It was nine years ago this month that a scrappy pair of Akron musicians loaded up the beat-down vintage mid-’90s minivan dubbed “The Grey Ghost” and drove through three states to make its debut at South By Southwest, the hip music festival based in Austin, Texas.
Back in early spring of 2003, Pat Carney and Dan Auerbach — now known by much of the pop music listening world as the Black Keys — were promoting their second album Thickfreakness and their touring gear consisted of a couple of guitars, a few amps and a relatively sparse drum kit with the (now) old-school Black Keys logo emblazoned on the bass drum head. Likewise, their road crew and touring entourage consisted entirely of Pat Carney and Dan Auerbach.
Nearly a decade later, the Black Keys are bona fide rock stars. The band has won three Grammys, an MTV Video Award and released two gold-selling, Top 5-charting albums in a row, Brothers and its latest, El Camino — released last fall and debuting at No. 2, bested only by crooner Michael Buble’s Christmas album.
In addition to industry awards and accolades, the band recently took a detour from the biggest tour of its career to accept a coveted spot on the Firestone High School Wall of Fame.
“It was kind of surreal,” an exhausted Carney said from a tour stop in Montreal.
“Every day for four years you walk past that thing and your aware of it. At the time I was going there [Carney graduated in ’98, Auerbach in ’97], Chrissie Hynde wasn’t on the wall which was unbelievable to me . . . maybe because she played rock ’n’ roll music. But it’s cool that Firestone is recognizing the rock musicians that have gone there and there are still some that need to be up there that aren’t, namely (Devo drummer) Alan Myers. He should be on that wall,” Carney said.
While the pair was reliving its halcyon days at Firestone, the tour kept a-rolling with the band’s now five tractor-trailers of gear and staging (plus a luxury bus each for Auerbach, 32, and Carney, 31) already at the next tour stop in Detroit taking a full eight hours to set up the duo’s large but elegantly simple stage.
This year, the Keys embarked on its first headlining arena tour, and it has been an unqualified success with many dates selling out weeks in advance, including a Madison Square Garden show that sold out so fast that the band booked another. But for Carney, the Garden show and its upcoming counterpart are important in part because many of the band’s peers (and Led Zeppelin) have played there but it is not quite the “you have made it” moment others have it as.
“I just felt relieved to have it under our belts because everyone was making such a big deal about it for literally six months after the show was booked. Management, friends and family and everybody so there was a lot of pressure put on that show, more so than any other,” Carney said from a tour stop in Montreal the afternoon after the first MSG show.
“I kept thinking to myself the whole time, I know it’s a legendary venue and a prestigious place to play but of all the arenas in the world it is the most played arena. It’s a bigger deal for me that we’re playing — I’ll call it ‘the Gund’ — but whatever it’s called now,” he said, referring to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
Outside of North American arenas the band’s music has become nearly inescapable, seeping into pop culture through savvy music licensing that has seen its songs used in a wide variety of commercials, television shows and major films.
While the duo has scaled back on licensing songs from El Camino, the album’s ridiculously catchy lead single Lonely Boy has turned up in a few TV shows and the album’s second single, Gold on the Ceiling, is the theme to the 2012 NCAA Tournament, complete with a commercial montage mixing action shots of basketball players with shots of the band playing the song.
“The reason we did it is because both of us like basketball and it gets played more than any other spot for the month, and our new single went to radio right when it started, so we wanted to have it out there,” Carney said.
The Black Keys got to arena stages the old-fashioned way, through a combination of good timing, luck, good tunes, good decisions and a lot of hard work, particularly on the road.
The good timing was the garage rock revival of the early 2000s when fuzzy, stripped down, often blues-based “rawk” was back in vogue. Guitar/bass duos also became fashionable with bands such as the White Stripes, the Dirtbombs, Quasi and Death From Above 1979 receiving critical attention and some commercial success.
The band’s debut album, 2002’s The Big Come-Up, got the buzz going with its mix of Auerbach’s bluesy wail and thick riffs, Carney’s halftime stomp and a few nods to the classic rock, new wave, and hip-hop groups they listened to in high school.
The buzz increased into a thrum as each album attracted more fans and attention. Thickfreakness (2003), the early breakthrough Rubber Factory (2005) and Magic Potion (2006) along with singles such as Set You Free, 10 A.M. Automatic and Your Touch began popping up in car commercials, movies and television shows.
With Attack & Release (2008), the band, working with inventive producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, helped expand its sound and songwriting yielding the hit single Strange Times.
But, the Grammy-winning, gold-selling, Top 3 Billboard-charting Brothers and its funky hit Tighten Up, written in an afternoon with Danger Mouse, helped push the band onto arena stages.
With only two members — both of whom committed early on to eschew day jobs in favor of sinking or swimming as the Black Keys, Carney and Auerbach spent countless hours in used vans scented with ripe man-feet and coffee driving across the U.S. and eventually throughout Europe and Australia to play for whomever showed up.
A few months or years later when they returned to those same towns and cities, they’d be booked in theaters instead of clubs and to increasingly rabid and sold-out crowds singing along to their latest album. Now they’ve graduated from large theaters and amphitheaters to arenas.
“It’s weird because the last time we played Detroit it was at the Fillmore for about 3,500 people and it was August of 2010,” Carney said.
“We went back a week-and-a-half ago and there were 14,500 people at the show. I thought for the Midwest arena run, we’d be able to get seven or eight thousand to each show and they’ve all turned out to be much bigger than that, so it’s pretty cool,” he said.
Carney considers the band’s rise to be steeped in the rock ’n’ roll tradition recalling that in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s there were plenty of “bands that were actually cool” playing to packed arenas.
“Whether it was Led Zeppelin, David Bowie or the Clash, it’s cool that in 2012, it’s possible for a band that’s not formed around an American Idol to still be able to do it,” he said.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758.