While many bands today work to add grime to their glitz, The Black Keys seem to go the other way.
The Ohio-based duo, who started with low-fi, blues-inflected rock, recently underwent a makeover from producer Danger Mouse (real name Brian Burton).
Best known for the bounce of Gnarls Barkley, Burton adds a layer of polish to the Keys’ latest, Attack & Release.
But as Keys drummer Pat Carney explained, rather than buffing them clean, Burton worked with the rough edges.
“All the songs in our demo were very dark and depressed, but (Burton) came in and worked them a bit,” said Carney. “Listen to Same Old Thing. That delineated bass in the middle of the song, moving with a different beat — that’s him.”
Look to the Keys’ roots and Burton’s involvement makes more sense. While Carney and Dan Auerbach seem to come from the blues at its most stark (early albums were recorded in basements and old factories on gutter equipment), Carney said the pair don’t follow that tradition.
“Neither of us relate to the blues,” he said. “Outsider blues bands, maybe. I think we’re as much a blues band as any other band that’s influenced by the blues, but we’re rock ‘n’ roll. We never labelled ourselves (the blues), though other people do that constantly.”
Instead, he pointed to East Coast hip hop. Like most kids who hit high school in the mid-’90s, the pair wanted to be the Wu-Tang. Their debut album was sprinkled with samples and skits that fit more with Cuban Linx than Muddy Waters. And though they removed all but one sample, Carney said the Keys wanted RZA’s sharp, tight production sense.
“We definitely felt it was cool,” he said. “(On our) first record, that was all we were going for.”
Asked whether working with Burton risks the band’s rawness, Carney pointed to the Keys’ EP Chulahoma, which covers Junior Kimbrough songs — even though it’s their most stripped-down record, its instruments and arrangements are relatively built up.
“I think like, maybe, we have cycles of records,” said Carney. “We did the first three, now we’re on the second of three more. The first were so stripped down, and we’re slowly building up.”