Back last February when the Black Keys nabbed two Grammy Awards, it was one of those rare moments when the parallel musical universe—you know, the one that ought to be—allows a quick glimpse of itself in the blinding white klieg lights and crush of cameras before it slips back into the long shadows and small rooms where it is forever born and dying.
It was in one of those small rooms in Akron, Ohio, that the Black Keys—drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist Dan Auerbach—first came together in the late 90s.
“I had this fascination with four-track recorders when I was in high school,” Carney told NPR’s Terri Gross earlier this year. “And that’s how the band started. Dan was just starting to play guitar, and I was just starting to get into this four-track recorder I bought. And Dan knew I had a drum set I couldn’t play. And our brothers encouraged us to get together and jam.”
A few years later, when Carney had upgraded to a digital recorder he was learning to use, he invited Auerbach over again.
“Dan came over and the rest of the band didn’t show up,” Carney said. “And we decided to just record some stuff anyway. That day we made a six-song demo and we sent it around and got our first record deal.”
From there the Black Keys followed the grand tradition of almost all American rock and roll bands. They crisscrossed the country in a van, chipping fans from the monolithic slab of belligerent, disinterested drunks, living on the nickel, sleeping on floors, half Kerouac, half Black Flag. Most bands, if they’re lucky, break even at best, then break up when they can’t take it anymore. But the Black Keys didn’t give up. Instead, they got better.
With each release—from their 2002 debut The Big Come Up, which combined the gritty minimalism of Mississippi’s Fat Possum blues artists with a big Zeppelin wallop and sludgy Nuggets-style interpretations of the Beatles and Taj Mahal, all the way to 2010’s Brothers, the one that earned them the Grammy wins—the Black Keys have dug deeper into their sound, their playing and their writing. Every year, they sound like a better version of themselves, anchored by Carney’s thunderous drumming and propelled by Auerbach’s grimy guitar and truly soulful vocals.
Along the way, the Black Keys have found a surprisingly prodigious demand for their music—not from radio, but from brands. At first, beleaguered by the worn-out and totally obsolete concept of selling-out, often perpetuated by people who have never tried to make a living as a musician, Auerbach and Carney were conflicted. They turned their back on small fortunes before they came to their senses and started saying yes.
To date, their music has been featured in ads for Cadillac, Victoria’s Secret, Zales and Subaru, among many others.
“We’ve probably done 25 pretty big TV ads and we have done a lot of movies as well,” Carney told NPR. “The first offer we ever had to have a song in commercial was from an English mayonnaise company, and they offered us a lot of money. Crazy money, especially at the time—it was insane.”
“We were touring,” added Auerbach. “But you have to keep in mind that we were touring in a mini van, just the two of us at that point. And then we got this offer for more money than our parents make in a year, combined.”
“And we were advised by our old manager that it wasn’t enough money and that we risked alienating all of our fan base in England, which at the time was maybe 5,000 people,” Carney continued. “And ruin our career and come off as a sell-out corporate rock band. And we were hearing this literally while we were driving around in a 1994 Plymouth Grand Voyager that smelled like pee, and going home to our modest apartments. And we were scared. We were 23 years old and we didn’t know what to do. So we passed on it. And more offers came in and they were passed on. And at certain point, we were like, why don’t we do one and see what happens? Because it was more money than we were making on a whole year of touring for one ad.”
“All we know is that it has helped us immensely,” Auerbach said. “Before ‘Tighten Up’ we had never had a real song on the radio. We didn’t have that support, and getting these songs in commercials was almost like having your song on the radio. ‘I’ll Be Your Man’ is the theme song to the HBO show Hung. That was from our very first record, and all of a sudden, when we went out on the road, people would light up when they heard that song. That record was how many years ago? And all of a sudden people were starting to react to this song because they heard it on TV. And we figured that must be what it is like to have your song on the radio.”
“A lot of people see a Nissan ad and they see a finished product in a record store or on iTunes and that’s the face of the band,” Carney says. “What they don’t see is that we made Brothers in a cinderblock building in the middle of nowhere in Alabama, with five microphones and a guitar amp and a drum set. I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I do know we didn’t spend a lot of money making this record, and it’s an honest way of approaching making music.”