NPR

The Black Keys: The Fresh Air Interview

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, who make up the band The Black Keys, recently joined Fresh Air's Terry Gross for a discussion of their musical influences, their 2010 album Brothers and why comedian Stephen Colbert recently accused them of "selling out."

That last statement probably requires an explanation.

Two weeks ago, Colbert invited both members of The Black Keys, as well as Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig, onto the stage of The Colbert Report for a "sell-out-off" to decide Colbert's Best Alternative Music Album Grammy vote. (Colbert is eligible to vote because he'd won a Grammy for the holiday album A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All.)

"The only way to tell which band has more edgy, non-commercial appeal is to see which band got their songs in more commercials," Colbert said.

Auerbach and Carney squared off against Koenig by naming the commercials that had licensed their music — Hewlett Packard, Zales, Victoria's Secret and Tommy Hilfilger, to name a few — before Colbert called the contest a draw and declared that both bands had "equally whored out [their] music."

But that claim — even if it was said in jest — is somewhat misleading, Carney says.

"A lot of people see a Nissan ad and they see a finished product in a record store or on iTunes and that's the face of the band," Carney says. "What they don't see is that we made [Brothers] in a cinderblock building in the middle of nowhere in Alabama, with five microphones and a guitar amp and a drum set. I don't know what that means, exactly, but I do know we didn't spend a lot of money making this record, and it's an honest way of approaching making music. And once the music is out there, when you're selling a record and selling music and people are going to do whatever they want with it, it's kind of hard to resist certain opportunities, especially in the record market now."

In fact, Carney says he and Auerbach initially turned down several opportunities because they were worried about appearing like they'd sold out.

"The first offer we ever had to have a song in a commercial was from an English mayonnaise company, and they offered us a lot of money — crazy money," he says. "Especially at the time, it was insane."

"We got this offer for more money than both of our parents make in a year combined," Auerbach adds.

But a manager advised them to pass, telling them that commercializing The Black Keys' songs would alienate their entire fan base and ruin their careers.

"We're hearing this, seriously, as we're driving around in a 1994 Plymouth Grand Voyager that smells like pee," Carney says. "And going home to our modest apartments, and we were scared. We were 23 years old. So we passed on it."

At a certain point, Carney says, they decided to license "Set You Free" for one Nissan ad, just to see what would happen.

"It's helped us immensely," Auerbach says. "Before 'Tighten Up' [from Brothers], we'd never had a real song regularly played on rock radio. We didn't have that support, and getting these songs in commercials was almost like having your song on the radio."

Coming Up With Ideas

Auerbach and Carney formed The Black Keys in 2001. They were initially active in Akron, Ohio's underground music scene, and released their first two albums — The Big Come Up and Thickfreakness — after recording tracks in Carney's basement.

"I had this fascination with four-track recorders when I was in high school," Carney says. "And that's how the band started. Dan was just starting to play guitar, and I was just starting to get into this four-track recorder I bought. And Dan knew I had a drum set I couldn't play. And our brothers encouraged us to get together and jam."

That was in the late '90s. Several years later, Carney bought a digital recorder and invited Auerbach and a band over to record in his basement.

"Dan came over and the rest of the band didn't show up," he says. "And we decided to just record some stuff anyway. That day we made a six-song demo and we sent it around and got our first record deal."

Many of the tracks they created, like the songs featured on later albums, had catchy little hooks.

"We really like really repetitive hooks, because that's what Dan and I grew up listening to," Carney says. " Dan grew up listening to blues, and I grew up listening to classic rock. But we both kind of bonded mostly over Wu-Tang samples and hooks of Stax Records and old soul records."

"We really like really simple kind of hooks that become hypnotic," Auerbach adds. "When you start to do the simple thing over and over again, and then it sort of gets ingrained in your mind and draws you in — that's the sort of things we've always been into."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Grammy Awards ceremony is February 13th. My guests are the members of The Black Keys. The band is nominated for four Grammys for its latest album, "Brothers," including Best Alternative Rock Album and Best Rock Song. "Brothers" was Rolling Stone's number two album of the year and iTunes Album of the Year.

