although The Black Keys are back, they're back on their own terms.
"We came back to the band and started jamming under the idea that it's not 'all or nothing'. That was a misconception we started believing because of the amount of work we were doing. It was all or nothing unintentionally," Carney explains. "But you can't go on tour for months and months and then work on a record for three weeks and then go back on the road."
"You just can't," Auerbach agrees.
"You'll lose your f***ing mind," Carney says. "We felt like that because it took us six years to breakthrough, working our asses off and starting literally from the bottom. We thought we had to jump on it because it was all gonna go away."
"Our only apprehension [about restarting] was walking into something that didn't feel fun. Playing a show is fun. Playing tons of shows isn't. Doing tonnes of TV and sitting around and stuff like that gets f***ing old."
"I mean, we could fake our way thought it and sell arenas and just f***ing coast," Auerbach says, barely hiding his disgust at the thought. "We could do that. But it would suck."
Carney equates it to a changed mindset, explaining that they now look to see how much they can make without putting themselves in the unhealthy position of being on tour for a year and playing 100 shows. Their health comes first. But he readily admits they're leaving money on the table.
How much we talking here?
"It's in the tens of millions of dollars. Easy," he answers. "But it's not what it's about."
"It used to be we'd turn a record in and - boom - we had to do 125 shows because we have fans in New Zealand and Australia and Japan ... you can name 25 countries where we could play at least two shows, some we could do 10, some 50. But we basically let our management know that the whole point of this record, of the band, needs to come back to what's a healthy amount of stuff to do. With this record we didn't set a deadline, we didn't set anything. We're approaching everything one step at a time."
Which all sounds reasonable and responsible and to be applauded buuuut ... do you think a New Zealand show is on the cards?
"We don't know," Carney answers. "At some point we will go to New Zealand. At some point. But this is the problem, I can't think of any other profession where you're expected to be as popular in Nashville as you are in Osaka. It's crazy. And it's possible. We're in the unique and super fortunate position where we can go and do arenas in lots of countries. The question is can we physically?"
"And should we?" Auerbach adds.
Their questions hang there, unanswered.
Who: The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney
What: New album, Let's Rock
When: Out tomorrow