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Keeping it Primitive with The Black Keys

(Soundbite of music)


Here's the music of a man who actually watched someone crush his dream. Pat Carney is the successful drummer of The Black Keys. As a teenager he tried to get noticed by attending the performance of a group called the John Spencer Blues Explosion.

Mr. PAT CARNEY (Drummer, The Black Keys): I brought this tape that I'd recorded in my basement, you know, like drew a cover for the tape and, you know, wrote a note. And I, like, you know, was at the very front of the club the whole night. And at the very end of the encore, I remember I put the tape right near his peddle board, John Spencer's peddle board, and I remember he looked right at me and he just smashed the tape with his foot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: Which, at this point when I think of it, it was really funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: But at that point I stopped listening to that band...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: ...that day.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: The Black Keys got noticed eventually. A song from their latest album "Magic Potion," recently hit number one in a ranking of songs on college radio stations. And this song made the 2003 movie "School of Rock."

(Soundbite of song "Set You Free")

The BLACK KEYS (Rock Band): (Singing) You hold on to love that's gone, run a mile to see a smile...

INSKEEP: If the recording sounds a little muddy, that's not an accident. The Black Keys come from the old industrial city of Akron, Ohio. They still live there and they make a kind of blue-collar artistic statement by doing cheap recordings in a basement.

(Soundbite of song "Set You Free")

The BLACK KEYS: (Singing) I'll set you free.

INSKEEP: We're on our way to see The Black Keys at a rock club here in Washington, D.C. Some music crews are moving equipment in and out of the 9:30 Club where they're scheduled to perform. It's on kind of shabby street of boarded windows and graffiti, the kind of street that if you drove onto this and didn't know what it was, you'd probably keep right on driving.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: The Black Keys agreed to meet us on stage with their instruments.

Unidentified Man: You okay out there, Whitney?


INSKEEP: They're known for a huge sound, even though the group consists of only two people, drummer, Pat Carney and guitarist, Dan Auerbach.

Do you have to make it sound like more than one thing is happening on that guitar at once?

Mr. DAN AUERBACH (Guitarist, Vocalist, The Black Keys): No. Sometimes it sounds bigger when you just leave more spaces. You know what I mean?

INSKEEP: Leave more spaces?

Mr. AUERBACH: Although, I do like to play kind of loud.

INSKEEP: But is it, when you say leave more spaces, can you give me an example of what you mean?

Mr. AUERBACH: I don't know. It's just any kind of, you know, pauses in between the song, in between verses, something like that. Just makes the louder part seem louder. You know what I mean?

(Soundbite of song)

The BLACK KEYS: (Singing) (Unintelligible) gonna get (unintelligible) by my heart, but they don't care at all. They're gonna ease your pain and sorrow, but we had the same before. All my lovin' friends, (unintelligible) nothin' (unintelligible). And I can't be the one to let (unintelligible)...

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Wow, my head's spinning. It seems like every profile of The Black Keys mentions that you guys had a lawn mowing business at some point in Akron, Ohio. How much truth is there to that?

Mr. CARNEY: It's true. I...

Mr. AUERBACH: Hundred percent true.

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah, like in 2002 Dan and I just finished our first record and we were getting ready to go on tour and we both needed money so we both just started mowing the lawns together and we toured in a car that smelled like grass and gas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: We were mowing lawns for this guy that kind of owned, like, crappy apartment buildings.

INSKEEP: He was a slumlord is what you're trying to tell me.

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah, basically. I mean, like most of the lawns were just dirt and rocks and...

Mr. AUERBACH: And beer bottles.

Mr. CARNEY: And beer bottles.

Mr. AUERBACH: Forty-ounce bottles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: No, literally, we would have to move the 40-ounce bottles before you mowed the lawn.

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah, and then that's just what you did.

INSKEEP: Did any of that lawn mowing experience ever make it into a song?

Mr. CARNEY: No, I don't think so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: All of my drum parts are about hamburgers, working at a restaurant.

INSKEEP: Have you done that?

Mr. CARNEY: I spent more hours washing dishes in high school than going to school.

INSKEEP: Play me a few bars of the drum solo that feels like...

Mr. AUERBACH: Play a cheeseburger.

INSKEEP: ...washing dishes and cheeseburgers to you.

Mr. CARNEY: I can play a Hobart drum cycle I think. This is a Hobart dishwasher.

Mr. AUERBACH: That's his preferred machine - dishwashing machine.

(Soundbite of drums)

INSKEEP: Could you build a melody around it, do you think?


Mr. CARNEY: All right, what are we doing here? All right this is the ode to the Hobart.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: The music that got The Black Keys out of the lawn mowing business is deliberately primitive. There's no horn section, no backup vocals, no dancing girls.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: They say their music is sloppy, partly because of their influences. Pat Carney listened to modern garage rock bands while Dan Auerbach listened to old Mississippi blues.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. AUERBACH: It was the same aesthetic and I think that's what Pat and I kind of - we had this understanding. We both liked that kind of spur-of-the-moment improvisation in the recording process, you know. There's just - there's something about that where there's some life there.

INSKEEP: You said you liked sloppy...

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...bands.

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah.


Mr. CARNEY: Because that's the only kind of music I can make, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: It's endearing.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: The latest album from The Black Keys is called "Magic Potion." You can hear more of their music and see some photos at NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.