The Black Keys' Patrick Carney on Working with "Shit Gear" and Cinematic Sounds
By Zach McCormick
For a modest-sized Midwestern city mostly known for cranking out a staggering amount of rubber, Akron has a lot to be proud of. Three of its native sons are sitting more or less on the top of the world in their respective fields, with LeBron James returning home like King Richard from the Crusades and the Black Keys landing hit after unlikely hit on the Billboard charts.
While LeBron might as well have been anointed a hero from birth, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney never really thought of themselves as star material. Building their success with a down-to-earth attitude and years of scrappiness and tenacity, the duo began its slow march to the top in 2001. Despite major-label money and a move to Nashville, the group has retained all of its affable outsider charm. We reached out to Carney to talk about his outside work as a producer and being a good loser.
New Times: You guys always seem to stay busy with outside work despite being one of the biggest bands on the planet. What was working on the Rentals album like for you?
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Patrick Carney: I did the drums on that a while ago -- I did it during the El Camino tour -- so I must have recorded those in the summer of 2012. But I was a huge fan of that first Rentals record when I was in ninth grade, and the past few years we've been kind of emailing each other. So when he started working on the new record, he asked me if I wanted to play on it, and I did, so he flew out to Nashville and we just spent like three days just tracking drums, and then he took it back to his house and he kept working on it.
You're also something of a superproducer these days. You worked with the Black Lips and Tennis on their new records, correct?
Yeah, I worked on those records. I probably work on three to four records a year. Most of 'em are really small bands that only sell about 1,000 copies of their record or something, but I always have fun doing it. When we started the band, Dan and I were getting together in high school and recording on my four track, and then all through college. At one point, I wanted to start a studio, but I had really no understanding of how to do it, other than on that four track.
But then I got my first credit card from a music store in Cleveland, and I bought this digital recorder. This was in early 2001, I guess, and Dan and I hadn't played together in six or seven months at that point, maybe even longer, and when he found out that I got one, he wanted me to record this other band that he had. So he came to my house, and the other guys never showed up, so we decided to just record what we used to do, basically, and that became our demo, and we started the band based on that one afternoon recording.
That's why I'll always have an interest in recording, and eventually Dan got super-interested in it as well. We both have studios, and we both enjoy the process of making albums. Because you end up learning a lot from the people you work with, and you end up learning what doesn't work, which is as important as learning what to do.
I heard you and Dan were taking inspiration for the album's art direction from old sci-fi TV and movies, which is really appropriate because my first reaction to Turn Blue wasn't so much "psychedelic" as "cinematic."
We basically had two main sessions for the record, and the last one was the longest, and it's where most of the record comes from. We were in L.A., and I think at that point we were listening to a lot of that type of stuff, Italian film scores, from horror films like Zombi, and this guy Nico Fidenco, we actually ended up sampling one of his songs for the record. I think we wanted to do something different, just like when we made El Camino.
That record, even though it's, I guess, our most direct, in a lot of ways it's a straight-up rock 'n' roll record, which we had never made before. When we were making that, we had no idea what the reaction would be. We were actually surprised that it resonated so much with so many people. We didn't want to just try and go into the studio and repeat that, because that would have felt like we were trying to do formula writing or something. So it took awhile for us to go into the studio and feel completely detached from El Camino, to start from a clean slate.
The thing that kept coming up, that was sounding the most interesting to us, were things that we were making that maybe had complex arrangements, but there was a big sense of space around everything. We did this EP called Chulahoma, which was a cover EP of Junior Kimbrough songs, and it's very minimal, but there is a lot of open space to that, and I think we've always had an interest in that kind of sound, but we've never really made a record, in the past six years, where we were trying to utilize that as we did here. Brothers, there's a lot of ambiance to that record, but it's still very minimal. On this one, we wanted to have dense arrangements that felt like there was space around them.
It seems like studios have always been an interest of yours, but the tools at your disposal have just gotten more sophisticated as your career has gone on. Most of the last few Black Keys records have been written from scratch in the studio, correct?
Yeah, I mean, you could say that all of our records have been. Basically we would just turn demos into final recordings; there was a roughness to all our recordings at that point. As you do something more and more, you start to have a greater understanding of how stuff works. For a long time, we'd try to go to real studios, around 2002 or 2003, and we could not get the sounds that we wanted. We couldn't get the drums to distort, we couldn't get the right saturation, and things sounded, to us, too clean.
Part of that was that we didn't know what we were doing and that we were pretty insecure making records that weren't masked in a low-fi haze. When we were at home recording, that was what we were able to get, so when we went to the studio, we were hearing these sounds for the first time, and it was uncomfortable.
It wasn't until 2007, really, that we started learning how to use actual recording equipment and an actual mixing desk. For a long time, we might use a nice preamp or a nice microphone, but we always run it through some pieces of shit gear to get it to do something that we couldn't actually explain. So it wasn't until 2007 that we were actually able to explain to an engineer the process that we wanted to do.
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