The Black Keys performed on the season opener of "Saturday Night Live." A lot of listeners were introduced to their music through TV commercials. Their songs have been used on ads for Cadillac, Victoria Secret, Zales and Sony Ericsson phones. Their song "Chop and Change" was used on the soundtrack of "Twilight Saga: Eclipse." Their song "I'll Be Your Man" is the theme on the HBO series "Hung."

Patrick Carney is The Black Keys' drummer. Dan Auerbach is the lead singer and guitarist. They both play other instruments as well. Before we meet them, here's "Tighten Up," the one nominated for Best Rock Song. It was also used in a Subaru commercial.

(Soundbite of song, "Tighten Up")

Mr. DAN AUERBACH (Musician, The Black Keys): (Singing) I wanted love, I needed love most of all, most of all. Someone said true love was dead, and I'm bound to fall, bound to fall for you. Oh, what can I do? Yeah.

Take my badge, but my heart remains loving you, baby child. Tighten up on your reins, you're running wild, running wild, it's true.

GROSS: That's "Tighten Up," from The Black Keys' new album "Brothers." Patrick Carney, Dan Auerbach, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really like the album. Thank you so much for coming.

So, you know, a lot of your songs have really good hooks, and in the song we just heard, "Tighten Up," there's that great, like, four-beat drum break that's really catchy. Do you both like hooks a lot in music?

Mr. PATRICK CARNEY (Musician, The Black Keys): Yeah, we like really repetitive hooks, I think, usually.

GROSS: Because?

Mr. CARNEY: I don't know. I mean, that's what Dan and I grew up listening to is just kind of - I guess Dan grew up listening to, you know, blues, and I grew up listening to, like, classic rock, but we both kind of bonded mostly over, like, Wu Tang samples. They have, like, hooks of Stax records and, you know, old soul records.

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah, the, you know, really simple kind of hooks that become hypnotic, you know, when you start to do the simple thing over and over again, and then it just gets ingrained in your mind and draws you in. That's the kind of thing we've always been into.

GROSS: So which did you hear first - the original soul and Stax Record tracks that The RZA and other people sampled, or did you hear the samples first, and did that send you back to the tracks?

Mr. AUERBACH: We both heard the soul first, I think. You know, Pat -both my dad and Pat's dad played us all the Stax records and all of that good stuff. And I think just subconsciously when we heard productions that RZA did, it just - we immediately were drawn to it. And we didn't really know until later that - well, I think some of the reason why was because he was sampling some of those old, great soul records that we'd grown up listening to, you know.

GROSS: Now, your newest album, "Brothers," is nominated for a Grammy in the - it's nominated for four Grammys, but one of them is the Alternative Rock category. And Stephen Colbert had you on for a really funny sketch, where you and Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend were on, and the premise was that since Stephen Colbert had won a Grammy, he was eligible to be a Grammy voter.

So he was trying to figure out who to vote for, and he was having a hard time deciding who to vote for in the Alternative Rock category. So he said: Remember, this is the alternative category. So the only way to determine which alternative band has the more edgy, non-commercial appeal is to find out which one has their songs in more commercials.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And then you and Vampire Weekend had to do a sell-out-off and see which band's music was used on more commercials or, as he put it later, who had whored themselves more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So it was a really funny sketch. So name some of the commercials that your records have been used on, the song and the commercial it matches with.

Mr. CARNEY: Let's see. "Tighten Up" was on a Subaru commercial. I think it was also used in a Molson beer ad in Canada. "Next Girl" off this record is in a Cadillac commercial, and so is "Howlin' For You." I don't know. We've done a bunch. We've probably done 25 pretty big TV ads, I guess. And in addition to that, we've done lots of movies, as well.

GROSS: How did that start, that your music started getting used in commercials?

Mr. CARNEY: Well, the first offer we ever had to have a song in a commercial was from an English mayonnaise company, and they offered us a lot of money.

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah, it was a lot of money.

Mr. CARNEY: It was crazy money, especially at the time. It was insane. And we were advised...

Mr. AUERBACH: We were touring, but, you know, you've got to keep in mind that we were touring in a minivan, just the two of us, at that point, driving back and forth across America and touring the same way in Europe, you know, just a little minivan.

And we got this offer for more money than, you know, both of our parents make a year, combined. And yeah, we got this offer.

