The Black Keys aren't necessarily black keys themselves---just the offspring of them.
An often-quoted story about the origin of the rock duo's name is that the moniker came from a guy in the Keys' hometown of Akron, Ohio---a schizophrenic artist who used the term "black keys" to describe people he thought weren't right (not unlike late musician Wesley Willis' freak-out slang "warhellride.")
The man wasn't so much a friend, just a town character: an artist who Keys singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach describes as a guy who paints giant murals of funeral trains, and Jesus in boxing gloves.
"He's an outside artist for sure," says Auerbach, on the phone from Akron. "Untaught and out there."
But the Keys themselves (Auerbach and Patrick Carney on drums), were never the target of the artist's unusual insult.
"He called our families black keys," Auerbach explains.
So the sons of black keys picked up the name, complete with pentatonic piano double-entendre, and made it synonymous with the successful bluesy rock-and-roll sound the band has honed over five albums.
Their latest is called Attack & Release---a name that nicely sums up both the record's sound and its method.
" settings on a compressor settings on a synthesizer, two controls that affect the dynamics of the audio," says Auerbach.
The band's music strikes the same balance---between thick, fast riffs and blues-steeped melancholy, between attack and release. These two sounds are captured well on the middle tracks "Remember When (Side A)" and "Remember When (Side B)"---only this time, the melancholy release comes on side "A" followed by a riff attack on "B."
Attack & Release was recorded at Suma Studios in Ohio and marks a departure from the Keys' lo-fi recording history. Thickfreakness (2003) was recorded in a day on a quarter-inch eight-track Tascam and its follow-up, Rubber Factory, was recorded where you might expect: In an abandoned factory in Akron.
While laying down Attack & Release marked the first time, the duo had recorded an album in a proper studio, Suma still gave the Keys room to tap into their old-made-new musical style, in a place the band describe in their online bio as a "haunted house" and "one of the only studios in the world where they still cut their own vinyl."
"It's so stocked with amazing recording equipment," says Auerbach. "It's from the '50s---the guy's dad owned the studio downtown in Cleveland and he moved right outside Cleveland in 1969. It's all old wood, old beams and giant rooms and it's just an amazing place."
The recording console at Suma is the same one recording engineer Paul Hamann built with his father, Ken, back in 1973, a flavour that surely finds its way onto the Keys' record.
Attack & Release was produced by Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton, known for his Beatles/Jay-Z mash-up, The Grey Album, as well as producing for Gorillaz, GnarlsBarkley and Beck. The association between the Keys and Danger Mouse began when Burton approached the group to contribute to an album he was working on with blues/R&B legend Ike Turner. But when Turner died in December 2007, the material Auerbach and Carney had been writing found a new home on then-unreleased Attack & Release, which the duo asked Burton to produce.
Auerbach suspects "the beat" is what sold Danger Mouse on the Keys' sound.
"When we sat down and started recording we realized how much we had in common," he says. "We're really just kind of playing the same thing, just from different points of view."
The album also features a duet with bluegrass singer Jessica Lea Mayfield on its closing track, "Things Ain't Like They Used To Be." Guitarist Marc Ribot, a longtime collaborator with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, plays on several tracks.
Adding keys, moog and guests gives A&R another layer beyond the Keys' signature stripped-down guitar, vocals and drums---a sound that has saddled the band with White Stripes comparisons since their debut. But, minimalist tendencies and colour-coding aside, the Stripes and the Keys are quite distinct from each other. The Keys' music is honest. Auerbach has stated that old blues singers like Junior Kimbrough and Robert Johnson have influenced him; that influence has given an earnest flavour to Auerbach's guitar work and vocal style.
While Auerbach doesn't have any ideas about who he might like to record with in the future, the answer to who his ideal touring partner would be comes without a moment's hesitation.
"Ozzy Osbourne. 1971," he says. "Pretty hard to beat."
"You ever see that footage from live in Paris in 1971 ?" he asks, following the question with an appreciative sigh. "Goddamn...Bill Ward's like the most amazing drummer, man. Black Sabbath live. They're playing some theatre, it was recorded really well and...fucking amazing. They were so good."
We interrupt this feature to show a clip of Black Sabbath, 1970. Bill Ward is featured nicely.
The Keys play Summersonic at the Garrison Grounds of Citadel Hill on July 20, which will mark Auerbach's first visit to the province.
"My parents honeymooned in Nova Scotia, in like '77, so I've only seen pictures of Nova Scotia from 1977 in my parents' house. So if it doesn't look like that when I get there I'm gonna be pissed off," he laughs.
It's like comedian Demetri Martin says: "I remember when I used to be really into nostalgia." Would Auerbach's ideal nostalgic gig be playing a concert on the Hill with Sabbath in 1977?
"No, no. I don't want to play with Ozzy in '77," he says. "Seventy-one. It's really key because a year and a half later he had, like, fucking high-heel disco boots on. In 1971, he was still wearing like jeans, t-shirts, boots...he was just a fucking knucklehead. Money changes people."
Despite Auerbach's love of analog equipment and vintage sounds and aesthetic, the Keys aren't stuck in the past. In fact, their website encourages fans to make audio recordings of their shows (obviously to share, not sell) and to send them back to the band. They also share links to guitar tabs---a rare thing for a band to put on their own site. But Auerbach says it's important to maintainfan connection.
"We're a kind of band that has become popular by word of mouth and we don't want to stifle that in any way," he says.
Attack & Release's first single, "Strange Times," with its sneaky chorus and mousetrap beat, shows off the band's new sound, while remaining faithful to what brought the Keys to this point.
It also has a pretty funny music video where the band suits up and infiltrates a laser-tag room. To the other geeky players' horror: "They're using real lasers!"
Now, summer festival season's well in gear and the Keys are set to play Lollapalooza in August. But Auerbach says he personally prefers club shows, rather than massive outdoor gigs.
"We play sort of rock-and-roll music, so it's weird playing festivals," he says. "People kind of glorify the festival since Woodstock; they made it this amazing thing. I bet Woodstock wasn't really that fun to hang out at. I bet it was probably sort of a bummer. When I go see a show I like it to be dark and I like to enter a world and it's hard to get into that headspace when you're outside, in the sun and it's like 100 degrees out. I like festivals though, all that being said."
Meanwhile, our city's music promoters/witch doctors (the difference between the two is often as foggy as we hope Summersonic isn't) pray for good weather. It seems like Auerbach's assumption that outdoor festivals are sunny has been hardwired into him from midwest living. Canadian weather aside, the most important question's saved for last: Who comes to mind when Auerbach thinks of Canadian music?
This time, his mind's focused less on 1971 and more on 1996.
"Sloan. I dig Sloan. I really got into those records---One Chord to Another. They wear their influences on their sleeve, I guess like we do."
Things ain't like they used to be.