Long before the Black Keys scored a series of radio hits, won a grip of Grammys or even sold out Madison Square Garden (in 15 minutes), they were best known around their hometown of Akron, Ohio, as either the worst landscaping team in history or the best brunch band on the planet. It sort of depended on the day of the week.
“When we first started the band, I was working in a restaurant, cooking, and we were mowing lawns, and occasionally we would play music at a brunch at a restaurant or something,” drummer Patrick Carney laughed. “[And when we were] actually mowing lawns, most of them were residential property that was not very nice, so it was basically like mowing dirt fields filled up with 40-ounce bottles.”
“You didn’t even have to show up,” frontman Dan Auerbach added.
And more often than not, they didn’t (“We kind of got fired,” Carney deadpanned), especially since they were usually logging miles in their van, playing gigs wherever they could find them. This routine basically continued unabated for nearly a decade, until the Keys broke through to the big time with 2010’s Brothers album. And with the follow-up success of last year’s El Camino, they’ve cemented their status as one of the biggest bands in rock, which all but guarantees they won’t be playing brunch gigs again anytime soon.
“I was playing locally, around town, these gigs where you would just play guitar and you were just background music [at brunches],” Auerbach said. “You’d play for like three or four hours, just playing old songs and stuff like that. It was really good practice. And so I got Pat in on some of those, and they were always really awful, but they paid good. You could make anything from $150 to $300, just for practicing in front of people.”
On Monday, the Keys will continue to roll with the world premiere of their “Gold on the Ceiling” video on MTV at 7:54 p.m., with a 30-minute interview to follow on MTV.com. The clip very much pays homage to the band’s blue-collar roots, mostly by capturing them doing what they do best: playing live. It’s a skill they honed by hammering out miles in that van, which is why all this talk about their past is oddly fitting; for a band that’s accomplished so much, the Black Keys have truly never forgotten where they came from. Or how hard they worked to get to this point.
“That’s how we started. I think people find that interesting about us, because it’s not an overnight success. … It’s taken us 10 years to get to where we are, and it was a lot of hard work,” Auerbach said. “I don’t really know how we did it sometimes, you know? Because it was kind of crazy. We would drive for 12 hours to get paid 50 bucks, then drive back. It was just stupid sometimes.”
“The first time we played New York, it was September 2002, and it was a big deal for us,” Carney said. “So we drive eight-and-a-half hours from Akron to New York, open for an awful ska band in Brooklyn … and we got 50 bucks. And drove straight back to Akron. It wasn’t even enough money for gas.”
But hey, at least it beat the brunch circuit.
Catch the world premiere of the Black Keys’ “Gold on the Ceiling” video Monday (February 6) at 7:54 p.m. on MTV with an exclusive 30-minute interview to follow on MTV.com.