I was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. It’s not so much a badge of honor as it is a battle scar, but it comes with a sense of pride just the same. Like any good Akronite, I also have an embarrassingly encyclopedic knowledge of every halfway famous person who ever cut his or her teeth in my hometown—LeBron James, the DEVO members who went to high school with my dad, that Angie Everhart chick, and a couple of scruffy, modern day blues-rock champs named Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney.
No two dudes—and they are dudes—have ever served as more appropriate Akron ambassadors than the Black Keys. Storming out of the same Firestone High School that produced Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde, the Waitresses, and part of the aforementioned DEVO, guitarist/vocalist Auerbach and drummer Carney have taken on the Akron rock mantle for the next generation. And they’ve done so to the tune of enormous international success, with their fuzz-heavy riffs and pounding toms regularly heard in films, TV ads, and at sold-out shows around the globe. The duo’s current album, Attack & Release, has been the band’s biggest success yet, reaching #14 on the Billboard charts and drawing wide critical acclaim. If there’s still any mystery about Auerbach and Carney from the perspective of the outsider, it would probably concern why both men have elected to keep their operations in humdrum northeast Ohio, when grander metropolises would surely welcome them.
“Sometimes I’m not sure why we’re still in Akron, honestly,” Auerbach says. “The quality of life is not so great in most respects. I don’t know. It’s weird, because we’re kind of stuck here. There’s an invisible chain around our ankles.”
This is the strange dynamic of dissatisfaction and devotion that you’ll hear from a lot of Akronites. Akron and Knoxville are, in fact, sister cities in a way, with relatable populations, work ethics, and music scenes (Knoxville’s Royal Bangs, for example, have signed with Carney’s Audio Eagle record label). Neither town would be mistaken for Los Angeles, New York, or even Cincinnati, but as the Black Keys prove, unique artists often come from unique places.
“Well, we also had to work our asses off,” Auerbach says. “As you know, in those early days of touring, it was pretty miserable. We weren’t making any money—awful meals at rest areas. So, you know, we did that kind of stuff, and slowly but surely, things got more steady and sort of took off.
“Now we’re just trying to keep our heads above water, I guess. We’re doing the doggie paddle in the midst of this surreal thing that’s happening. It’s really strange. We never thought any of this would happen. And now, every other day, something else is put on our plate that kind of blows our minds.”
Cases in point: playing in front of 30,000 people at Lollapalooza; opening for the likes of Beck and Radiohead; and having their new record produced by pop’s current go-to-guy, Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse.
“We really wanted to experiment on this record—use a lot of different instruments,” Auerbach says. “But we weren’t even considering having a producer until we started working with Brian on the Ike thing [a project with Ike Turner that wasn’t completed before Turner’s death]. And we got along with him so well and had so much in common that it just made sense, and we jumped on it.”
With the influence of Burton, Attack & Release shook the Black Keys out of the comfort zone of 2006’s Magic Potion and bolstered their garage-rock/Zeppelin approach with some much needed left turns and special effects.
“Yeah, Brian told us, ‘I’ve got a lot of tricks that you guys could learn, and I really want to learn stuff from you guys,’” Auerbach says. “It was sort of an unexpected but great thing to hear—that level of mutual respect. And I definitely learned a bunch of things from being in the studio with him—and from just from being in a real studio for the first time.”
Real studios aside, the Black Keys haven’t lost any of the DIY spirit or Midwestern modesty they developed during a decade of making records in a basement in Akron. As for whether that makes them better Akron ambassadors than basketball’s King James, Auerbach chooses the diplomatic approach.
“I think that we probably promote Akron more than LeBron James does,” he says. “But who knows? Let’s just say we’re tied.”
photos by James Carney