On “The Go Getter,” a cut from the Black Keys‘ “Brothers” album released last May, frontman Dan Auerbach sings, “I’ll be the go getter/That’s my plan/That’s who I am.” They may not have been explicitly autobiographical at first, but Auberbach’s words foreshadowed the winning streak that he and his sole bandmate, Patrick Carney, have since come to enjoy.
In 2010, the Black Keys were among the leading alt-rockers (including Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend and the National) garnering mainstream winks and recognition from the Recording Academy for their most recent work. The Akron, Ohio duo’s throwback brand of blues-rock earned four 2011 Grammy nominations, including best alternative music album for “Brothers” and best rock song for its lead single, “Tighten Up,” while Carney’s brother Michael — who has created the band’s visuals since the beginning of its career — picked up a nod for best art direction on “Brothers.”
“My brother’s nomination is probably the one that means the most to me,” Carney tells Billboard.com, which isn’t to say that he and Auerbach aren’t particularly proud of the other ones — they just have to wrap their heads around them first.
Video: The Black Keys Perform ‘Tighten Up’ on ‘SNL’
“Dan and I weren’t expecting this at all, but it feels good,” Carney says. “We’ve been doing this for almost ten years, and there have been some dark moments in the past two years. I think we both had this feeling, like maybe [our career] was all just going to dissipate. It’s cool to see that we can make a record that we’re proud of, and people can respond to it still.”
“Brothers” is the Keys’ best-selling album to date, with an impressive 481,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. “I was kind of thinking our record would do what the National‘s album did a week earlier,” says Carney, “then it sold 25,000 more in the first week than even the label was expecting.” (Both “High Violet” and “Brothers” debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, but the National sold 51,000 in its first week, while the Black Keys’ sold 73,000. “High Violet” has sold 208,000 copies to date.)
Video: The Black Keys Perform ‘Howlin’ for You’ on ‘SNL’
David Bither — senior vice president of Nonesuch, the band’s label since 2006’s “Magic Potion” — says he thinks Carney and Auerbach “have always thought of themselves as underdogs until very recently. They’ve come up through independent labels, and I think they see themselves, in a way, as outside the system.”
Meanwhile, “Tighten Up” — the lead single for “Brothers” and the band’s first big appeal to radio — hit No. 1 on Alternative Rock Songs in October and reigned for nine weeks on the chart. “That was the last song that we did — and the only one with [producer] Danger Mouse — and the whole idea was to try to make something that could get played on the radio,” Carney says of the track. “We realized we could get all the press in the world and do everything we’d done in the past, but the only thing that would be an obvious leg-up was radio airplay. Our record has been out for three months longer than Arcade Fire’s [“The Suburbs”], and we’re outselling them 2:1 right now because of the radio.”
Video: The Black Keys, “Everlasting Light”
Despite his appreciation for radio’s importance, though, Carney says with a sigh, “When the best-selling alternative record isn’t even going gold, it’s a little disheartening. I’m worried about the future of music.”
It’s not a cross he bears alone — his alt-rock brethren seem to echo the sentiment. But the indie community keeps gaining a foothold, with 2010 highlights including No. 1-debuting albums from Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend. As the Black Keys approach half a million sales for “Brothers,” mark their debut performance on “Saturday Night Live” this past weekend and plan to start recording their next album after the Grammys, the boys from Ohio are doing their part.