To celebrate our return to publishing the print version of MAGNET three years ago, we will be posting classic cover stories from that time all week. Enjoy. And order a copy of the issue here.
With the new El Camino having gone gold and a global arena tour on the verge of selling out, the Black Keys have achieved what surely seemed like the stuff of pipe dreams when they were still banging it out in their parents’ basements a dozen years ago: upward mobility. By Jonathan Valania
If rock is well and truly dead—not just as a sound or a sensibility, but as an escape hatch from the downward spiral of the middle class for a pair of white college dropouts from the Midwest—the Black Keys never got the memo. As much a brand as a band at this point, the Black Keys—Dan Auerbach on vocals and guitars, Patrick Carney on drums and attitude—have spent the last 13 years abiding by the same cardinal rule that has governed the rock and the roll since the day in 1951 that Ike Turner cut “Rocket 88” and got the party started: If thou doth rock hard and, more importantly, work hard, thou shall be rewarded. Handsomely. And the Black Keys have been working very hard, indeed.
Sure, it took 10 albums (including side projects and solo outings), a dozen videos, one marriage and more than 700 concert dates to get there, but the Black Keys have finally arrived. Two years ago, they were grossing $2 million annually. This year, they should triple, or even quadruple, that figure. Though he refuses to disclose an exact figure, Carney says the band will earn much more than $2 million by the close of fiscal year 2012. Not bad for a couple of weirdbeard, goggle-eyed ne’er-do-wells who cut their rock teeth banging out rude blooze in their parents’ basements back in Akron, Ohio.
These days, Carney splits his time between Nashville, where he jets around in a 2011 BMW 528i and resides in a spacious, tastefully appointed crib complete with an in-ground pool and home recording studio in one of the Music City’s tonier zip codes (Harmony Korine is a neighbor; more on that later), and a New York City crash pad where his neighbors include one Tom Cruise.
Auerbach, who also drives a late-model BMW and owns a home in the Music City, has built an impressive recording studio somewhere on the wrong side of the tracks in Nashville (protected by a high fence and razor-wire that only those with the punch code can enter) kitted out with a vintage 1969 16-track analog recording console (that in a previous life, elsewhere in town, cut hits by Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris), all manner of outboard gear, a kitchen, a lounge and a handsomely landscaped roof deck. A climate-controlled side room houses the 25 vintage 1960s guitars Auerbach currently owns, including his beloved Harmony Stratotone, which has enjoyed pride of place on every Black Keys album to date.
Likewise, the Keys have invested heavily in their live show, and these days it takes a full-time staff of 20 to ensure that the two dudes keep on rockin’ in the free world: lighting guys, sound guys (the Keys travel with their own sound system and lighting rig), bus-driving guys, lifting-shit guys, a stage-manager guy and a tour-manager guy. Plus, a touring bass player (Gus Seyffert) and keyboardist (John Wood) who have become a staple of the Keys’ live show in the last two years.
These days, the Keys can afford to live medium large. In the wake of 2010’s Grammy-winning commercial breakthrough Brothers, the duo has earned a pair of seats at the grown-up table of show business. The new, über-catchy El Camino (Nonesuch) sold 206,000 units the first week out of the gate, went gold shortly thereafter and is currently on its way to platinum. To ensure that it gets there and then some, the Keys have booked a yearlong tour. For the American leg of the tour—which crests early with a co-headlining slot at Coachella along with Radiohead, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg—they are playing arenas, and early sales indicate they are having no problem putting asses in seats. They sold out Madison Square Garden in 15 minutes. Likewise, the European legs are doing big box office, with the Keys selling 27,000 tickets in London alone. “We could have played the O2 Center, but we chose not to,” says Carney. Instead, they are playing three nights at London’s Alexandra Palace: capacity 10,400.
And then there’s the licensing deals. The Black Keys are the single most licensed artist under contract to the Warner Music Group, and they currently average one commercial offer a day. To date, their music has appeared in more than 30 movies, video games and television shows. Likewise, snippets of their songs have been used to score roughly another 30 television commercials—everything from Nissan, Victoria’s Secret and Zales to Cadillac, Molson and Jack Daniel’s.