Mr. CARNEY: And we were advised by our, like, old manager that it wasn't enough money, and we risk the, you know, there's a likelihood that by taking that ad, we could alienate all of our fan base in England -which, at the time, was maybe 5,000 people - and ruin our career and come off as, you know, a sellout corporate rock band.

And we're hearing this, seriously, while we're driving around in a 1994 Plymouth Grand Voyager that smells like pee, which is another story in itself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: And, you know, going home to our, you know, modest apartments. And we were scared. We were 23 years old. We didn't know what to do. So we passed on it.

And, you know, more offers came in, and they were passed on. And, you know, at a certain point, we just were like, why don't we do one and see what happens, you know, because it was getting really difficult to just let - you know, it was more money than we were making on a whole year of touring for, like, one ad, at the time.

GROSS: So what's the one you first said yes to?

Mr. CARNEY: It was a Nissan ad, I believe.

GROSS: And the song was?

Mr. CARNEY: The song was "Set You Free."

GROSS: So what do you think all these people who wanted to use your music in their ads heard in your music that seemed right to them?

Mr. CARNEY: Well, I mean, we did - you know, we basically have a backwards subliminal track that we just name brands.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: It's mixed very low.

Mr. AUERBACH: We have no idea. We have no idea. People have asked us that before, and we really don't know. All we know is that it's helped us immensely. You know, before "Tighten Up," we'd never had a real song on the radio. We'd never had a song regularly played on rock radio. And we just, we didn't have that support, and getting these songs in commercials was almost like having your song in a radio. You know, I think we had "I'll Be Your Man" on - it was on an HBO show, it's a theme song for "Hung," and that was off our very first record, and all of a sudden, people, when we went out on the road, would light up when they heard that song. And it was the craziest feeling, you know, like that record was how many years ago, and all of a sudden, people are starting to react to this song because they heard it on TV.

And we figured it must be what it's like to have your song on the radio, and, you know, so we're still sort of picky, but we do think that it's just - we only benefit from it.

GROSS: It's just - there's something that seems sad to me that radio is in such shape that to get heard, you have to have your song in a commercial because it's not going to get played on the radio. It's sad.

Mr. CARNEY: Well, you know, I mean, it's been that way for a long time. That's one of the reasons why we kind of agreed to start doing these ads, is some of my favorite bands were kind of, you know, were doing this. And, like, Modest Mouse did a Nissan ad, and The Shins did a McDonald's ad, and I didn't lose any respect for those bands.

And I think, you know, I understood why they were doing it, and this is before we even really started the band.

GROSS: So let's hear one of the songs on the new album that's also been used in a commercial. This is "Next Girl," and I think this is in a Subaru commercial, right?

Mr. CARNEY: Cadillac, I think.

GROSS: Cadillac, okay, and I think they use just the music in this, not the...

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah, there's no vocals.

GROSS: Not the vocals. But - so before we hear it, what's the difference between the mood that you were creating in your minds when you wrote and performed the song and the mood of the commercial?

Mr. CARNEY: I think we both wanted to murder people when we were making the song, to be honest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: This is the first track we recorded for "Brothers," and it's weird that they're using it to sell cars, but it's good, I guess, in some way - I suppose.

I don't know why people pick certain things, but, you know, it's -whatever.

GROSS: Well, it's a song that's very angry at an ex-girlfriend. So - you wrote the song together?

Mr. CARNEY: Dan wrote the lyrics, and we wrote the music together.

GROSS: So Dan, what was on your mind when you wrote the lyrics?

Mr. AUERBACH: Well, the chorus is my next girl will be nothing like my ex-girl. I made mistakes back then. I'll never do it again. And that pretty much sums up the tune.

GROSS: Okay, and I guess I shouldn't bring up Patrick's acrimonious separation shortly before the song was written.

Mr. AUERBACH: You know, I didn't write it - I wrote it before his breakup, and it wasn't about his breakup, but it did just happen to be the first song we recorded for the session, and he had just broken up, and it was just sort of - you know, it was a good cleansing moment for Pat, you know. It got him into the mood to get into the session for the rest of the week.

