Monday 25 September 2017

The Black Keys: A licence to shill

As El Camino is released,The Black Keys tell Ed Power why it's sometimes good for rock'n'roll stars to sell out, the painful truth behind their new single -- and why they'll always be just regular guys

Ed Power

Ed Power

Dan Auerbach's blood pressure soars whenever he hears a self-righteous musician holding forth on the evils of selling out. Sometimes, The Black Keys singer says, selling out is good.

"That whole fucking thing is such bullshit," he says, calmly but firmly. "'If you let your music be used in commercials, you're selling out' -- that's so dumb. I heard Adele say that. Adele has cancelled how many US tours because her throat hurt? We've done six million more shows than Adele. And she's like 'ooooh, I'll never sell out'. She's a millionaire after her first record."

Raw and gloriously rough-shod, The Black Keys might be the best old-school rock'n'roll band on the planet right now. From the rust-belt urban blackspot of Akron Ohio, Auerbach (guitars, vocals) and Patrick Carney (drums, production) filter Mississippi blues through a raucous garage pop sensibility. A glib way of describing their sound might be Led Zeppelin carpooling with The White Stripes (though they strenuously claim to be influenced by neither). What they do is frazzled, earthy and deeply thrilling.

Selling out is a sensitive subject for the duo, friends since high school. A few years ago, when they were literally starving artists crisscrossing America in a barely roadworthy tour van, they turned down a £100,000 endorsement from the UK. Why? Because, independent rock's anti-corporate orthodoxy forbade it. They worried what their peers would think if they shilled for the man.

"A couple of months later, we were still driving in the same shitty minivan, not making any money and we realised what we had done," says Auerbach. "We were such suckers to have passed up more money than either of our parents would make in a year, combined."

"It was so stupid," adds Carney. "We were okay with letting them use our song. And we could have done with the money. We said no because we thought other people would not be okay with it. When is that a good reason to do anything?"

They resolved never to repeat the mistake. When their 2010 album Brothers was a hit and advertisers started queuing up to use their music, Auerbach and Carney said yes practically every time. The result is that Brothers was the most licensed album since Moby's Play.

"That whole Fugazi anti-corporate thing -- 'we'll never charge more than $10 a ticket' ... I was never part of that," says Auerbach. "I grew up listening to hip-hop. The hip-hop guys -- they've always been, 'just give me the fucking money'. Nobody ever calls them sell-outs. It's so weird that it only happens in rock'n'roll. Look at any famous actor -- they've got their watch ads, their perfume endorsements. And not just in Japan. They're all over Vanity Fair. What happened that rock music is treated differently?"

Auerbach and Carney are installed in a London hotel for a day of press to promote their seventh long player El Camino. Coming to the end of a busy 12 hours -- there have been webcasts, radio interviews and a chat with a lad-mag journalist whose blinding pink T-shirt can probably be seen from Wales -- they are about to pack up for a dash to Heathrow. From there awaits onward junkets in Milan, Paris and Berlin. They're at the eye of the storm and, as carry-on luggage is hurriedly gathered and their tour manage taps his watch, things don't feel particularly calm.

Recorded in Nashville with new U2 producer Danger Mouse, El Camino is the Black Key's first album since their dramatic breakthrough as an arena band. After a decade as underdogs, in 2010 they had a surprise radio hit with Tighten Up. Auerbach and Carney duly won a Grammy, found themselves performing to very large audiences and were one of the big hits at that summer's Oxegen (not that the date really stands out, they routinely play 200 gigs annually).

Consequently, they are in the novel position of having to follow up a hit LP with another blockbuster. Out of earshot, people are mentioning the P word: pressure.

"We never talked about it. But I sure thought about it," says Carney, the more loquacious of the two. "It's weird when you've been doing something for 10 years. You start at the bottom and very slowly ascend. For us, it was a slow progression from playing to no one and then, towards the end of last year, things basically went nuts. We sold tonnes of records, won a Grammy. Got way bigger than we'd ever expected."

For Carney, success was bittersweet. Brothers was released as he was coming out of an incredibly painful divorce, a break-up rendered all the more bruising by his wife Denise Grollums' decision to write about the split in online magazine Salon.com. In the article, she calmly explained that she had been unfaithful to Carney while he was touring, which he seemed to be doing all of the time (in her defence, she suspected he'd been straying on the road).

They tried to patch things up, but the breach of trust had poisoned the relationship. The Black Keys sing about Carney's heartache on the single Next Girl. The chorus goes: "Oh my next girl, is gonna be much better than my ex girl." It's difficult to listen to once you know the circumstances in which it was written. "Pat was going through a divorce and that was rough as hell for him," says Auerbach. "The press made a lot out of the personal issues. I never felt they really got in the way."

"With this job, it's hard for people to be around you," says Carney, a lump in his throat. "It's all encompassing. You can't go home and forget about it, simply turn off. Wherever you go there are constant reminders of your work. You're always touring. If you go out for something to eat, someone might come up and want to talk about the band. Throw personal relationships into that and it gets difficult sometimes."

Rather than washing the hurt away, if anything success made things even more painful for Carney. He found the immense pressure of life in a stadium rock band difficult. The drummer would suddenly zone out at concerts and started suffering palpitations. For a while he feared he might go crazy.

"I was exhausted because our record was taking off," he says. "I felt all this external pressure. One day we were performing at a festival in front of the biggest crowd we'd ever played to and I had a panic attack. I played fine. Afterwards, at various points, I would feel that surge panic, that rush of anxiety. When you have a panic attack, your body releases a chemical that tells you to remember this moment -- 'don't ever fucking put yourself in this situation again'. Whenever I was on stage, it would happen. I had to go find a hypnotist, someone who would reset my clock."

Gazing stoically out the window at Hyde Park, Auerbach radiates zen detachment. Throughout the conversation he sits uncannily still, like a lizard dozing on a rock. That isn't to say he doesn't engage or is without charisma. It's just that he's a Midwesterner and Midwesterners aren't really like other Americans.

At the risk of generalising, they lack the usual perky brashness and impregnable self belief . Instead, there's a tendency towards dry stoicism (and a gratuitous use of f-bombs). These aren't the sort of people to let success soar to their heads and despite everything they have achieved, the Black Keys are determined to act like regular people. That's standard rock-star spiel. For once, however, it has a chime of truth.

"Me and Dan were in a bar last night and got talking to this guy," says Carney. "We told him we were musicians and he said, 'oh yeah I'm in a band too. We're a rock outfit. I would say we were heavily influenced by The Black Keys.' Then he stopped and looked at us and said 'so guys -- what's the name of your band?' He had no idea. We like it that way. Our fans know we are regular people and this is something that's never going to change."

El Camino is in shops and available to download now

Day & Night

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment