‘Technically, everything’s wrong with it’: An oral history of The Black Keys’ debut album at 20

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DIY duo: The Black Keys in 2003, a year after their debut was released  (Getty)
DIY duo: The Black Keys in 2003, a year after their debut was released (Getty)

While The Strokes and The Hives spent the early 2000s giving guitar music an expensive leather jacket and sharp-suited makeover, it would take two childhood friends from the industrial city of Akron, Ohio, to strip down rock’n’roll to its raw and ragged roots.

Taking inspiration from hill country blues – while throwing in some Wu Tang Clan-worthy sampling – early twentysomethings Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney would start 2002 by hunkering down in Carney’s dilapidated basement to record an album that would change the course of their lives.

Working it all out as they went along, the deeply DIY duo produced everything on The Big Come Up themselves. Getting things wrong almost as often as they got things right, they developed their own distinctive sound in the process: a dirty Delta blues crunch that married their love of hip-hop with riffs worthy of juke joint king RL Burnside and British invasion artists of the 1960s like the Keef Hartley Band.

A full five months after it was released on small independent label Alive, The Big Come Up received a glowing four-star review in Rolling Stone, forging their status as a cult concern. By 2011, their breakthrough album, Brothers, would win the duo three Grammy Awards and make The Black Keys one of the biggest bands in the world.

Twenty years after The Big Come Up and in the month their 11th album, Dropout Boogie, is released, I visited the duo at their own Easy Eye Sound studio – a significantly swankier spot than that Akron basement – in their adopted home of Nashville to hear just exactly how it was done.

‘What are these crazy ass white kids up to?’

Before The Black Keys got together, the 21-year-old Carney was having a tough time – he’d taken on a soul-destroying job in telemarketing but had quit after two weeks. He decided to cheer himself up by buying a digital 12-track recorder with the idea of working with local artists.

Patrick: Me and Dan had jammed in high school, but it was infrequent. We ran into each other in a record store and hadn’t jammed in a year or so. Dan had a band called The Barn Burners and he would do three or four gigs a week at college bars. I told him that I had this new recorder. Dan said, “You should record my band.”

Dan: I needed demos to try and get more gigs.

Patrick: I wanted to record bands, so I said, “Come on over to my house, we’ll do it this afternoon”. I basically lived in a crack house. Well, it wasn’t a crack house, but all the houses next door were. It was ’hood.

Dan: That house was crazy – we would hang out on the front porch and listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bayou Country over and over.

Patrick: It was a really dangerous neighbourhood, but nobody ever f***ed with us because they were like, “What are these crazy ass white kids up to?” Anyway, his band never showed up, so Dan said, “You should just play drums.” I hadn’t been playing drums at all, but he showed me the songs. We did that recording right before 9/11. I mixed it for a couple of days and put samples on it. I gave it to Dan and he said we should start a band.

‘If you don’t bring me some Diet Coke you’re a black key!’

The demo, which featured artwork made by Patrick’s brother, saw three record labels get in touch. They decided to go with the LA-based Alive and – suddenly – they were a band.

Patrick: [The head of Alive] said if you give me 11 songs I’ll put it out – I’ll give you 50 copies on vinyl and 200 CDs. We named the band in a second; Dan’s dad was into outsider art and he had discovered this guy in Akron called Alfred McMoore who was schizophrenic and super eccentric. Dan’s father would take him crayons and paper and he introduced Alfred to my dad, who wrote a story about him and started taking him pipe tobacco. So for our whole childhood on the answering machine there would be 30, 40 messages from Alfred, saying things like “I need some pipe tobacco! If you don’t bring me some Diet Coke you’re a black key!” He thought the black keys on the piano sounded dissonant.

Dan: It was definitely a negative thing!

‘We would put microphones in the washing machine just to see what it sounded like’

With the band now christened, the pair started recording their very first album in February 2002. Dan and Pat would have to pay for it themselves, but they both saw it as a possible escape route out of Akron. As a result, they put everything they had into the sessions, which were powered by Folgers coffee and wonton soup that Dan would pick up from the Chinese restaurant between their houses.

Patrick: My dad was so stressed out that I’d gone into $1,000 of debt, but we just worked every day. Dan would come over to the house at 10.30am and start yelling outside or honk his horn to wake me up because we didn’t have cell phones.

Dan: Then I’d get the coffee going.

Patrick: We’d work until 4pm, when I went to work cooking at this little deli called Gasoline Alley, or Dan went to play a gig. We’d do that Monday to Friday and after about four weeks, we had recorded 14 songs. I didn’t know how to play the drums, I truly didn’t. I had bought a drumset when I was 15, but it was for other people to come to my house to play.

Dan: We were all business when we were recording. It’s always been like that. It was cool, because we had different friends and ran in different circles so when we got together it was like our own little world. We were totally focused.

Patrick: We were figuring out how to put s*** together.

Dan: You can just see how we grow [by] listening to our records. When we started we really had no idea about anything; about recording or the music business.

Patrick: I mean, we didn’t even know how to properly mic a guitar amp.

