LAS VEGAS, Nev. — It wasn’t overnight, the band’s graduation from the kind of hole-in-the-wall rock clubs where drinks are served in plastic cups to arenas where professional basketball teams play.
Akron, Ohio, rock ‘n’ roll duo The Black Keys spent the first part of their career traveling the country in a van, playing places such as Las Vegas’ long-shuttered west-side dive The Cooler, an armpit of a club that they hit on their very first tour.
“It was a really fun show, but really bizarre,” drummer Patrick Carney recalls of the gig. “We got in at 11 a.m., and there were literally people sleeping all over the bar.”
But despite the Keys’ slow and steady ascent from indie garage blues underdogs to a band that sold out Madison Square Garden in minutes this year, there was a suddenness to their success.
It began with 2010’s “Brothers,” the band’s sixth album , which was a much more fleshed out, expansive sounding record that incorporated melodies originally written on a keyboard and bass parts into the band’s signature, bare bones, guitar and drums thump.
“Brothers” was a game changer, earning the band a platinum record, a trio of Grammys and the ability to headline large halls and festivals, which presented the Keys with a fresh learning curve to navigate.
“We got so comfortable with where we were at, that when we put out ‘Brothers,’ we weren’t expecting anything to really change,” Carney says. “When it did, it kind of flipped me out. I had a much higher anxiety level about playing concerts. I just wasn’t sure what was going on.
“It really took over a year to just be able to calm down and realize that there’s nothing different about playing a big show versus a small show — there’s nothing, really, that I can do that’s better,” he says. “For as stressful and nerve-racking as it was getting used to playing arenas and big festivals, it’s also been a really exciting two years. I’d rather be excited than stuck in a rut.”
The Keys never truly got mired in said rut, but to hear Carney tell it, they may have come close.
Initially, the band’s sound was much more narrowly defined and source specific, a hard, energetic take on Mississippi Delta blues, even though they did push against said bounds with Beatles covers and other excursions far away from the influence of Robert Johnson’s old stomping grounds.
But after five records of as much, the band became wary of painting themselves into a corner, musically speaking.
“It’s easy to try and define yourself by what other people expect from you,” Carney says. “As soon as you go into the studio and you start thinking that you have to sound a certain way, life is going to become much less interesting. I think that maybe we felt that happening on ‘Magic Potion’ (2006). That was kind of the catalyst for us to say, ‘(screw) it,’ and just start experimenting with stuff that was completely out of our realm.”
And so the Keys began writing with a four-piece touring band in mind, penning songs that couldn’t be played live as just a duo.
“At that point, any notion of what we could or couldn’t sound like went out the door,” Carney says.
As their sound expanded, so did their audience.
The Keys’ latest record, 2011’s “El Camino,” which recently earned the band five Grammy nominations including one for Album of the Year, is their most unwaveringly upbeat, and commercially successful, disc yet.
It’s one of those rare albums that feels equally fresh and familiar — the first single “Lonely Boy,” for instance, is evocative of both the Rolling Stones and David Bowie with its mixture of glitter and grime, and yet it’s still distinctly a Black Keys song, with frontman Dan Auerbach’s aggrieved moan and untethered guitar snarl anchored by Carney’s steady-handed playing.
It’s a sound bigger than its parts, grandiose in its grit.
The Keys register on a primal level, in the hips, pelvis and gut, with lots of songs about chasing women and the perils of catching them.
And yet their tunes aren’t primal in and of themselves — at least not any more — simultaneously shrewdly arranged and instinctual.
“We kind of have a thing where we don’t talk too much about what we’re going to do in the studio,” Carney says, noting the band already has started working on their next album. “It’s just how we normally make an album: go in and see what happens. With ‘El Camino,’ we went into the studio, and it wasn’t until after we did five or six songs that we started seeing a pattern, then we just kind of decided to stick with it. That was the only real conscious decision we made while making the album.”
After tracking their forthcoming record in the first half of 2013, the Keys are planning on taking most of the rest of the year off.
“We’re going to go make an album and then we’re going to take a break, mainly so that we don’t start annoying the (crap) out of everybody because we’ve been constantly on tour and putting out albums,” Carney says. “I think we’re going to try and sit tight for most of next year after the album’s done. Neither one of us will be able to fully relax unless we have the next album done.”
Relaxing isn’t what these dudes do best, and Carney knows it.
He sounds more equivocal than eager at the thought of it.
“Right now, we’ve just had like a week off and it’s hard for me to process the idea of having four or five months off,” Carney says. “I don’t know what I will do with myself.”
Write some more songs, presumably.
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Jason Bracelin is an entertainment writer for the Las Vegas (NV) Review-Journal. Contact him at JBracelin@reviewjournal.com.