Berlin and Akron, Ohio, don't have much in common outside of graffiti, several McDonald's and Devo (who always struck me as rather Germanic), yet, for whatever reason, the Black Keys seemed rather at home there this past weekend.
This probably had as much to do with the venue they played on Saturday in Germany's capital city — the Treptow Arena, a cavernous, slightly crumbling brick-and-mortar hall that, in a previous life, served as a bus depot, but now holds the occasional concert (and the occasional auto show) — as it did with Berlin itself, since the Keys never really ventured any farther than the parking lot behind the arena. But on a makeshift stage, in front of a sold-out crowd, on the bleak banks of the Spree River, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney — plus their backing band — positively killed it, seemingly drawing inspiration from their decidedly industrial, dust-and-rust surroundings. Theirs is a sound that simply translates best in these kinds of places, after all: diesel-powered guitars and drums that chug along like an internal combustion engine, flecked with the odd bright moment of classic soul sheen, which recalls nothing quite so much as sunshine on an abandoned lot.
Or something like that. After all,
But that focus also reveals another, larger issue: The Black Keys are an exceedingly normal band, albeit one that exists in exceedingly odd times.
Which, I suppose, also makes them an anomaly, and they will be the first ones to admit it, as I learned firsthand when I (finally) sat down with Auerbach and Carney in Berlin, part of a larger MTV News project that we'll be revealing much more about very soon. They play workmanlike music and possess a workmanlike attitude. Because of that, they are, to say the very least, rather puzzled by both the current state of music and their continued successes within that state, which is pretty understandable. They also don't seem to understand why so many people find their backstory to be so compelling, which is slightly less understandable, considering it took them roughly 10 years to perform on "Saturday Night Live," and Lana Del Rey did it in something like 10 minutes.
They were, to varying degrees, willing to discuss both of those things, though you get the feeling they'd rather not. Of course, during our interview, I did raise the fact that the same writers who deride Del Rey for her lack of authenticity and unpaid dues are also the same people who largely ignore the Black Keys — even though they have authenticity coming out of their eyeballs and have racked up more miles in a van than the Scooby-Doo Gang. And, boy, did they (or, really, Carney, since Auerbach is soft-spoken and sort of reserved) have plenty to say about that.
Namely, they think those writers — mostly bloggers — are "pricks," and you can kind of see their point. They also have a few scores to settle with various members of the mainstream media they believe have slighted them over the years. They are the rare band that seems to take criticisms personally, or at least admit that fact (Carney is apparently keeping a running tally of perceived indignities in his head). And that sort of underscores my original point: The Black Keys are exceedingly normal. After all, who among us is willing to let every insult slide off our backs? Who possesses that kind of restraint? If — or, more probably, when — someone calls me a jerk in the comments of this story, I will more than likely want to choke that person. I do not think this makes me ill-adjusted. It makes me a human being. Admit it, you probably feel the same way.
Of course, hours after our interview, I got to spend more time with Carney in a smoke-filled dressing room, where we imbibed long into the night (or so it seemed) and discussed the Keys' contemporaries. I can't really remember everything that was said, and I'm fairly certain the stuff I do was off the record, but you can probably figure out where he stands on, say, Lady Gaga. It was a refreshingly unfiltered chat, one that was made even better by the presence of one of Carney's old Akron friends, who now lives in Istanbul with her boyfriend but flew into Berlin for the show. And long after the dissertations on the current state of popular music had ceased, I sat back and listened as the two remembered old high school acquaintances and laughed at ancient, inside jokes.
It was a pretty nice moment, and not just because I had been drinking Maker's Mark; two friends reunited, Carney, unguarded and at ease, reclining on the back of an easy chair, nodding in knowing ways, his friend ignoring the rather insane journey that occurred since both graduated from high school and just reminiscing. It was also, in a way, more proof that, no matter where they are, or how far they've come, the Black Keys are really just two average guys, a duo who have stumbled onto unforeseen success and are trying very hard to not be incredibly weirded out by that fact. You can say otherwise, but you'd not only be wrong — you'd also probably end up on Carney's hit list. And trust me, there's plenty of room on there. Which is completely normal.
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