The Black Keys is an American rock band formed in Akron, Ohio in 2001. The group consists of Dan Auerbach (guitar, vocals) and Patrick Carney (drums). The duo began as an independent act, recording music in basements and self-producing their records, before they eventually emerged as one of the most popular garage rock artists during a second wave of the genre's revival in the 2010s. The band's raw blues rock sound draws heavily from Auerbach's blues influences, including Junior Kimbrough and Robert Johnson.
Originally friends from their childhood, Auerbach and Carney founded the group after dropping out of college. After signing with indie label Alive, they released their debut album, The Big Come Up (2002), which earned them a new deal with Fat Possum Records. Over the next decade, the Black Keys built an underground fanbase through extensive touring of small clubs, frequent album releases and music festival appearances, and extensive licensing of their songs. Their third album, Rubber Factory (2004), received critical acclaim and boosted the band's profile, eventually leading to a record deal with major label Nonesuch Records in 2006. After self-producing and recording their first four records in makeshift studios, the duo completed Attack & Release (2008) in a professional studio and hired producer Danger Mouse, a frequent collaborator with the band.
The group's commercial breakthrough came in 2010 with Brothers, which along with its popular single "Tighten Up", won three Grammy Awards. Their 2011 follow-up El Camino received strong reviews and peaked at number two on the Billboard 200 chart, leading to the first arena concert tour of the band's career, the El Camino Tour. The album and its hit single "Lonely Boy" won three Grammy Awards.
Guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney first met when they were eight or nine years old while living in the same neighborhood of Akron, Ohio. While attending Firestone High School, they became friends, though they were part of different crowds—Auerbach was captain of the high school soccer team, while Carney was a social outcast. Encouraged by a mutual friend, the duo began jamming together in 1996, as Auerbach was learning guitar at the time and Carney owned a four-track recorder and a drum set. After graduating, both briefly attended the University of Akron before dropping out.
Formation, The Big Come Up, and Thickfreakness (2001–2003)
Auerbach attempted to make a living from performing at small bars in town, but realized he would not be able to book shows in other cities without a demo. To record one, he asked for help from Carney, who agreed to provide recording equipment and allow his basement to be used if Auerbach recruited the other musicians. However, none of Auerbach's backing band showed up on the recording date, as they preferred to "get stoned and play video games [rather] than come to rehearsal". Instead, Carney and Auerbach jammed, eventually leading to the duo forming a band in mid-2001. Together, they recorded a six-song demo consisting of "old blues rip-offs and words made up on the spot". After soliciting the demo to a dozen record labels, they received and accepted an offer from a small indie label in Los Angeles called Alive, as it was "the only label that would sign [them] without having to see [them] first".
According to an interview on NPR's Fresh Air, the group's name "the Black Keys" came from a schizophrenic artist named Alfred McMoore that the pair knew; he would leave incoherent messages on their answering machines referring to their fathers as "black keys" such as "D flat" when he was upset with them. The band's debut album, The Big Come Up, was recorded entirely in Carney's basement on an 8-track tape recorder in lo-fi and was released in May 2002. The album, a mix of eight original tracks and five cover songs, forged a raw blues rock sound for the group; the covers included tracks originally by blues musicians Muddy Waters, Junior Kimbrough, and R. L. Burnside. Two singles, covers of the traditional blues standard "Leavin' Trunk" and The Beatles' song "She Said, She Said", were released as an EP. The track "I'll Be Your Man" would later be used as the theme song for the HBO series Hung. A week after the album was released, the duo played their first live show at Cleveland's Beachland Ballroom and Tavern to an audience of, in Auerbach's estimation, four people. In order to help fund a tour, Auerbach and Carney took jobs mowing lawns for a landlord. Although The Big Come Up sold poorly, it gained a cult following and attracted attention from critics, eventually landing the group a record deal with Fat Possum Records.
Within days of signing to Fat Possum, The Black Keys completed their second album, Thickfreakness. It was recorded in Carney's basement in a single 14-hour session in November 2002, an approach necessitated because the group spent its small advance payment from Fat Possum on rent. The group had recorded sessions with producer Jeff Saltzman in San Francisco but ultimately aborted them, as they were unhappy with the results, which they said too closely resembled "modern-rock radio". In March 2003, the group played at one of its first music festivals, South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, after driving for nearly 24 hours from Akron. Much as they did for the festival, Carney and Auerbach spent their early tour days driving themselves from show to show in a 1994 Chrysler van they nicknamed the "Gray Ghost".