GROSS: Okay, well, I'll just think about expensive cars when I hear this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah, I mean, that's really what we were thinking about.

GROSS: Absolutely. So this is "Next Girl." This is The Black Keys from their latest album "Brothers."

(Soundbite of song, "Next Girl")

THE BLACK KEYS: (Singing) Well, the look of the cake, it ain't always the taste. My ex-girl, she had such a beautiful face. I wanted love but not for myself but for the girl so she could love herself.

Oh, my next girl will be nothing like my ex-girl. I made mistakes back then. I'll never do it again. Oh, my next girl, she'll be nothing like my ex-girl. It was a painful dance. Now I got a second chance, yeah.

GROSS: That's The Black Keys from their latest album, "Brothers," which is nominated for four Grammys.

So did any of your fans accuse you of being sellouts when you started doing, giving companies permission to use your songs in their commercials?

Mr. CARNEY: We've been accused by a lot of 17-year-old boys of being sellouts lately on Facebook I've noticed. But, you know, I mean, you get that, especially in - you know, I mean, a lot of people, they see a Nissan ad, they see a finished product in a record store on iTunes. They see our promo pictures, and, like, you know, that's the face of the band. What they don't see is, you know, that we made that record in a cinderblock building in the middle of nowhere in Alabama with five microphones and a guitar amp and a drum set.

And I don't know how less of a sellout - you know, I don't know what that means, exactly, but I do know we didn't spend a lot of money making this record, and we - it's an honest way of approaching making music.

And, you know, once the music is out there, you know, when you're selling, you know, selling a record, and you're selling music, and people are going to do whatever they want with it, and it's kind of -you know, it's kind of hard to sometimes resist certain opportunities, especially in the market now, the record market.

(Break)

GROSS: Well, I have a very probing question for you. You had mentioned earlier that you were earlier spending a lot of time driving around in your minivan doing concerts, and the minivan was really old, and it smelled like pee. And you said there is a story behind that. So let's hear it.

Mr. CARNEY: Oh, you want that story?

GROSS: Yeah, I want to hear the pee story.

Mr. AUERBACH: That's from Seattle, right?

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah, that's - our first tour ever, we kind of got this, like, mercenary booking agent to book a tour as a favor to...

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah, by the end of the tour, the booking agent was in hiding.

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah, seriously.

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah, okay, go ahead with the story.

Mr. CARNEY: So he booked us this tour as a favor to this guy, Patrick(ph), that put out our first record. And, you know, my dad helped me buy this $4,000 minivan, and we got in the van with my brother, Michael(ph), and we drove around the country playing a three-week tour.

So part of the deal was we had no money. So we couldn't afford hotels or anything, and we didn't know anybody, really. So we couldn't stay on floors. So we were basically living in this car.

So I think it was about the seventh show of the tour, we play Seattle, Washington, and, I mean, there's a lot of other interesting stories to this tour. This tour is a nightmare on a lot of levels.

But we play Seattle, and it's the first show we've ever played where more than, like, 25 people show up at. There's like 150 people at this show. And we are, like, really excited and...

Mr. AUERBACH: It was amazing, a place called Chop Suey, right?

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah, we were really excited. I remember we got an envelope with, like, $500 in it, and, you know, that was, like, so much money. It was going to pay for gas for the rest of the tour.

So anyway, my brother and Dan got invited to go to this party, and there was nowhere to park the van. So I decided I would, like, sleep, be the -sleep in the van and guard the van.

Mr. AUERBACH: And guard the money.

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah, outside of this bar that we just played. And there's another bar next to it called the Manhole(ph), I believe. So anyway, I'm holding the money, I'm, like, sleeping. I wake up, and it's like 2:30 in the morning, and I have to pee so bad.

And I look out the window, and there are, like, 30 guys in Santa Claus outfits.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: I'm so terrified. I have no idea what was going on. So I try to pee in this cup, and it doesn't really work out that well. I get it all over the van, and I just - and I try calling Dan on our cell phone, and he didn't pick up. I had no idea what to do. So I just fell back asleep.

And the next day, I told him about this, and they - I think they thought I was on PCP, and then we realized that it was July 25th the previous day. So it was, like, some - what was happening was it was Christmas in July at a gay bar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: So that's what was going on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK, hence the odor in the car.

