THE TWO OF US
IAIN SHEDDEN MEETS THE BLACK KEYS
THE name Derrick T. Tuggle is not an instantly recognisable one in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll history, but it’s an important one in the life and career of the Black Keys. It was Tuggle, a security guard and part-time actor, who starred by default in the video for the Ohio duo’s 2011 smash hit Lonely Boy, a song that became their biggest success in a career spanning 13 years.
Tuggle was an extra on the video shoot, but when the Black Keys’ singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney rejected the initial ensemble cast productions for the clip, Tuggle’s melange of Michael Jackson and John Travolta dance moves in front of a doorway was promoted to sole billing. As Auerbach described it, the clip was “the most expensive single shot ever recorded”. Luckily for them, the video went viral 24 hours after its release. Thus the Black Keys, childhood friends from Akron who had been working their tails off for 10 years, stepped into another realm of popularity.
Two and half years later there’s great anticipation about the follow-up to El Camino, the album that spawned Lonely Boy and subsequent singles Gold on the Ceiling and Little Black Sub
marines. The new album, Turn Blue, is released next week. Lots of bands contemplate their “difficult” second album. For the Black Keys, Turn
Blue is their eighth and difficult for a couple of reasons, including the weight of expectation around its release following the Grammy-winning achievements of El Camino and its predecessor Brothers (2010).
There were challenges around Turn Blue’s creation also, not least that while the Black Keys were riding the El Camino wave in arenas around the globe Auerbach was going through a messy divorce from his wife, Stephanie Gonis. The divorce was finalised last year, with Auerbach gaining custody of the couple’s now sixyear-old daughter Sadie. “It was the band’s most successful year to date,” says Auerbach, “but it was also our most stressful. And having a little kid and touring for 200 days of the year … it was a strained year.” Auerbach’s lyrics for some of the songs on
Turn Blue were influenced by his marriage breakup. Titles such as The Weight of Love and
Year in Review tell their own story, although musically the album is as celebratory as anything on El Camino, an infectious mix of Carney’s primal percussion, Auerbach’s bluesy guitar chops and their shared love of psychedelic pop structures.
“Musically it was similar to what we’ve done before,” Auerbach says. “We just get in there and start making stuff that sounds like music. That has never been a problem for us when we get into the studio. We just wanted to make a good record. We didn’t think about trying to match any success. Of course we always want to make records that people like. It would be great to write a catchy song, a hit song, but we’re not going to force it. It was difficult, lyrically, because it was so personal.
“That was a new challenge for me.” AUERBACH, like Carney, is a personable character. He talks passionately about his music, including the Black Keys and his recent studio endeavours as a producer for Dr John, Ray LaMontagne and Lana Del Rey. He talks with humour and warmth about his childhood and his friendship with Carney, who he has known since they were eight years old, although they didn’t become friends until high school.
Just short of his 35th birthday, Auerbach has spent a great deal of his adult life on stage with his partner. Throughout that time they have maintained a healthy disregard for the trappings of success, perhaps because when they were rehearsing and knocking out independent albums such as The Big Come Up and Thick
freakness in Carney’s basement during the early noughties there were no great expectations about what they could achieve. Even their arrival as a duo came by default, when all attempts to recruit other Akron musicians to the fold proved fruitless.
“We didn’t have any friends,” Auerbach says. “Really. We knew a lot of bands that we played with and they had a lot of friends, but we were never that band. When we got popular there was the whole garage rock scene and there were all these f..king bands that we were getting locked in with, and we didn’t know those bands and we didn’t know their friends, but we did shows with them. We’d do the gig and then we’d load up the van and get out of town because hotels are cheaper when you get out of town. That was our life.”
Before that the two mates jammed furiously until a basic modus operandi of guitar, drums and vocals took shape. Auerbach was wellschooled in the blues, in particular the music of Robert Johnson, Hound Dog Taylor and Junior Kimbrough. He had already recorded with a band, the Backburners. The Black Keys, however, was an opportunity to experiment, to devise a form of garage rock (although he baulks at the term) that would set them apart, or at least get them a few gigs.
“I know we’d see bands that we played with and they’d be on the cover of NME or they’d be headlining festivals, and we didn’t quite understand,” Auerbach says. “We were lumped in with those bands but we weren’t quite flavour of the month. We were on the periphery. We knew we weren’t a garage rock band. We were doing our own thing and the more time we spent in the studio we knew what we wanted to do.”
It helped that they had the chemistry of a close friendship as well as a musical bond.
“We grew up right around the corner from each other,” Auerbach says. “Our brothers were best friends so that kind of got us together. That was it. From there we never stopped after that. For some reason we just kept touring. It was the perfect storm in a way. Living in Akron it was so cheap that we could go out and play the shittiest shows and make a little bit of money and it felt to us like we were succeeding.
“Had we lived in Brooklyn or Los Angeles we would have been broke and quit. Because we lived in Ohio it was acceptable.”
It wasn’t long until the duo’s reach went beyond Ohio and beyond the US. The critical reception for Thickfreakness (2003) internationally prompted their first world tour, including appearances in Australia. They have been regular visitors here since then and are planning a return early next year. Constant touring has come at a cost, however. The pair had a tempor-
Patrick Carney, left, and Dan Auerbach of
the Black Keys
Lana Del Ray