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Patrick Carney: Seven Steps To Simplicity

Patrick Carney

3. Use Your Muse

Another epiphany for Carney was when he first viewed a concert film of Black Sabbath playing the Olympia Theater in Paris in 1970 and watching Bill Ward work his magic on that 4-piece Ludwig. “If somebody could’ve shown me that when I was 15, I would’ve thought a lot differently about the drums,” he says. “I would’ve given up on the guitar a lot sooner. [laughs] You see certain people play and I think it puts the drums in a whole different light. It isn’t about keeping time and it isn’t about just being there for necessity. It’s part of the band. It can be a lead instrument.”

The Keys’ onstage dynamic — a musical interlocking of horns — is a dirty-funk telepathy. So it’s surprising to learn that despite the duo sharing a few favorite bands, Auerbach didn’t know Led Zeppelin or any of the British blues that Carney had dug since his teens. Both dudes’ listening habits have broadened in their years as a band and that is reflected in the music. Take the El Camino track “Sister” which has a driving beat so clean and wide you could drive a truck through it. “Every time I hear it I think of ‘Billie Jean,’” he says. The beat Ndugu Chancler supplied on Michael Jackson’s massive hit will always be cool, but Carney admits that even “Eye Of The Tiger” by one-hit-wonder Survivor was a kind of inspiration. “My favorite thing lately is, like, kind of rock revivalism in the ’70s, which was basically what glam-rock was,” he continues, naming T. Rex, The Stooges, and Bowie. “That’s basically ’50s rock with a much more prominent beat.”

Buddy Holly glasses and Ludwig reissue kit notwithstanding, Carney’s approach is not about being retro. It’s about cherry-picking from the best grooves of the last 60 years and discarding the rest. “Like prog and metal drummers,” he says. “I don’t listen to any of that music. I don’t care about how fast anyone can hit a kick drum or any of that crap. In my mind there are one or two drummers that are absolutely amazing and it’s, like, Bill Ward and John Bonham. After that there’s no point to try to be the best, because the best has already been done. It’s just a matter of trying to be as interesting as you can without getting in the way of the song.”

4. Let The Music Be Your Guide

Just when you thought the bare-bones Carney couldn’t get any barer, he has stripped down his approach to near-naked levels these days. His seat-of-the-pants, rough-hewn, sloppily coloring-outside-the-lines style was a work-in-progress that climaxed in 2010. “Brothers was me being able to unload whatever I wanted to on the record, always kind of going for a minimal-but-also-funky, I guess, type of style. Something that felt loose but tight. And this new record, it was the complete opposite. It’s much more straight up and down.

“In a lot of ways, I think that this record has some of the most simplistic beats we’ve ever used. So it was like a challenge for me to play as simply as possible but to try to make it interesting. And make it something that’s enjoyable as a drummer. Because, you know, lots of drummers want to really play whenever they get a chance.”

Now that he made the decision to play straighter and cleaner than on previous records, his natural pace and sense of swing didn’t jibe with the new songs in their early stages. As a matter of fact, on El Camino’s demos, the drums sounded like they were played in half time, so Carney had to subdivide and play faster to accommodate the new vibe. “My natural tempo, like, when I want to record drums, it’ll lie between 85 beats per minute and 110, you know? But usually 92 is kind of where I like to play. And most of [El Camino’s] stuff is around 125–130. We wanted it to be faster paced. You know, more of a rock album. Something less moody. On Brothers I think there’s a lot of that kind of slow dramatic kind of stuff. But [El Camino] we wanted it to move right along and be the kind of record that you can put on at a party.”

5. Don’t Let The Drums Play You

When The Black Keys first started, Carney was just using a hi-hat, snare, kick, and a crash. In 2002 he finally added a floor tom while recording debut The Big Come Up. On that album there were two cover songs — blues standard “Leavin’ Trunk” and Junior Kimbrough’s “Do The Rump” — that he wanted to approach using the floor tom like hats. Problem was, using his right hand on the floor tom open-handed didn’t feel right. “Trying to do eighth-notes and different patterns was really difficult, so I moved it on the other side,” he explains. “Then it felt more like a hi-hat than a floor tom.”

After a couple of months of playing that way, the left hand effectively became the floor-tom hand and the catalyst for enticing beat novelty. “It’s a completely different feel because my right hand is more connected to my right foot I guess, so if played the [left] floor with my right hand it will be more on top of the beat.”

This way of thinking about drums and switching hands can really mix up the feels. On “Howlin’ For You” he crosses over with his right hand to play the left floor tom like a hi-hat. On “No Trust” from Thickfreakness, however, he’s open-handed, so that the pulse is more or less eighth-notes divided between the left hand on the left floor and the right hand whacking the snare hoop (but the snare proper on the 2). “It’s more off,” he says. “More along with the snare than it is with the kick, so it’s a weirder pattern.”

The larger point is that too few drums have never been an obstacle to tasty beats. Matter of fact, Carney didn’t start using a mounted tom until 2004, after the Keys put out their third record Rubber Factory. It’s been an excess of drums ever since. “About four years ago I bought one of the Ludwig ‘Bonham’ reissue kits, so I had two floor toms, so I just put the 18" on my right-hand side just because I had it. I actually use it very, very little. I only play it on three or four songs, and just for brief moments.”

Note that stylistic evolution is possible despite — pffft, because of — having less drums and cymbals in one’s face. Don’t be surprised if in the future Carney pares down the setup even more. “There’s almost no rack tom on the whole record [El Camino]. The only song I think I really used the rack on is a couple fills on ‘Dead And Gone’ and ‘Little Black Submarine,’ and maybe ‘Mind Eraser.’ But for the most part I’m only really using hi-hat, kick, snare, crash, and floor tom.”

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  • I’ve been playing drums for 27 years and this interview was very refreshing to read.  I once got stuck in the “I need to be a technical god or just give up drums” syndrome for years.  But in the past three years I have eschewed that mindset and redefined my approach to drums by learning music theory and composition and LISTENING to great MUSIC. Then I started listening to see how the great drummers supported the great songs.  Drummers like Al Jackson, Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine, Ringo, Bonham, Ward, Modeliste, etc.  What I’ve been learning is that a lot of these steps listed here were steps that I was naturally maturing into and have really had a positive impact on my playing especially, with other musicians.  It has helped me turn on my creative instincts again. 

    Personally, I still practice technique and rudiments but I do not let these overtake the fun factor as I used to rather, I use them to build confidence and creativity by applying them to grooves that support the song!