The Black Keys pride selves as `unperfectionists'

By Jake Coyle
AP Entertainment Writer / June 22, 2010

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MANCHESTER, Tenn.—The Black Keys should take their show on the road.

Yes, the Akron, Ohio, blues-rock duo of singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney already tour almost constantly. But the two -- Carney, lanky and bespectacled, and Auerbach, bearded and rocker-looking -- have something of a comic duo about them.

They have a natural patter -- crude and hysterical -- that's been honed by spending nearly half their lives playing music together. At a recent interview, the conversation turned to why the Keys, nearly 10 years on, have for the first time begun playing shows with a bassist (Nick Movshon) and a keyboardist (Leon Michels).

Auerbach: "It's great because they're like-minded."

Carney: "They've very tasteful musicians."

Auerbach (sarcastically): "'Cause we're super tasteful."

Carney: "It's like emerald essence."

Auerbach: "It's like four ... diamonds with lightning bolts coming out of them."

Carney (after a beat): "It's almost tasteless."

Curiously, on stage, Auerbach and Carney are all business. Instead of bantering, their shows are an onslaught of sweaty Delta blues riffs, heavy pounding and textured grooves.

They've built a faithful following and are still earning new fans: Their sixth album, "Brothers," debuted no. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 chart with more than 73,000 copies sold in the first week.

It's a remarkable degree of success for a duo that began nearly a decade ago playing in Carney's basement, and which still prides itself on keeping things rough -- leaving an imprecise drum beat or a wrong note in a guitar solo in a recording.

"We're unperfectionists," says Carney. "We're basically irregular bananas."

Carney, 30, and Auerbach, 31, grew up near each other in Akron. Like the city's most famous export, LeBron James, they're contemplating an exit from Ohio. Auerbach, who's married and has a daughter, is thinking about moving to Nashville, and Carney, though he still owns a house in Akron, has moved to New York.

Their 2002 debut, "The Big Come Up," recorded on an 8-track in Carney's basement, sounded little like two scrawny white kids from Ohio. Auerbach's fuzzy riffs on songs like "Breaks" were straight out of Mississippi.

"They were the only ones that could do a Junior Kimbrough cover that wasn't a train wreck," says Matthew Johnson, the president of Fat Possum Records, the originally blues-focused label that brought Delta blues players like Kimbrough to national audiences. "Dan got the sound."

Johnson signed the Keys to Fat Possum for their second disc, "Thickfreakness," also full of raw riffing. But by their third album, "Rubber Factory," the band was starting to explore other sounds, most notably on the slower-paced "The Lengths" and the Kinks cover "Act Nice and Gentle."

"Everybody talks about us being a two-piece, but we don't think about ourselves being a two-piece," says Auerbach. "We're a band, and we're trying to make the best songs we possible can. It's not a novelty. We didn't start because we thought it'd be cool to be a two-piece -- we thought it'd be cool to make records."

After 2006's "Magic Potion," the Keys turned to producer Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells) for 2008's "Attack & Release," their then-most sonically diverse record. Auerbach says Danger Mouse was a "filter" and that the band was ready to expand, regardless.

"Working with Danger Mouse was us wanting to make a record with all kinds of instruments on it," says Carney. "I think we knew what we wanted to do, we just maybe didn't have the confidence."

Side projects followed. Auerbach released an acclaimed solo album ("Keep It Hid"), and Carney formed the percussive group Drummer. They also both joined Blakroc, a collaboration between the Keys and rappers Mos Def, Q-Tip, RZA and Raekwon.

In the interim, Carney went through a difficult divorce. Rolling Stone called "Brothers" "a break up album by proxy." On it, Auerbach (who does the songwriting), sings of moving on in "Next Girl" and splitting up on "I'm Not the One."

But the album can be taken as an ode to their long-running friendship. On their current tour, which plays through Europe and North America for most of the rest of the year, a giant banner of two hands clasped in solidarity hangs on the stage.

On "Brothers," which was recorded at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the Keys continued to add other instruments, with Carney and Auerbach typically playing them. In concert, their set has been stretched to about 90 minutes, with Movshon and Michels joining for songs off "Brothers."

"It's still Patrick and Dan carrying it," says Johnson, cautioning overreaction. "It's not like Polymorphic Spree."

Though the Black Keys often traffic in an indie rock world populated by self-conscious, conceptual musicians, they stand apart as jokesters and working musicians who don't take themselves very seriously.

"We never really try to do anything, we just do it," says Auerbach. "We make these records so fast, we don't even think about them. We don't talk about them beforehand, we just do them. We start in the morning, and by the end of the day we have one or two songs finished. That's really all there is to it."