2019 American Music Awards

The Black Keys Explain Five-Year Break Between Records

Alysse Gafkjen
The Black Keys

Arriving five years after Turn Blue, this summer's "Let's Rock" ended the longest wait between Black Keys albums to date. Audiences were ready: The duo sold out their first show in five years (Sept. 19 at The Wiltern in L.A.) in just a matter of hours.

Naturally, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are gifted musicians on their own, but when they fuse their talents, they cast a galvanizing spell. Billboard caught up with Auerbach and Carney to figure out exactly how -- after almost twenty years filled with gaps between albums, solo careers, national disasters and even a deal with the devil -- the pair have managed to stay together.

For your earlier albums, like Brothers and El Camino, you had very little of a break at all between the releases and touring. What was the main reason behind this being your longest break?

Carney: The break we just got off of was the result of all of these opportunities [that] presented themselves to us for the first time that we never thought were possible. Brothers was our first record that was a hit, and it's our sixth album. It took us eight and a half years of pretty much constant work until that happened, and so when it did happen -- we'd been a band for almost a decade. We just said yes to everything.

Auerbach: We were just burned out. Been on the road a little too long, hit it a little too hard. Never said no. 

Carney: When we came back to make our record, I think the only thing that was preventing [recording] from happening sooner was that we had to figure out how we could go make a record that wouldn't result in us having to go on tour for the entire year. That's not something we ever want to do again.

After the "Let's Rock" tour, do you plan on taking another four-year hiatus? 

Auerbach: [Laughs] No -- I think that what we're gonna try to do is pace ourselves. Try and do it in a normal way, instead of like a couple of maniacs just tearing around the globe. We need to slow it down a bit.

How would you rank "Let's Rock" in terms of your favorite albums you've made as The Black Keys?

Auerbach: I don't know. All of them have so much meaning for me, I could never say I like one better, or something like that. [This record] is about reuniting, after having burned out on the road, and realizing that we still genuinely love to play music together. We were given this gift, the two of us. As soon as we got together after having been apart, as soon as we sat down -- the very first idea that we had, ended up mutating into a song that made the record: a song called "Breaking Down." Even after all that time, it's still just there. 

You two have known each other since you were children. Have there been any moments where you thought your relationship as musicians, or even as friends, was done for?

Carney: No. We've definitely been pissed off at each other before, but it's usually just because of bad communication -- which is typical in a band. It's just what happens. I think it's important for Dan and I to stay on the same page and to communicate. Any time you have two middle-aged men who are forced to be in a position to communicate, sometimes it can be hard. But we've been good at it. We haven't had to talk to a therapist yet [laughs]. We are very tight in a brotherly way, and we talk every day.

Both of you tend to say that what the two of you have and the music that you make is something that you do not have to think about. It's instinctual. How do those instincts translate into the flow of your live shows?

Auerbach: We do a lot of playing off of each other. I mean, even though we play arenas now, we have never changed the distance apart from each other that we set up when we started playing smaller theaters. We always have that connection on stage. I always have to have [Pat] in my sideline, so I can play to his movements. He's not the kind of drummer that just follows along -- Pat's the kind of drummer that just plows ahead. Sometimes I feel like one of those bicycle riders when they can get behind a semi-truck and just draft. Sometimes that's what Pat is for me, he's a semi -- and I just get to draft behind him [laughs].

As a band, you are very good at staying true to your roots musically, as well as artistically. Pat's brother Michael has done the record artwork for all of The Black Keys records thus far. How important is a record cover with regards to representing one of your records?

Carney: Mike has really good taste in aesthetics and in music, and we've always worked pretty well together. We're lucky to have Mike. The idea of a record cover in general is an interesting kind of concept. I think sometimes a record cover really, truly does the job, and sometimes it really, truly doesn't. But it creates a mystique around an album. When it comes to The Black Keys' record cover aesthetic: tongue-in-cheek usually comes into play; referencing older records that we like comes into play; and I think humor is an important thing for us. This record cover... [laughs] there's something about it. There are many ways that you could interpret it, but I think the real genius level to it is that it's maybe a response to the 'Rock and Roll is dead' conversation. No one's really kind of picked up on it, but that's really what is being presented to you. 

What was the moment that you realized The Black Keys had something special?

Carney: I knew it from the day Dan and I first ever jammed. But when we made our [first] real demo -- it was actually kind of an accident. It was this time of year, right before September 11th, 2001. I was supposed to record Dan's band -- he had a bar band that did covers. They wanted a new demo, and I set up a time, and the [other] guys never showed up. Dan asked me to play and we did this little recording. And then 9/11 happened, and I ended up having a couple of days off of school -- and as I'm mixing the [demo], it seems like the world's falling apart. But I'm also like 'This music is actually really good,' and my life just changed right then. I gave Dan a copy of what we made, and he's like 'We should start a band' and I'm like 'We should call it The Black Keys,' and I called my brother [Mike], and he made us a [record] cover -- and by mid-October we had a record deal.

What are you most excited for people to experience when they see you on stage this fall?

Auerbach: Hey, I have no idea. I am just looking to have a good time myself playing music. It's a new experience for me, honestly. It's the most 'Black Keys' we have ever toured. We usually bring out a bass player and a keyboard player to fill in some of the parts from the other records. This time, we're bringing out two other guitar players and a bass [player]. It's going to be three electric guitars, bass, and drums. No keyboards. There's something about it. It's got a lot of power, you know? Hearing those old Black Keys songs, where [on] the record I would always double and triple my guitars up -- for the very first time I'm [now] hearing it like that on stage. It almost feels like some of [the] old songs sound more like The Black Keys, in a new way. It's kinda crazy.

Carney: Hopefully a lot of people come out who haven't seen us. Sadly, in 2019, it's a rare thing for a rock band to play without a click track. It will be a good experience of watching some raw rock and roll. It's gonna be a great show.

Many bands receive commercial success for a few years, then become obsolete. Such is not the case for you two, as you approach almost twenty years as The Black Keys. Be honest. Did you two make a deal with the devil to maintain the status and influence that you have? What's your secret?

Carney: We have made a deal with Satan, Beelzebub [laughs]. You know, I think that we wouldn't be having this conversation if Dan and I had not taken the break. The true trick to our success is a few things: one of them is that we felt successful years and years ago. We also push each other, and we're able to have these difficult conversations about what we should or shouldn't do, and we ultimately end up on the same page most of the time. It's important to [me] and to Dan that we both make music with other people and work on other stuff, but it's equally as important that we take care of the band. If Dan doesn't want to make a record for another five years, then I won't bug him about it. That's probably the secret. But I also think that we truly enjoy playing music with each other, on a different level.

Auerbach: I mean, I wouldn't be opposed to making a deal with the devil [laughs]. Maybe we did, and I don't remember it. But, either way -- I don't know. I just feel like Pat and I have never made any music that we didn't want to make. We made records in our basement, you know? We made five albums in our basement. It's almost like doing everything you can to not be successful [laughs]. Pat was the first person to ever introduce me to a four-track recorder. He and I probably produced twenty albums… I mean we haven't toured in four years, but we've made thirty records. I guess maybe that would be the most important thing: you don't stop. You always gotta keep creating.

Carney: But, I am shocked. I mean, I turn forty in a few months and we're getting ready to go on an arena tour. It's kind of mind blowing -- I can't really process it most of the time. 

You both deserve it, with all the hard work over the years.

Carney: Well, we have worked hard, but still I know a lot of people who have [too] and experienced a lot less success. Dan and I do not take this for granted. It's a surreal position to be in. I think that the minute it stops being surreal, maybe a band should break up -- because then it stops being special.


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