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Keys to the Kingdom: How The Black Keys rule

by Gavin Heaney

Yeah, it’s been done before. It all has now. It doesn’t matter if you’re the first. Like every genre, rock music is formulaic and you just have to be true to the form. It doesn’t matter if you coin a phrase, it’s how you turn it. After all, It’s the feeling that matters, the power it evokes. It’s pure emotional expression.

The Black Keys sweat this out of their greasy pores.

Singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney emerged from an Akron, Ohio basement as The Black Keys with their 2002 debut album, The Big Come Up. They had never even played a live show. As raw as the album sounds, it is a feat of production magic, transporting the mind back in time and recreating the flavor of old vinyl in all its crackling LoFi warmth. In doing so, they cleverly injected themselves into the history of American music. Simplicity was the formula, repetition the snake charm, with Auerbach’s raw fuzz, no frills guitar and saturated vocal spookily hovering over Carney’s loose stompy, swinging back beat. More vibe than verbs, they captured homemade vintage gritty greatness in overdrive. Obscuring their sound allowed them to shape the backstory, or at least suspend our disbelief long enough to sidewind into rock music history. At this point we would have believed anything they told us. Smartly aligning themselves with the heritage and roots of rock n' roll, The Black Keys rebranded authenticity.

“Everyone is so obsessed with authenticity, and all we're getting is manufactured authenticity most of the time,” Carney told Tape Op Magazine. “My relationship with music is that it's all circumstantial, but it comes from this very pure spot. I know the things that I have sought out and aggressively tried to get in my life never work out. I think music needs to be made, and come from the purest part of you for it to transcend.”

The Keys raise up the lightning rod and see what strikes them when they set out to create a new monster. They tap the source through their impromptu process of writing and recording.

“We never talk about records before we go into the studio, we just go improvise and see what happens. We really don't know what we got until we're done.” Auerbach told Rolling Stone. “We like to work really fast, simple ideas, not too fussy. I think that recording quickly is just a part of who we are. It’s an element in all our records.”

Their pace of play from riff to record is near instantaneous and has supplied a swift output of material when relevancy is time sensitive. The Black Keys work as a duo, noticeably without a bassist, allowing the drums to hold down the low end and become more integral. Their stripped down-ness makes every accent a hook and a simple roll becomes iconic by virtue of its performance.

“It’s that special kind of swing Pat has on the drums,” Auerbach said. “We’ve been playing together for so long, we’re just locked in.”

But being in sync with each other doesn’t mean being perfect. The human heart does not beat to a click track. It rises and falls irregular, impermanent and arrhythmic and The Keys keep their beat organic and pulsing in an age of quantization.

“I'm a drummer, but perfect timing, to me, isn't time, even though it's ‘right,’ Carney said. “You've got to fuck it up, don’t fix it. Let it rub against some shit. I miss that so much in music today.” The welcome reset of the Black Keys’ sound brings character back to recording when today’s technology makes the entire production of Pet Sounds a preset at your fingertips. Not exhausting the ear by filling the headroom with epic over-production brings purpose and meaning to every note played, or omitted. When something sounds as good as it is, it’s disservice to embellish, and they must be acclaimed for their creativity within constraint.

The Black Keys stayed true to form throughout their next five albums, honing their sound which began to evolve from bare bones garage rock to breakout Grammy winning albums when Brothers won Best Alternative Album in 2010 and Camino took Best Rock Album the next year.

“Every time we make a record, we try something new.” Auerbach said, “We don't want to recreate what we did before. That's a cop out. We want to make a good album.”

The slow introduction of bass lines, vocal harmonies and keyboard was not intrusive, but a welcome addition to their sound, like icing on the cake. The Black Keys brought the past into the present as Auerbach explored new production techniques. Their sound was liquid cool for the first decade of the new millennium and every brand wanted to bottle some of it.

Even if you can’t name a song, you’ve heard them. You can’t escape The Black Keys. Their songs “Tighten Up” and “Howling For You” became rock anthems for the millennials, digested through new media like video games Grand Theft Auto and Guitar Hero, and were heard on countless streaming series, TV commercials and major motion picture releases too numerous to name. There is no such thing as selling out in the new attention economy when every second of your day is fought for by a landslide of digital distraction. You have to be in everyone’s ear, everywhere to even blip the radar. The Black Keys stylishly rode the new licensing wave, proving that jingles can jangle as they landed big fish with their ear worms.

“Writing catchy songs is a fun challenge.” said Auerbach told an interviewer. "We don't look at it like we got to have a hit. We look at it like this is fun, let's explore this. There are no rules, no direction that we plan on going before we start, we just do it.” Or according to a spoofy Nike T shirt Carney wears “It Just Do.”

Both Auerbach and Carney have too much music in them for just one band and have franchised their sound out by producing other artists. Auerbach, with his Easy Eye recording studio and label, based in Nashville, has produced records by artists Cage the Elephant, Dr. John, Lana Del Rey, Ray LaMontagne, CeeLo Green, Hank Williams Jr and the Pretenders. He’s even written a song for Disney’s Cars 3 and in 2013 he received a Grammy for Producer of The Year. In addition to pioneering The Keys vintage early sound, Carney has co-written and produced albums with artists Michelle Branch, The Black Lips, Tennis and The Sheep Dogs.

The Black Keys have not changed their game since Akron, and staying true to their form is the secret of the band’s survival. In this era of on-demand access, music has become so freely available that no investment is needed other than the time spent actually listening. If people can’t find the time, The Keys are going to make it by playing wherever they look, until their music has permeated the American subconscious, hypnotized by media. They will find you.

The Black Keys play BeachLife Friday May 5.


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