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The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach talks big crowds, 'Brothers' and touring with Kings of Leon




The bluesiest, ballsiest, most soulful young band in American rock 'n’ roll is performing Saturday night at Tampa’s 1-800-Ask-Gary Amphitheatre.

But get there early or you’ll miss them.

What, you thought we were talking about headliners Kings of Leon? No, we’re referring to the opening act — Akron, Ohio’s Black Keys.

Worshipping at the altars of DIY garage rock and stanky ’70s blues, singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have cranked out a series of critically adored albums and even more critically adored live performances. Their music is all over movies and television; I’ll Be Your Man is the theme song to HBO’s Hung. And after nearly a decade together, their career is cresting with the sweaty, sexy new Brothers, an album so good it prompted Esquire to write: “Are the Black Keys the best rock band in America? Probably.”

The Black Keys will open for Kings of Leon at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the 1-800-Ask-Gary Amphitheatre. Click here for tickets.

This week, we caught up with Auerbach to find out how the low-key Keys are handling that sort of acclaim.

The Black Keys seem critically bulletproof — I don’t think I’ve ever read a negative thing about your music. Are you kind of accustomed to that at this point?

We’ve had people dis our music. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. A lot of time when people praise it, they’re praising things that we don’t think are really correct anyway. Everybody has their own opinion, and is entitled to it. The thing that’s important is that Pat and I get to make music. That’s really all there is to it.

My theory is that the Black Keys play music that people want to hear, even if they don’t consciously know they want to hear it — which explains why so many of your songs appear in television and movies.

I don’t know. I have no explanation for it. The people who put music to film, and music to commercials, I think they appreciate what we do, because it’s different from everyone. It’s not some sort of homogenous thing that they get from a major label, saying, “Here, can you put this in a commercial?” I think when they’re looking for something, they say, “Wow, these two guys made this in their basement in Akron, Ohio. This is cool. Let’s use this.”

It’s weird — it kind of helps us, but it’s certainly not helped our record sales, having recorded our records in the basement. It doesn’t help get our stuff played on the radio, because it doesn’t sound clean enough. But it’s attracted other attention in different ways.

Are you at a point where it’s getting difficult to do the two-guys-recording-in-a-basement thing?

No, not at all, because we set a precedent. Our label understands what we do, and what we’re about. They understand that they don’t have any say at all in what we do musically. We have free reign when it comes to making our records.

Now that you’ve opened for a lot of big bands, including Kings of Leon on this tour, have you learned anything about performing in front of bigger and bigger crowds every single night?

No, not really. We’ve been performing in front of pretty big crowds for a long time now. Once you get up to a few thousand, it sort of doesn’t matter after that. You can’t really change anything. You just have to go out and have fun.

In the past year or so, Kings of Leon have achieved a much higher level of fame in this country. Have you learned anything, in the short time you’ve spent with them, about being a gigantic American rock band?

Not really. They do have a pretty immense production going on — six semis and six buses. Lots of security and stuff. Definitely pretty intense.

Are you playing with a full band on your whole set on this tour, or just for certain songs?

We’re just playing the new stuff, off the new record, with two extra guys.

As you grow, and as the Black Keys get bigger, how do you make that work with the core ideal of the band, which is just you and Pat together?

Well, we don’t feel limited when we’re in the studio recording. When we’re making new songs, nothing really changes, and hasn’t changed, since we started. We’ve always jumped on any instrument we wanted to and put it on tape, just to try to make the song the best we can, not thinking about whether it’s a two-piece band or not. And having tried out these extra guys on tour with us, we both love it. We both think it really works. It’s fun as hell. Musically, it’s a lot of fun. We’re able to play the songs like we recorded them, which is great fun.

Does it enable you to scratch musical itches you had before, but couldn’t scratch because you were limited by having to do songs as two people?

Yeah, pretty much every song off of Rubber Factory, we had to change when we played it live, because we were a two-piece. Attack & Release, same thing — a lot of the songs we couldn’t do because they were just too involved, the arrangements, and they needed too many instruments. But now, having the two extra guys, it’s not a problem anymore.

Have you had to rework all those old songs to accommodate the two extra guys?

No, we haven’t done any older songs with the extra guys. Just the new songs off of Brothers.

Brothers reminds me a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival — swampy and southern and soulful. Was it a conscious decision, when you were recording, to go for more of a ’70s, swampy kind of vibe?

No, not really. We didn’t talk about it before we went into the studio. We didn’t rehearse, we didn’t practice. (laughs). We just went into the studio and started recording like we always do. I had songs written and basic sketches. I had ideas. And we just turned them into Black Keys songs. It was really quick — two weeks, we were done with the records.

Did it feel at the time that you were doing something different than you’d done before?

It just felt like a continuation of what we’d been doing, or just going deeper with things that we’d tried, moving forward. We’d been using other instruments since we started. I think we’re just getting ... I don’t want to say better, but we keep growing, I guess. It was definitely not something we planned.

Next Girl is such a great, rueful rock song, combining love and hate into a single emotion. Did that song come from a place of love or hate?

Honestly, I got inspired by the old hip-hop song Ex-Girl to Next Girl by Gang Starr. And I told DJ Premier that when we did the Blakroc stuff. I told him I had a song that was inspired by something he’d done. It was pretty cool.

I was looking through our archives, and I’m sure I’m wrong on this, but I can only find one instance of you guys playing Tampa before. I don’t expect you to remember every place you’ve ever played, but do have any idea if that’s right?

I have no idea. We hardly ever go to Florida. Most bands hardly ever go to Florida.

Trust me, I’m in Florida, I know. But the Black Keys seem like a band that would never want to leave the south, with all the blues and hip hop and swamp rock. Do you get more love in the South, or in major cities?

You know what? The farther away from home you get, the more love you get. So we do best in Australia. (laughs) Nah, we’re pretty fortunate. We do well across the board, in a lot of different places.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 3:06pm]


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