The Black Keys Doggy-Paddle from Akron to Stardom

It's a skin-singeing 95 degrees in Chicago, but Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are cooler than a couple of Fonzies in a cryogenic freeze. Their contorted faces are part of the city skyline, projected on JumboTrons and looking out across a sea of 20,000 shirtless worshippers. This is Lollapalooza, and the Black Keys are certifiable rock gods.

Speaking to Auerbach via telephone a few weeks after this epic performance, however, I don't exactly pick up on any Bono-like sense of self-divinity. The Black Keys' singer/guitarist has the TV on in the background and he's talking about his favorite restaurants in the band's hometown of Akron, Ohio.

"There's a Korean place called Seoul Garden that I really like," he says. "It's family-operated. I would say they're a bit like the Black Keys of Korean restaurants — very DIY."

In fairness, Auerbach's tangent on local eateries is merely a response to my confession that I, too, am a man from the land of Akron, "The Rubber City." It's this shared Midwestern experience, in fact, that I initially hoped would open the doors to a deeper understanding of the Black Keys' modest and minimalist rock philosophy. But when I ask Auerbach why he and drummer Carney have chosen to keep their homebase in our hometown, he doesn't deliver the romanticized response I was angling for.

"Sometimes I'm not sure why we're still in Akron, honestly," he mumbles. "The quality of life isn't so great. It's weird, though, because we're kind of stuck here. It's like there's an invisible chain around our ankles."

Auerbach is actually expressing a rather common sentiment among Akronites — an irrational devotion born out of consistent disappointment. This might explain why the Keys have become Akron's greatest musical ambassadors since the city's late-'70s glory days, when new wave pioneers like Devo, Chrissie Hynde and the Waitresses all flew the Rubber City flag.

Auerbach and Carney even attended the same high school as many of those artists. Separated by a generation, though, the Black Keys never saw an open invitation to carry any torches.

"I never thought about it when I was a kid," Auerbach says. "I mean, the school doesn't really show any love for any of the musicians who've come out of there. There's a bunch of people on the Firestone High School Wall of Fame, and I don't know if I've heard of any of them. It's a shame, but you know, that's what happens."

It remains to be seen what sort of local legacy Auerbach and Carney will leave behind. But thus far, they've done at least one thing that their successful Firestone predecessors didn't — they've stayed in town. The duo's first four LPs, in fact, were all recorded in Carney's makeshift basement studio in Akron.

And even as their amped-up take on fuzz-garage-blues has elbowed its way into TV, films and sold-out shows around the world, the Black Keys have remained seemingly unfazed, unwilling to develop any swagger after ten years of humble aspirations and hard work.

"We definitely worked our asses off," Auerbach says. "As you know, in those early days of touring, it was pretty miserable, and we weren't making any money. But, over time, slowly but surely, things got steadier and sort of took off.

"Now we're just trying to keep our heads above water, I guess," he adds. "We're doing the doggy paddle in the midst of this surreal thing that's happening. It's really strange. We never thought any of this would happen. And now every other day, something else is put on our plate that kind of blows our minds."

Some days, it's playing in front of a massive crowd at Lollapalooza. Other days, it's teaming up with the world's hottest producer. For the Keys' latest album, Attack & Release, they decided to abandon the basement and work in a "real" studio with new pal Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse.

It was Burton who helped shake the rust off the band's minimalist guitar-and-drums formula, adding some depth and nuance to standout tracks like "I Got Mine" and "Strange Times." The result was the Black Keys' highest-charting effort yet — No. 14 on Billboard's Hot 100.

"Brian told us, 'I've got a lot of tricks that you guys could learn, and I really want to learn stuff from you guys,'" relays Auerbach. "It was sort of an unexpected but great thing to hear — that level of mutual respect. And I definitely learned a bunch of things from being in the studio with him."

Burton's influence will likely play a role in the next Keys project, whether it's recorded in Akron or another place not too metaphorically far away.

"Right now, it's like there are no rules or boundaries out there for us," Auerbach says. "We can kind of do whatever we want. And I think that's exactly what we're going to do."

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Andrew Clayman