The Black Keys: Necessary Roughness

Dec 3, 2011
Originally published on December 4, 2011 10:51 am

The Black Keys' last album — Brothers, a winner of three Grammys — sold more than half a million copies. Now, the blues-inspired rock duo is trying for a harder sell: its old minivan. The band's new album, El Camino, is named for the band's 1994 Chevrolet coupe utility vehicle, which is currently for sale on The Black Keys' website. Both the van and the music are a little rough around the edges.

"We would get together in the room — drums and guitar — and just start improvising," singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach says. "If something caught our ear that we liked, we would try to build on that. By the end of the day, we had a song done."

"We still try to avoid spending too much time on any particular song," drummer Patrick Carney adds. "We've realized that it does negatively affect the song if you overthink it."

That said, The Black Keys logged more studio time making El Camino than any of the band's previous albums — 40 days or so, during which Auerbach and Carney tracked alternate versions of many of the songs. But with each attempt, the two held fast to one guiding principle.

"Playing live in the room together is the most important thing," Auerbach says. "There's no playing to click tracks or anything like that, so tempos may speed up or slow down slightly. I think it only adds to the part of music that Pat and I are drawn to, which is rough and not so perfect."

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Five years ago, The Black Keys were worried their blue-tinged rock music was too mellow.


CORNISH: So this time around, they did something about it.


CORNISH: That's from their new album "El Camino." A summer release of covers titled "Rave On Buddy Holly" just got a Grammy nod. That's pop duo performance for the song "Dearest."

Singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney join us from Nashville, their new hometown. Gentlemen, welcome.



AUERBACH: Thanks for having us.

CORNISH: So, the song we're listening to is called "Lonely Boy," which is the first song on the record. How did that song come together and what was the sound that you were trying to achieve?

AUERBACH: This is Dan. I'm sure we were listening to like Johnny Burnett Trio, rockabilly stuff - Cramps. We just came up with that intro riff. I think we just started playing that. That's how we made this whole record; we would just get together in the room, drums and guitar, and just start improvising. You know, something caught our ear that we liked, we would try to build on that. You know, by the end of the day, we had a song done.

CORNISH: And it does have a life feel. I mean it definitely sounds like you're in the same room together. I know that sounds really silly, but I know a lot of recording is done piecemeal.

AUERBACH: Yeah, no, and for this record every song there's live guitar and drums to give it that live feel. You know, to give that kind of human element. There's no playing to click tracks or anything like that. So tempos may speed up or slow down slightly. But I think it only adds to the part of music that I think Pat and I are drawn to, which is that, you know, rough and sort of a not so perfect.

CORNISH: There's a really lovely track called "Little Black Submarines" that sounds a lot like the kind of an old-fashioned country story ballad.


CORNISH: So, the song starts off like this, it's kind of quiet story. And then it blossoms into, I don't know, metal.


AUERBACH: We prefer, erupts not blossoms.



CORNISH: That's true. That doesn't sound very rock 'n roll.


CORNISH: Alright, it erupts into...

AUERBACH: There you go. That sounds much better.

CORNISH: ...big, kind of - I don't know, I want to be in the stadium when this moment comes…

AUERBACH: Me, too.

CORNISH: ...and the lighting guy gets to go crazy.

AUERBACH: We want to be in the stadium when that happens also.


AUERBACH: We haven't played any of them and we've been kind of chomping at the bit to play them - so much fun.


CORNISH: You once said that the more time that you spend on the song the worse it gets, and that the group is about simplicity. And what was it like trying to stay true that, now that you had more at your disposal and could kind of create a more complicated sound?

CARNEY: This is Patrick. We still try to avoid spending too much time on any particular song. We've realized that it does negatively affect the song if you over-think it. But for this album, we did spend longer in general making the album.

AUERBACH: Yeah, but it's just long for us, which is not long for a normal major label record.

CARNEY: Yeah, it's...

CORNISH: That it mean a couple of weeks or a couple...

CARNEY: We spent about 40 days in the studio and...


CARNEY: ...we were still doing about a song a day. But we would do different approaches. Say, a song like "Little Black Submarines," we spent maybe four days working on that song. But we ended up with about five completely different takes of the song; different tempos, different arrangements...

CORNISH: So, is there an all metal version of "Little Black Submarines" somewhere?

CARNEY: No, there is not.

CORNISH: Or like a...


CARNEY: See, maybe if it was 1971 you could classify the end as metal. But the end of "Little Black Submarines" is kind of...

AUERBACH: Yeah, maybe it is more of a blossoming.


CARNEY: Yeah, it sounds like the theme song to "Blossom."


CORNISH: You both produce music for other bands. And I remember reading once - I think it was Dan that said that studios can be a disservice for bands. I wanted to ask you what you meant by that and sort of what your approach is to producing, as a result.

AUERBACH: Well, I mean we had such bad experiences when we first started out. You know, they would let us touch any of the equipment and it kind of just sucked.

CARNEY: It can be difficult especially if you're a young band and you don't know how to communicate properly with the engineer, and don't actually know what you want. And I think when we were first starting out making records in our basement that was kind of what our problem was. We couldn't describe the sounds we wanted. And people that have good taste usually are in demand, and therefore are expensive.

So we reverted to just working in like our practice space or in one of our basements to make records. And that's how we became kind of addicted to recording music. And it was born out of necessity, basically.


CORNISH: Can we talk a little bit about the sound of this song, "Hell of a Season?" I felt like I heard a little bit of The Clash and rock, and I know people think of you guys as a blues-heavy duo.

AUERBACH: Yeah, I know. We were definitely listening to Clash; that one, the guitar parts are jagged, guitar stats. Although I think it is sort of like a Steve Cropper thing first.

CORNISH: Yeah, I mean what is not...

AUERBACH: So, you know, music is all a big circle. When we were starting out, we wanted our recordings that we did in the basement to sound like they were produced by Rza from Wu Tang. And we really didn't understand why we love his music so much. And most of the samples were like old Stax records and old Willie Mitchell Hi recordings, you know. And we didn't even get, you know, the whole - it's just one big circle, American music.

CORNISH: On your last album, I mean was huge and you guys had these giant crowds. And I was reading, Patrick, that you at one point felt kind of overwhelmed by this, being in the...

CARNEY: I mean, yeah, it's weird. It was weird for me, 'cause we've been doing this for a decade. And I kind of felt like there was a bit of a sea change, where it wasn't like we were, you know, kind of underdogs anymore. People were kind of coming to the shows and expecting stuff. I got a little bit wigged out. But then I realized that I shouldn't let like, six, you know, kids make me nervous.



CORNISH: Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, they joined us from Nashville.

Thank you both so much for talking with us.

AUERBACH: Yeah, thanks for having us.

CARNEY: Yeah, thank you.

CORNISH: You can hear songs from "El Camino" at


CORNISH: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.