Keys unlock major-label success

What does it take to make a man leave the comfort of his home and quit his job for the hardscrabble life of a musician? Well, you might say it was a bad case of the blues.

Singer, songwriter and guitarist Dan Auerbach started his four-year odyssey on the road in 2002 when he and musical partner Pat Carney lost their miserable landscaping jobs.

"We were mowing lawns for a slum lord, basically," Auerbach said. "It was disgusting-we had to pick up tons of 40s and plastic cups, and we were practicing every day in Pat's basement. It was kind of a no-brainer."

From that low point, things have gotten much rosier for his blues-rock band, the Black Keys. After their appearance in the Triangle this past spring, the band signed to Nonesuch Records, released its first major-label (and fourth overall) LP and toured as an opener for Radiohead. Their road brings them to Carrboro next Thursday as they headline the Cat's Cradle with the Black Angels.

The Keys' music is an exercise in rawness. Magic Potion, released Sept. 12, is a little bit more polished than previous discs, but still oozes the blues.

"We've kind of gotten more into the recording aspect and using different mics for different purposes and preamps and all that junk," Auerbach said. "But musically we're the same band."

Auerbach is a brilliant, if brusque, guitarist-all muscle and no nuance. Although he cites Junior Kimbrough and Son House as influences, Jimi Hendrix is never far below the surface. Carney isn't the most intricate of drummers either-think Bonham without the echo-but the duo puts out more sound than ought to be possible for just two guys.

The stripped-down, no-nonsense attitude Auerbach uses when writing songs translates to his speaking style. He speaks nonchalantly and uses complete sentences only when necessary. A simplicity permeates his words, but it's a wryly cultivated simplicity. Take, for example, his attempt to describe the new disc:

"Oh s-, I have no idea, man. I wouldn't try to describe it. I'd just say, 'It's a rock 'n' roll record, here it is, listen to it yourself.' Everyone has a different idea, everyone's classification or something is different."

Some critics are not so measured as he. From Tucson to Glasgow, writers have repeatedly connected that rawness to the Keys' roots in the post-industrial wasteland of Akron, Ohio. In fact, Auerbach comes from a family of illustrious Akron ex-pats, from philosopher W.V. Quine to pioneering punk guitarist Robert Quine. For him, it's not what the city has but what it lacks that makes it special.

"There's definitely a kind of DIY thing, a midwest-basement thing that's really crucial to the sound of the Black Keys," he said. "Other than that, it's really just being isolated. It's just the luxury of not having the new craze pushed on you every week like you do in L.A. or New York City. You can kind of sit and think uninterrupted."

Even though Magic Potion was recorded for Warner Bros. subsidiary Nonesuch, it doesn't fall into all the storied major-label snares. Like its predecessors, the disc was recorded at Carney's studio, and like the rest, it features artwork by his brother Mike. All that seems to have changed is the size of the checks they'll be receiving.

Auerbach said the major gave them less trouble and more control than their previous record company, the small indie blues label Fat Possum.

For once, he lets slip a modicum of emotion, granting a brief glimpse into how excited he is to hit the big time.

"We'd fulfilled our contract, we were free agents and we just wanted to see what was available," he said. "I think when we saw that Nonesuch was available, we were really excited. I know I was-it's one of my favorite record labels."

But when asked how he'd promote the Cradle gig to Duke students, he closed up again, and the wry, detached mask came back.

"It depends on who they are, 'cause I'd tell an appropriate lie-a college guy, I'd tell him there were naked girls," he said. "If it was a girl, I'd say, ya know, that Johnny Depp was going to be there."


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