Akron, Ohio-based rockers the Black Keys are either the most unlikely act to ever sell out a concert hall, or the most genuine rock stars to grace a Rolling Stone.
Not the cover, mind you. But the magazine did peg the underdog duo’s 2002 debut The Big Come Up (Alive) as “a righteous choice for rock debut of the year.”
Three years and two more albums later, the Keys are still cranking out repetitive, hypnotic grunge-blues with a sound big enough to seriously question anyone’s need for a full band. Their current tour, in support of 2004 release Rubber Factory (Fat Possum), lands in Asheville this Friday the 13th — an unlucky omen for the sleeper duo?
More than likely, they wouldn’t care either way.
The basement tapes
“We don’t ever think about s••t,” declares singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach. “We do whatever we want to do.” It’s a bratty retort, but a quick glance at the Keys’ career only fortifies the point. Now in their mid-20s, Auerbach and drummer/producer Patrick Carney met a decade ago while still in high school. They weren’t exactly friends, and they weren’t even in the same grade, but — according to Auerbach — they started hanging out because Carney had a basement and a four-track recorder they could use.
“Me and Pat have always recorded ourselves — that’s what we liked doing. We recorded and made mixed tapes,” the guitarist explains. And now, even on the Oxford, Miss.-based Fat Possum label, the Keys still do their own recording and production.
“We didn’t get together to get famous or meet girls,” Auerbach insists.
In fact, their first album was released on primitive noise-rock label Alive because “they’re the only ones that didn’t want to hear us play live, first,” the guitarist admits.
The band’s bio tattles that the Keys “almost spook[ed] in Seattle at the sight of 100 people wanting to see them play their unique brand of atavistic boogie.” They’ve gotten over that kind of stage fright, but even three years logging serious mileage hasn’t changed Auerbach’s attitude about highway life.
“Playing shows is fun,” he sighs, “but going out on the road is hard, especially for someone like me who likes to be at home.”
Before the duo started touring, they were living in a vermin-infested apartment mowing lawns for a slumlord. These days? “It’s turned from one kind of unhealthy lifestyle to another,” the guitarist says with the verbal equivalent of a grimace.
But maybe sometimes a little ill health is just what the doctor ordered. Rubber Factory is a gritty collection of hard-hitting tunes, powered by fuzzy guitar and thrashing drums. The lead track, “When the Lights Go Out,” opens with Carney, solo, beating a steady, pulsing rhythm that sounds as much like industrial machinery as a drum kit. It ends with a single, screeching fiddle note.
“10 A.M. Automatic” is reminiscent of Angus Young — if Young played roadhouses in the deep South — while “Act Nice and Gentle” comes on with a swingy, high guitar riff and sultry, bluesy lyrics. Not that Auerbach’s growling vocals really manage sultry — but there’s something so blue-collar, rough-around-the-edges sexy about his voice that it renders his love songs a sweet surprise.
Rubber Factory is all rust belt and hard-livin’ ambiance — no surprise, since the CD was actually recorded in an abandoned tire factory.
“The building was polluted, disgusting and contaminated,” Carney reported to Surface in a 2004 interview. “Every time we’d walk up and down a hallway, we’d get out of breath. We were oxygen deprived the whole time we were there.”
In their own small way, they’re living the blues — only the Keys don’t consider themselves real blues musicians, even though they’re one of just a handful of white acts on Fat Possum, a company known for reviving senior black bluesmen like R.L. Burnside.
“We didn’t sign because we felt like part of that music scene,” Auerbach is quick to say. “We haven’t played one show with any of those old guys.”
He continues, “We just signed because [Fat Possum] thinks the same way we do about music — keep it raw and simple.”
There’s always a hitch
Keeping it raw and simple, for the Keys, extends beyond their sound. It’s a way of life. The guitarist points out that they have no interest in signing with a bigger label, and have never even been on a tour bus.
“That’s not reality,” he bristles. “Labels charge you a fortune for that s••t, and you never get out of debt. I don’t see how being on a major label is right for anyone.”
They’re also not into high-tech production or flashy studios. They currently use a digital recorder, but the guitarist would like to go old-school and work with analog equipment. “I just bought a giant tape thing and had piano movers move it in,” he enthuses. “Maybe it’s stupid, but I’m just into the craft. Also the limitations — I really like having limitations. It used to be that 16-track recordings were the limit.”
So don’t expect the Keys to pull up in a stretch limo flashing oversized diamonds or rocking leather pants. According to Auerbach, even if no one bought another ticket to their shows, they’d keep on cranking out the recordings: “We don’t do it to please anyone but ourselves.”
But the guitarist does have at least one small future plan up his sleeve — despite his earlier claim to the contrary.
“I want to get a boat this summer. I think a lot about getting a trailer hitch for my station wagon.”
The Black Keys rock the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Friday, May 13. The Henchmen open. 10 p.m. $14 ($12/advance). 225-5851.