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah.

Mr. AUERBACH: Oh yeah, and that's why the car smelled.

Mr. CARNEY: I mean, this story is - this basically, this is an epic. This is, like, "The Odyssey" of rock bands. The next day, we end up in Portland, Oregon, and we played a show to - we've never played a show to less people, ever. No one showed...

Mr. AUERBACH: It was disgusting.

Mr. CARNEY: No one shows up except for a drunk couple shows up halfway through the show. But the opening band warns us, like, do not go into the parking lot, don't talk to anybody here. It's really dangerous. There's lots of drugs around here.

We're like: Okay, cool. Fifteen minutes after they tell us that, we catch them buying, like, meth in the parking lot, and they get ripped off, and three members of this band jump out of the car and start chasing down a meth dealer. So yeah, every single...

Mr. AUERBACH: It was sort of like that in every city.

Mr. CARNEY: Every single city.

GROSS: Oh, gosh, that sounds - it sounds like not the life you aspire to when you want to be in a rock band.

Mr. CARNEY: It was so much fun, to be honest. That tour was so much fun, because...

Mr. AUERBACH: We stayed in a hostel in Vancouver, and the guy staying in the room next to us had a giant ball of hashish in his hand that he spent all day and night smoking.

Mr. CARNEY: We saw him in the morning, and it was softball-size, and we saw him after the show at midnight, and it was like ping-pong-ball-sized.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: And we were in Vancouver. It's kind of - you know, I don't really touch the stuff, but that night, I did, and I seriously just sweat completely through the sleeping bag, almost crying, trying to convince my brother and Dan that we were going to get murdered by this guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: And if you picture the room, have you ever seen the movie "Take the Money and Run"?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CARNEY: Like, Woody Allen's apartment with the water stains and, like, the sink hanging off the wall, that was the room we stayed in, and they were just - there were, like, all these guys staying in there just to smoke weed. It was $10 a day to sleep there, and everyone was just hanging out just so they could get so high that, like, they thought the TV was talking to them.

(Break)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with the band The Black Keys. Their album "Brothers" is nominated for four Grammys including Best Alternative Rock Album and Best Rock Song. It was Rolling Stone's number two album of the year. Songs of The Black Keys have been used in several TV ads and their song "I'm Your Man" is the theme of the HBO series "Hung." Dan Auerbach is the leader and guitarist, Patrick Carney is the drummer. On this track, "I'm Not The One," Auerbach also plays organ and Carney also plays Mellotron.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Not The One")

Mr. AUERBACH: (Singing) I've been tried and I've been tested. I was born tired. I never got rested. Harder than marble stone. I'm better off, better off left alone. 'Cause I'm not the one. No not the one. You wanted it all, but I give you, give you none. So I'm not the one.

GROSS: That's The Black Keys from their latest album "Brothers," and my guests are the members of the band, Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach.

I really like the lyric, I've been tried and I've been tested. I was born tired and I never got rested. I like the idea of being born tired. Great line. And speaking of tired, you know, you were talking about that crazy tour that you were on years ago and you recently canceled your tour of Australia, saying that you were just too exhausted, that you've been doing too much touring. That must've been a really hard decision unless you'd sold absolutely no tickets, which I doubt. It's really hard to cancel a show.

Mr. CARNEY: My uncle said that the reward for good work is more work, and then it keeps piling on. And basically what happened is our tour was supposed to stop in mid-November. And around early October, our management company asked us to add a bunch of shows, to do these Christmas shows for radio stations in the U.S. because "Tighten Up" was doing so well. And, you know, it being the first time we've ever been played on the radio we felt like it was necessary for us to go do that. And then during that process adding two and a half weeks of touring, we also got offered "SNL" and we got offered "The Colbert Report" and "Letterman."

So this, what was supposed to be a three-week break for us to like catch up and see our family and to get situated in Nashville, which we just moved to, it turned into just a solid six weeks of work. And the day before we were supposed to leave for Australia we got snowed into New York City and we basically realized that we were probably going to have a nervous breakdown if we didn't get to go home and like, see our own, you know, things for a minute.

