Beat of a Different Drummer: Interview with Black Keys’ Patrick Carney (March 2009)
Graduates of Akron’s Firestone High (the same school the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde attended), Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney started playing together in 2001. In 2002, they inauspiciously issued The Big Come Up, a gritty collection of garage-blues tunes, on a small label called Alive Records and set out on a national tour. Before long, Rolling Stone magazine was praising the band, and acts like Radiohead and Beck enlisted it as an opening act. Its music soon appeared in everything from TV ads to commercial films. In the wake of last year’s Attack & Release, its first album to feature an outside producer, the band’s popularity escalated even further. And yet, as Carney explains in a recent phone interview, the duo’s still proud to call Akron home.
Whether you’re performing on Late Night with Conan O’Brien or playing the main stage at Lollapalooza, you guys always identify yourselves as the Black Keys from Akron, Ohio. Talk a little about what Akron symbolizes for you guys and why you like the city so much. Well, Akron is our home. It’s where all of our friends are. We do that because places like Akron get written off. I don’t think you can’t truly appreciate Akron until you have either lived here or at least been here. It’s not one of those cities where people are waiting in line to come visit. That’s why we like Akron. It’s not flashy. There are lots of cool things, but you just need to know where to go. Because of that, nothing ever changes, which is cool.
I think you’ve recorded each of your albums in Akron? Was it difficult to convince someone like Dangermouse, who worked with you on the last album, to come out there to work on the recording? I think he would have been happy to come to Akron, but he came to Painesville. That was pushing it a little bit. After about seven or eight days of working on the record straight, he made us take a day off so he could go into Cleveland and go to actual clubs or bars. We spent a lot of time at the Red Hawk Grille. That’s where we were hanging out.
Have you started to work on a new album and do you plan to record it in Northeast Ohio? Our next record we won’t record until August. We’re going to do it in Memphis, I think, but just because there’s some cool studios there that have a lot of history. Cleveland and Memphis have a lot in common, although Memphis is way more run-down. They both have a lot of music history and are both underdog cities.
There’s obviously a long musical history associated with Akron. While your band plays garage rock and blues, do you see a connection between the Black Keys and any of the old punk bands from there? I think I do, but I don’t know if it’s because we’re from the same area. I can relate to those bands in the sense that Dan [Auerbach] and I both tried to go to college but didn’t like it all. We wanted to play music and put our music on a punk label and went on tour in our mini-van. Whatever happened to us was all luck. There’s a lot of hard work, but other bands work hard, too. The music scenes in Cleveland and Akron now are better than they were when we were first starting out. I don’t know if that’s because it’s easier to record music at home now or MySpace or what. It’s a good time to be in a band in Ohio.
Would you say there’s some kind of Akron aesthetic that comes through in the music and fashion? I think in the late ’70s, there was for sure. I would say – and this doesn’t necessarily apply to me or Dan – the Kent/Akron aesthetic is people who are really good at their instruments but decide to play really simple music. I would say it’s more of a sense of humor thing than music. That’s the thread that can be drawn through all those Akron bands from the ’70s until now. They all share the same sense of humor. Tin Huey and Houseguest are drawing from the same joke book.
What are some of your favorite venues in Cleveland Plus? Obviously, the Beachland in Cleveland. In Akron, there’s not really a venue since the Lime Spider closed. There’s the Akron Civic, which is beautiful place, but really big so not that many bands play there. The Matinee [in Akron] is really tiny and it’s like half the size of the Beachland Tavern. It’s cool to see bands, but once more than 50 or 60 people come there, you can’t see anything. Musica is downtown near the Art Museum, and they’re committed to getting good bands. There’s a compromise that needs to be made. A band that could go to Cleveland and play to a 1000 people could come to Akron and play to only 400, and even for that you’d have to rely on people from Cleveland coming down.
Do you have a favorite bar? Yeah, lemme think. I normally just go to the Matinee ‘cause it’s near my house and in Highland Square. There’s a bar that’s only open on the weekends in the old school blue-collar neighborhood called Firestone Park, which was built for Firestone employees. It’s called the Southern. It has an original façade from the ’30s with an awesome art deco font. This one old guy named Ray Spain runs the bar and he’s ancient. They don’t serve hard liquor and just serve beer in the can but they have enough liquors to make a flaming Dr. Pepper.
When you have visitors come in from out of town, where do you like to take them? I like everyone to go the Akron Art Museum. They’re surprised that Akron actually has a good Art Museum. It’s pretty incredible. We’re members so we always use our passes. Akron is the kind of place where interesting things happen because of the interesting people that live here. Most of the interesting things happen from going to restaurants or bars. It’s a big city considering how small the area is that’s liveable. There are lots of cool Italian grocery stores and restaurants all over the place.
Chrissie Hynde once badmouthed Akron and you fired back at her. Now that you’ve shared a bill with her and Devo at a fundraiser last year at the Akron Civic, have you resolved your differences? Yeah, I don’t know what her deal is. She was nice. I’m getting too old to care about people saying stupid stuff.
So do you get a hometown discount for eating at her vegan restaurant The Vegiterranean? No, but I do take people there. It’s an awesome restaurant, but it’s surprising how bad the music is that they play there. It’s straight-up new age jazz. As my uncle [saxophonist] Ralph [Carney] would say, “It’s late jazz.” –Interview by Jeff Niesel