July, 2002: two young men, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, college dropouts the both of them, are working together for an Akron, Ohio property owner, the type of fella who owns a variety of low-rent apartment buildings around town in various states of repair and, well, disrepair. You get the picture. That sort of operation. They’re “horticultural technicians” for this property owner. Not to put too fine a point on it, the boys mow lawns for the landlord. Between them, they’ve got a truck, two lawnmowers and a Weedwhacker. In addition to working together, these two childhood friends play in a band, a duo called The Black Keys. In a week’s time, they’re to embark on their first tour ever, playing songs off of their debut album, The Big Come Up, at tiny venues around the country, and the job is a vital cog in the big plan: work, save money, tour, come back to Akron, mow some more lawns, save money, maybe tour again, and so on. Humble rock dreams. A week to go. Big deal. So what do they do?
They go and get themselves fired, that’s what they do.
And how exactly do they manage that? “Well, ” explains Patrick, 24 years old, Bigfoot-tall, bespectacled and lanky, the imposing drumming half of the now unemployed Black Keys, “we didn’t edge a lawn correctly. I always fuck up details like that.”
And that detail leaves them dangling, for a bit at least. Unemployment be damned, they leave Akron and drive around the U.S. in a small hatchback (one of the advantages of being a low-profile, travel-light duo). Dan, a year Patrick’s senior, compact and sometimes bearded, quiet and wry, plays fuzzed-out guitar and sings – scratch that – howls sweetly and growls soulfully, like a man whose only friends in the world are his songs of suffering and true romance. Patrick plays his drums like he’s dragging them into a ditch and strangling them, attacking them like they stole his mother’s purse. The combination sparks. Folks come on down to see their shows (the band almost spooks in Seattle at the sight of 100 people waiting to see them play their unique brand of atavistic boogie). Rolling Stone magazine gives The Big Come Up four stars, and all of a sudden, getting a job once back home seems like a bit of a sucker’s bet.
They’re broke, to be sure, but Akron living is still cheap compared to the rest of the country and Dan and Patrick figure that if they spend almost every waking hour on their music – writing, practicing, and touring – they can make this enterprise work. So, like the proverbial one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, the boys get busy. They rehearse non-stop in Patrick’s rat-infested basement (there’s that cheap Akron rent for you). They play show after show after show, getting terrifically road-seasoned. In early 2003, they record their second album, Thickfreakness, in said Ohio basement for Mississippi-based iconoclast label Fat Possum. In less than twelve hours. Albums recorded in half a day can only go two ways, really: they can be total crap or, very rarely, they can be shit-hot. There isn’t much in-between. Audiences and critics worldwide seem to think Thickfreakness falls into the latter category as the record becomes a surprise resounding success. Their explosive, compelling live shows become the talk of the town.
In late 2003, having been evicted from their former rodent-populated digs, The Black Keys set up stakes on the second floor of a cavernous former General Tire factory in a desolate, industrial section of East Akron. Putting together an ad hoc studio of cobbled together, second-hand equipment (and dubbing the new practice space/recording studio Sentient Sound in honor of the particles that float around the hallways of the warehouse in a seemingly intelligent and possibly toxic nimbus), sessions for Rubber Factory, the band’s third record in as many years, begin in January and, in fits and starts, last until May 2004. But don’t let the seemingly leisurely recording pace make you think that the band’s gone all uptown. Oh, hell no. Dan will even tell you (truthfully, too) that the magnetic tape the album was recorded on, “was recycled from the Fat Possum studio in Northern Mississippi; we recorded over not-quite-right versions of radio commercials for local fried chicken joints.”
Cut to early 2006 — The Black Keys return to the basement (Patrick’s new, rat-free studio, Audio Eagle) to record Magic Potion, their fourth full-length album for new label Nonesuch. Despite its title, Magic Potion is ironically the sound of The Black Keys getting their signature sound down to a science — it’s the band at their heaviest, grittiest and most powerfully stripped down. From the nasty, sweaty strut of the album’s first single, “Your Touch,” to the to the sublimely narcotic devotional ballad “You’re the One” on down to the stomping, house-rocking call to arms “Modern Times,” The Black Keys have made the finest recording of their career.
A lot has changed since Dan and Patrick’s lawn-mowing days: albums have been recorded; relationships have been busted; tour transportation has been upgraded from a compact car to a passenger van; the band’s gone from playing empty clubs to selling out huge halls; The Black Keys have been praised by critics, fans, and musicians ranging from Robert Plant to Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke, who specifically requested that the Keys accompany the band as their opening act this past June. But strangely enough, things have also stayed the same: Dan and Patrick are still living in Akron, still barbecuing with their families, and still kicking up holy rackets of earth-shaking fuzz and booming percussion in basements. Magic Potion, in addition to being a hell of a rock and roll record, serves as a raised glass to the band’s home. As Dan says, “The idea was for people to be able to sit on a porch in Akron with a can of beer and blast the record through a boom box.” Only history and the people of Akron will be able to tell if Magic Potion passes that particular test, but if the Keys have anything to say about it, they’re going to be tireless in their mission of bringing the gospel of Akron to the world. “People can depend on Pat and me to play music and be around for life,” Dan says, adding. “We have to: It’s the only the job skill we have.”