In America's indie rock clubs, hour-long blues riffs are fading into hour-long rock jams. In America's record stores, kids are plugging into listening stations that chug along to Junior Kimbrough via the North Mississippi Allstars or Muddy Waters via Jack White. Within America's current musical dialogue, young white guys who can sing like old black guys are catharsis for young white kids who have never heard old black guys in the first place.
Wrecked at this interstate of blues and minimalist rock is the heaving wail of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney's Black Keys. These two 20-something Ohio rockers represent a lasting homage to the legacies of old black men up and down the Mississippi Delta. And while the White Stripes bask in their popularity (and crash around the blues and rock interstate with Renee Zellweger), the Black Keys only skim the surface of the industry but dig deep for what really matters: rock's long-departed blues muse.
Carney isn't exactly thinking that deep. It's 10 a.m. on a Wednesday. He's been at home for two days and damn if he's not antsy. Talking about influences and big-label politics isn't in the cards; instead, we chat about the Black Keys' basics, which include touring, drinking and their next record. But somehow, Carney's 23-year-old voice seems stretched and a bit too weathered for someone who's just returned home.
"I liked the tour of Europe and I liked our tour of smaller clubs but I don't really like-well, we toured with Beck and that tour was really hard," he says. "We were following these busses and playing these really huge places for the first time and it was really awkward. It just took a while to get used to but I don't think we ever got really comfortable. We fit better in these small joints. I think our music does too."
He may be onto something. While his musical counterparts in the White Stripes "expand their sound" to include arena tours and other giant landscapes, the Black Keys are still trying to catch up with the throbbing hype that surrounded them at this year's South-by-Southwest Music Festival. The raw carnality of their material may help in their quest to stay grounded; it's hard to act like rock stars when there's only two of you working damn hard on stage. A recent visit to Amsterdam provided a wealth of opportunity for rock star patronage, though.
"Amsterdam was the most bizarre place I've ever been," he says. "Everyone is totally high out of their minds and there are crazy British tourists trying to buy prostitutes everywhere you look."
Did they indulge?
"Not like that," he says. "Our tour manager indulges for all of us I think. He was smoking 10 joints a day."
If these two Ohio gents are going to be taking in the reigns of bone-snapping blues-rock, they better as hell start partying like their tour manager. Old black bluesmen everywhere would be highly disappointed.
If judgment of the Black Keys were based purely on their scorching musical resume, however, the verdict would be a bit different.
The duo's latest disc, Thickfreakness, is a mélange of soaring fingerwork via Auerbach and head-pounding drumming via Carney. Auerbach pulls off a Franklin Roosevelt of sorts on this record: while he yelps and howls through raw blues riff after cutting rock sequence, folks establish a mental picture of the 24-year-old's manic caricature-about 6-foot-4, around two-fitty, black, definitely over 40.
Come showtime, people aren't necessarily disappointed as much as impressed by the scrawny white guy and his abilities.
The duo, friends since grade school, spent 14 hours in Carney's basement to record Thickfreakness almost completely live-mostly because they, "had to get it done," Carney says.
"We're taking the whole winter off to record our next record and write it," he explains. "That's why I'm in the basement right now-we're cleaning it up because I haven't been down here in like two months and there's mold everywhere.
"Things haven't changed much since high school. We still want to make music this way. We're going to take our time for this next record but we're still going to do it in the basement. Everybody has their own take on what a band should do at this point, you know? And everybody, I think, is wrong when they suggest going to bigger studios and change what you've been doing.
"Mostly we just buy a 40 of Old English each and write and play and record and hang out."
I suggest that now they can afford a little better beer than Old English.
"Oh yeah. I think we'll get some Miller High Life."
On the side of a Miller High Life bottle, it reads: "The Champagne of Beers. Made in Milwaukee, WI." That's only 1,067 miles from Mississippi. The Black Keys don't have far to go.