GROSS: Sometimes you have to reach a point where you feel like you're about to get so sick that you have to say no or you're already so sick that you have to say, no I can't do it. Did you allow it to reach that point where you physically just couldn't go through with it?

Mr. AUERBACH: Well, we've gotten to that point before so canceling this tour was just us knowing that it was going to get like that, you know?

GROSS: Right.

Mr. AUERBACH: And in the long run everyone benefits from us canceling and rescheduling, you know, because if we go down there, the shows suffer, everybody's mood suffers, everything kind of suffers, you know, and it's best to be rested and good to go when you go on tour.

GROSS: So on your website, on the band's website, The Black Keys website, you have your videos. And I guess I'm wondering who are the videos for now? MTV doesn't play any, or much video, you know, music videos anymore. And - ther used to be whole shows of videos. I don't know if anybody does that on TV. Is it a website phenomenon now?

Mr. AUERBACH: I don't know. We have no idea.

Mr. CARNEY: We don't know.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. AUERBACH: We really have no clue.

Mr. CARNEY: It's actually...

Mr. AUERBACH: We asked our manager the same thing every time we make a video.

GROSS: Like why bother?

Mr. AUERBACH: What are these really for?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. AUERBACH: But they still play videos in Australia and in, you know, the UK and, you know, the Internet. We, yeah, we don't know.

GROSS: So...

Mr. CARNEY: I think maybe the main point of the videos it's like kind of like a, you know, we're just doing it to help support - filmmakers get a start.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah, that's pretty much it.

GROSS: So one of the videos, the one for "Next Girl," has a disclaimer...

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...rolling at a crawl beneath, you know, at the bottom the screen and the crawl basically says this is not the official video. It's an attempt by the record label to attract attention to the band. The label thinks it's hilarious. The Black Keys hate this. It's demeaning to the song. And you want to describe the video?

Mr. CARNEY: Well, that tag at the bottom is something that Dan wrote because that is exactly how we felt about that video.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. AUERBACH: They needed a video and they wanted a video and the guy at Warner Brothers hired his friend to do this quick video, and they used a dinosaur puppet with a bunch of girls in bikinis beside a pool, and the puppet is lip-synching the words, you know, me singing and they sent it to us like, here you go. Can we...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AUERBACH: Can we get your approval on this? And we were like absolutely not. It's, first of all, it's not funny. It's stupid, you know, and it's obviously demeaning to, you know, our music that we love and...

GROSS: It's a powerful song and...

Mr. AUERBACH: So, I...

GROSS: It's such a kind of like, angry song about a girl who's...

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah. Absolutely.

GROSS: ...been really bad to you and you're never going to let it happen again.

Mr. AUERBACH: Absolutely.

GROSS: It's a moody song and you have this like dinosaur puppet leering at these girls in bikinis who are writhing around in sexy poses and it's just silly.

Mr. AUERBACH: I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AUERBACH: It was so weird that the major label is not thoughtful to that, you know, because they usually are. But so we, I just said can I, you know, can I put a little tag at the bottom? You know, that's the only way I'll let that happen. And they're like, okay. Let see what you want to put down there. And I wrote that, all that stuff, you know, and it was just completely dissing the entire video. I figured they'd say okay, we'll come up with a different idea. And then they did it. And they put it on the bottom and they let it slide. So I thought that was like the only way that video was passable at all.

GROSS: That's funny. So they didn't pull it...

Mr. CARNEY: And we know the guy who did the video. He's a really nice guy.

Mr. AUERBACH: He's a really nice guy.

GROSS: So what about in Australia? When they play it on TV, does it have your disclaimer on it?

Mr. CARNEY: You know...

Mr. AUERBACH: That's permanent on it every - everywhere.

GROSS: Oh really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah.

(Break)

GROSS: Let's hear another song from your latest album. And I want to play "Howlin' For You." And this is a very blues-based song. And I'm wondering if you were influenced in this by Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters?

Mr. AUERBACH: Gary Glitter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AUERBACH: Seriously.

Mr. CARNEY: Seriously.

GROSS: Seriously? Really?

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah.

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah. This is "Rock 'n Roll Part Eight."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah. I mean...

GROSS: Okay. Make the connection for me.

