NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Two decades ago, two college dropouts from Akron, Ohio recorded a rock album together and shipped it to a tiny Los Angeles label. But then came the hard part: Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney actually had to learn to play the music live.
Auerbach, both in their early 20s, had experience playing guitar in a bar band, but Carney had never played drums before they recorded The Big Come Up, the Black Keys’ first album, released in 2002.
At their first show in March 2002, Auerbach recalled the owners of the Beachland Tavern in Cleveland and told them they had 30 minutes to fill. “We say: ‘No problem, we have that,'” said Auerbach. “We played everything twice as fast. Completely blacked out.”
“We liked 10 songs or something in 20 minutes,” Carney said.
The performance landed her on more shows that eventually sold out the venue. Turns out, failing in college was probably the best thing that ever happened to them.
“We realized we weren’t really college material,” Carney said.
Instead, they slowly but steadily built from that first show, attracting bigger crowds, bigger record labels, and critical acclaim with each album.
On their 11th studio album, Dropout Boogie, the Grammy-winning duo, now raising school-age children of their own, reflect on their early years as they spanned records as diverse as Junior Kimbrough, The Wu-Tang Clan and Captain” joined Beefheart and played raw, fast and loose at local venues.
“We wouldn’t be paying for an expensive private school if we hadn’t dropped out of school,” says Carney, laughing.
Two decades into their careers, the pair still work much the same as they did on those first records. On “Dropout Boogie” they wrote most of the songs in the studio and didn’t bring in much ready-made material. Three or four songs on the record are just the first shots when recording. The rawness and imperfection was something they learned from the influential sounds of ’70s experimental rock and hill country blues. They have maintained that creative momentum over the past few years as Dropout Boogie is their third album to be released in four years.
“That’s why we kept playing together when we were 16, 17 because as soon as we started playing it was instant. It was so easy,” said Auerbach.
On the new record, they’ve branched out with collaborators Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Greg Cartwright of Memphis rock band Reigning Sound, and songwriter-producer Angelo Petraglia.
“It opened up a whole world of possibilities like, ‘Oh yeah, our Rolodex is pretty big,'” Carney said. “We’re just happy to call a lot of people, make a lot of music.”
Auerbach said that when the ZZ Top frontman stopped by their Easy Eye Studio in Nashville, he didn’t even bring his own guitar, just a bottle of wine, and immediately got to work. His solo on their song “Good Love” is classic Texan blues rock perfected by ZZ Top, his guitar screaming with pinched overtones over a distorted and fat bassline.
One song came to them from a musicologist named David Evans, a retired professor at the University of Memphis who had shared rare field recordings of Mississippi blues artists with Auerbach. One of those recordings he did was of a cheerleading squad from Senatobia, Mississippi singing “Hey, hey, over there/Your team looks good/But not as good as ours” in the ’70s.
The lines stuck in Auerbach’s head and at the end of the recording session, when the album was pretty much finished, they decided to cover it. Singer Sierra Ferrell filled in for the harmonic backing vocals. After recording the song, Carney called the band’s attorney.
“I was like, ‘We have a job for you,'” Carney said. “And she says, ‘What is this?’ “Okay, there’s this obscure field footage of a cheerleading squad out of nowhere, Mississippi. I need you to find authorship so we don’t get sued.’”
The song is based on “The Girl Can’t Help It,” a song written by Bobby Troup and performed by Little Richard. Troup has a songwriting credit for the song “Your Team Is Looking Good” with The Black Keys.
Carney joked that in the contentious music copyright world, it’s better to be generous with credits.
“We did the opposite of Robin Thicke,” Carney said, laughing. “Bring us this money away. We don’t want the money. We want the song.”