Talking with Patrick Carney, drummer for The Black Keys, we’re reminded of A Short History of Progress. In that book, author Ronald Wright argues that unchecked progress has nearly always led to disaster for humanity. As a species, our yearning to advance blinds us to the pitfalls that come with progress for progress’s sake.
Carney isn’t waxing philosophical on technology or anything, he’s just answering a question about some criticism aimed at Dropout Boogie, the band’s new album released a little over a month ago. But he draws the perfect musical analogy to the way mankind once turned the life-saving warmth of fire into a burn-down-the-village weapon.
“I guess with music it’s weird because progress isn’t necessarily, I think, the goal,” Carney said. “Creating stuff that the artist is into is the goal. If we were into dance music, I guess it would be much easier to evolve our sound because we would just be calling the newest, hottest producer every year and having them come in. That’s not how we operate.
“We definitely grew up watching bands go from being rugged - I’m talking about bands from the ‘60s and ‘70s — we grew up watching the path of bands being rugged, like Black Sabbath, to making really weird versions of the band 10 years into it. You hear the first Jefferson Airplane record, then you hear the last Starship record and how are these things even connected? Is that progress? Is that evolution? Because if that is, I don’t want anything to do with it.”
Carney and bandmate Dan Auerbach formed the band in 2001 and in 20 years have garnered nearly every accolade imaginable for their bluesy, rootsy rock, a sound they honed playing small clubs in and around Akron, Ohio. Eleven albums, a half-dozen Grammys and lots of road miles later, they’re one of the world’s biggest rock bands and are headed for Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in October. The new album’s lead single, “Wild Child,” shot to No. 1 on Billboard’s Rock & Alternative chart, a spot the band’s music has frequently inhabited. Their success is built on a healthy respect for the music they enjoy but some music critics have dubbed the new album “the same old same old.”
“I don’t think that we’re retreading the same exact thing all the time. I think my taste in music, it deviates maybe 10 degrees one way or the other. It’s pretty on path to one thing. I can hear the connection between the things I like. It’s not too wide of a net, really, especially in terms of things I want to create,” Carney responded. “But yeah, when people say like, ‘yeah, same old same old,’ they’re just not hearing the nuance because they’re not really fans of that type of music so there’s no wonder they don’t like it, you know?
“It’s no different than someone that doesn’t understand the nuance of baseball or golf or football being like ‘It’s just a bunch of guys doing this.’ There’s a big difference between good and bad and if you don’t know then you don’t know. Really, to me the sad thing is I know we’re a good band. I’ve listened to enough records to know that yeah, we are at the top tier of rock bands and when someone doesn’t hear it I know that they just don’t understand music like that and they shouldn’t be writing about it. That’s all.”
The Black Keys are famously known for creating songs from scratch in the studio and for Dropout Boogie they got a visit from ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. Gibbons appears on the track “Good Love.”
“He happened to be in Nashville last June when we were recording and Dan just reached out and invited him down to the studio,” Carney said. “We just jammed, we just improvised for like 45 minutes and came up with I guess three or four song ideas, but ‘Good Love’ was the one that was like this fully-structured kind of jam. So, after he left, we kind of added some stuff and turned it into a song. But it was cool because it was fully improvised.
“You know, Dan and I have been fans of ZZ Top since we were kids, obviously,” Carney continued. “It was weird because my dad never really had any ZZ Top records but Dan’s father did so Dan was the one that first really showed me ZZ Top. At first, when we were like 20, 21, I had this preconceived notion about what ZZ Top was based on all the image of the beards and the furry guitars. But digging into that catalog, they are maybe the best American rock band. So, getting to jam with Billy, you know, that was like the first real rock star I’ve ever really jammed with. Getting to sit there and create something with a living legend is pretty mind-blowing, honestly.”
As The Black Keys edge into legendary territory, they’re doing it in part with a live show that’s exciting and showcases up and comers. Carney said the Dropout Boogie tour begins nearly 20 years to the day of the band’s first tour in July 2002. It'll be their first road run in three years. The Houston date will feature support from The Velveteers, a thrilling, upward-trending rock act that’ll gain new followers from their gigs on the tour. Carney said introducing acts like this one to new listeners is a bit of paying things forward.
“We’ve always tried to bring out bands that we listen to and try to support bands that we’re into and it’s kind of surprising just how few people are really paying attention to new music, so I think the more opportunity you can give to new artists, the better,” Carney said. “We definitely benefitted hugely by other, more established musicians and bands giving us some help back in the day. If it weren’t for bands like Sleater-Kinney or Beck or Radiohead taking us out on the road, I think we would have had a little more of a grind, and we already had a grind. Getting that help was tremendous, especially Beck and Sleater-Kinney, those were really big tours for us.”
“That’s a good question. There are a couple of songs that Dan and I really bonded heavily over. One of them would be GZA, ‘Liquid Swords,’” Carney said. “That was a big song for us, we still use it as walk out music. It’s just a groove. For some reason, Memphis music has always kind of resonated. Memphis music, North Mississippi music has always really resonated with us. So, getting to find out, what is that sample in ‘Liquid Swords’ from? It’s a Willie Mitchell cover of ‘Groovin’’ by the Young Rascals. That’s the groove.
“I think ‘Sad Days, Lonely Nights’ by Junior Kimbrough, recorded like 45 miles from ‘Groovin’’ by Willie Mitchell, that’s a song or album we really spent a lot of time with together. It’s funny because when we were first listening to that record it kind of felt like this ancient document. Both those records came out the same year, 1994, only eight years before we started the band. When I think about that kind of stuff it puts our career in perspective,” Carney said. “I mean, if you go back eight years in our catalog I guess you’re listening to Turn Blue and I guess that feels like an ancient document to 22 year-olds right now.”
Those songs and Carney’s contemplation of them connect so many dots, particularly concerning how they created Dropout Boogie. In the end, it’s all part of staying true to The Black Keys’ approach to music, one which shuns progress for the sake of progress.
“I guess trends change, things change. All we can do is make music that we like to listen to and that we’re into mutually,” Carney summarized. “What we create is this thing that’s a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-part type of situation but it also is very much some thing and it happens when you take two grown men who are musicians and put them in a room and there’s total democracy about what they’re into. This is what happens.”