(Editor’s note: In March 2003, Beacon Journal music writer Malcolm X Abram and staff photographer Karen Schiely traveled with the Black Keys to the South by Southwest Music Festival in Texas. Here is the first of three stories he wrote on the journey.)
By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer
It’s 7:20 a.m., when many people are starting to drop off their kids or are already on their way to work.
But for your average full-time musician, if they’re up before 11, it’s probably because they never got to sleep or they’re trying to locate a wayward band member. For Patrick Carney of the Akron band the Black Keys, being up this early is physically painful and disorienting.
“I almost quit the band twice this morning,” he says as he helps me load my stuff into his 1994 Chrysler van.
Once I’m loaded in, I drive to North Hill bleary-eyed and babbling to pick up his partner, singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach, who is considerably more chipper.
“How you feelin’,” he asks with a big smile on his face.
“I have no idea,” I reply.
This year alone, the band has trekked through 17 states, and this dreary Wednesday morning they’re about to start a 1,376-mile drive to play some gigs at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas.
These aren’t ordinary gigs. In the next few days, the international music industry will come to them for interviews and scrutinize their performances and spread the word of the band.
But first, we have to get out of Akron.
For such a heavily used van, the “Gray Ghost” is surprisingly clean.
There are a few cigarette burns in the upholstery and a guitar pick embedded in a cup holder by some sticky goo, but little else.
By 10 a.m., we are through Cincinnati and Carney has fallen into what he calls “a naturally stoned state of sleep deprivation,” allowing him to drive for hours with only periodic cigarette and bathroom breaks.
During the early going, the CD player is the only constant sound in the band. Comedian David Cross helps to wake us with his profane twists on Sept. 11 and growing up in Georgia. By the time we stop in Covington, Ky., for lunch, both Al Green and Curtis Mayfield have lifted our spirits. We take a quick peek in a strip mall record store to make sure they have copies of the group’s debut CD, The Big Come Up. And then we go next door to sit down at Skyline Chili, where the eyes of customers suspiciously scan our motley crew.
A skinny, 6-foot-4 bespectacled 23-year-old with not quite clean hair and a dazed look in his eyes, Carney attracts attention all on his own.
Before Auerbach and I finish our meals, Carney has inhaled three chili dogs loaded with cheese and onions.
“So how do you like it so far, phenomenal?” Auerbach asks.
Back in the van, Black Sabbath pumps Carney up a little and cell phones begin ringing.
There is plenty of business to be done. Legendary English radio disc jockey John Peel wants them to do a recording session next month.
Britain’s biggest music magazine, NME, is requesting a full hour with the group, and representatives from their record label and their booking agency continually call to bill their schedule.
All of these distractions are good, because there’s not much to look at outside. Somewhere in Kentucky, a water silo announces that we are in “Florence ya’ll.”
“Awesome,” says Carney.
A few hours later near Louisville, a car on the opposite side of the highway has burst into flames, garnering another “awesome” from Carney.
By Bowling Green, Ky., Carney is exhausted and tries desperately to cram his lanky frame into the back seat for a much-needed nap.
Auerbach takes the wheel and we start to groove to Wu-Tang Clan.
“Something to get me in the mood,” says Auerbach.
Around 4 p.m., outside of Nashville, Carney gives up on the nap and does a phone interview uttering choice quotes such as “I mean, really, what’s the difference between The Donnas and Avril Lavigne.”
“Oh my God, how pompous,” Auerbach laughed.
By 9 p.m., after a meal at the Waffle House, Carney says he wants to continue until midnight for a full 17 hours and more than 800 miles of driving. Neither Auerbach nor I are excited by the idea. Carney, borrowing from Curtis Mayfield, spurs us on with “come on keep on pushin’.”