Mr. AUERBACH: Play the drums.

(Soundbite of Mr. Carney making drums sounds)

Mr. AUERBACH: I mean, I mean that's sort of what we - that's what turned us on in the beginning and then we just built the song around it.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. AUERBACH: I had the verses and I had this really kind of thin tremolo guitar sound that I wanted to use and we put this - again, this is one of those songs you just put together really quickly and it turned out really fun.

GROSS: So this is "Howlin' For You" from The Black Keys' latest album, which is called "Brothers."

(Soundbite of song, "Howlin' For You")

Mr. AUERBACH: (Singing) All right. Yeah. Well, I must admit. I can't explain any of these thoughts racing through my brain. It's true. Baby I'm howlin' for you.

All right. There's something wrong with this plot. The actors here have not got a clue. Baby I'm howlin' for you.

Da, da, da, da, da. Da, da, da, da, da. Da, da, da, da, da. Da, da, da, da, da. Da, da, da, da, da. Da, da, da, da, da. Da, da, da, da, da.

Mockingbird, can't you see. Little girl's got a hold on me like glue. Baby I'm howlin' for you.

GROSS: That's "Howlin' For You," from The Black Keys' latest album, "Brothers." And the album is nominated for four Grammys. And my guests are the members of the band: Dan Auerbach, who sings and plays guitar and Patrick Carney, who is the drummer and they co-write the songs.

Now, this latest album was produced at the Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama. Was it the history of that studio that made you want to go there to record?

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah. I wanted to go to an old studio. I had a few that were on the list and one of them was Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis. There was Robin Hood Bryan's studio in Tyler, Texas. And I guess we sort of got talked out of those ones and talked into going to Muscle Shoals Sound. It was an experience for sure. I mean I'm into old studios but it wasn't like we were trying to make a throwback record.

GROSS: So do you feel like you got a special sound from being at Muscle Shoals?

Mr. AUERBACH: No. Absolutely not. I don't think we did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Really?

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah. Because when we got there, it's the same building, but all of the treatment had been ripped out. There was none of the same equipment. It didn't resemble anything. It didn't have any of those same microphones. Nothing. So it was pretty much just like a location recording. We brought our own equipment and that was it.

Mr. CARNEY: It's like, you know, when you see an old Wendy's that's a Chinese restaurant now?

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Yup.

Mr. CARNEY: Or an old—? Yeah, it's that. It's pretty much what it was like.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. AUERBACH: And that was it, you know, and we've kind of realized we can make it happen wherever we go. I mean it was, it might've been inspirational the first time we walked through the doors but then it wasn't pretty much immediately.

GROSS: You have your own studio now, but you started recording in your own basement.

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah. We started recording in my basement.

GROSS: Oh, Patrick, in your basement?

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah. I had this, like this fascination with four-track recorders when I was in high school. And that's how, that's how, that's kind of how the band started, was Dan was just starting to play guitar and I was just starting to kind of get into, like, this four-track recorder I had bought. And he knew that I had a drum set which I couldn't play. And our brothers, like, kind of encouraged to get together and jam.

So he used to come over to my basement and we would like, just record, I don't know even what you would call it but just jams on a four-track and that was like in high school. That was in the mid-'90s. And then we didn't play for years, just occasionally here and there. And then one day in like August 2001, I had bought this like little digital recorder and Dan was going to do some recording with this other band he was playing with and he came over and the rest of the band didn't show up. And we decided to just record some stuff anyway. And that turned into - that day we made a six-song demo basically and we sent it around a couple weeks later and got our first record deal. That's...

GROSS: What was on the demo? Was it originals?

Mr. CARNEY: It was a...

Mr. AUERBACH: It was rip-offs of old blues songs. Really basically just taking like, you know, stuff that I was listening to trying to figure out on guitar. Just sort of aping that stuff and adding lyrics, nonsensical things. And then us being completely obsessed with RZA, we were throwing samples on. It was kind of a mishmosh. It didn't make a lot of sense but we got a record deal from it, which was crazy.

GROSS: So when you formed the band, how did you decide to name it The Black Keys?

