You don’t have to go looking for the blues in the Black Keys’ hometown of Akron, Ohio: The blues will find you.
By Andrew Parks
Photo by Nicholas Burnham
Ohio’s Economic Portrait—The Heartache Of It All
“Ohio lost about five times the number of jobs from 2000-2004 that it lost during the 1990-92 recession.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer, page A1, Oct. 21, 2004
Patrick Carney’s car, a 1969 MGB roadster that’s barely big enough to accommodate his six-foot-five frame, won’t start. The drummer for the Black Keys is currently behind the wheel of a loaner: his grandfather’s silver, boat-sized Cadillac Coup DeVille. Along with Black Keys singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach, Carney is giving MAGNET a guided tour of the five miles that matter in Akron, Ohio: a dismal stretch that includes one decent record store, an antiquated, single-screen movie theater and lots of bars. Carney cues up Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” on his iPod and begins to narrate details about his hometown.
“A river of evil flows beneath Akron,” he says.
Sadly, the facts about Akron aren’t much brighter than Carney’s fiction. In 1920, it was the fastest-growing city in the United States. By 1930, about two-thirds of the nation’s automobile tires were produced here, by such companies as Goodyear, Firestone and Goodrich. After four decades of prosperity, the ’70s brought mergers and plant closings that began a long, slow slide into economic depression. Goodyear, the only tire company still stationed in Akron, now employs about 3,000 people. By comparison, the rubber factories employed 10 times that many workers a generation ago.
Akron’s music scene has a long history of outsourcing its talent. Chrissie Hynde, who declared Ohio dead in the 1984 song “My City Was Gone,” lit out to England at her first opportunity. Devo slugged it out for a while but skipped town for Los Angeles in the late ‘70s. Robert Quine left to study law at Washington University in St. Louis and later moved to New York City, where he formed the Voidoids with Richard Hell.
Now Tire Town has two University of Akron dropouts to raise its tallboys to. After three albums of white-knuckle, working-class blues, the Black Keys are the toast of critics, hotshot musicians (Beck, Sleater-Kinney) and down-home Delta-blues fans. According to Carney and Auerbach, they have no intention of leaving their hometown.
“We aren’t making a lot of money yet, but we’re doing well for Akron,” says Carney. “I don’t like it when bands move to a big city to become part of a scene or because their video store has a better selection.”
“There’s nothing I’d rather do than drive to the park, walk my dog, go swimming and sit in the grass,” adds Auerbach, who recently bought his first house with money he saved from his modest royalty checks. “Most of my friends moved away, but I don’t see them doing much more than they’d do here.”
Carney takes a deep drag off his cigarette and cranks up the iPod to blare the crisscrossing, synth-drenched chords of “Sirius,” the Alan Parsons Project anthem that’s better known as the entrance theme for the Chicago Bulls and many of the country’s other sports teams. “This is the most depressing song ever,” says Carney.
Seemingly on cue, a Goodyear blimp skims the air above a Wonder Bread outlet. “As if Wonder Bread isn’t cheap enough,” says Auerbach. “The shit must be two cents here. That pretty much sums up Akron.”
Questions about the Black Keys’ white-bread hometown and its relationship to the blues are quickly scratched off the notepad.
Band Starts Journey, Success In Its Sights
“I almost quit the band twice this morning.”
—Patrick Carney quoted in the Akron Beacon Journal, page A2, March 13, 2003
Neither member of the Black Keys has returned to Firestone High School—a building that looks like it’s straight out of a John Hughes film—since graduating more than five years ago. Standing in the parking lot, Carney and Auerbach look slightly confused as they survey their old stomping grounds.
Carney admits he enjoyed high school and wishes he could go back. Auerbach says he hated classes and spent a lot of time in detention, listening to a well-concealed cassette player. He preferred to stay at home, playing his father’s Beatles records and, on occasion, watching his mother’s family perform folk and bluegrass music in the living room. Although both Black Keys were briefly in the Firestone marching band—Auerbach on trumpet, Carney on trombone—the two were a grade apart (Auerbach is older by a year) and rarely crossed paths despite living around the corner from one another.
After both dropped out of the University of Akron—Carney also briefly studied photography at an art school in Pittsburgh—Auerbach found himself playing solo electric shows around town and looking for a partner. “It was good practice,” he says. “People weren’t even listening at some places, so I’d just play an N.W.A. song.” Meanwhile, Carney bounced from band to band, searching for something more gratifying than the local cover-band scene. (Akron is home to no fewer than six Styx tribute outfits.) In 2001, a frustrated Auerbach asked if he could come by and jam in Carney’s basement.
