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Pat Carney has beaten the game.
Or at least it seems that way on paper, he admits.
It’s been over a decade since Carney’s band, The Black Keys, the Mississippi blues-meets-garage-soul rock duo from Akron, Ohio, had its breakout smash with 2010’s Brothers after years of living out its perpetual underdog status. Yet, Carney, the group’s drummer, still feels he and singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach have something to prove.
But undoubtedly a lot has changed in the Keys’ now 20-year-long career.
Since its breakthrough, the band has played arenas the world over, released a string of hit records, and kept rock ‘n’ roll alive with its own special brand of groove, something of a T. Rex and Delta blues hybrid.
As of late, the band put out two albums in the past year alone, including last year’s Delta Kream, a compilation of hill country blues covers that have inspired the Keys — still clearly awed by the blues tradition — since their inception; and more recently, Dropout Boogie, the band’s 11th studio album, released in May.
The latter is the driving force behind the band’s first tour in three years, which swings by the Xfinity Center in Mansfield on July 29.
And on top of everything else keeping him busy, Carney, 42, is a dad now too.
“I have two little kids and that’s what occupies my bandwidth,” Carney recently told Boston.com. “I’m happy to do the band stuff. Ten years ago, I would get so stressed out with work and the band and just the pressure. And now I’m like, what was wrong with me? Nothing compares to having to wrangle a toddler.”
Nonetheless, Carney found a few minutes as the band was gearing up for the road to chat by phone about the latest record, jamming with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, just how small the rock and roll business can be.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Boston.com: There’s a lot on this new record that feels like a well-matched balance of your earlier stuff and the sound that you’ve crafted over the past decade, starting with Brothers. Where did Dropout Boogie come from? Did Delta Kream kind of fan the flame a little bit?
Carney: Yeah, you know, I think that maybe Delta Kream, it was a very Black Keys endeavor because it was like a jam session that we recorded. We were not sure if it was gonna be good or bad. We just had recorded this jam session with Ken Brown and Eric Deaton. Of course, it became a record. Our whole band is basically accidental, so the fact that that became a record isn’t that surprising.
But I think what was surprising was just the idea of remembering, “Oh, yeah, a record doesn’t need to take six weeks of grueling, like banging-your-head-against-the-wall (work). It can just happen.” So, (2019’s) Let’s Rock was the first record we made in five years, and I think getting back in the groove of touring and making that record, I think that (was) what kind of solidified us getting back on the same page musically… it was just like — it’s not about perfection. It’s about the vibe, I suppose.
Which is kind of the core of The Black Keys, I would say.
Yeah, it’s the core. We’ve never been about doing the best drum fill. (laughs)
It’s funny you said that because I know you’ve said before that you kind of accidentally became a drummer — you wanted to play guitar initially. Has that kind of happenstance, whatever you want to call it, influenced how you play?
Yeah. I mean, … I’ve never taken a lesson. I’ve watched my friends play, I watched videos of people playing or something.
But yeah, I just kind of hear something I like and try to play it. And there’s a lot of drum parts that I hear that I like, for 20 years now, (and) have been like, I wonder how you do that? (laughs) And I probably could figure it out easily with just a little bit of guidance, but, I just, I don’t know. I haven’t done it.
For me, the power of the drums is all in the simplicity of it … I’ve just never been attracted to the part of drums that is like a crazy triplet fill. I mean, I think it sounds great… But it’s not why I listen to a song, so I never really valued it.
Like, Rush is great, but you’re not trying to be Neil Peart.
No, yeah, no, definitely not. Watching that documentary (“Time Stand Still”) of (Rush’s) final tour, like him talking about how taxing it is, I remember watching it not that long ago, (and) I was patting myself on the back. I was like, “Hey dude, you can play these simple-ass beats you’ve wrote until you’re f****** 80.” I just keep it simple.
But really, the power for me (is) if I listen to like, Cypress Hill — I was playing for my son, who’s 4, “Hits from the Bong” — and the sample there from ‘Son of a Preacher Man,” everything I want to know about drums is in that beat.
On Dropout Boogie, you got to jam a bit with Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top). How did he influence the sound or, you know, with his mojo, what did he bring to that track? Was there was anything you picked up from him?
You know, Billy’s like, he might be the coolest guy walking the earth, and I think that one day, people will realize just how f****** cool he is.
It’s hard to describe Billy because … he’s the guy that Jimi Hendrix said was the best guitar player of all time. (laughs)
That’s quite an endorsement.
The coolest thing about Billy is he can express his entire point basically in one note, and it all comes from the way he plays the note. It sounds like him. It’s really unusual.
Yeah, there’s this kind of undercurrent of ZZ Top flair on that track. You know, it’s still you guys, but it’s there.
If you really listen to like, “La Grange,” and just listen to the last minute of that song, and listen to the guitar overdubs that are happening. It’s nothing like, overtly in your face really, but it is completely amazing guitar playing. It’s so understated. It’s so insane. And that’s the kind of thing that’s always most appealing to me musically, (this) insane pinched harmonic thing he’s doing. It just sounds so subtle and so f***** amazing.
You’ve been coming to Boston for some time now and on this latest tour, you’re playing a lot of outdoor venues — here it’s the Xfinity Center in Mansfield — that you haven’t played at before. Is there a reason you guys wanted to bring this tour outside, or was it just coincidental?
We’ve never done our own, like, amphitheater tour and I always wanted to do it.