The notion of licensing your music to advertisers may still make the likes of Ian MacKaye squeamish, but in 2012, to paraphrase Oliver Stone’s Platoon, you gotta be a rich boy to think like that. At this late date, when the bottom has fallen out of the music retail market and touring is riddled with profit-eating overhead costs, it’s a no-brainer for the Black Keys: Only a fool leaves free money on the table, and their mothers didn’t raise no fools. The way the Keys see it, advertisers are paying them for the right to play their music to a shit-ton of people who probably wouldn’t have heard it otherwise. “If somebody’s gonna get paid, it might as well be us,” says Carney. Last year, they poked fun at themselves on The Colbert Report in a hilarious fight-to-the-death sellout-off with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig for the distinction of being the edgy alt-rock artists who whored out their music the most.
The Black Keys are two kids from Ohio who went down to the big rock show and never came back. When a couple seats on the other side of the velvet rope opened up, they snuck in and sat down. So far, nobody’s asked them to leave; in fact they’ve been downright hospitable. The Keys recently returned from shooting an episode of No Reservations in Kansas City at the behest of host Anthony Bourdain, a graduate of CBGB School of Rock (class of ’79) and an avowed and vocal fan.
All of this talk of the show-biz high life seems shockingly incongruent with our current environs, a shitty little hole-in-the-wall diner in Nashville called Brown’s, complete with emphysemic waitress and cuisine that can only be described as school cafeteria-rific. To be clear, the diner was actual Plan C for the locus of MAGNET’s initial rendezvous with the Keys, the first being a band-selected Korean restaurant called Manna that, for reasons unclear, decided to close on the Saturday we planned to meet there for lunch, and Plan B was the hipster-friendly Burger Up, which proved too noisy and crowded for recording a cover-story interview.
Carney is fine with the downmarket menu, he says; this way he won’t be tempted to break his pre-touring season cleanse, for which he has given up carbs, fats, booze, caffeine and fun of just about every stripe aside from Camel Lights, for which he has graciously made an exception. Collapsing his sturdy six-foot-four frame into diner booth, Carney sits high in the saddle, dressed in a crisp baby-blue oxford shirt under a Navy peacoat and his trademark black Buddy Holly Ray-Bans. He is intense, a little suspicious and seems slightly preoccupied with matters far removed from the moment. By contrast, Auerbach, bearded and rocking a sharp blue denim and rust-tone suede combo, seems preternaturally chill, elbow on the table, his head tilted to the side and resting on his fist. His large, round eyes are faintly ringed with circles and tinged with the late-afternoon lethargy of an early riser.
Where Auerbach is reserved, Carney tends to speak his mind, consequences be damned, and there have been consequences. Dissing Nickelback in a recent Rolling Stone cover story caused a minor Internet kerfuffle. “I didn’t mean to piss off anybody, but, you know, it shouldn’t be coming as a surprise that Dan and I don’t listen to Nickelback,” he says with a shrug.
But what if you run into those guys on the road, MAGNET wonders aloud, and they want to rumble? There’s four of them and only two of you.
“Whatever. I’m sure their girlfriends could beat me up,” says Carney, waving away the topic like an errant gnat.
In fact, the message-board wrath of apoplectic Nickelback fanboys was the least of all the fallout that has fallen on Carney’s head in the wake of impolitic on-the-record remarks to magazine journalists. Airing the dirty laundry details of his painful divorce to a Rolling Stone writer back in 2010 resulted in his former English major ex-wife penning a potent, emotionally bruising 5,000-word I-Was-The-Wife-Of-A-Black-Key tell-all for Salon. Not surprisingly, that topic is currently off limits to interviewers. Likewise, Carney is reluctant to speak ill of their former manager, indie-rock super-rep David “Boche” Viecelli, who they parted ways with a few years back over the question of licensing their music for television commercials.
In 2008, the Black Keys got offered $250,000 to license their music for a British mayonnaise commercial. Their manager at the time advised them against it. “He said it would look bad, that people would think we were selling out,” says Carney, stressing that they are loathe to speak ill of Boche given his integral role in the band’s early success. “But we had a huge disagreement about how to run our business. He has a deep-rooted punk-rock kind of ethical problem with TV commercials, and we disagreed and thought it was a little outdated for us. That’s the thing: A lot of bands I was into in high school, it was a struggle to even find out about these bands. You had to go to the oracle behind the counter at the local record store and offer them gifts and they would bestow the knowledge of Silver Jews or Pavement or something. They would tell you about all these bands you’d never hear about because there was no way to hear about them, not in Akron. You couldn’t even buy zines in Akron back then. Then you’d have the special knowledge and you could hold it over all your friends’ heads. But imagine if those bands had a fucking song in a movie or something back then. Things would have been different.”
