The Black Keys “It’s super-weird that we play arenas”When they return to New Zealand in April, the US duo will be packing out a venue more familiar to manufactured pop acts than bluesy rock ’n’ rollers
It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ’n’ roll, especially so in 2015, with only a few rock outfits sharing the rarefied air at the top of music’s tree along with rappers, boy bands, girl singers and DJs. But in an era of unassailable pop dominance, The Black Keys are an exception to the rule.
The two-man attack of singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach, 35, and drummer Patrick Carney, 34, has incrementally won over audiences much bigger than their back-to-basics set-up and sound should rightly give them access to. Eight albums deep, The Black Keys are now genuine arena-fillers and festival headliners, fattening up their live sound with the addition of a bass player and keyboardist while losing none of the stripped-back approach to swaggering, soulful rock ’n’ roll that separated them from the pack in the first place. Three years after the band’s first headlining world tour, with a string of arena dates behind them, Carney reflects on the challenge of translating a sound built for pubs and clubs to the nosebleeds.
THE RED BULLETIN : The first Black Keys gig in New Zealand [June 28, 2008] was at a sold-out Powerstation in Auckland. Any memories of that?
PATRICK CARNEY: Yeah, man, I remember playing that venue. A couple of us went to a strip club with mermaids in it the night before, and I checked out a really good record store the next day.
That was The Mermaid Club and Real Groovy Records. So, on what will be your third trip, what’s on the to-do list?
I don’t know the city that well, but I know it’s beautiful. Last time, a Kiwi buddy of mine took me to see [Flying Nun band] The Bats at the Leigh Sawmill Cafe, north of Auckland. That’s a cool venue, so I reckon we’ll have to head back there.
Vector is a venue more likely to host Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake. Are you still surprised that The Black Keys now pack out 12,000-seaters instead of beer-soaked dive bars?
Yeah, man, totally. We know we don’t sit easy alongside those names. But you’ve got to look at it like this: in 1977, Led Zeppelin played The Forum in LA 10 nights in a row or something. Around the same time, you’d have pop acts like Linda Ronstadt and The Doobie Brothers playing there as well. It’s super-weird that we get to play arenas – it’s weirder, though, that there aren’t more rock bands doing it. I mean, where are they?
Does your performance change when you play small and large venues?
Yeah, absolutely. When you’re playing a small show, you can turn it up and the sheer volume alone can impress the audience. When you have 12,000 people in the crowd, they’re analysing the performance, so you have to play better – and that’s made us a much better band.
You never wanted to be a drummer – guitar was your first love – so are there any pangs of regret when you see your bandmate front and centre?
Nah, man, no regrets. When you’re like 16, 17, no one wants to be the drummer; there’s one kid who wants to play drums and 30 who want to play guitar. It worked out for me in the end, though, right? I’m self-taught and I think I’m pretty good for someone who wanted to be a guitar player. A great drummer is someone who’s imaginative when it comes to creative arts. I don’t really look at technical skill as being impressive when it comes to any instrument. I wouldn’t want to sit around listening to [electric guitar virtuoso] Steve Vai all day long, you know what I mean?
The music business can be a fickle game. Would it be a bitter pill to swallow if you went back to playing clubs after this run of arena shows?
That’s a hard one. This tour we’re playing arenas and last year we did too, but who knows what happens on the next one? We’ll just take it as it comes; we never have very high expectations other than wanting to make music that we’re proud of. I would not be surprised that when we come to New Zealand next time, we’re back to playing The Powerstation again – and we’d be totally cool with that.
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