Interview

The Black Keys: ‘Our relationship is better now than it has been in years’

The Nashville-based duo have had their ups and downs but their new album of blues covers has brought them closer together than ever. They talk to Laura Barton about brotherly love, bailing blues legends out of prison, and why they’re over accusations of cultural appropriation

Thursday 13 May 2021 12:55
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<p>Patrick Carney (right) – ‘There’s days when Dan is checked out and I’ll step up, and the opposite'</p>

Patrick Carney (right) – ‘There’s days when Dan is checked out and I’ll step up, and the opposite'

Recently, Patrick Carney, best known as the drummer for The Black Keys, found himself looking at YouTube comments posted beneath the videos for the band’s latest releases – tracks from Delta Kream, their new album of hill country blues covers. They are about as fine a tribute to the genre as one could imagine: visceral, dog-on-heat interpretations of songs by RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and John Lee Hooker.

Still, online the comments sat somewhere between entertaining and infuriating. They ranged from criticism of his bandmate Dan Auerbach’s falsetto to the recommendation that he “should have used a baritone [guitar] tuned down to the D”. One commenter even claimed his own version of RL Burnside’s “Going Down South” to be superior. “And that’s the problem with the internet,” Carney laughs down the line from his home in Nashville, Tennessee. “There are a lot of experts out there who have no idea what they’re talking about.”

Since they emerged from Akron, Ohio, as part of the garage rock revival of the early 2000s, winning Grammys, enjoying platinum sales and playing benefits for Barack Obama, an antagonism has surrounded The Black Keys’ music in certain quarters. Essentially, this can be boiled down to three main questions: do Carney and singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach secretly hate one another? Do they and that other midwestern garage rock duo, The White Stripes, hate one another? And, above all, says Carney, “‘How do you play blues as a white dude from Ohio or whatever the f**k.’”

It is this last probe that perhaps rankles most, and that the release of Delta Kream has once again revived. In our conversation today, Carney raises it himself, seemingly braced for the onslaught of comments that will question two contemporary white musicians’ qualifications for covering blues legends Burnside and Hooker and Kimbrough. “I’m like ‘You know what? [We make the blues] the same way you make post-punk as a white dude from Ohio born in 1980, because post-punk was dead by the time I was 11 years old. Unless you were listening to Therapy? or some s**t!’” he says, and adds that Led Zeppelin broke up just after he was born. “Beefheart, my favourite musician, he had retired from music by the time I was two. All this music that has resonated with me was made way before I was born. This music was alive for us.”

This is of course a conversation about cultural, as much as historical, appropriation, part of the longer history of white artists and music industry figures plundering the blues and taking the profit – from the record companies who put out “race records” in the 1920s to Elvis, The Rolling Stones, and beyond. But isn’t it strange, I ask Carney, that so many of the internet’s self-appointed gatekeepers of the genre have been white men? “I don’t know if it’s necessarily just white men,” says Carney. “It happens whenever anybody’s an idiot. There just happens to be maybe a lot more white guys who have internet connections.”

Delta Kream also has the extra flourish of the involvement of Burnside’s guitarist Kenny Brown and Kimbrough’s bassist Eric Deaton (both of whom, it should be added, are white – the blues has in fact long been a racially mixed artform). In late 2019, the pair were up from Mississippi, at Auerbach’s recording studio Easy Eye Sound in Nashville, working on a new album with blues singer Robert Finley, one of the artists on Auerbach’s label. “And I called Pat up, and I didn’t even know if he was in town,” Auerbach recalls. “And I said ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ and he cleared his schedule and he came over and we just jammed for the afternoon, just for fun,because he loved those same records that I loved that they played on.”

“We weren’t planning on making an album necessarily,” Carney adds, “but within a couple hours we had recorded nine songs. So after that I was like: we should just do a couple more in case we want to put it out. Because the last time we did something like this, we didn’t have a full record and I hate putting out EPs. I hate EPs! I’ve always hated EPs, except for Watery, Domestic by Pavement. I appreciate that EP, that’s the only EP I like.”

The EP Carney refers to is Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough, released in 2006. Its title is a nod to the town in Mississippi where the bluesman ran a juke joint until his death in 1998. Auerbach first visited Junior’s Place with his father one Sunday night when he was 18. “We got there stupid early, basically for lunch time,” he recalls. “But Kinney Kimbrough was there.” Kinney Kimbrough is Junior’s son,who played drums for his father. “And he told us, ‘Man, my dad’s sick and hasn’t played for months and it’s bad.’ They’d taken off one of his legs or something and I had no idea. But he said, ‘My brother plays all my dad’s songs, but he’s in jail. If you give us some money for bail we can get him out and he can play here tonight.’ So we did that, and he went and got David Kimbrough Jr.”

David Kimbrough was Junior’s eldest son. “And he of all the kids is the one that plays the most like his dad and had the most amazing voice. It was crazy! He just recently passed away, and he had a hard life, he had trouble with addiction and stuff, but when I saw him he was so good. Gary Burnside was on bass, Kinney Kimbrough on drums, and it was at Junior’s juke. All the locals were there dancing. It was the first time I had corn liquor. First time I saw somebody pull a gun was at Junior’s.”

“I don’t think there was anything that warranted needing a gun,” Auerbach clarifies. “I think it was just because everybody was drunk! But being a kid from public [state] school, whenever there was a fight I used to run towards it because I wanted to see what was going on. So some guy pulled a gun and I just ran towards it! I was like, ‘What’s going on here?’” At the end of the night, the Kimbrough family paid back the bail money to the Auerbachs. “And they were really thankful, and we were really thankful.”