Still, given that there is no shortage of radio play and media exposure for the Black Keys these days—including the Rolling Stone cover story and an unprecedented two SNL appearances in one year—the duo plans to dial back the licensing out of its music. “I think we’re in a position where we can be way more picky,” says Auerbach. “Before, nobody knew who we were, no one was hearing our music, it wasn’t being played on the radio, so we were taking what we could get and putting our music out there. We found it to be really helpful.” This was back around the time that—after several soul-sapping, money-losing tours—the Keys decided they would rather earn a decent living than be some standard-bearer for indie cred.
“There came a time where we wanted to change,” says Auerbach. “We wanted to do bigger and better things and felt that a lot of the workload was falling on us. We figured if we got a big management company and a big label, they could make something happen, and that’s basically what ended up happening.” The Keys are currently represented by music-biz rainmakers Q Prime, and back in 2006 they left tiny-but-tasteful indie Fat Possum for Warner Music subsidiary Nonesuch.
If there is one thing the Black Keys want to make clear, it’s that they got everything that’s come to them—the cars, the houses, the studios, the pad in NYC and the Grammy—the old-fashioned way: They earned it. Seven solid-to-great Black Keys albums. One high-lonesome Dan Auerbach solo record. Side projects like Carney’s Drummer (which was made up entirely of percussionists of various Akron bands playing instruments they don’t really know how to play) and Blakroc (a shotgun marriage of horny rap and grungy soul that paired the Keys with the likes of Raekwon, RZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Mos Def and Ludacris). They toured relentlessly for the past decade, eventually trading up from a self-piloted piss-stained minivan to a luxe tour bus with a crew of 20.
“We played Lollapalooza, I think, five times, Coachella about five times, Bonnaroo four times,” says Carney.
“It’s weird: A lot of people don’t believe we’re as big as we are,” says Auerbach. “We’ve been at this a long time, slowly building our fan base, so it’s been a natural progression. And it’s not like it was any one thing. It wasn’t just a song on TV or a song in the movies or a song on the radio. Or this one tour or this one album. It was all those things.”
And people shouldn’t be so surprised that they sold out Madison Square Garden in 15 minutes. “The last time we were in New York, before ‘Tighten Up’ was a hit, we sold 15,000 tickets,” says Auerbach. For further proof of the knock-on effect of all that sweat equity, consider that The Big Come Up, their embryonic 2002 debut, sold 1,200 copies in the first year of release. As of this writing, it has sold 150,000.
“‘The Big Come Up’ is a hip-hop term; it means you take a dollar and make a dollar fifty,” says Auerbach.
They have also garnered the accolades of ye old rock gods, which Carney and Auerbach take in stride. Robert Plant volunteered in the pages of Rolling Stone to serve as their bass player. “Well, he told Rolling Stone that; he didn’t tell us that,” says Carney, when asked why the fuck the lead singer of Led Zeppelin is not their current bass player. Rod Stewart told an interviewer he would love to make an album with the Black Keys.
Their ongoing collaboration with Danger Mouse—he produced both 2008’s Attack And Release and the new El Camino, in addition to “Tighten Up,” the career-making breakout single from 2010’s Brothers—began when the Zelig-like producer tapped the duo to write and record songs for an ill-fated Ike Turner comeback record that was aborted when the rock pioneer died in December 2007. Pearl Jam and Radiohead took them on the road, and Thom Yorke told Pitchfork that he “looks up to” the duo. Auerbach insists he wasn’t so much flattering the Black Keys as simply stating biological fact. “He’s pretty short, like five-foot-three,” says Auerbach.
Casa Carney is an airy 100-year-old Southern-style bungalow that the Black Keys drummer shares with his fiancée Emily—who he met in New York, where she was working as a personal assistant to Weeds star Mary Louise-Parker; they will wed in September—and an Irish wolfhound named Charlotte with an overriding interest in sniffing the crotches of strangers. There is a baby grand in the foyer and an ultra-rare white Seneca deer head mounted on the wall in the living room. Carney is showing MAGNET a rough cut of a nightmarishly strange video their neighbor Harmony Korine has assembled for “Gold On The Ceiling,” the next single off El Camino.
Korine hired the Hollywood makeup artist who did Benjamin Button to create anatomically accurate rubber death masks of Carney and Auerbach, which were donned by a pair of super-tall basketball players dressed in adult-baby onesies, cavorting around the back alleys of Nashville—dancing around, jumping in puddles, making out with each other. To further add to the industrial-strength weirdness of it all, each masked actor has a smaller actor, wearing the same mask and onesie, strapped to their front like a baby.