“Our plan was not to be considered an Akron act,” says Carney. “We didn’t even play a show here until after our first record came out.”
“We were obsessed in the beginning, just hours and hours of practicing and recording,” adds Auerbach.
While the White Stripes’ neo-garage sounds like big-riff rock that happens to be recorded on analog equipment, the bloodied blues of the Black Keys has more relevance among crusty 78 collectors. Auerbach’s from-the-gullet moan is a result of his lifelong exposure to the blues, as well as bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley and Bob Dylan’s country-tinged Nashville Skyline. In hopes of capturing the rough-and-tumble, roadhouse-guitar tones of Hound Dog Taylor, Auerbach traded in his expensive new Stratocaster for a cheap ’60s Japanese guitar. To this day, he winces at the memory.
“The guy at the store was like, ‘Yeah, sounds like a great deal to me. You might even be coming out ahead,’” says Auerbach. “I didn’t know how [Taylor] got that sound. I just knew the guitar had to be a crazy color and have four big, silver pickups.”
In May 2002, the Black Keys released their first album, The Big Come Up, on Bomp! Records’ Alive imprint. By August, the Keys had been approached by DreamWorks, Green Day’s manager and Fat Possum (a label that’s home to blues legends R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough). Before the end of the year, the Keys signed with Fat Possum, becoming the youngest act on its roster, and issued Thickfreakness in 2003.
Carney and Auerbach admit the whole ride—culminating with the release of Rubber Factory last summer, followed by rigorous touring—is a bit of a blur. In the shadows of Firestone High, they seem most at ease dishing dirt on some celebrity encounters. At the ACLU Freedom Concert in October, they shared a dressing room with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, who was at the event to perform a spoken-word piece. Auerbach says he later saw the Donnie Darko star wearing Carney’s camouflage hat on the cover of People. “It’s OK, I sweated all over it,” says Carney.
Last year, they convinced Jet to threaten the mild-mannered Fiery Furnaces with force after one of the Australian rockers was hit over the head with a beer bottle that night. “They actually went into the Fiery Furnaces’ dressing room and said, ‘Why did you do that to my brother last night?”’ says Carney. “Come on. The Fiery Furnaces look like schoolteachers. Jet are a bunch of retarded goofballs.”
Over the summer, the Black Keys filmed a music video for Rubber Factory’s “10 A.M. Automatic” with David Cross. Says the comedian, “I told them repeatedly that I refused to refer to them as ‘blues-rock revivalists’ but would refer to them as ‘rockin’ revivers of a blueish nature’ for a small fee. Pat told me to go to hell, and the rest is rock ’n’ roll video history.”
As we walk away from Firestone, Carney shares his subversive plan for world domination, which doesn’t involve any sort of revival.
“Picture this as the musical superhighway,” he says, pointing in the air. “In one lane is Ashlee Simpson and cool shit like that. We’re going to change lanes, get right behind that and crash into them.”
$2.2 Billion Bid Made For GenCorp
“GenCorp, one of the Akron area’s largest employers, with a work force of 1,900 locally, today became a takeover target and triggered frantic bidding on Wall Street.”
—Ohio Beacon Journal, page A1, March 18, 1987
Back in Carney’s grandfather’s Cadillac, the lo-fi shuffle of Pavement’s “Summer Babe” is playing when we pull up to the General Tire factory. Once a workplace for thousands of Akron residents, the building is in a sorry state of disrepair. It initially appears abandoned, but upon closer inspection there are a few small businesses—such as the Black Keys’ Sentient Sound studio, located on the second floor—that lease space in the building. The Keys recorded the appropriately titled Rubber Factory here, amid crumbling drywall, concrete dust and possibly toxic levels of asbestos.
“Hey, they painted the place for Christmas,” says Auerbach as Carney parks the car in one of many available spaces. Indeed, someone has given General Tire a slapdash paint job of pine green with mistletoe-red trim. Despite tire production halting back in 1982, when the Black Keys were still toddlers, the stench of molten rubber lingers as a rotting reminder of Akron’s golden age.
“Did you swipe your security card?” asks Auerbach as we go up a flight of concrete stairs and pass through a dank corridor.
“Yeah, and I also passed the retina scan,” says Carney, grinning.
The band’s makeshift, $500-a-month recording space is a mess of wires, empty water bottles, amplifiers and dismantled drum kits. The production booth is a glorified closet: The light switch isn’t working, but you can see the outline of a mixing board. Carney bought it on eBay from a former sound tech for Canadian arena rockers Loverboy; he proudly points to a faded Loverboy sticker on the board.