The following year Auerbach returned to Mississippi to meet the bluesman T-Model Ford. “I ended up staying at his place with my buddy and we played music for a few days,” he says. “We followed his car and trailer around and played a couple BBQs in the afternoon, and played a couple juke joints, and it was just so much fun.” There are still plenty of juke joints, he adds. “But they just don’t have any signs and they’re only open one day a week. They’re not in a phone book, they don’t have any Yelp reviews.”

Auerbach loved Mississippi. “It reminded me of Southern Ohio, where I was born,” he says. “Northern Mississippi does anyway, where you’re in the Hill Country, the landscape of that music. You can hear it in the music when you listen to Junior – you’re driving around North Mississippi, the music just feels like the countryside there.”

The first time he heard hill country blues, the percussive, unconventionally structured style of blues that emerged out of the north of the state, it was being played by Mississippi Fred McDowell on compilations from the Arhoolie label. “And then I bought all of his Arhoolie records, and I loved ‘Write Me a Few Lines’ and ‘Louise’,” he remembers. “And I loved that music, but I didn’t really realise it was hill country blues until Fat Possum came around in the early 2000s.” It was the Mississippi-based label Fat Possum that recorded and released many previously unknown blues artists from the region – including Burnside – and with whom the Black Keys would release their second album Thickfreakness in 2003.

“I feel like Pat and I lived through a blues renaissance that was just as important as the one that happened in the Sixties,” Auerbach says. “To me, Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside are just as important as Son House, Skip James, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf... These people are the kings of their style, and I’m just glad that we get to open some people’s ears to those records; those are some of my favourite records of all time.”

The appeal of hill country blues lies in the fact it is “so hypnotic and dance-y and so raw”, he says. “It just seems extra powerful to me. I don’t know what it is, it’s deceptively simple, but not a lot of people can play it, and it’s really had a hold on me since when I was early and getting into guitar.”

Carney describes it like so: “You can go to dinner and you can have coq-au-vin made by the best French chef, or you can go to a diner and have a patty melt. They can kind of hit at the same level. And theoretically anybody could make a patty melt. But can they? I don’t know. It’s the soul behind it.”

‘Hill country blues is deceptively simple, but not a lot of people can play it’

For Auerbach, there is a shared sensibility between this music he loves and the music he makes. “We’re a garage rock band from the midwest, so our concentric circles are: this is blue collar music and it’s raw, and it’s simple, and I hear the same type of raw power [in it] as you hear in the Stooges’ records, or the Sonics’ records. You hear some of these hill country records and it’s that raw f***ing energy there. Link Ray had it, RL Burnside had it. And there would be no Black Keys without hill country blues.”

When Auerbach was in school, it wasn’t cool to like records by Delta bluesman Son House. “It was all starter jackets and hip-hop,” he remembers. When he was introduced to Carney, “he was the only person that was even remotely interested in this stuff. Instantly when we started playing we had a bond, we had a connection.”

“If it wasn’t for Dan, I wouldn’t even be a drummer,” Carney says. It was Auerbach who forced him to play drums one afternoon when his backing band had failed to show up to record a demo in Carney’s basement. “I said ‘Dude, I don’t really know how to do it’… I started hitting the floor tom with zero skill, and afterwards Dan was like, ‘That’s cool, that’s exactly what I want it to sound like.’”

It was Auerbach, too, who kept the momentum going. He was earning good money playing bluegrass covers in bars – “but I knew this thing with Pat was really different and interesting and it was always a priority to me”, he says. Each week without fail he would arrive at Carney’s house to rehearse. “I would show up at noon and he’d still be sleeping and I’d have to throw rocks at his window to get him to wake up. Every week I’d have to do that!”

Which leads us to that other perennial question: do the Black Keys secretly hate each other? There is real tenderness to the way that Carney and Auerbach speak about one another today, though clearly there has been ebb and flow in their partnership. I quote something Carney once said of their relationship back to him: “It’s almost a feedback loop; sometimes I’m leading him and then he’s leading me” – and he mm-hmms in confirmation. “I mean that’s the way it’s always been with us,” he says. “There’s days when Dan is checked out and I’ll step up, and the opposite. Our relationship is better now than it has been in years.”

Delta force: The Black Keys performing live in 2020

It was at its worst, he says, after the success of El Camino. Their seventh record, released in 2011, was produced by Danger Mouse; notched up phenomenal reviews, massive sales, and three Grammys; and led the band to sell out Madison Square Gardens in 15 short minutes. The pressure, professionally, was immense. Simultaneously the pair were dealing with their own personal issues. They recorded another album, Turn Blue; then, under the dust cloud of disagreement, went on hiatus.

“Dan went through a divorce,” Carney says now. “I should have known to take some time off but we kept working and I burned him out essentially. And it took him a while to be prepared to venture back into the Black Keys world.” Some while ago, ahead of the recording of 2019’s Let’s Rock, they talked it out. “The only heart to heart we had, when we got back to playing, was when I apologised to him for not being more sensitive to the situation,” Carney says. “And I promised him that if he didn’t want to go on tour for a long time, we didn’t have to. It’s more important to me to have a good relationship with him. Even if it requires us to not make any money, our relationship is more important to me.”

But it is this new record that has brought them closer than they’ve ever been, he believes. The simple pleasure of once again playing the songs they first loved together – as if talking through music has led them to talk more fully in person. “The other day we talked on the phone for like two hours,” Carney says. “Which is very unusual for us. And we were making each other laugh really hard.”

“I think we’ve both completely changed over the years, but we’re still the same,” is how Auerbach puts it. In what way are you still the same, I ask? Down the line he laughs. “I mean we’re still the same two pricks from Akron, Ohio, we always were.”

Delta Kream is out now

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