“This is so fucked up,” says Carney with anxious pride. Indeed. Like all of Korine’s work, it’s funny, but it feels wrong to laugh. But it’s good to see that the mind-fucking imagination of the man who brought us Gummo and Trash Humpers is still as black as the night’s Plutonian shore. We retire to Carney’s home studio, located on the second floor of the pool house he had built, where we can smoke while we chat.
Like most boys on the cusp of puberty trying to school themselves in the canon of rock, Carney started with the classic-rock gods and the marquee names of alt-rock before venturing down the rabbit holes of increasingly obscure strains of indie rock. “I was into Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, and then Nirvana and Sonic Youth, and then Pavement and Dinosaur Jr, and then Luna and the Silver Jews and so forth,” he says. His dad bought him a guitar when he was 13, and after that he got a job washing dishes, eventually saving up enough money for a drum kit, a keyboard, a four-track recorder and some decent microphones—all of which would be used to record The Big Come Up.
When asked what it’s like, a decade later, to be sitting in the proverbial catbird seat of rock, Carney says he’s as shocked as anyone by his current circumstance. “When we first started out, I remember Dan’s dad asking us if we would ever win a Grammy, and I thought he was on crack,” says Carney, lighting up a Camel Light. “I said, ‘There’s no fucking way,’ and explained to him why we wouldn’t no matter what. It’s impossible—they’re designed for people like John Mayer or someone. That was in 2002 and, you know, bands like Radiohead and White Stripes and those kinds of bands were winning Grammys. I never thought we’d ever be in the same category as them, let alone win one, so it’s all surreal and bizarre, really. Growing up, most of the bands I loved I felt the same way about. The first time I heard Dinosaur Jr’s ‘Feel The Pain’ on the radio, I thought, ‘They’re gonna be huge; they’re gonna be as big as Nirvana was two years ago.’ I never understood why those bands weren’t, and I’ve come to think very little of it has to do with the band—a lot of it has to do with circumstances surrounding the band, the label and the climate of the music industry. I think we just kind of hit a lucky patch.”
And don’t think he’s not grateful. He still winces at the memory of the grinding tour for 2006’s Magic Potion, the Keys’ major-label debut. “It was a really difficult tour, ’cause we weren’t making very much money and in order to come home with some money to live off of, we had to tour minimally,” he says. “We had a rental minivan and a Penske truck because we still had tons of stuff we had to take on the road. I rode in the Penske so I could smoke. Touring around for eight weeks in a Penske truck was just like … it was fucking soul-crushing, really.”
But as the Keys’ commercial fortunes began to change—Brothers sold 73,000 copies the first week of its release, whereas 2008’s Attack And Release sold 29,000 the first week and Magic Potion sold 11,000 the first week—Carney came to feel somehow not worthy. “(2003’s) Thickfreakness sold 1,900 copies the first year it was out,” he says. “We sold that many copies of El Camino in the last week. The second leg of our North American tour just went on sale, and we sold 10,000 tickets in Calgary, and we’ve only played there once. We sold 9,000 tickets in Austin yesterday. It’s one thing to play 2,000-seat theaters, which we did for like four years in a row, but when it turns into, ‘You’re gonna play the 10,000-seat arena and it’s sold out,’ rather than looking at it like, ‘This is cool, everybody wants to see us,’ I was looking at it like, ‘How the fuck are we gonna be able to entertain all these people?’ You ever had a panic attack? You ever had a panic attack that lasts for days or weeks on end? I basically had a nervous breakdown.”
To treat what was fast becoming a debilitating and potentially career-ending case of stage fright, Carney hired a hypnotist. “He basically said I worry about things too much,” says Carney, adding that merely staying mindful of that fact has helped him to keep the anxiety under control. That and the occasional Ativan. To blow off steam, he likes to go on Twitter and annoy reality-show stars and corporate retail chains.
“My whole goal was to get Bethenny Frankel from The Real Housewives Of New York City to write me back,” he says. “Me and my brother to kind of tweet-stalked her, asking her if she read my tweets, telling her we read all her tweets, being kind of creepy. And it worked. It took about a year, but she finally did. But now I don’t really know what to do with myself on Twitter.”
For reasons only clear to him, Carney next set his tweet-stalker sights on getting Pier 1 Imports to follow him back. But the scheme came to an abrupt end when they followed him the first time he tweeted at them. Since then, he’s halfheartedly Twitter-punked Radio Shack, asking what time they open for breakfast, and Paula Deen, asking the queen of atherosclerotic cuisine if she has any recipes for country-fried Victoza. Which is funnier if you know that Victoza is a diabetes drug.
