It was like that when Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney formed the band around the turn of the century, and it has remained that way even as their act morphed into an arena-filling rock behemoth.
Over the years, The Black Keys have pushed their sound in different directions, experimenting with new instruments and production techniques. But their endearing simplicity remains - they still play raw, gritty, soulful rock music. It’s this simple foundation that is key to the band’s remarkable, enduring popularity.
Drummer Patrick Carney sat down with Double J and went through a key track from each of The Black Keys' eight studio albums. Here are his picks.
'The Breaks' from The Big Come Up (2002)
We basically wanted it to feel like a hip hop record so we had all these weird samples throughout the whole album that we ended up taking off – except for in the last track and in the beginning of 'The Breaks'.
When Dan and I started playing in high school, the one thing we really bonded on was we were really into Captain Beefheart, RL Burnside, T Model Ford and we were listening to a lot of rap at that time.
When we started putting music together, drum wise especially, we were constantly referencing Wu-Tang Clan and early RZA production. Our dads were both way into Stax Records and most of the samples that were being pulled for Wu-Tang were Stax drum loops. We wanted to make music that sounded like Captain Beefheart put with breakbeats underneath of it. That was the basic premise of the band when we first started out.
'The Breaks' best exemplifies that initial direction we were going for. We were trying to present it in a way that felt like a hip hop record.
'Thickfreakness' from Thickfreakness (2003)
By the fall of 2002 The Hives, The White Stripes, The Strokes, a lot of bands in the garage scene were starting to get pretty big. Because of that, we started getting attention that we normally wouldn't have had. We were just these two dipshits who'd made a record and all of a sudden we're getting calls from legendary A&R guys who wanted to come and meet with us.
[We] recorded on my eight track reel-to-reel machine in one day and I mixed it the next day and FedEx'd it out to Fat Possum.Patrick Carney, The Black Keys
We were also getting approached by Fat Possum, which was a label we had both bonded heavily over. We ended up realising we didn't have a strong enough position to be going to a major label at that point, we felt most comfortable going and singing with the indie label we had grown up being obsessed with.
So we signed with Fat Possum and we wanted the album to come out in April. The day we signed the contract owner of the label said, “Well, if you want the record to come out in April, you need to send us the record, like, tomorrow”. We hadn't made it. We had done two songs on a four track, which made it onto the record, the other nine we recorded on my eight track reel-to-reel machine in one day and I mixed it the next day and FedEx'd it out to Fat Possum[CL1] .
It's a strange record, it's the last time we made a record that was basically just drums and guitar with a few bass overdubs and a couple of solos. It was totally written to be played on just drums and guitar. 'Thickfreakness' is the song [that exemplifies] the zone we were in the summer and the fall of 2002.
'When the Lights Go Out' from Rubber Factory (2004)
We made Rubber Factory in an old rubber factory in Akron. It's where they used to make tyres. We had this little corner studio space and across the hall was this giant banquet hall that was totally empty – it was like being in the industrial version of The Shining. We had access to all of this room, rooms that were like 10,000 square feet with nothing in them.
On 'When the Lights Go Out', you can hear all of the reverbs. We would take amps, put them in a hallway and run a cable like 250 feet and feed it as the reverb send. You can hear it all over the record, but that first song – all the reverb is just this giant corporate office that had been completely abandoned. We were trying to make things have a lot more room than the previous records, but we also wanted the drums to sound completely fucked.
The other thing about that song is we had this shitty fiddle that Dan had brought to the studio. We were trying to do like a Velvet Underground, weird violin thing. But we could only get one string to stay in tune and Dan didn't really know how to play it, so there's like a one note violin solo on that song, which is think is pretty retarded.
'Strange Desire' from Magic Potion (2006)
I haven't heard the song in a couple of years, but I have a strong memory of being in my basement [where the album was recorded], just being cold as hell. Dan and I were listening to a lot of stoner rock at the time. He had just gone through a break up. It was kind of a dark time, although I guess any time it's winter time in Akron is kind of a dark period.
'Strange Desire' sounds like it's done in a basement, ‘cos it is. You can kind of hear my washing machine, which was right next to the drum set, rumbling throughout most of the album.
'Psychotic Girl' from Attack & Release (2008)
That song features a banjo pretty prominently. We were really getting into putting the emphasis on bass and stylising things a little more, using more keyboards and fleshing things out for the first time. It was something that Dan had wanted to do for the previous few years and we asked Danger Mouse to help us. We still have a really strong friendship with him and we have done a lot of work with him since.
'Howlin' For You' from Brothers (2010)
We rented a car and drove to Muscle Shoals Sound in Alabama and recorded about 15 songs in ten days. 'Howlin For You' is just this thing, we were just goofing around, we wrote it and recorded it in about three or four hours. The whole making of the record was a whole lot of fun, but I don't have real distinct memories of anything because we were smoking this dank, brown marijuana that just made you wanna hear bass louder and louder. We wanted to hear the bass loud during that song and we wanted everything to be extremely distorted.
It ended up being a single, which we didn't even consider the possibility of that working out – because up until that we didn't really have a song on the radio in the US.
'Lonely Boy' from El Camino (2011)
Brothers had been much more successful than we had imagined. We ended up cancelling a tour to Australia because we'd been touring non-stop through 2010 and we were starting to get completely burned out. But we wanted to make music so we called up Danger Mouse and asked him if he would come to Nashville. So instead of being in Australia on tour, we were in Nashville with Danger Mouse recording El Camino, which I think was a really smart decision on our part. We were still in the zone of touring and feeling really creative.
We decided we should make a record that was a lot faster than what we'd made, tempo wise. I think the second song we recorded was Lonely Boy' and the initial, basic influence for that song is the Johnny Burnett Trio version of 'Train Kept A Rollin''. There's no similar licks or anything in the song, it's just that kind of energy.
We weren't even sure if people were even gonna like it because it was a lot different to our previous songs that we'd released. It ended up being our biggest hit.
The video was an accident. Dan and I, growing up three doors away from each other was fate. Most things that have happened in our career have been dumb luck – and that video is a good example of it.
'Weight Of Love' from Turn Blue (2014)
At this point we had toured a lot, Dan was getting divorced and it was a pretty heavy time. The idea and the word 'single' never came up in the session. The third or fourth song we recorded was ‘Weight Of Love'. That song set the tone of the general kind of energy behind the album. It's the longest song we've ever released.
Turn Blue I think is like a super West-Coast-sounding song. We were listening to extremely minimal funk and all the movement on that song is just a couple of guitar chords moving around while the bass and the drums were extremely repetitive.
I think that actually best summarises the type of music Dan and I have always wanted to make, which is extremely repetitive but interesting. I think there's a hip hop influence on there for sure, so it's touching back on the first song we talked about, 'The Breaks'. It is something that comes and goes throughout our music but is always in the background. A real simple, groovy beat.