Dan: We would put microphones in the washing machine just to see what it sounded like – we’d leave it in there and then record.

Patrick: This is basically what we were doing for the first four records.

Dan: We would take microphones and we would swing them around. Experimenting in the studio is a huge part of who we are.

Patrick: We were listening to so much hip-hop that at one point we had a version of the record where there were samples and interludes everywhere.

Dan: That’s the only thing that the guy from the label objected to. He definitely did not listen to hip-hop – Stooges only.

Two-piece suite: The Black Keys in 2003 (Getty)
Two-piece suite: The Black Keys in 2003 (Getty)

‘There’s no two people who would have taken it as seriously as Dan and me’

Being a duo might be core to the Black Keys’ identity, but it didn’t start out that way. In fact, they were keen to be a trio.

Patrick: There was a third guy for a bit. Gabe [Fulvimar] was a good friend of ours.

Dan: He lived in the same half a block radius. We wanted to have another person in the band – we wanted a bass player or someone to do that kind of thing.

Patrick: One of my favourite sounds is the grinding, thick Moog bass. It has been since I first heard it – through Devo or whatever. Gabe was a neighbourhood kid that I was really close with. He was hilarious – but he’s also a complete handful. When Dan wanted me to record his band, I asked Gabe to come over to help. So Gabe was there for the demo. He basically held a D minor chord on a Casiotone keyboard.

Dan: But he was never really into it.

Patrick: It became very clear after two weeks of us trying to make The Big Come Up... he didn’t have a car, he didn’t have a job and he blew two days of recording. I called him and I was like, “Dude, what’s up?” I told him, “I think you’re making a huge f***ing mistake”. We had a couple of guys come after. We had this one dude come, but when he tried to sing I was like, “Get the f*** out of here!” He asked for a microphone and I was looking at Dan thinking, “This is not going to work”. That’s when we became a two-piece – it was February 2002 and we realised we were not going to find somebody else. It was the absolute best decision that we ever made, because there’s no two people who would have taken it as seriously as Dan and me. When we went on the road those first couple of years it was like torture; eight-hour drives, no money, sleeping in the same bed, fighting with our girlfriends. It was f***ing brutal.

‘We didn’t know until after we’d finished that you’re not really supposed to cover The Beatles’

When it came to the songs themselves, Dan brought over rough plans and the two also worked out some cover versions, including The Beatles “She Said She Said”.

Patrick: We were listening to records in my room and “She Said She Said” was a song we both really liked. I thought that was the coolest Beatles song, but we didn’t know until after we’d finished it that you’re not really supposed to cover The Beatles. Look at when all those celebrities were covering “Imagine” and how stupid that is – you have to be really careful!

Dan: We were just remembering songs and taking riffs and improvising and yelling into microphones.

Patrick: Dan’s uncle gave us a CDR of the Keef Hartley version of “Leavin’ Trunk”. We were going deep, we were getting schooled on music. The riff on that was so f***ing good that we attempted to play it. Of all the songs on the album, that’s me really not understanding how drums work! It’s a real outsider approach!

Blues brothers: The Black Keys with their Grammys, 2011 (AFP via Getty)
Blues brothers: The Black Keys with their Grammys, 2011 (AFP via Getty)

‘I had to go make some money!’

When the day of release finally came around, Dan was busy with his other band…

Patrick: It was Dan’s birthday and I think he actually had a gig – but not a Black Keys gig!

Dan: I had to go make some money!

Patrick: That night we got an email to our band account from an A&R guy at Atlantic Records. I remember showing up to Dan’s gig with it printed out. This is big news; someone from the home of Led Zeppelin is reaching out? But we were like, “We should tell him to go buy it if he wants to hear it.” So we wrote back and said it’s available at Other Music or something. And, of course, we never heard back.

Dan: F***ing idiots!

‘My grandfather thought it was as good as a million-dollar cheque’

A few months later, people started to catch on. Four months after it was released, in October 2002, the album received a glowing review in ‘Rolling Stone’, which called it “a righteous choice for rock debut of the year”.

Patrick: The first piece of press we ever got was from the Cleveland Free Times, one of two weekly free magazines, by a guy called Peter Relic. Getting that was a huge look. He was so cool and so supportive and we became friends. He secretly pitched it to Rolling Stone. I found out when my roommate was like, “Hey bro, you’re on Rolling Stone’s website.” It was four stars, which is still our best Rolling Stone review! I printed it off and went straight to my grandfather’s house. I think he thought it was as good as a million-dollar cheque.

‘We set the bar low, sonically’

Twenty years down the line, the band wouldn’t change anything about the album even if they could.

Patrick: I can’t listen to it critically – because technically, everything’s wrong, but that’s what makes it. I think about it in terms of when I discovered music at 13, 14; if a 14-year-old kid is given that record I think it’s an inspirational thing. “If these two dumbasses could do it themselves…” But nowadays, you can make anything sound better than that with Pro Tools. We set the bar low, sonically.

‘Dropout Boogie’ is out now

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