Tonight during the Grammys telecast, the Black Keys will have an opportunity to break through yet another professional ceiling.
Pat Carney and Dan Auerbach have been on a steady 11-year climb, from their early days as a scrappy indie blues-rock band to arena-filling rock stars. The Akron natives’ 2010 breakthrough album Brothers won three Grammys: Alternative Music Album, Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (for Tighten Up) and Best Recording Package for Carney’s brother Mike, which the band also proudly claims.
Since then, the Black Keys have only gotten bigger. Their seventh album, El Camino, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 charts and matched its predecessor’s platinum sales. It spawned the ubiquitous hit singles Lonely Boy and Gold on the Ceiling, which received plenty of radio airplay and were all over television shows, ads and movie trailers, the latter tune even becoming the theme to the 2012 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament.
The album earned five Grammy nominations, with Auerbach picking up a sixth for his work as a producer. And they’ve been given a coveted performance slot on tonight’s live telecast.
The band’s fuzzed-up, big rock sound has become so popular that they’ve had to sue several major corporations which had either used the band’s music without permission, or used copyright-infringing sound-alike versions. The current tour has sold out arenas around the world including multiple nights at Madison Square Garden, and somewhere in there drummer Carney found time to get married to Emily Ward.
But while the band’s brand has grown exponentially and their music is known around the globe, Auerbach and Carney still consider themselves two dudes from Akron, making records and playing shows. Being featured players in the American music industry’s biggest night is an undeniable thrill, but also an inconvenient break in recording their follow-up to El Camino.
Pat Carney took time out from purchasing shaving cream to talk, shortly before hopping on a plane from Nashville to Los Angeles.
Q: Last time we had this conversation you were in the “awards handed out before the telecast” categories and now you’re going to be on the big stage in prime time. Are you excited?
A: It’s cool to be nominated for so many Grammys, the big ones that get on TV. But I don’t know, it’s kind of a big ordeal having to go, and since we’re performing there’s a lot of rehearsal. So rather than going to an awards show, it’s a day of work.
Q: So then, you’re probably not all that stoked about walking the red carpet?
A: We’re not doing the red carpet this year. After the last experience we’re not ever going to do that again. The last time we did it was just like, getting pushed out of the way for reality TV stars to be introduced. It was kind of demeaning and we felt like clowns for even being there, so we’re not going to subject ourselves to talking to people who don’t even know who we are. It’s not that important to us.
Q: Is possibly winning one of the big awards at the Grammys the stuff of your wildest dreams?
A: I remember watching in the early ’90s a couple of times. But then it kind of fell off my radar until Dan and I went to L.A. to do some recording with [Blackroc collaborator and Wu-Tang Clan mastermind] RZA in 2010, and we showed up and it was the day of the Grammys. We didn’t even know when the Grammys were until two years ago.
It’s crazy to be singled out … for big awards. But after it happened I went back and I looked up a lot of my favorite bands and artists or whatever to see if they were nominated or won, and very few of them did. So it’s kind of a weird thing, I think. In a way you wind up losing a lot of credibility just by being nominated.
Dan and I never set out to be nominated for the big Grammys. It’s cool and flattering and stuff, but at the same time I think there’s probably a weird perception of a lot of people we’re friends with or came up with.
Q: Well, is there any of the nominations you want to win most?
A: I think it would be cool if Dan and I won another Grammy, but that said, because I know it’s kind of random how things are chosen, if we don’t win I won’t tell myself it was because our record wasn’t good enough. Obviously, the Album of the Year is the one that would be most unbelievable, but we’ll take best bar code.
Q: Well, is there any artist, friends or heroes that you’re looking forward to seeing or hanging out with?
A: I’m stoked to get to hang out with my brother [graphic designer Mike Carney has done all of the band’s album covers] in L.A., which is always fun … It’s always kind of a spectacle with those things, you get to see stuff like ’80s pop stars mildly abusing their kids in the audience. I look forward to that kind of stuff and lots of interesting headwear will be worn. But last year when [Justin] Bieber came out with a marching band, that was our cue to leave.
