'El Camino' carries the Black Keys to the Grammys
Posted January 28, 2013
Even before December's dessert of six Grammy nominations and a gig with the Rolling Stones, the Black Keys marveled at their year of plenty.
In 2012, the rock duo from Akron, Ohio, now based in Nashville, landed on the cover of Rolling Stone, headlined the Lollapalooza and Coachella music festivals, sold out Madison Square Garden twice, and scored a platinum album.
The catalyst was seventh studio disc El Camino, which has sold 1.1 million copies since its release Dec. 6, 2011, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It followed 2010's Brothers, the breakthrough that yielded hit Tighten Up and won three Grammys.
"The whole past year has been surreal, full of things we never thought possible," says drummer Patrick Carney, 32. He and singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach, 33, met in middle school, began playing together in the mid-'90s, and formed the Keys in 2001 after dropping out of college. "Being nominated for album of the year doesn't seem real. And to meet and play with the Rolling Stones (Dec. 15 at the band's final 50 and Counting show) was amazing."
"For us, Brothers was a huge success," he says. "When we went into the studio to make El Camino, neither of us could imagine anything bigger or better than the level of success we'd achieved at that point. We'd seen certain bands over the last decade reach unnatural goals and then vanish. We assumed that was going to happen after Brothers. We just hoped people would still be interested in our new music by the time El Camino came out."
Fans and critics were more than interested.
Recorded in Nashville and co-produced by Danger Mouse, El Camino opened at No. 2 in Billboard and spawned alternative hits Lonely Boy, Gold on the Ceiling and current single Little Black Submarines.
Rolling Stone's four-star review praised the Keys' "grandest pop gesture yet, augmenting dark-hearted fuzz blasts with sleekly sexy choruses and '70s-glam flair," while Spin dubbed Camino "something akin to ZZ Top with glitter in their beards. Which is to say, great."
Grammy voters concurred, showering the Keys with five nominations for best album, record of the year, rock performance, song and album; Auerbach is also up for best producer.
With industry handicappers split but leaning toward Mumford & Sons, the Keys may not have a lock on the marquee album prize. But Billboard senior correspondent Phil Gallo predicts victory for the garage-rock revivalists.
"It's a breakthrough record in terms of establishing a Black Keys sound," Gallo says. "It created an identifiable sound that helps bring more rock music, more grounded music into the pop realm. Grammy voters would want to reward that."
Carney hasn't given much thought to what the Keys will perform in their coveted Grammy show slot.
"I've given a lot of thought to what pills I'm going to take before we play. I've got to find the right mixture," he jokes. "I get terrified playing on live television. Playing festivals is nerve-racking, but you're with 100,000 people at a party to have fun. When you're playing to people on TV, it's like they're there to judge you. I'm not very excited about it, but it's a huge opportunity, and we have to do it."
Shine or flop, win or lose, the Keys won't let Grammy fallout, or any of Camino's payoffs, reshape their vision as they prepare to record a ninth album.
"We've had the privilege of doing this on the arena level and on the smallest level possible, in clubs for, like, eight people," Carney says. "It's cool seeing both sides. We're excited to make new music, and whatever happens, happens. When we go into the studio, we don't put pressure on ourselves, and we don't try to think about it too much. We did some demos last summer, and they're all over the map."
Roughly a year after their first U.S. arena show, the Keys will hit the road this spring, sharing some dates with opener the Flaming Lips and making stops March 30 at Lollapalooza Brazil in Sao Paulo and May 5 at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Nashville, which Carney calls "Akron with nicer weather," hasn't altered the Keys' musical sensibilities. The duo's hometown wasn't much of a musical influence, either.
"But in a way, our work ethic and the way we approach the band all stems from being in Akron," Carney says. "All of our friends started bands because there's not much to do."
Most of those bands fizzled out, while the Black Keys rose to become one of rock's biggest sensations. And that's when Carney waded into hot water, causing a flap when he told Rolling Stone last year, "Rock 'n' roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world," dismissing that band's music as "watered-down, post-grunge crap."
In an attempted clarification to MTV, he said, "There's much worse bands than Nickelback, maybe. That was the worst apology."
Now he says, "It was an offhand comment. The point I was making is that there are a lot of good bands out there. You don't need to make the worst bands the most popular. Maybe people's tastes have devolved. I'm a firm believer in de-evolution."
Quality rock struggles for a wide audience because "it all comes down to radio," Carney says. "Our lives changed by getting on radio. It's super-important. But most radio plays top 40, and that's why rock album sales aren't as strong as they could be. Mainstream radio is more inclined to play Rihanna than Jack White because they're selling ads to teenage girls."
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