If The Joker or the Penguin had a hideout in Nashville, it would surely be located in the general vicinity of Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studio, a warren of barbed wire, cracked concrete and faceless low-rise cinderblock buildings. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would venture into this vector of the Music City without a good reason. JEFF The Brotherhood, a Nashville-based two-piece that sounds like the love child of Weezer and Black Sabbath, has a damn good reason: The duo is recording an album at Easy Eye, with Auerbach producing.
Auerbach has been busy-beavering away behind the board as of late. He produced Locked Down, the new album by New Orleans legend Dr. John (a.k.a. Mac Rebennack), which is due out in April. The collaboration came about largely as a result of Auerbach showing up at Rebennack’s home in N’awlins vowing to help him make “the best record you have made in a long time.” Upon consulting with his grandchildren, who told him the Black Keys were cool, Rebennack agreed. “It’s amazing,” Auerbach says of the album.
Auerbach’s knack for plucking rough gems from the wild and nurturing them with love and a little spit polish may well be genetic. His father is a collector and dealer of folk and outsider art, and it was one of dad’s finds—a self-taught Akron artist with a fondness for drawing cops in drag named Alfred McMoore, who lived near a funeral home and regularly showed up at the services of people he didn’t know and wept loudly—that would provide the nom de rock of his son’s band.
McMoore, who never left the house in anything other than three complete suits at once and a pair of hunting galoshes, was both developmentally disabled and schizophrenic. “We don’t know how much of the retardation was caused by physical abuse from his parents; he had dents on his head from being beaten with a lead pipe,” says Auerbach, nipping from a glass of coffee-colored beer courtesy of his neighbor, the Yazoo Brewing Company. “Unstable, but sweet as can be.”
McMoore was known to call people who ticked him off a “black key.” He would often leave upwards of 30 messages a day on the Auerbach family answering machine, invariably with reference to this or that person being a “black key.” When Auerbach and Carney were casting about for a name for their newly minted duo, they opted to appropriate McMoore’s unique coinage as an unspoken homage to the outsider artist/family friend, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 59.
Growing up, music was a fixture of the Auerbach household. His mother sang and played piano, and came from a long line of Georgia bluegrass pickers. His father, an unrepentant hippie type, was always commandeering the stereo with the likes of Robert Johnson, Son House, the Beatles, Kinks, Grateful Dead and Velvet Underground. “I always say the only way I could have rebelled growing up was to put on a suit and tie and get a nine-to-five job,” says Auerbach, staring off into space as if considering the possibility. “My dad would be horrified.”
Looking back, it seemed inevitable that Auerbach would wind up living in Nashville one day, given the numerous pilgrimages he made to Tennessee in his late teens and early 20s. Although it was a 24-hour drive from Akron, Auerbach would regularly swing through town on his way to the Mississippi hill country in the hopes of finally catching Junior Kimbrough in action at the juke joint that bears his name. “I would stop by Robert’s Western World, get the Recession Special—a fried bologna sandwich, a bag of chips and a PBR for five bucks—and then proceed to be blown away by some guy onstage waving a Telecaster like a magic wand.”
From there, he would head due west to Memphis, where he’d make a sharp left across the state line into the rolling hill country of North Mississippi. It was there that he would seek out an audience with septuagenarian bluesmen like Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford, recently rediscovered by the Fat Possum label, who represented the last living links to the North Mississippi blues tradition, churning out a minimalist, trance-inducing style of blues at juke joints and house parties deep in the woods. He never did get to see Kimbrough perform live, only to learn years later that Kimbrough’s performing days had long before been curtailed by diabetes. But he did get to see a man pull a gun in a drunken rage at Kimbrough’s juke joint, which counts as a badge of honor for young blues explorer like Auerbach. “I’m from Akron, and in our high school when people start fighting, you run towards it to watch,” he says with a shrug. “So, I ran towards the gun, not realizing I was in the line of fire.” Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the gunman was disarmed without any shots fired.
He had better luck with T-Model Ford, showing up at his trailer and asking if he could hang out. “He said, ‘C’mon, follow me,’ and we drove out to this double-wide trailer in the woods where this lady was having a picnic and T-Model was the entertainment,” says Auerbach. “We hung out for hours and eventually he let me sit in with him, and we played all afternoon, sipping corn liquor. Then he said he was playing that night at a juke joint, and invited me to come along and play with him for another four hours.”
