A Conversation with The Black Keys' Patrick Carney
Mike Ragogna: Patrick, The Black Keys' Turn Blue was compared to The Clash's London Calling. How do you react to that?
Patrick Carney: That's insane. It's really cool, that's one of my favorite records. Listening to records like that and, for example, The White Album, and just knowing that we will never create anything that good is the inspiration to keep making records. In our minds, it's never going to be close, but it's cool. At the same time it opens us up to be ridiculed, because it's my and a lot of people's favorite record, and no one wants to hear that something sounds like that. It's a nice thing to say, but it's freaky.
MR: Coming from the original indie band world that you started out in to where you are now working with Danger Mouse, I'm imagining this isn't the trajectory you guys would have predicted when you first started out.
PC: When we first started out, we were making records, just the two of us. We had no budget; I had to get a Sam Ash credit card to get my first digital recorder because I thought that's what I needed to make a record. Since then it's been a slow progression and subtle changes in the way we do stuff. And the biggest was working with Danger Mouse starting in 2007 on Attack & Release. The real change there was that we went to this studio in Ohio called Suma, where Pere Ubu recorded all their records. Danger Mouse flew out, and we stayed in a Holiday Inn in the middle of nowhere in Ohio. We made a record and became friends with Brian [Burton, Danger Mouse]; he was just there helping us. He gelled perfectly, and it was a new, different, good experience. From there we made Brothers mostly on our own, but on El Camino we wanted to work with Brian again, and with this album it just made sense to work with him for most of it as well. But the main thing that changed was the venue. We did this one mostly at Sunset Sound where there's nicer equipment. But really, most studios are pretty sterile environments, and it only works for us because the three of us get along really well and have fun in the studio. But we never would have imagined, even four years ago when Brothers came out, that that record would go into the Top 5, and we definitely didn't imagine it going on to do what it's done. Same with El Camino. I'm just waiting for it all to stop. That's the way the world works. What goes up must come down, especially if you never even intended for it to go up.
MR: There's speculation as to what the title Turn Blue means--suffocation, sadness, numbness from extreme cold...
PC: I just think that art's best when you're able to project your own thought onto it. Isn't that what religion is about, too?
MR: But you probably had some kind of theme or structure that was behind the creativity, right? Or was it just a bunch of songs you guys wrote that came together as an album?
PC: There was definitely a theme happening, especially in the Los Angeles sessions. But the record came together and felt more complete when we started to include some stuff that we'd done before we worked with Brian. It felt a little more dynamic. We added "Gotta Get Away" and "It's Up To You Now." They're a little more upbeat. We thought that the record needed to have a little less of a slow, sad feel. When something feels really neat and tidy and presented in a perfect package, to me it always feels forced, and Dan [Auerbach] and I don't make music that way. When we make a record, we put together how we're going to announce it, what's going to go on the cover, and what we're going to call it. It should kind of feel like a f**king giant mistake that hopefully works, basically. Because really, that's what our band is, it's something that shouldn't be working, really. We're lucky, but you can't over-think stuff. That's something that Dan and I are really adamant about; you have to trust your instincts and have fun with it. Making a record should be fun. We play music because it's what we did for fun when we were in high school, and it's still what we do for fun and for work. You just gotta keep it from feeling like work. It's just like anything that you're passionate about.
MR: You've won Grammys, you've had hits, and as you said, what goes up must come down. But what happens if it keeps going up and The Black Keys have even bigger success?
PC: The only expectation Dan and ever I had when we started the band was to make a record. Then after that we kept going because it's the only thing that we know how to do. We take it very seriously, but at the same time we realize we're not curing hunger in Africa through our music, you know what I mean? I read the Pitchfork review, which is something I shouldn't be paying attention to but I always do. They've been consistently insulting us for twelve years. But the last one started off with a brief history of the world and music in the last four years and how we basically are only popular because we're the only band that was left intact from the early 2000s. I think that may be somewhat logical to say that, but I also think that for a long time we were doing things on a really small circuit because that's what we were comfortable with and what we grew up with, and what happened was there was a larger awareness of the band through a couple songs getting played on the radio, which we never expected. I think people like to listen to rock and roll; if they hear it, they like it. The band got that attention, and there are so many good bands out there that haven't gotten it, and deserve it. That's like saying that the only reason people like The Pixies was that Nirvana liked The Pixies. In general, Dan and I feel really lucky to be doing what we do. We realize that the reality of the music business is that we shouldn't be here, but as long as we are we don't take it for granted because there are so many other good bands that deserve to be selling a lot of records, too.
MR: Are you aware that you're influencing other artists and groups?
PC: Not really. I'm perpetually stuck in '96/'97 state of mind, because that's when my mind was completely blown by tons of music. I'd been aware of stuff, but I was introduced to it all through Nirvana. I remember finding out about Sonic Youth when I was twelve, and Dirty had just come out and I thought they were a brand-new band, I had no idea. Somehow, in some way, if we were able to get some sort of attention to one band that deserved it, because of our position, that'd be awesome. There are a lot of bands that did that for us during our career.
MR: Patrick, what is your advice for new artists?
PC: Dan and I are heavily under the influence of rock 'n' roll; we wear it on our sleeves. We play music because we're fans of music. The only advice I have to anybody who's doing anything is to make your art for yourself, and hopefully people come around. But even if they don't, you'll always know that you made stuff that you love, that you're happy with. I think that's the best advice that you can give.
MR: Beautiful. And you and Dan are pretty much making stuff that you love and that you're happy with, right?
PC: Yeah. That's the thing, we get flak sometimes because our records sound different from one to the next, and it makes sense to break that down by saying, "Well, Danger Mouse was there," or, "They went to the studio in LA," or whatever. But the reality is that I'm thirty-four, Dan's thirty-five, and we've been making music since I was twenty-one and he was twenty-two, so our tastes change, our influences change, and we embrace it. We roll with it, and I think that's an important thing; know that your thirty-five-year-old self is going to look back at your twenty-one-year-old self, and be interested in what you were thinking, but at the same time, you're going to be a completely different person. And if you don't think that you are and you're not, then something's f**king wrong with you.
Transcribed by Emily Fotis