Thickfreakness was released in April 2003 and received positive reviews from critics. The record spawned three singles: "Set You Free", "Hard Row", and a cover of Richard Berry's "Have Love, Will Travel". The other cover from the album was Junior Kimbrough's "Everywhere I Go". Time later named Thickfreakness the third-best album of 2003. That year, the duo received a lucrative offer of ₤200,000 to license one of their songs for use in an English mayonnaise advertisement. At the suggestion of their manager, they rejected the offer to avoid the risk of being perceived as "sell-outs" and alienating their fan base. The band toured extensively throughout 2003, playing its first dates outside of the United States and opening concerts for Sleater-Kinney, Beck, and Dashboard Confessional. However, exhaustion had set in by the end of the year, forcing the band to cancel European tour dates. In August, the group made its national television debut on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and performed at the Reading and Leeds Festivals. As fellow garage band The White Stripes grew in popularity, The Black Keys drew comparisons to them—sometimes as a derivative act—since both groups had two-piece lineups, Midwest origins, bluesy sounds, and names with colors. In September, The Black Keys released a split-EP with The Six Parts Seven titled The Six Parts Seven/The Black Keys EP, featuring one song by The Six Parts Seven and three songs by The Black Keys.
Rubber Factory, Magic Potion, and other releases (2004–2007)
The Black Keys released an EP titled The Moan on January 19, 2004, featuring "Have Love Will Travel", an alternate version of "Heavy Soul," and two covers. The group found itself struggling to sell records or gain airplay of their songs on the radio, and they were not making much money either; they had to absorb a $3,000 loss from a European tour. Frustrated with their lack of success, the band relented and decided to begin licensing their music, beginning with the song "Set You Free" in a Nissan automobile commercial. It was the first of an eventual 300-plus song placements in television shows, films, TV commercials, and video games. The group played several high-profile musical festivals in the first half of the year, including Coachella and Bonnaroo.
For their third album, Rubber Factory, the band was forced to find a new recording location, as the building that housed their basement studio was sold by its landlord. They decided to create a makeshift studio in a former tire-manufacturing factory in Akron, and they recorded from January to May. The album was released in September and became the group's first record to chart on the US Billboard 200, reaching number 143. Rubber Factory received critical acclaim and was named one of the year's best albums by Entertainment Weekly and The New Yorker. Two singles were released, "10 A.M. Automatic" and the double A-side "'Till I Get My Way/Girl Is on My Mind". Comedian David Cross directed the music video for "10 A.M. Automatic". The duo promoted the album with tours in North America, Europe, and Australia. In 2005, the band released their first live video album, Live, recorded at The Metro Theatre in Sydney, Australia on March 18, 2005. In July, they played at the Lollapalooza music festival.
On May 2, 2006, the Black Keys released Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough, a 6-track album of cover versions of songs by Junior Kimbrough. It was the band's final release with the independent label Fat Possum. Having fulfilled their two-album contract, the band signed with the major label Nonesuch Records. Later in May, the group released its second live album, Live in Austin, TX—also known as Thickfreakness in Austin—which was recorded in 2003. The group's music appeared in several television commercials over the course of the year; among the companies to license its music were Sony, Nissan, and Victoria's Secret, which used "The Desperate Man" in a lingerie commercial featuring Heidi Klum. Despite having the resources of a major record label available to them, the group elected to return to recording in Carney's basement for its fourth studio album, Magic Potion. Released on September 12, the album was the group's first release on Nonesuch, as well as its first album to comprise all original songs. Three singles were issued: "You're the One", "Your Touch", and "Just Got To Be". In support of Magic Potion, the band embarked on its largest tour to that point, performing in large theaters and 1,000-seat venues. The Black Keys recorded covers of "The Wicked Messenger" for the soundtrack of the film I'm Not There and "If You Ever Slip" for The Hottest State soundtrack.
