Internal combustion

When it comes to opening for The Black Keys (playing a sold-out show at The Orange Peel this week), Ryan Schaefer (front man of Knoxville-based Royal Bangs) says his group is “kind of nervous.”

Driving ambition: Royal Bangs have always taken a D.I.Y. approach. These days they’re taking advice from The Black Keys.

“With the people who would come to a Black Keys show and the people who would come to our show, it’s kind of like a Venn diagram,” Schaefer explains. “I’m just not sure how big that circle in the middle where they overlap actually is.”

But this pairing is no fluke, no record company-contrived marriage of convenience. Royal Bangs (forget the seemingly logical “the” before their name; it doesn’t exist) was hand-picked by Black Keys percussionist Patrick Carney, who remastered and released their homemade disc, We Breed Champions (2008) and went on to sign the group to his Audio Eagle label.

From their earliest mowing-lawns-to-support-their-music-habit days, the Black Keys shunned big labels in favor of controlling their own finances, becoming known as much for a maverick approach to the music business as for comparisons to The White Stripes. But now the duo is moving into mentor territory.
“They’ve done well and they’ve done it in a good way,” Schaefer acknowledges. He also points to the opening slot of the Keys’ fall tour as “a big favor,” though Royal Bangs isn’t about to jump on just anyone’s bandwagon.

Line of attack

The Black Keys team up with Danger Mouse

If there were ever a case for doing away with music criticism, I suspect the Black Keys are it. The rust-belt duo (guitarist and vocalist Dan Auerbach and percussionist Patrick Carney) caught the music world largely off guard with their 2002 debut, The Big Come Up. “This is a righteous choice for rock debut of the year,” Rolling Stone announced. After that auspicious coming out, each subsequent album has been met with both an increasing fan base and an air of suspicion. Can they do it again? Can they rise above the Delta-blues derivation? Can they outperform other grunge duos such as The White Stripes and The Kills? 

This year’s release, Attack & Release (Nonesuch), the band’s fifth full-length, should cement their tenacious foothold, but the album only added to the confusion of critics and listeners. Here’s why: It was produced by Gnarls Barkley’s Danger Mouse. The lesser-known fact here is that Danger Mouse originally tapped the Keys to write songs for an album by Ike Turner. Turner’s 2007 death left that project unfinished and a wealth of material in The Keys’ hands, hence the brave new direction of Attack.

There are hints of Danger Mouse—mainly in the sleeker, less garage-y production quality—but also in hits of synthesizers (“All I Ever Wanted,” “Strange Times”). Turner’s influence is felt in the girly backup vocals, the soulful Motown flavors and deep R&B grooves (“All I Ever Wanted,” “Lies,” “He Won’t Break”), but there are still rough edges and fuzzy guitars in scores (“I Got Mine,” “Remember When (Side B)”).

At the end of the day, Attack is a solid album that successfully straddles the line between rocking hard and remaining approachable. Here, Auerbach and Carney stretch their wings, proving their chops both as musicians and as re-interpreters of nearly a century of American music.

“Part of what [Carney and Keys’ guitarist-vocalist Dan Auerbach] liked about us is that we’ve made all of our own stuff up to now,” Schaefer says. The original version of Champions was recorded in various band members’ homes in a cramped couple of weeks before Schaefer headed off to Europe. Even the group’s live show—characterized by high-energy Fishbone-style instrument swapping and Schaefer’s lyrics-shouting, audience-riling, sweat-dripping antics—is a relatively new turn adopted “now that we’re making the transition from weekend band to do-this-all-the-time band.”

This D.I.Y. ethic has made Royal Bangs what it is, but there’s the potential for such staunch individualism to bite them in the collective butt. “We make our own T-shirts. The lights we use: We built them,” Schaefer says. “We kind of got off to a rocky start with [the Black Keys] because we want to do it all ourselves.”

Then again, Schaefer’s bombastic pop is attention-grabbing (if not everyone’s cup of tea): At a Grey Eagle show this summer, Royal Bangs opened for the If You Wannas, and played with energy and finesse not seen since CBGB, circa 1983.

Yet he knows his band’s limitations. “We’re all super out of shape,” Schaefer says. “We need the right ratio of beer to water: Enough so you don’t mind making a fool of yourself, but can still play.”

It’s a workable equation, but, observes Schaefer, “I don’t know that there’s a label that would have us. It’s not like we’re beating off labels with a stick.”

So, when Carney speaks, Royal Bangs pays attention. “Patrick’s the first person I’ve listened to,” Schaefer admits.

That said, catch the Royal Bangs once, and it’s apparent band members are being true to themselves. MySpace hits like “Cat Swallow” with its hyper cymbal beat, driving synthesizer and fuzzed-out guitars show off the group’s ample prowess. It’s songs like this, fresh and fleshed-out, that warrant rock magazines like Spin to gush, “It’s discoveries like Royal Bangs that make a late night (well after 2:45 a.m.) worthwhile.”

It’s not only the Black Keys who are taking notice.

who: Royal Bangs
what: Knoxville-based alt-pop, opening for the Black Keys
where: The Orange Peel
when: Friday, Oct. 3. 9 p.m. (Sold out. www.theorangepeel.net. 225-5851.)

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