"We're not trying to play any kind of genre," says Dan Auerbach. "I don't even think we play blues music."
This is a surprising statement from Auerbach, the guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter for the Akron, Ohio, duo the Black Keys, who traffic in noisy, just-this-side-of-lo-fi blues-derived rock. Auerbach unpacks riffs that sound larger and more intricate with each listen, lumbering and lurching like Jimmy Page or fading in and out mysteriously like Junior Kimbrough. Drummer Patrick Carney, a rhythm section unto himself, knows just where to land the beats so they simultaneously anchor the songs and intensify their hurtling momentum.
"I'm certainly influenced by [blues], 'cause that's what I was listening to when I was teaching myself how to play guitar," Auerbach says. "Pat never listened to blues music. When I was listening to Son House, he was listening to Modest Mouse."
Childhood friends, Auerbach and Carney have been playing together since 1996 and formed the Black Keys in 2001, but they had the misfortune to release their debut, The Big Come Up, in 2002, when a phalanx of upstart bands were making garage rock a viable, albeit short-lived, trend. The Black Keys, whose Akron origins made them outsiders in this scene, were immediately overshadowed by higher-profile acts, including that brother-sister/husband-wife group from Detroit, but they soldiered on. They signed to Fat Possum and released two more highly praised albums -- Thickfreakness in 2003 and Rubber Factory in 2004.
"We did get lumped in. Unfairly," Auerbach says. "And I think the fact that we outlasted it was proof that we weren't part of that thing. We came to know a lot of those bands, and we still don't feel connected to them in any way. We really have felt like the outsider underdogs, doing our own thing on our own."
Their life beyond the initial garage-rock fad suggests there's more to the Black Keys than simple blues revival, and the band's pair of 2006 records showcase their range and dynamic particularly well. In May, they released Chulahoma, an EP of Junior Kimbrough covers. The idea came from Fat Possum's 2005 tribute album Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough.
"Matthew [Johnson] at Fat Possum, I guess, got a lot of positive feedback on the track we'd done," Auerbach says, "and he asked if we'd like to do an EP of Junior songs. It was kind of a no-brainer."
The result is a short but intense collection that's similar to the raw, wiry sound of Rubber Factory. It makes explicit Auerbach's debt to the late bluesman: "Junior just had something about him. It wasn't blues music. He was just doing his own thing -- some sort of weird raw soul music. Every part of that music that he created on his own appealed to me. I can't say that about very many musicians."
In September, the Black Keys followed up with their fourth album, Magic Potion, their first for Nonesuch Records, the eclectic label that's home to Wilco, Brazilian tropicalia singer Caetano Veloso, and the Kronos Quartet.
"We were finished with our contract at Fat Possum and just wanted to see what was available," Auerbach recalls. "We spoke to a bunch of different labels, and we got a few different offers. But we really liked the people at Nonesuch. They seemed to have a lot of the same qualities that the guys at Fat Possum did and the same love for outsider music. And they were going to give us complete control."
While it sounds more polished and practiced than previous efforts, Magic Potion is not the dramatic departure a major-label debut might imply. Songs such as "Your Touch" and "Elevator" retain all the band's trademarks: primal drums, churning guitars, howling vocals. Says Auerbach, "Nonesuch didn't want us to change. They've got all the power of a major label, but they gave us absolute control over everything."
Magic Potion does, however, reveal an expanded lyrical range, especially on the one-two punch of "Modern Times" and "Goodbye Babylon," which tackle politically charged issues -- loosely suggestive of Iraq and Katrina -- through the blues filter of sex, death, and God. Although the target on "Modern Times" is never specified beyond the sinisterly vague "they," the duo's muscular riff hammers home the implications:
All the homes are broken and what are they gonna do?
There's no magic potion
Their lyin' days are through
Love and lust go hand in hand
Everything turned to dust in our promised land.
"It's hard to not write something topical when so much has been going on, especially in the last year," Auerbach explains. "Then you go overseas, and everybody fucking hates your guts because you're American. It's really strange."
After finishing up their current tour, the Black Keys will venture overseas again in 2007. Wherever it's played and whatever name it goes by, the Black Keys' music is at heart pure rock-and-roll -- stripped down like a stolen car to its bare frame then lovingly reassembled as something entirely new. Says Auerbach, "It's American music, is what it really comes down to."The Black Keys w/ Dr. Dog