Attack & Release and side projects (2007–2009)
In 2007, producer Danger Mouse began working on a record for Ike Turner and asked The Black Keys to write a few songs for the project. The collaboration ultimately fell through and Turner later died in December 2007. The duo decided to turn the material they had written into their fifth studio album, Attack & Release, and they asked Danger Mouse to produce the record. The sessions saw the band transitioning away from their "homemade" ethos to record-making; not only was it the first time that the band completed an album in a professional studio, but it was also the first time they hired an outside producer to work on a record. Danger Mouse supplemented the band's sound with instrumental flourishes and more polished production values. Released on April 1, 2008, Attack & Release debuted at number 14 on the Billboard 200. Four singles were released: "Strange Times", "I Got Mine", "Oceans and Streams", and "Same Old Thing". "Strange Times" was featured in the video games Grand Theft Auto IV and NASCAR 09. "I Got Mine" is used as the theme song for Canadian police drama TV series The Bridge. The song was ranked number 23 on Rolling Stone's list of The 100 Best Singles of 2008.
On October 17, 2008, The Black Keys was an opening act for fellow Akron-area band Devo at a special benefit concert at the Akron Civic Theatre for presidential candidate Barack Obama. Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, also an Akron native and Firestone High School graduate, followed their set. In November, they toured through Europe together with Liam Finn. That month, the group released the concert video Live at the Crystal Ballroom, which was filmed on April 4, 2008 at the group's show at Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon. The video was produced by Lance Bangs.
Tensions grew within the band in 2009. Prior to Carney's divorce from his wife Denise Grollmus, Auerbach found it increasingly difficult to communicate with the drummer due to his antipathy for Grollmus. Auerbach said, "I really hated her from the start and didn't want anything to do with her." In February, Auerbach released his debut solo album, Keep It Hid. Carney, who claimed Auerbach did not tell him about the side project, felt betrayed. Carney subsequently formed the indie band Drummer, with whom he played bass guitar. The group released its debut album Feel Good Together on September 29, 2009.
The Black Keys reconciled later in the year. On June 6, 2009, they performed along with The Roots, TV on the Radio, Public Enemy, Antibalas, and other acts at the 2nd Annual Roots Picnic on the Festival Pier in Philadelphia. They also joined the 9th annual Independent Music Awards judging panel to assist independent musicians' careers.
Blakroc, a collaborative album featuring The Black Keys and several hip hop artists, was released in 2009 on Black Friday. The project was supported and brought together by Damon Dash, who is a big fan of the band. The album features rappers Mos Def, Ludacris, RZA, Raekwon, Pharoahe Monch, Q-Tip, NOE, Jim Jones, Nicole Wray, M.O.P., and the late Ol' Dirty Bastard. The album was recorded in Brooklyn, New York. Auerbach said on the official Blakroc site, "Pat and I have been preparing for this record since we were 16."
The group's sixth studio album, Brothers, was released on May 18, 2010. Recorded primarily at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, the album was produced by The Black Keys and Mark Neill, and was mixed by Tchad Blake. The song "Tighten Up", the only track from the album produced by Danger Mouse, preceded the album as the lead single. The song became their most successful single to that point, spending 10 weeks at number one on the Alternative Songs chart and becoming the group's first single on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 87. The song also reached gold certification status. The music video for "Tighten Up", directed by Chris Marrs Piliero, won the 2010 MTV Video Music Award for Breakthrough Video. Brothers sold over 73,000 copies in the US in its first week and peaked at number three on the Billboard 200, their best performance on the chart to that point. In total, the record sold 1.5 million copies worldwide, including 870,000 copies in the US, and it was certified double-platinum in Canada, platinum in the US, and gold in the UK. The Black Keys were among several artist judges at the 9th annual Independent Music Awards to support independent artists' careers.
The band continued to gain exposure through continued song licensing, so much so that they were Warner Bros. Records' most-licensed band of the year. Rolling Stone placed Brothers at number two on its list of the best albums of 2010 and "Everlasting Light" at number 11 on the list of the year's best songs. Spin named The Black Keys the "Artist of the Year" for 2010. On January 8, 2011, the band appeared as the musical guest on American television sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. At the 53rd Grammy Awards, Brothers and its songs won awards in three of the five categories they were nominated in; the band received honors for Best Alternative Music Album (for Brothers) and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (for "Tighten Up"), while Michael Carney, the band's creative director and Patrick's brother, won Best Recording Package for designing the artwork for Brothers.
