Since forming in 2001, The Black Keys has continued to grow steadily, going from underground club band to indie sensation to one of the most popular modern rock acts on radio and the touring circuit today. The group's fuzzed out take on blues and garage rock has an undeniably visceral edge that has captured the imagination of indie rockers and mainstream audiences alike, garnering the band mainstream radio airplay, praise from both fans and critics and a following that as gradually taken the band from clubs to theaters and now to arenas.
Less than two years ago, just as the band's album Brothers was catching fire, the group sold out Cain's Ballroom for one of the most anticipated shows of the year. A change of venue was almost certainly in order as the band's latest release, El Camino, has seen even more immediate success, debuting at #2 on the Billboard charts and blowing up at radio with the singles "Lonely Boy" and "Gold on the Ceiling."
The band has blown up on television as well, earning the rare honor of being one of a select few bands to appear twice in the same year (without hosting) on Saturday Night Live last year and continuing on with recent appearances on CBS Sunday Morning this past weekend and a guest spot on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations just last week. Perhaps most surprising to some, however, has been the band's ascension on the touring ladder. After a successful and sold out run of theaters and small venues with the Brothers tour, the band has not only jumped to arenas, but proceeded to sell out the large venues in the process.
When asking guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach about the transition, he said that "Musically, it really hasn't changed. We still set up the same distance from each other that we always have. It's just that everything around us has changed. We bring our own sound and lights with us now, so it's more consistent in that aspect, which has been really great."
In discussing the band's development, I mentioned the Attack and Release album as a turning point in the band's sound as the group worked with Danger Mouse (Brian Joseph Burton) for the first time and took a more experimental approach to its sound.
"That was a first for a lot of things for us," Auerbach shared. "It was our first time in a proper studio, our first time to work with outside musicians and our first time to work with an outside producer."
In comparison, when the band followed up with Brothers, Auerbach said "Brian co-produced 'Tighten Up,' but we produced the rest."
As the band returned to the studio with Danger Mouse at the helm for what would become El Camino, however, Auerbach shared that "It was a totally different way of writing with this record."
As opposed to Brothers or even Attack and Release, El Camino delivers a more direct and focused rock oriented sound. When asked if that was intentional, Auerbach said "We never talked about it. We don't do demos or anything, so we don't know what we've got until we're half way through it."
"At that point, we looked at it and realized 'Wow, everything's really uptempo.' We wonder if we should scale it back a little bit with a couple more mellow tunes, but we decided 'No -- let's go with it.'"
"We try to not sweat that part," Auerbach shared. "We like the idea of making records, but we also want to be played on radio. I'd be lying if I said we didn't. We do like to make cohesive records, though, so I think we did pretty well on both with this album."
When discussing a preference for touring or recording, Auerbach admitted "I like being in the studio, I like being at home. I've got a four-year-old daughter and it's hard to be away from her, but you've got to make a living and the window of opportunity is short, so you've got to take advantage of it when you can."
Even the jump to arenas has come naturally for the group, with The Black Keys selling out New York's prestigious Madison Square Garden in 15 minutes and filling large venues across the US. When asked about the jump to arenas, Auerbach stated simply "That's just where we're at right now. There was no discussing it or anything and we're still selling out shows, so it's just the right place for us right now."
When asked about the band's stage production and if the group has approached it any differently for the arena tour, Auerbach answered "Like I said, we're bringing our own sound, which has been good, and our own stage and lights. We also worked with the guy who did our video for 'Gold on the Ceiling.' He's kind of the guy standing behind the curtain -- he films on super 8 and manipulates it, so he did all the film stuff that goes on behind us, plus we've got a couple of cameras running while we play."
"It's pretty simple," he said. "It's a rock-and-roll show and pretty straight forward. We've never going to be a big pop act with that kind of production."
Instead of sweating the details, Auerbach and partner/drummer Patrick Carney continue doing what comes naturally. The result, an imaginatively simple and layered, yet organic garage rock sound has captured the attention of radio, bringing straight forward rock back to the forefront and garnering a huge following in the process. Even so, Auerbach continues to be grateful for the success, but shrugs it off as just another day on the job.
After all, to Auerbach and Carney it's business as usual. The two continue to do what they've always done, the same way they always have. Although the surroundings may change, they have no misconceptions. Like Auerbach said, the window of opportunity can be short and the band is merely taking advantage of it while it can. Something tells me, however, that The Black Keys aren't going anywhere soon. So long as Auerbach and Carney continue to follow their gut instincts and keep it real, The Black Keys have a long and promising future still ahead of them.
The Black Keys headline BOK Center this Saturday night, April 28, with special guest Arctic Monkeys opening the show. Tickets are still available, ranging from $35 to $49.50. Get yours now to find out why the buzz continues to grow with America's most popular garage rock duo.
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