NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Twenty years ago, two college dropouts from Akron, Ohio, together recorded a rock album and sent it to a small label in Los Angeles. But then came the hard part: Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney had to learn how to play live music.
The Black Keys still raw, fast and loose on ‘Dropout Boogie’
During their first show in March 2002, Auerbach called the owners of the Beachland Tavern in Cleveland back, telling them they had to fill 30 minutes. “We’re like, ‘No problem, we got it,'” Auerbach said. “We played everything twice as fast. Totally blackened.
“We liked 10 songs or something in 20 minutes,” Carney said.
The performance kept them coming back for more shows, eventually selling out the venue. It turns out that failing college was probably the best thing that ever happened to them.
“We realized we weren’t really college material,” Carney said.
Instead, they slowly but steadily built from that first show, attracting bigger crowds, bigger labels, and critical acclaim with each album.
On their 11th studio album “Dropout Boogie,” the Grammy-winning duo, who are now raising their own school-aged children, reflect on their early years when they bonded on records as varied as Junior Kimbrough, The Wu-Tang Clan and Captain Beefheart and played raw, fast and loose in local venues.
“We wouldn’t have paid for an expensive private school if we hadn’t dropped out,” Carney laughs.
Two decades after the start of their career, the duo still works like on those first records. On “Dropout Boogie”, they wrote songs mostly in the studio, not contributing a lot of pre-written material. Three or four songs on the disc are just first takes on the recording. Rawness and imperfection was something they learned from those influential experimental rock and hill country blues sounds of the 70s. in four years.
“That’s why we kept playing together when we were 16, 17, because as soon as we started playing it was instantaneous. It was so easy,” Auerbach said.
On the new record, they branched out with collaborators Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Greg Cartwright of Memphis rock band Reigning Sound, and songwriter and producer Angelo Petraglia.
“It opened up a whole world of possibilities like, ‘Oh yeah, our Rolodex is pretty deep,'” Carney said. “We can just call a lot of people, make a lot of music.”
Auerbach said that when the ZZ Top frontman stopped by their Easy Eye Studio in Nashville, he didn’t even bring his own guitar, just a bottle of wine, and immediately got to work. His solo on their song, “Good Love,” is classic Texas blues-rock that ZZ Top has perfected, his guitar screeching with pinched harmonics over a fat, distorted bassline.
One song came to them from a musicologist named David Evans, a retired professor from the University of Memphis, who had shared rare field recordings of Mississippi blues artists with Auerbach. One such recording he made was a cheerleading team from Senatobia, Mississippi, in the 70s singing “Hey, hey, over there / Your team looks good / But not as good as ours .”
The lines stuck in Auerbach’s head and at the end of the recording session, when the album was pretty much done, they decided to take it back. Singer Sierra Ferrell jumped in for harmony background vocals. After recording the song, Carney called the band’s attorney.
“I was like, ‘We’ve got a job for you,'” Carney said. “And she’s like, ‘What is this?’ “OK, there’s this obscure field recording of a cheerleading squad from the middle of nowhere, Mississippi. I need you to find the writing credit so we don’t get sued.”
The song was based on “The Girl Can’t Help It”, a song written by Bobby Troup and performed by Little Richard. Troup therefore has a writing credit for the song “Your Team Is Looking Good” with The Black Keys.
Carney joked that in the litigious world of music copyright, it’s best to be generous with credits.
“We did the opposite of Robin Thicke,” Carney said with a laugh. “Take this money away from us. We don’t want money. We want the song.