Q: So if this is so much work going to an awards show, is it screwing with your timeline for the new record?
A: We started it and it’s good. We’ve already done some pre-demos and recording, and we’re not going to get into it for another week now.
We were asked to go to the Brit Awards next week … but the Grammys is more than enough and enough pressure too, because there’s so many people watching, and I feel like most people who watch it are looking for something to criticize. So, if you do a good job probably no one will talk about it, and if you [mess] up everybody will talk about it.
It’s like what happens at halftime at the Super Bowl, too. I have no interest in doing that. Beyonce did such a good job, a good pop star performance, and the day after people are talking about how weird her facial expressions were during the dancing and singing. Well what the [heck] do you think happens, shut the [heck] up! I want to see everyone’s facial expressions when they’re shoving chips in their faces.
But that’s the modern era the Internet has brought to us. Everyone has an outlet to shoot everybody down. I’m not that kind of person so my natural reaction to that is to not even want to take part in any of that [stuff]. That’s why the Grammys are mildly stressful to me and I’m not super stoked about it. It’s cool to get the opportunity, there’s no doubt about that. I think the only thing that can really happen is that people who already like you will still like you, and the people that don’t will say “what the [heck] was that? Why wasn’t Bieber performing?”
Q: So now that you’re bona fide rock stars, how do you keep yourself reasonably humble and not fall into the celebrity trap of surrounding yourself with a circle of sycophants who tell you everything you do is awesome?
A: Now that you said it like that, it sounds like a pretty good idea. I’m going to put out a Craigslist ad. [laughs]
I think we have a lot of close friends who keep us in check, [El Camino co-producer/songwriter Danger Mouse aka] Brian Burton being one of them. My brother Mike, our parents.
There are just certain people who become stars based on their self-confidence; that’s what leads to [having a circle of sycophants]. Then there’s the people who do stuff and then kind of end up in that situation, I think maybe Dan and I are more that. We worked a lot and lucked out, and then a lot of people started listening to our music, and that’s where we ended up. But we didn’t set out to be a super big rock band. It was just that we wanted to do music for a living and then you get to a point when, well, if we’re going to put out a record, you want to make sure they’re doing the best job possible, and that’s what led us to a major label.
I know a lot of musicians who are really insecure, but are portrayed in the public eye as being cocky or something, but they’re not at all.
I’m sure there’s a perception that I’m [a jerk] just from my quotes about Nickelback [in a cover story for Rolling Stone]. But honestly, I used to work in a kitchen in Gasoline Alley and one of the dishwashers used to crank up 98.5 all day and that [stuff] would blare in my head all day and I developed a pure hatred for that band. It wasn’t because I thought I was better than them; it was because I was forced to listen to it while I was making pizzas at Gasoline Alley.
Q: You guys have been on a steady climb for the length of your career with a sellout arena tour and the possibility of winning Record and Album of the Year. Do you feel added pressure to keep getting bigger?
A: I actually feel much less pressure now than after Brothers. You sell out Madison Square Garden — and for me playing the Gund [now Quicken Loans Arena] is just as big a deal as the Garden — you get to places you never thought you were going to get, you get nominated for the biggest award in music, and after that if you try and chase that again or try to replicate it, that’s where you’re really going to [mess] up.
The way I look at it now, all this stuff has kind of happened and it’s cool, but it will probably never happen again. So enjoy it while it’s happening, and when it doesn’t happen next time, that’s the most logical thing that can happen. It’s the way it should be, it’s the natural order. Everything has an arc and I imagine that this is the top of our arc and that’s not a bad thing. It kind of opens up our ability to just forget about any additional pressure and just make an album that we’re really happy with again and not worry about the perception, which is kind of what we’ve always done.
But … we got a Record of the Year nomination for an album we wrote in the studio in six weeks, and we didn’t even know if it was going to have a single that would get played on the radio.