CD Times meets......The Black Keys
The Black Keys have had a phenomenal couple of years. There's just the two of them, but that hasn't stopped them releasing three critically acclaimed albums, the latest of which 'Rubberfactory' (the title comes from the fact that they recorded the whole thing in a deserted tire factory) was described by All Music Guide as "...the most exciting rock & roll record of 2004." 'Thickfreakness', its predecessor, was recorded in a mere 14 hours after supporting Sleater-Kinney for their North American tour. How rock 'n' roll can you get?! If you want to know what The Black Keys sound like, take your stereo mix of Led Zeppelin's 'Physical Graffiti'. Unplug one speaker from your stereo and play the first two sides. Without the bass and the high pitched squawk of Robert Plant's horrible falsetto squeaks, you have the nucleus of a boiled down to the barest bones, hard as nails, solid traditional blues band complete with flailing drums and squelchy, rich blues guitar. Ladies and gentlemen, you have The Black Keys or a very close approximation of them. There are two of them, Patrick Carney on drums and Dan Auerbach on guitar and we're holed up like rats deep in the bowels of Sheperd's Bush Empire where they're just about to play a sell-out show. Shepherd's Bush Empire seats 2,000 people; that's a lot of seats for two bluesmen to keep wet.
They're nervous as fuck. That's obvious. Pat can't concentrate on his surroundings and fiddles with a window and a plays with a sink throughout our brief encounter. Dan, on the other hand is sitting straight opposite me, giving the thousand yard stare, daring me to penetrate his studied coolness. We're sipping beer, we're chilling, but there's an undercurrent of sheer electricity here. The Black Keys have come a long way from Akron, Ohio (the 'official' middle of nowhere) where they formed - school friends and music obsessive. The American Mid-West is not the multicultural melting pot of the East Coast, nor is it the intense insanity of the West Coast and this is perhaps reflected in the conservative nature of the music they perform. Pat is also still freaked out by something he saw in Soho: "It was a homeless guy, but he had all these cuts and sores that had gone septic all over him and he was showing them to me. I was like, yeeaurgh, here's all my money, please go away." We're a long way from Akron now.
As old friends, they obviously have a close relationship. They fight from time to time, says Dan, but there are rules. He stares at me, deadpan, and imparts: "No hitting below the belt and no biting." So when was the last time they got angry, when was the last time they wanted to hit someone? Pat looks downcast: "All the fucking time. Last time I wanted to hit someone? Today, this morning, yesterday." He suddenly looks aghast at his own words and adds: "I've never thrown a punch in my life. I don't think I could, I'm a pacifist." Luckily for those who piss him off, then, his drumming style contains enough violence to satisfy his base urges. I suddenly wonder if he wants to hit me. I suspect he probably does.
There doesn't seem to have been any major planning along the way. Dan claims never to have even thought about being in bands until he saw the "...tatty old cover of a Hound Dog Taylor album and there was like three guys on there, two guitarists and a drummer. That was my first idea of being in a band". Hound Dog Taylor, and this particular form of ultra-traditional delta-electric blues, was a massive influence on Dan. Not having a bass player just came naturally rather than being the result of post-White Stripes bandwagon hopping: "None of the old electric blues guys we listened to used bass. It was all just drums and guitar." Formed naturally, then, the grand design behind the band was merely to get together with Pat and play music. Nothing more, nothing less. "Then the record deals came along, and, like, wow, it's just taken off from there." Dan looks modest, making light of the success they've enjoyed.
It's not always been easy, though. Dan talks about one of the worst gigs they ever played. "We were supporting The Reverend Horton Heat and we had to drive like a million miles to get there, and then the fucking bass drum pedal broke and, well, we tried to get them to lend us one, but they wouldn't, so we ended up playing the bass drum by hitting it with a fucking stick." The best shows they've done recently, though, they claim have been in Australia. "It's fucking awesome over there. There have been some really good nights." They seem to have a huge following in Australia, and a clever man would put money on a good percentage of the audience of tonight's sell-out Shepherd's Bush show being of the antipodean persuasion. This popularity down-under they simply put down them being willing "...to just go down there and play. You know, we'd take a hundred hour flight or something, coach class, just to play some gigs."
One thing that's made touring easier for them is the MP3. This is something they enthuse over. "It's fucking great," says Dan. "You know having a million songs or something at your fingertips. Before that half our luggage was all CD carriers and they'd end up getting all fucking scratched and shit." So is there no negative side to downloading then? "Nope? Is there a negative side?" Pat looks puzzled at the mere suggestion. Well, some have voiced concerns, I offer, that they have a sinister side. "Are they the same sorts of people who don't trust, like, medicine and think the world was created two thousand years ago?" Nope, but there are download only record deals on offer now and this is something we'll probably see more of. Would they sigh a deal that was for a download only? "No," says Dan. Why? "That would be kind of pointless." He trails off. "There's like 99% of the world doesn't even know how to use a computer."
This is the last night of a tour that has taken them all over the world. How do they feel about playing venues this size, there being just the two of them? Is there the same sort of audience participation as you get from playing backyard shows for friends, or bottom of the bill at Cleveland's Beachland Tavern for no fee, something they cut their live teeth on? Dan says he "...doesn't care about the size of the venue. Sometimes with a show this size you get more involvement than playing somewhere smaller. You know, just the fact that there's, you know, two thousand, or whatever, people sitting out there in the darkness, is an enormous rush you can really get off on".
As a live band, they're an odd one. The set isn't long, but it is perfectly formed. The stripped down, pure thick blues approach certainly sounds a lot more electrifying in a live setting than it does recorded. Perhaps a telling feature is that the biggest cheer of the night goes to their cover of The Sonics 'Have Love Will Travel'; it's instantly recognizable, traditional and very safe. It's a strange stage presence they create. Pat, flailing away like the bastard son of John Bonham, with his hard, clunky, fill-heavy style, whilst Dan satellites around him with his guitar. Think of a dog kennel with a chained up dog; Pat's the kennel, whilst Dan is the dog, straying as far from the drums as he can, but always sucked back although they're invisibly chained together. It's an intense, exhilarating experience, if limited by the style of music. We are talking no-frills blues, here. Dan can certainly howl with the best of them, and Pat can provide ample noise to back him up, but where do they go from here? You suspect it's not something that bothers them overly.