Another major influence on Auerbach’s guitar playing was the self-titled debut by Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postizos, a mythical blend of Afro-Cuban soul and Lower East Side angularity. “That’s the only record that I ever played along with when I was teaching myself how to play guitar,” he says. “I fucking love that record.”
Auerbach had an in with Ribot because his cousin was guitarist Robert Quine—known for his slashing guitar work on seminal Richard Hell & The Voidoids debut Blank Generation and Lou Reed’s Blue Mask—who ran in the same Lower East Side music circles as Ribot. Sadly, Quine died in 2004, from what Auerbach suspects was an intentional heroin overdose, heartbroken over his wife’s unexpected death.
But in 2008, Auerbach was able to leverage the Quine/Ribot connection and get Ribot to play on Attack And Release, which would prove to be a pivotal album. It was also something of a family affair, with Carney inviting his uncle Ralph Carney—an in-demand horn player best known for his contributions on just about every Tom Waits album since 1985’s Rain Dogs—to play on the LP as well, adding things like flute and clarinet.
The record would also mark the first collaboration with Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton). The Keys had been working with Burton on the Ike Turner record, and when Turner passed away, the threesome decided to funnel some of the songs into a new Black Keys album to be produced by Burton. The LP would mark the first sustained exploration of styles and arrangements outside the two-man blooze-punk framework that had served the band so well on the four albums that came before. Attack And Release would represent a bridge between the biker-bar choogle of their early work and the broader, more eclectic sound and songwriting of the Keys’ Grammy-winning commercial breakthrough, Brothers. Although Burton was not around for the album’s primary recording sessions in Muscle Shoals, it was a one-off collaboration after the fact that yielded “Tighten Up,” the song that would finally get the Black Keys in heavy rotation on rock radio and grow their audience to arena-rock proportions.
“It just felt like it finally came together for us,” says Auerbach. “I felt like on Brothers I was writing actual songs for the first time.”
For El Camino, they recorded at Easy Eye. Burton was once again behind the board, and this time intimately involved in building the songs from scratch in the studio. The plan was to make an album that would please that new, larger audience—or at least be more fun to play live, given that the touring demands of the new record would keep them on the road for at least a year straight. They set out to make an album where every song could conceivably become a single.
“We wanted to be simple and rock ‘n’ roll and up-tempo,” says Auerbach. “We always started a song by listening to records and then talking about them. We listened to records from all different decades—Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers, Johnny Burnette Trio, T.Rex, the Sweet, the Cars, INXS —but they all had one thing in common: They were just guitar, bass, drums, organ and, most importantly, they were catchy.” Mission accomplished: El Camino went gold almost overnight.
At this point, Auerbach’s four-year-old daughter Sadie bursts into the room and into her father’s arms. Auerbach gives me a look that says his work is done here.
Back at Brown’s, the check has come, and the Wayback Machine is set to the turn of the century—back before the hits and the ads and the money and the wives and the kids and the houses and the 20 employees. Hard to believe their first show was 10 years ago: July 2002, to be exact, at the Beachland Tavern in Cleveland.
“All I remember about that we went on first out of four, we made $10 and we played really, really fast,” says Carney.
“Because we were nervous,” says Auerbach, finishing his sentence. “We had a half-hour set; we played it in about 18 minutes. We both pretty much blacked out. I remember going onstage and then being backstage. I don’t remember anything else.”
There was that time in Seattle on their first tour when Carney passed out in the van with the gear; when he awoke, the vehicle was surrounded by jolly men prancing around in Santa Claus outfits. This freaked out the tour-weary Carney so much that he wound trying to relieve himself in an empty bottle—with, shall we say, spectacular ineffectiveness—rather than face down a tweaked-out pack of marauding Santas. In the morning light, he realized they had parked in front of a gay bar.
Or the time they played Bonnaroo in 2004, sold the 10 sets of all-access credentials the festival doled out to each act and promptly blew the entire $1,500 windfall at a nearby strip club called Godfathers 2. “Not sure where all the money went, but we got very drunk and ate a lot of pizza,” says Carney. “I saw some of the most disgusting things I have ever seen in my life happen there.”
Back then, they’d play with anyone who would have them—jam bands, indie-rock bands, rockabilly bands, garage-rock bands, stoner-rock bands, even reggae bands. For their first out-of-state, they drove 16 hours round trip to open for the Pietasters in New York, and were paid the princely sum of $50.
“That was actually a lot of money for us back then,” says Carney. “We could live off that. Back then, our biggest expenses were Natural Light and hot dogs.”