Rust Belt Blues
The adjectives "scuzzy," "primordial," "gutterlike" and "primitive" might not be considered complimentary when applied to, say, the new Rob Thomas CD. But for the rambling, shambling blues-punk duo the Black Keys, made up of singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, those terms are badges of honor.
"I love that raw, primal shit. Stuff like Son House. Memphis music. Howlin' Wolf before he went to Chess," Auerbach says just prior to the U.S. tour in support of Rubber Factory, the Keys' third record. "The Johnny Burnette Trio. Paul Burlison playing guitar with his fingers and taking a tube of his amp and just distorting the shit out of it. White people and black people and electricity -- that's what I like."
Sure, there are a handful of other guitar-and-drums duos out there (the White Stripes, the Raveonettes), but they almost seem like bubblegum acts when pitted against the infernal noise of the Black Keys. Auerbach's ethereal, echoey howl sounds ancient behind his fuzzed-out guitar. And coupled with Carney's chaotic pounding, the overall effect is as gritty on disc as the crumbling mills in their hometown of Akron, Ohio. (Which, as the Rock Chamber of Commerce wants you to know, is also the birthplace of Chrissie Hynde and the home base for Devo.)
Like bands from other smoke, steel and chrome cities such as Detroit, Michigan, and Gary, Indiana, the Black Keys have geographical roots that are just as important as their musical ones. That's nowhere more apparent than in their choice of a "studio" to record Rubber Factory: two floors of the now-abandoned General Tire factory in Akron. At least it's a step up from Carney's basement, where they put down 2002's The Big Come Up and 2003's thickfreakness, the latter completely done in one 14-hour session.
"Recording at the factory made this one more personal for us," Auerbach says. "It was our place, not somewhere where they spit out records every day and you know how it sounds in every corner."
Utterly stripped of gloss, Rubber Factory nonetheless comes roaring out of the speakers like the soundtrack to a hell filled with blast furnaces, conveyor belts and the run-down tar-paper shacks where the help lives. Standout tracks include "10 A.M. Automatic," "All Hands Against His Own," "Girl Is on My Mind" and "Keep Me." Many of Auerbach's lyrics are about a foreboding sense of being oppressed or having everyone and everything seemingly against you. And while Auerbach figuratively dons a tux on the "softer" material -- like the gorgeous ballad "The Lengths" (with George Harrison-like slide work) and a cover of the Kinks' "Act Nice and Gentle" -- there's axle grease on the white shirt just above his cummerbund.
Thanks to a father with an eclectic and supercool record collection, Auerbach has been an AKC-registered blues hound since his teens. But it's not the blues of white-boy guitar wizards like Clapton or Stevie Ray, or of benevolent, good-time elder statesmen like B.B. King and Buddy Guy.
For Auerbach, the true blues is the otherworldly howls of long-dead acoustic ramblers like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson and -- more recently -- their direct modern-day descendants, like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Certainly not the stuff blasting from Akron radios in the late '90s when Auerbach and Carney -- now in their mid-twenties -- were coming of age.
"I mean, I liked the Allmans and Derek and the Dominoes, but they didn't make me want to pick up the guitar and learn how to play like when I heard Son House," Auerbach says. "And Pat, he's no fan of blues music. He's the rock guy."
The friends first began playing together in high school in the Carney family basement. By 2002, it was a private weekend pleasure for the two, who filled their weekdays working as "horticultural technicians" (translation: mowers of lawns) for a property manager. But a demo tape of what would become The Big Come Up landed them an actual record deal (and a four-star review in Rolling Stone) before they even played in public for the first time. By the release of thickfreakness, the boys would never have to gas up another weed-whacker again.
Surprisingly, Auerbach says that the pair never gave serious thought to expanding their lineup -- save once early on. "We almost had a Moog player, but he flaked out and it never happened," he remembers. "So we just got used to playing with the two of us. Plus, the guitar has to be louder and bigger than normal in our mix anyway, and we didn't want it to have to compete with anything else."
Like the Kings of Leon, the Black Keys are much more famous and successful overseas -- particularly in the UK and Australia. Auerbach directly attributes that to a much more open and free commercial radio norm in those countries.
"We don't have stations in the U.S. like they do there, except maybe in some major cities. I don't think that [traditional] radio has anything to offer anybody -- and we've driven back and forth across the country" listening, he says. "And where I'm from, you hear '867-5309 Jenny,' like, every fucking ten minutes. It's a shame."
At least their drive to Houston for this show should be much more pleasurable than their last jaunt -- thanks to an upgrade in touring vehicles. "I remember driving to Houston for a show through West Texas, and it was so hot I woke up with a nosebleed. Oh, man, it was bad, especially since we didn't have air!" he says with a laugh. "But now, we try and travel with it at all times." Wise Buckeyes, indeed.
After the current tour, the Black Keys will spend their summer playing festivals in the States and Europe, then take some time off before working on their next record (and finalizing the release of an already filmed concert for DVD) sometime this fall.
One can assume, though, that Auerbach and Carney will not be adding Tommy Tutone to the lineup.
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