Photography: Rick Malkin
Drummers might pat themselves on the back after mastering complicated licks, odd-time signatures, and multi-accessory speed fills, but technical razzle-dazzle won’t amount to a hill of beans if no one is around to hear it. That’s the first, and apparently, only lesson Patrick Carney got after being forced into the drum chair in the earliest stages of his band’s career, and it’s paid off handsomely. When Carney and guitarist Dan Auerbach began bashing out their primitive blooz-rock in an Akron, Ohio basement 15 years ago, the duo never dreamed they would one day go two-times platinum, have its songs featured on TV’s top-rated shows, and in 2010 alone, snag three Grammys.
“I wanted to be a guitar player,” confesses Carney in a sleepy voice from a hotel room in Seattle. Good thing he’s in the city that invented the triple latte — any drummer who starts an interview in our magazine with that sentence needs to smell the coffee. The occasion is a one-off performance celebrating the opening of a Microsoft store, and then it’s off to Europe for some promotional craziness.
Carney has come a long way from the Rubber City, not to mention his teenage dreams of six-string heroism. The Black Keys’ steadily upward-sloping career trajectory is apt to spike again with the release El Camino. Here’s the thing though: Carney admits he still can’t play a very consistent beat.
He also doesn’t care.
Besides being the Keys’ seventh and best album, El Camino proves that chops not only aren’t everything, they’re oftentimes the enemy of success. So how did a rudiment-shunning scofflaw not sweat the technique? By transcending it.
In case we haven’t been 100 percent clear, the nuggets of wisdom herein are part of The Black Keys’ story. By no means is Carney saying his approach is orthodox or sanctioned or anything close to proper. However, if it works for a rock and roll loving Everydude from a broke-down Midwest berg, maybe it can work for you, too.
When Carney and Auerback first started making records, Carney could barely keep time. The minimal, simple drum parts that he played were nothing more than pure imitation of his and the guitarist’s musical favorites, which ran from the cave-man art-rock of Captain Beefheart and, on an even more simplistic level, Wu-Tang Clan. “The samples that RZA would pull were so basic,” Carney says. “It’s so accessible for drummers that are just starting out.”
He eventually got it together enough to be able to perform in front of an audience, the occasion of which was so momentous the date of its occurrence, March 20, 2002, has been seared into his brain. There were probably 15 people who showed up, about a third of whom were aspiring rocker friends of his. “I remember getting off stage and just expected my friends who were musicians to make fun of me. But they all said it was a good show,” he recalls, still surprised. “So I slowly started to not really worry about whether or not I was as good as another drummer, but rather worry about if I thought my parts were interesting enough. We learned through the process that technical proficiency almost never plays a role in how good something is, except for singing. I think singing is the most important. If you can’t sing you’re not going to have a band. But if you can’t play the drums that well or the guitar that well, you can still have a band.”
It’s a strikingly black-and-white declaration from a guy whose whole aesthetic is more or less fudging it when you don’t know what to do. Singing drummers are often a necesssary evil for two-piece bands since they must do more with less, but to this day Carney refuses to do backing vocals.
“I can’t sing ... or I won’t,” he clarifies. “If I could really sing maybe I’d consider it. Also, there are very few times I want to see a drummer sing.”
If you’ve seen The Black Keys live or watched their YouTube videos, you know that Carney is the proverbial hard hitter. He wasn’t always that way, which is evident in any clip prior to 2003.
The turning point came when The Black Keys were invited to London for a label showcase on the eve of the release for second album Thickfreakness. “I was just completely terrified,” he recalls of that night at the Camden Barfly. “For some reason I decided right then and there that it would be in my best interest to hit the drums a lot harder. So that show, I just decided to do it. And then I just never was able to not do it.”
Any instructor worth his 25 bucks an hour will tell you that power should not originate from nervousness. Strength should come from a relaxed and controlled place. But once Carney got over the stage fright and established a preference for the hard-hitting mode, he was able to see beyond the adrenaline. “There’s something that happens when you hit the drums harder other than, obviously, the drums are louder,” he says, pointing out that by the time you reach a certain-size venue it doesn’t matter how hard you hit the drums because the P.A. is doing most of the work anyway. “The thing that I realized that happens is you’re exerting yourself a lot more, and you start thinking about your surroundings a lot less. And because of that, for me at least, I end up thinking more about the music and the nuances within the music. It creates a much larger dynamic range.”
Ah, the “D” word. Now that’s vintage Keys: rollercoastering volume, cymbal crescendos, fluctuating time, flubbed licks, imperfect but awesome accents — all the sumptuous nooks and crannies of Carney’s approach. “We’re a two-piece band,” he continues. “You’re not going to have really high ups or really low downs. It’s in that in-between [part] then that I think you’re at an advantage. So then, once I figured out where [in the sound spectrum] we lived, it all kind of made sense to me the way I play.”