Back last February when the Black Keys nabbed two Grammy Awards, it was one of those rare moments when the parallel musical universe — you know, the one that ought to be — allows a quick glimpse of itself in the blinding white klieg lights and television cameras before it slips back into the long shadows and small rooms where it is forever born and dying.
It was in one of those small rooms in Akron, Ohio, that the Black Keys — drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist Dan Auerbach — first came together in the late ’90s.
“I had this fascination with four-track recorders when I was in high school,” Carney told NPR’s Terri Gross earlier this year. “And that’s how the band started. Dan was just starting to play guitar, and I was just starting to get into this four-track recorder I bought. And Dan knew I had a drum set I couldn’t play. And our brothers encouraged us to get together and jam.”
A few years later, when Carney had upgraded to a digital recorder he was learning to use, he invited Auerbach over again.
“Dan came over and the rest of the band didn’t show up,” Carney said. “And we decided to just record some stuff anyway. That day we made a six-song demo and we sent it around and got our first record deal.”
From there, the Black Keys followed the grand tradition of almost all American rock & roll bands. They crisscrossed the country in a van, chipping fans from the monolithic slab of belligerent, disinterested drunks, living on the nickel, sleeping on floors, half Kerouac, half Black Flag. Most bands break even at best, then break up when they can’t take it anymore. But the Black Keys didn’t give up. Instead, they got better. And better.
With each release — from their 2002 debut The Big Come Up, which combined the gritty minimalism of Mississippi’s Fat Possum blues artists with a big Zeppelin wallop and sludgy Nuggets-style interpretations of the Beatles and Taj Mahal, all the way to 2010’s Brothers, the one that earned them the Grammy wins — the Black Keys have dug deeper into their sound, their playing and their writing. Every year, they sound like a better version of themselves, anchored by Carney’s thunderous drumming and propelled by Auerbach’s thick, grimy guitar playing and truly soulful vocals.
Along the way, the Black Keys have found a surprisingly prodigious demand for their music — not from radio, but from brands. At first, beleaguered by the worn-out concept of selling out often perpetuated by people who have never tried to make a living as a musician, Auerbach and Carney were conflicted. They turned their back on small fortunes before they came to their senses and started saying yes.
To date, their music has been featured in ads for Cadillac, Victoria’s Secret, Zales and Subaru, among many others.
“We’ve probably done 25 pretty big TV ads and we have done a lot of movies as well,” Carney told NPR. “The first offer we ever had to have a song in commercial was from an English mayonnaise company, and they offered us a lot of money. Crazy money, especially at the time — it was insane.”
“We were touring,” added Auerbach. “But you have to keep in mind that we were touring in a minivan, just the two of us at that point. And then we got this offer for more money than our parents make in a year, combined.”
Taking the advice of an old manager, they passed on that offer and a string of offers that followed. Then, they took a chance, and TV became the Black Keys radio.
“A lot of people see a Nissan ad and they see a finished product in a record store or on iTunes and that’s the face of the band,” Carney said. “What they don’t see is that we made Brothers in a cinderblock building in the middle of nowhere in Alabama, with five microphones and a guitar amp and a drum set. I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I do know we didn’t spend a lot of money making this record, and it’s an honest way of approaching making music.”
Read more of Ari Surdoval’s work at The Big Get Even.