By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer
On a small residential side street in West Akron is an unassuming two-story house.
From the bowels of the house, a loud, slow, distorted blues riff emanates, occasionally punctuated by a big plodding boom-thwack, boom-boom-thwack beat. Repeatedly, the groove rages for a few seconds perhaps a few minutes, then stops only to begin anew a few moments later.
The neighbors, most of whom are probably at work, don’t seem to mind the noise (“sounds like they almost got it,” is one friendly critique heard from a nearby resident), and they likely don’t know that the riff that’s been floating through their streets all day will be on college radio stations around this country and rockin’ commercial radio in Australia and Europe by the end of the year.
Inside the house and down in the basement where the elemental music is coming from are friends and bandmates Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney, known professionally as the Black Keys.
The duo has been working diligently for several weeks on their fourth as-yet-untitled album to be released in late summer. Now, with 14 songs recorded and eight of the disc’s planned 11 tracks chosen, they can begin preparing for their biggest local gig ever: playing the sold-out ballroom at the Agora in Cleveland on Saturday.
Despite playing hundreds of gigs around the globe, guitarist/singer Auerbach is nervous about the show.
“I’ve never been to the Agora,” Auerbach said. “I was worried that no one was going to show up.”
The band hopes to premiere a few new tunes at the show but writing, recording and mixing the new material has taken up most of the time, leaving little time for actually rehearsing them.
“I guess we should do that before Saturday,” Auerbach deadpans.
But today, it’s back to perfecting (a relative term) the riff, the beat and the recording of a song that will be called Elevator. Familiar in its construction, but no less grooving, the song enters with a few seconds of feedback before the fuzzed-out blues riff kicks in, giving way to a start-stop chorus, all of which will eventually feature Auerbach’s impassioned vocals.
The duo is entering a new and potentially exciting phase of their young careers. In the past the band has spurned several offers from companies wanting to use their music in commercials, including one that would have wedded the band’s Midnight in Her Eyes with images of an apparently very soulful taco salad.
Now, Nissan has licensed Set You Free from their second CD, Thickfreakness, for a series of ads, paying the duo a fee that Carney likened to having “a regular job for a year.” They also recently signed with Q Prime management, one of the big players in the industry that counts Shania Twain, Metallica and Gillian Welch among its clients.
And they are still fielding offers from record labels around the world, cherry-picking which label they want to handle their music in various territories. They also left their previous label, Fat Possum, with a farewell handshake in the form of an EP of Junior Kimbrough covers to be released in April called Chulahoma.
Additionally, the group has outlived the once near constant comparisons to the wave of rock twosomes that were everywhere a few years ago, including the boy-girl faux siblings from Detroit.
“We didn’t know any of those Detroit bands before we started reading about them,” Carney said.
“We were never a part of that scene and a lot of the bands we used to get compared to you don’t hear about anymore, but in the end it doesn’t matter because we just have to keep doing what we do,” Auerbach said.
Nevertheless, despite their business becoming bigger, down in the basement of Carney’s house/studio, called the Audio Eagle Nest, the recording process once called medium-fi remains the same.
Auerbach stands on one end of the room with a stool holding his coffee and a notebook, while Carney’s drum kit is set up in the corner on the opposite side under the watchful eye of a unicorn painted on black velvet. Between them are various cords, plugs, a washing machine and a dryer and a sink adding to the ambience. In the adjacent rooms are more guitars, amps, keyboards and the nerve center of the studio.
They run through Elevators a few more times with Auerbach expending about a quarter of the energy he unleashes on stage until one take elicits a spontaneous “Yeah!” from Auerbach.
“That was cool,” Carney said,
“Felt good to me,” Auerbach agrees.
At the mixing board, a not-too-flashy pro-tools setup, they speak in relaxed, low tones while fiddling around with sound levels, various filters, plug-ins and other sonic doodads to get the sound of the song right.
Later, upstairs, while Captain Beefheart wails about a Tarotplane in the background, they say the new record will definitely be their best. No band ever says “our new songs suck,” but Carney, son of Beacon Journal reporter Jim Carney, and Auerbach said the overall sound will be heavier and the songwriting is better.
Musically, “It’s a reflection of some of the stuff I’ve been listening to,” Auerbach said. He cited early 70s Japanese psych-blues guitarist Shinki Chen, Filipino power trio Juan De La Cruz and Howlin’ Wolf’s much maligned 1968 psychedelic blues effort This is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either, among recent favorites.
Lyrically, “I have something to say,” Auerbach added, noting that the album will contain the band’s first political song.
With both the business and creative sides of the band in full swing, it would be easy for The Black Keys to have to start shopping for larger hats to cover their growing heads, but they remain two nice boys from Akron.
“We’re still making records in our basement, and still making them for (reasonable cost),” Carney said.
“I’m having more fun than ever, recording has been great and it feels good having stood our ground and not been forced to use outside producers or big studios and for us it really feels like it’s all coming together.”