The band's sudden success proved overwhelming, as they found themselves booking additional promotional commitments and facing demand for additional touring dates. In January 2011, the group canceled concerts in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, citing exhaustion, thus clearing out most of their touring schedule into April. Patrick Carney said, "We've been touring long enough to know when we're about to hit our breaking point." The desire to record another album soon after Brothers also led to the decision. Carney said, "We could have waited another year or so, and milked the Brothers album and kept touring, but we like bands, and our favourite bands growing up and even today, are bands that put out a lot of music and every album is different from the last."
Brothers' second single, "Howlin' for You", was a successful follow-up, achieving a gold certification in the US. The music video, directed by Chris Marrs Piliero, parodied action movie trailers and starred Tricia Helfer, Diora Baird, Sean Patrick Flanery, Christian Serratos, Corbin Bernsen, Todd Bridges, and Shaun White. It was nominated for the 2011 MTV Video Music Award for Best Rock Video. The Black Keys were nominated for three Billboard Music Awards: Top Alternative Artist, and Top Rock Album and Top Alternative Album for Brothers. The group continued to make appearances at American music festivals throughout the year, playing at Bonnaroo, Kanrocksas, and Outside Lands.
El Camino and next studio album (2011–present)
The group recorded their seventh studio album, El Camino, from March to May 2011. Splitting time between touring and recording, the band spent 41 days at Easy Eye Sound Studio, which was opened in 2010 by Auerbach in the duo's new hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. For the album, Danger Mouse reprised his role as producer and also contributed as a co-writer on all of its songs. Based on the difficulty the band had performing some of the slower songs from Brothers live, they conceived more uptempo tracks for El Camino. The record draws from popular genres from the 1950s–1970s, including rock and roll, glam rock, rockabilly, surf rock, and soul. The band cited several retro acts as musical influences on the album, including The Clash, The Cramps, T. Rex, Ramones, The Beatles, Sweet, The Cars, and Johnny Burnette.
"Lonely Boy" was released in October as the album's lead single, accompanied by a popular one-shot music video of a man dancing and lip-syncing. The song became the group's best-charting single in several countries, reaching number 64 on the Billboard Hot 100, number 2 on the Australian Singles Chart, and number 33 on the Canadian Hot 100. The song was certified nine-times platinum in Canada, triple platinum in Australia, platinum in New Zealand, and gold in Denmark. The band returned to Saturday Night Live as a musical guest on December 3, 2011. El Camino was released three days later and received wide critical acclaim. In the US, it debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 and sold 206,000 copies in its first week, the highest charting position and single-week sales the group has achieved in the country. Many publications, such as Rolling Stone and Time ranked El Camino among the best albums of the year, despite its late release. The album was certified double-platinum in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, platinum in the US, UK, and Ireland, and gold in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France.
In 2012, the group commenced the first headlining arena tour of its career, the El Camino Tour, playing dates in Europe and North America. After tickets went on sale, their show at Madison Square Garden sold out in 15 minutes. Just as it did on its previous tour, the group added bassist Gus Seyffert and keyboardist/guitarist John Wood as touring musicians in order to perform songs as close to their studio arrangements as possible. The album's second single, "Gold on the Ceiling", like its predecessor, went to number one on the Alternative Songs chart and was certified platinum in Australia and Canada. The group headlined several music festivals throughout the year, including Catalpa Music Festival, Coachella, Memphis in May, Lollapalooza, and Osheaga. At the 2013 Grammy Awards, El Camino and "Lonely Boy" were nominated in five categories and were winners in three; the album won Best Rock Album, while "Lonely Boy" won Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song. The band began recording their eighth studio album in January 2013 with hopes of completing it by March.
- Dan Auerbach – guitar, vocals, bass guitar, piano, organ, keyboards, synthesizer (2001–present)
- Patrick Carney – drums, percussion (2001–present)
- Touring musicians
- Gus Seyffert – bass guitar, vocals (2010–present)
- John Wood – keyboards, vocals, organ, synthesizer, guitar, tambourine (2010–present)
- Former touring musicians
- Nick Movshon – bass guitar (2010)
- Leon Michels – keyboards, organ, synthesizer, tambourine (2010)
- The Big Come Up (2002)
- Thickfreakness (2003)
- Rubber Factory (2004)
- Magic Potion (2006)
- Attack & Release (2008)
- Brothers (2010)
- El Camino (2011)
Awards and nominations
- Official website
- The Black Keys on Myspace
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Image from Discogs