We toured with Beck and did amphitheaters 19 years ago, and we did a couple of shows with the Kings of Leon that were amphitheaters and we’ve done a few of our own shows at like different amphitheaters, but it just seemed like after doing a couple of arena tours, it felt like it would be cool to do a summer outdoor U.S. tour.
Delta Kream came out a year ago. You guys just did basically your second album in a year, which is a lot. Are you itching to be back out on the road?
I’m excited about playing shows. I’m excited about like getting out of my house, I suppose. But yeah, you know, it’s hard to be away from your kids. I’m not looking forward to that part of it.
You were hitting (the road) pretty hard for a while about 10 years ago, I’d say, and you took a little break. Is there a kind of mental exercise that you have to do to get jazzed up to be on the road again?
I don’t. I can’t really speak for Dan but…
Kind of comes easy?
I think that if we were looking down an itinerary that had like 100 shows in a year, which is what we used to have to kind of deal with, I would probably be seeing a therapist right now.
I mean, it’s weird because if I think back about that touring back then, (and) it’s crazy because compared to now, I had zero responsibility. I was just like a bachelor really, making tons of money and still it was f****** hard. (laughs) It’s like if you’re getting paid a s***load of money and have no responsibility and something is difficult, you need to think about what’s f****** going on there.
It’s just hard to be that uprooted. It’s one thing to go on vacation for a couple of weeks. It’s one thing to go on a road trip with your buddies. But, you see, like 100 dates, it’s actually going to take you like, 150 days to do those shows. We’re going to be traveling and (have) no consistency … it’s just a lot to f****** deal with. If you compound that with like, not just one time, but like four times in a row, you start losing your f****** mind.
El Camino turned 10 years old in December, which I personally can’t believe. But that album really built on the success of Brothers. How do you see that era of your career now, 10 years out?
It still feels surreal because we were eight years into our career before Brothers came out. Brothers was record six. When it came out, it slowly became like this thing that started happening, and it was weird to be on the road and watch it happening.
And we were on tour in the summer of 2010. That fall, we were touring a lot. To watch things happening, and seeing “Tighten Up” getting played on the radio … I was talking to my manger at the time, being like, “Is this what it feels like? Is the band blowing up?” because that was going on. We weren’t even sure what was happening.
So we were supposed to go on tour to Australia, January 2011, right after we played SNL for the first time. There was a big snowstorm in New York … We woke up on Sunday morning to this blizzard and we’re like, “F*** it. We can’t go to Australia for three weeks right now. We’re burned out.”
So we went back to Nashville … and we just decided to call (producer) Brian (Burton, aka Danger Mouse) and make a record.
I remember … like June 2011, we had just finished the record. I was at my house in Nashville. We played Bonnaroo and I played the record for (Fabrizio Moretti, the drummer for The Strokes). He was at my house and … I played the record and he’s like, “That’s a hit album” or something like that. And I was like, you think so? And he was like, “I know so.”
At that point, I had not really paid attention to what we’ve made. I was nervous about how it was going to be received. And when “Lonely Boy” came out … I was really apprehensive. I wasn’t sure if it was going to sit well. I wish I just had known. I would have enjoyed the whole thing a lot more. But I was really nervous about how it’s going to go over.
And then playing those arenas for the first time and watching the band really, truly blow up, like — I would get really nervous, playing like Madison Square Garden and I kept reminding myself of all the terrible bands that have played there before. I was like: Put it in perspective, like it’s not that much pressure.
It’s another gig.
… Like, just think about that. Don’t think about Led Zeppelin playing here in ’73. Think about like, you know, Right Said Fred playing here or whatever.
I was at your last show in Boston for the Let’s Rock tour and I couldn’t help but notice just how many generations of fans were in the crowd — there’s just a lot of people bringing their young kids now. Is it kind of strange to consider what influence you guys might have on one of those kids?
I always love seeing kids in the crowd.
I mean, from our very first couple of shows, the first tours, I’ve always seen like, legit old men in our audience. I was like, “What the f***? There’s like 60-year-old dudes here.” (laughs). Like, “What the f***? How do they know?” And then, like, I’ll be that age 20 years from now.
You know, rock ‘n’ roll is a much smaller universe than you think. When you’re a kid, like especially in a place like Akron, where … it’s pretty isolated … You start getting into like, the lore of it.
Like, just take a band like the Talking Heads. There’s these hits, but then there’s the first record like, in ’77. You get that record and then you realize, “Oh yeah, Jerry Harrison. He was in the Modern Lovers,” and then you go and you get into the Modern Lovers. You’re connecting all the f***** dots. Then you realize, “Oh yeah, like, actually, it’s a small f***** world.” It really is a small world.
When I look out at the crowd and see like, a kid and an old man at our shows, I’m like, oh yeah, this kid is about to go through the journey to realize how small the world of rock ‘n’ roll actually is, and how it universal it is. And it’s so niche.
I was telling someone the other day … I got into golf recently and we were just talking about how anti-rock and roll that is. And I was like, “I don’t know. Part of my mind feels like I beat the game.” I feel like I’ve got to the f***** King Kong Donkey Kong level … To go from getting my first records, starting the band, to then doing it all. And it’s not a bad feeling. It’s just like, I feel accomplished. (laughs)
When I read like a bad review of our band or something, I could give two f***s. I just don’t even give a s*** because the crazy thing is, when I do make music with Dan, I do feel like I’m 20 years old again.
I do feel like we have a lot to prove, but when I look at everything on paper, it’s much different.
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