Used to be a rock star pretty much could do and say whatever. It was one of the great benefits of the gig. You got to be interesting – even audacious – and nobody got all that fired up about it.
Things are different these days.
Take the recent case of Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney. He was asked about U2 sneaking its new album, “Songs of Innocence,” into 500 million iTunes accounts for free. He told the Seattle Times he felt like U2 had devalued their music, and it sent mixed messages to bands that are struggling to get by.
“I think that they were thinking it’s super-generous of them to do something like that,” Carney said. By the time it reached Rolling Stone’s web site (among many), the headline was “Black Keys’ Patrick Carney Slams U2’s iTunes Giveaway.”
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The observation probably qualifies as one of the most collegial “slams” of all time. But what if he truly had driven their heads into the mat with some WWE-worthy words? So what? Aren’t rock stars supposed to be provocative?”
And so we’re left with two options: Either Carney isn’t a rock star, or being a rock star in today’s fast and repetitive media environment has gotten really weird.
The Black Keys play Sleep Train Arena on Tuesday, and since the ability to fill basketball arenas remains a mark of rock stardom, be assured the Black Keys are rock stars. Even if it is surprising two guys from Akron, Ohio, playing loud, fuzzy blues rock could grow up to fill basketball arenas. It’s surprising to the Black Keys, too.
“I actually had anxiety issues for the first year and half when it started,” Carney says. “I couldn’t make sense of it. It was very surreal. I still don’t know how it happened.”
The short version of that story: Carney and guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach, who’d known each other since they were kids, got the band together in 2001. By the time 2010’s “Brothers” was released, you could describe the Black Keys at solidly successful. They’d made five records. They’d teamed up a collection of rappers that included Q-Tip, Mos Def, Raekwon, and RZA on a project called “Blakroc.”
“Brothers” changed everything. Where previous records had strutted and stomped through the shadows, “Brothers” perfected melodies and choruses, honing them for big-room, bright-light sing-alongs. The album’s songs also played well on TV, in the movies and especially in commercials. So well that when brands couldn’t get the Black Keys, they had someone make them a song that sounded like the Black Keys.
“Brothers” sold more than 1 million copies and set them up for 2011’s “El Camino,” which sold 200,000 copies in its first week and debuted at No. 2 on Billboard’s Top 200.
They sold out Madison Square Garden in 15 minutes. That’s a rock star move.
And so the Black Keys moved to arenas and built out the band. The arrangements of “Brothers” and “El Camino” meant they needed touring musicians to play the songs live, and while those were the songs that brought mass appeal, the most powerful section of the night remained when it was just Carney and Auerbach on stage.
Carney freaked out about it all. He felt pressure, he says – especially pressure for the live performance. Finally, his father, who recently retired from his job as a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal, advised he chill out.
“If you’re stressed out all the time, what a waste,” Carney remembers his dad saying.
There’s so much opportunity that comes with the rock stardom. Auerbach produced records for Dr. John, Lana Del Rey and the brilliant Tuareg guitarist Bombino. Carney produced records for the Sheepdogs and Tennis. He said interesting things, regularly tweaking Justin Bieber and his fans on Twitter. They used time and money to build bigger songs.
When it came time to follow up “El Camino,” they opted to work mostly in Los Angeles, where producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton is based. But they sneaked in a few sessions at Key Club Recording Co. in Benton Harbor, Mich. If that explains the appearance of Kalamazoo in lyrics to the groovy, Rolling Stones-influenced “Gotta Get Away,” it doesn’t do much to explain how they ended up in Benton Harbor.
Turns out it was the Kills’ Jamie Hince who turned Auerbach on to the place. Among the features at the Key Club is a recording console that had originally been built for Sly Stone. That’s another rock star move.
“Turn Blue” was released in May and became the Black Keys’ first No. 1 album. It’s a sprawling concoction of moody sounds and still-catchy hooks – familiar, but different from any record they’ve made.
It’s done well enough to ensure Carney will get outsized attention for whatever he feels like saying. (“I kind of hate the Internet,” he says. “The main use of the Internet is for people to discuss blind hatred of things. It’s basically a giant men’s room wall.”)
He’s figured out how to have fun with that, and everything else, for however long it lasts.
“Somehow it worked out for now,” Carney says. “We’ll keep doing it the same way and hopefully people will keep paying attention to it.”
The Black Keys
What: The American rock duo tours in support of its new record “Turn Blue”
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Sleep Train Arena, One Sports Parkway, Sacramento
Cost: $32.50-$67 (parking is $15)