Mr. CARNEY: That's - the name comes from this guy named Alfred McMoore, who was a schizophrenic artist, who Dan's dad had met and had been helping him sell some of these scrolls that he made. He would make like five-foot-wide by 50-foot-long scrolls with pen and - or of pencil and crayon. And they were, like, really bizarre, continuous drawings of, like, cross-dressing policewomen, or police officers that were, like, pumping gas into a motorcycle that, you know, the gas pump was like a really ornate streetlight. And then there'd be, like, a casket, and then Jesus would be playing the electric guitar. And they would flow into each other and it was, you know, extremely genius-type stuff.

And my dad works for the local paper in Akron, the Akron Beacon Journal. So Dan's father told my dad about Alfred, and my dad wrote a story about Alfred. So both of our fathers were in contact with this guy, and he would call both of our home phones when we were in high school, sometimes 30 times a day, and leave messages.

And the message would be like: I need a Diet Coke and pipe tobacco. If you don't bring me this, I'll be really upset. I'll be really upset. And then he'll call back a second later and leave another message, you know, like, Jim Carney, you're a black key. You're a black key. You should have brought your D flat. You should have brought me the pipe tobacco.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: So every day, we would get home from school, we didn't really - I didn't really know who he was. I would just get, play on the answering machine, and it would be 50 messages of insanity.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah.

Mr. CARNEY: And then my dad took me to meet him, and...

Mr. AUERBACH: It all made sense.

Mr. CARNEY: It all made sense. But so Dan and I had - we both had this kind of inside joke of being called black keys by Alfred McMoore. So that's where the name comes from.

GROSS: Okay. Well, I thought we could end with - since I know you both like the RZA a lot and he's been really influential in your musical thinking, I thought I'd play something that you collaborated with him on. And you have an album called "Blakroc," which is a collaboration between The Black Keys and several rappers. And this is a collaboration with you and RZA. Would you talk about this track and what you think you brought out in each other?

Mr. CARNEY: Well, he showed up at the studio. We were recording in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and he showed up, and it was - I mean, I couldn't even speak to him, I was so nervous. And...

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah. It was weird.

Mr. CARNEY: He was, like - first thing he did was pick up the electric guitar and started doing the weirdest thing, which is the basis of the song. He started doing the weirdest thing I'd ever heard and...

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah, we were listening to it, like, oh, man. What is he doing?

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah.

Mr. AUERBACH: We had no idea.

Mr. CARNEY: But it was pure genius.

Mr. AUERBACH: It was pure genius. He comes in, and he talks to the engineer, and he's like, yeah, that little part right there. And they splice it out, and he loops it. And all of a sudden, it's like a masterpiece.

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AUERBACH: And we were dumbfounded, you know? And it's sort of why he's who he is. He's just absolutely amazing.

GROSS: And did...

Mr. CARNEY: He's so fun to talk to, too.

Mr. AUERBACH: And he's a - yeah. He's the nicest guy.

Mr. CARNEY: I was too enamored by RZA, and also enamored by the fact that he was wearing all Wu Wear clothes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: ...which I thought was super awesome.

GROSS: Well...

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah, head to toe.

Mr. CARNEY: Head to toe.

GROSS: ...let me know when you have your own clothing line.

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AUERBACH: Hats, boots.

Mr. CARNEY: Everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: All right. So my guests have been the members of The Black Keys, and their latest album, "Brothers," is nominated for four Grammys. And The Black Keys are Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. But what we're about to hear is their collaboration with the RZA from the album "Blakroc."

So here we go. Thank you both so much, and good luck.

Mr. CARNEY: Thank you.

Mr. AUERBACH: Thank you for having us. Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Tellin' Me Things")

THE RZA: (Rapping) She just keep tellin' me things, things I don't want to hear. She just keep tellin' me things, things I don't want to hear. She just keep tellin' me things, things I don't want to hear. She just keep tellin' me things, things I don't want to hear.

She told me that she love me, oh, man, yo. She just keep tellin' me things, things I don't want to hear.

GROSS: That's the track from the album "Blakroc," featuring The Black Keys and the RZA.

You can hear three tracks The Black Keys' latest albums "Brothers" on our website: freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a retrospective collection featuring La Lupe. In the '60s, she was called the Queen of Latin Soul.

This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular