The Black Keys used a break from touring this year to record their most accessible record yet, writes Scott Kara.

If there is one band you can forgive for cancelling shows because they've played themselves into the ground, it's the Black Keys. There are only two of them after all - though sometimes that stretches to four when they play live. But really, the Black Keys are guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney.

And the pair have whipped up a wild rock 'n' roll racket a number of times in New Zealand. But they cancelled their 2011 Big Day Out performances in support of the band's sixth album Brothers - their best and most popular to date - citing exhaustion.

Though Carney, an extremely affable chap who's on the phone from his home in Nashville, doesn't exactly apologise for the no show, he has a good excuse. Their exhaustion was a symptom of how big the Black Keys had become following the release of Brothers.

So far that album has sold 1.5 million copies worldwide and won three Grammy awards earlier this year including best alternative album - not bad for a couple of lads from Akron, Ohio, the rubber tyre capital of the world.


"It changed our lives," says Carney. "Everything about our lives changed. On tour we went from worrying about how to get to the show to worrying about how many lights we had to have on stage and all that kind of shit."

They had agreed to do the Big Day Out tour in mid-2010 but promotional commitments on shows such as Saturday Night Live, and demand for more live dates, especially in Britain, took over what little free time they had left.

"We've been touring long enough to know when we're about to hit our breaking point. It's a dream job playing music, and for Dan and I it's our number one hobby and we get paid a lot of money to do it, but the thing is you can't put a price tag on your life."

And, he adds, if they hadn't taken a break they would not have been able to record latest album, El Camino, a rollicking and thigh-slapping rock album which is out on Monday.

"We thought, '****, if we go on tour again [to New Zealand and Australia] we wouldn't be able to do the record'. Everything changed [with Brothers] and that's why we really wanted to get back into the studio and make an album. We could have waited another year or so, and milked the Brothers album and kept touring, but we like bands, and our favourite bands growing up and even today, are bands that put out a lot of music and every album is different from the last."

With El Camino the Black Keys will have released seven albums in nine years - that's not counting Auerbach's solo album, Carney's album with his band Drummer, and the hip-hop/rock crossover project Blackroc.

"At least in our minds, every record we do is a lot different from the next. But Brothers was a pretty big departure for us and we really slowed it down, and we were working from this really laid-back kind of perspective."

In contrast El Camino is straight-forward and easily the band's most accessible album so far. It was recorded after eight-or-so months on the road, during which time they realised many of the songs on Brothers were too slow to work properly in the context of a Black Keys' live show.


"This record stemmed from that, the fact that it's easier for our songs to come across well live if they are fast," says Carney with a chuckle. "So we were just trying to make a guitar rock album that was more upbeat than anything we've ever recorded, because I think it's more similar to our concerts than anything that we've ever released."

There's swinging first single Lonely Boy, the sweet and rousing Nova Baby is like country glam pop, and best of all is the cool cat stomp of Sister.

"We've never written a song like that before," says Carney of Sister.

He reels off bands like the Clash, the Ramones, the Cramps, the Beatles and T. Rex - "I enjoy music that is melodic and catchy" - as influences on El Camino.

And apart from the smouldering acoustic beginning of Little Black Submarine, which eventually spirals off into a visceral, unhinged Led Zeppelin-meets-the Who breakout, the rest of the album jumps and thumps along while still retaining that unique posturing hip-hop groove that is a trademark of the Black Keys' sound.

"We never expected Brothers to do as well as it did; it exceeded our wildest dreams having a record that sold that many copies, and almost subconsciously, I think knowing that we have so many people paying attention to the band right now we thought we kind of owe it to people to make it worth their while.

"So therefore we spent more time and energy in the studio than we ever have before."


Who: The Black Keys, made up of drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach
Latest album: El Camino, out Monday
Past albums: The Big Come Up (2002); Thickfreakness (2003); Rubber Factory (2004); Magic Potion (2006); Attack & Release (2008); Brothers (2010)