July 05--For most of their first decade, the Black Keys were beloved underdogs. Originating in the underground-rock metropolis of Akron, Ohio (home to Pretenders, Devo and other luminaries), the duo of guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney was always plenty appealing; but their garage-steeped blues-rock seemed a shade too rough around the edges for widespread mainstream consumption.
Improbably, however, the Black Keys are one of the most popular rock bands in America these days. Since 2010, they've had two million-selling albums (an increasingly rare feat nowadays) and won seven Grammy Awards. They're on a large-venue tour with Flaming Lips, which will play Raleigh's Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek on Thursday.
"The past few years have been pretty bizarre, yeah," Carney says, calling from his current home in Nashville. "I never expected we'd play Madison Square Garden or headline some of the festivals we've done. Growing up, I never went to arena shows -- never went to one until we started playing them, in fact. The first year or so when things started exploding really threw me off. There's not really anything negative about it, other than staying inspired and not being complacent or expecting this to last. We're constantly reminding ourselves that we're lucky to be in this situation, and it's most likely fleeting. So we try to enjoy it."
Almost everything about Black Keys' rise to popularity has been unexpected, starting with the fact that they record for Nonesuch Records, a label best-known for world and classical music. But the Keys selected Nonesuch for that very reason.
"I knew of the Black Keys and admired them, but never imagined them for us," recalls David Bither, who runs Nonesuch as senior vice president. "A lot of labels were chasing them, it turned out, and I don't know if our circumspect point of view appealed. But Dan Auerbach walked into our first meeting and mentioned Ali Farka Toure, a great African guitarist we have on the roster. That was someone Dan loved, and suddenly we made sense for them. They've become one of the biggest bands in the world, which isn't something anybody would have predicted. They were outside our normal comfort zone, but that connection to other music was what we had in common."
Black Keys' most recent, best and biggest-selling album is 2011's "El Camino," which debuted at No. 2 on the charts and spawned an unlikely hit video for "Lonely Boy" -- consisting of three minutes of a man dancing. That not only launched the album, it went viral enough to garner more than 27 million YouTube views and rocket its dancing-man star (Derrick Tuggle, an actor and part-time security guard) to fame and a 2011 appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."
"The way things happen in our world tends to be completely accidental," Carney says. "It just felt way more natural to have that be our video, even though the label thought we were insane at first. But at this point, we can do whatever we want for promotion. So we put that out and it ended up being kind of a thing."
That lightning-in-a-bottle ambience applies to the rest of "El Camino," whose 11 songs are as memorable as they are deceptively simple. That creates some pressures for the follow-up album Auerbach and Carney have been working on, which they're trying to coax out as organically as possible.
Earlier this year, they tried to bear down and finish it before they were psychically ready, and had to put it aside. The current tour with Flaming Lips will be Black Keys' last bit of roadwork before going back into the studio with producer Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton to finish it off.
"Our heads were still buzzing with exhaustion and trying to decompress when we tried earlier this year," Carney says. "We had thought it might be cathartic to make our next album that way, but we were so distracted from having neglected so much [expletive] over the past year that we ended up doing what we used to do at the very start: Set up some mikes and jam until we came across something that seems interesting. We had to stop for a bit in early March, put the brakes on and try to live and relax a bit. But it shouldn't take long to get the rest of it done."
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat
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