The Black Keys can be forgiven for having an unkempt studio. Due to a grueling tour schedule over the past two years, the duo hasn’t touched anything in here since May, when it completed Rubber Factory.
“This room served its purpose, but we aren’t going to use it again,” says Auerbach.
Even if they don’t record here, the Keys insist they’ll keep producing and mixing their own music using Carney’s self-proclaimed medium-fi process. “That’s our shit,” he says of the speeding-down-Route-66 sound. “Working with other people and explaining to them what we want wastes a lot of time.”
“No one knows we were naked during the whole recording of the last record, either,” adds Auerbach, laughing.
Today, the Black Keys happen to be wearing similar-looking green shirts, and when Auerbach jokes that “we’re actually brothers,” the quip contains a bit of truth. Auerbach is the older sibling: methodical, patient and careful about how he phrases things. Carney, on the other hand, will gleefully talk trash for the sake of entertainment. (Of Interpol, he remarks, “Are they trying out for the sequel to Swing Kids?”)
“There’s a lot of hatred, a lot of bitterness here,” says Auerbach with mock-seriousness. Though the odd couple exhibits no signs of strained friendship, Auerbach mentions a possible upcoming solo project, and Carney indicates he’d like to dabble in some “fucked-up pop” music.
“You can’t be stuck in a van with the same person for three years and be completely satisfied,” says Auerbach.
Police Discover Weapons At Dead Gunman’s Home
“Detectives found a pipe bomb, a ray-gun style device, a homemade flame-thrower, a starter pistol, a crossbow, a sword, two BB guns and several books, including a Bible, a Quran and two works titled A History Of The Devil and Rules For Radicals.”
—Akron Beacon Journal, page A1, Oct. 19, 2004
“Grab that motherfucker!’’
Carney is in the middle of pounding a bottle of Budweiser at a bar called Annabelle’s when a fight between two locals erupts and spills out onto the sidewalk. Carney takes a last swig and rushes to the door, but the punch-up is over by the time he gets outside. A leather jacket, minus its left sleeve, lies on the pavement; apparently, one guy was pinned down and punched repeatedly in the face.
“There’s too many people here with nothing to do,” says Ted Pitts, Carney’s former roommate and one of a group of friends who’ve assembled to see off the Black Keys before another European tour. Mildly disappointed at the fight’s brevity, we sit beneath a Bud Light mirror as a few drunk patrons sing along to Tenacious D’s “Fuck You Gently” playing on the jukebox.
“There’s a lot more going on here than in New York,” insists Carney. “I’d rather hang out with people I’ve known for 10 years than people I met six months ago.”
The next morning, Pitts arrives at Carney’s apartment to inform us that, according to local TV news reports, the bar fight turned serious later in the evening. Evidently, one of the men followed the other one home and shot him in the face and chest. The wounded man was taken to the hospital, where he died a few days later. A bleary-eyed Carney, who stayed up most of the night watching a Led Zeppelin concert DVD, stares half-surprised, half-bewildered.
The final stop on the Black Keys’ tour of Akron is Hamburger Station, where Carney has been a regular since he got his driver’s license. Ohio and hamburgers go back a long way: White Castle and Wendy’s were both started in the Buckeye State. Hamburger Station founder Jim Lowe claimed to be expanding the business into a franchise operation in the early ’80s, but the company slipped into debt, and Akron eventually took over the restaurant in an attempt to retain one of the city’s few landmarks.
Carney drives to Akron’s last remaining Station location, which looks like a lower-grade Wendy’s with sacks of onions and potatoes piled in the middle of the floor near a giant cowboy boot. Instead of ordinary seating, Hamburger Station is furnished with uncomfortable, saddle-shaped chairs. Carney explains this was all part of the restaurant’s original Western theme. Auerbach brings a tray of burgers and peanut-oil french fries over for a taste test. “Bon appétit,” he says.
The fries are thin and tasty, the burgers dead-on replications of White Castle: a small patty of meat, overwhelmed by mustard, raw onion, a pickle and a special sauce that consists of runoff grease. MAGNET is not impressed.
“That’s such an insult,” snaps Auerbach. “The interview’s over.”
“The burger is simply a platform for the condiments,” explains Carney in a more measured tone. “That meat is a tiny little stage for the pickles and onions to climb on top of.”
“Quality,” says Auerbach, “not quantity.”