“We don’t sit around watching MTV 2,” says Dan Auerbach, Black Keys singer and guitarist. “I’ve never seen our videos actually on television.” Adds drummer Pat Carney: “We make videos because we have to, so we try to make interesting ones.”
Sign of the times, perhaps. Music videos don’t have the career-making clout they had in the ’80s and ’90s, when television all but forced us to watch them. But make no mistake, the medium still carries some mail. Eyeballs that aren’t glued to MTV 2 and MuchMusic might be directed at the endless buffet of moving images at YouTube. And there, the Black Keys’ latest vignette, for the shimmying Lonely Boy, is racking up hits. And no artist’s website is complete without an array of video content, whether it be official releases, concert footage or interview clips.
The Black Keys are a success story, a rare rock ’n’ roll one these days. The duo out of Akron, Ohio, built up a respectable audience after five albums, then broke through with 2010’s Brothers, an album that won three Grammy awards and has sold more than one-million copies worldwide. The video for the surprise radio hit Tighten Up won an MTV Video Music Award, while another (a fake movie trailer for Howlin’ For You) scored a nomination.
The pair’s new album, the stripped-back and punchy El Camino, comes out Tuesday (Dec. 6). Talking about themselves last week at a lakeside eatery in Toronto, the brothers in arms seem unenthusiastic when it comes to talking about themselves, but perk up when it comes to the unlikely star of the Lonely Boy video.
“Derrick Tuggle!” Auerbach yells, big smile on his bearded face. “It was an accident,” Carney says, picking up the story about the security guard-turned-dancing-fool and internet sensation. “We shot a whole video, with Derrick as just a small, five-second element. We didn’t like it all, so we decided to stick with him dancing.”
The finished video features only Tuggle and his funky gyrations. It’s a kick to watch, but the band was initially skeptical about it. “We really weren’t all that stoked to put it out,” admits Carney, “but after the first day and a half-million hits, we came around.”
The Keys went against their instincts on the video, something they’ve rarely done since partnering up in 2001. Originally pigeonholed as a blues duo, Auerbach and Carney have broadened their sound and audience over the years. Attack & Release from 2008 was their second release on a major label (Nonesuch, a division of Warner Music), and the first to use an outside producer (Danger Mouse, real name Brian Burton, the music brains behind Gnarls Barkley). Burton, who produced the hit single Tighten Up on Brothers, was invited back for El Camino, sharing co-producing credits with the band.
“Where Brian really shines is on instrumental melodies and vocal melodies. He doesn’t know anything about the studio,” explains Auerbach, who, like Carney, produces other bands on the side. “He’s a songwriter, with eclectic tastes. It wasn’t like he was going around like Phil Spector, putting a gun to our heads.”
The Keys and Burton recorded El Camino at Auerbach’s new studio in Nashville, the music town where the band is now based. Other than the notion that the album would be leaner than its predecessor, there was no plan going in. In the morning they listened to sounds that would eventually inspire and influence the new material: fifties rockabilly, the Troggs, the Cars, the Cramps, Led Zeppelin, the Clash and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
The result is a hard-hitting, up-tempo package of 11 songs which continue the Keys’ evolution. Where Brother rippled with R&B influences and earlier material was steeped in blues, the tapes in El Camino’s glove compartment are glam and classic rock. Gold on The Ceiling has Gary Glitter’s beats, with a slash of psychedelia, heavenly background harmonies and the big hook of last year’s infectious Howlin’ For You. The sinewy rhythm of Mind Eraser recalls the Stones’ Miss You. And Little Black Submarines floats to the lilting acoustic melody of Stairway to Heaven before building to an arena-filling anthem.
Asked about the Key’s development since Attack & Release, Burton told Rolling Stone magazine: “They’re better. They’ve made a lot music since then. It shows in what they wrote and how they play it.” Adds Steve Waxman, with Warner Music Canada, “I think their fans always knew how good they were, and now, with these last two records, the rest of the world is finding out.”
Auerbach has his own studio now, but the new record isn’t about bells and whistles. “Honestly, I’ve been using the same equipment for every record we’ve made,” says Auerbach, mentioning a 25-watt tube amp from the 1960s, two fuzz pedals and a 1950s Harmony Stratotone guitar. “It’s very simple equipment,” he continues. “This is not a studio record.”
When the Keys released Brothers, they were playing to 2,500 people a night. Within months they were facing crowds four times that size; the album’s two singles got to No. 1 on modern rock tracks in Canada, the first region where Brothers went gold and, later, platinum. They filled amphitheatres this past summer, and this March, they’ll hit the arena circuit, including stops at Monteal’s Bell Centre and Toronto’s Air Canada Centre on March 13 and 14, respectively. Tonight (Dec. 5), MTV.ca streams their performance at New York’s Webster Hall live.
Is there more pressure this time around? “Maybe a little bit,” confesses Auerbach. “But it’s really only the pressure we put on ourselves. We always want to make the best record we can, and that hasn’t changed.”