Count Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney among those surprised -- and perhaps most surprised -- by the Black Keys' success.
The once steadfastly underground and independent-minded duo from Akron has grown into a global star concern, with sales and other mass-appeal marks that singer-guitar Auerbach admits have "just exceeded all of our wildest dreams." "Brothers," the Black Keys' 2010 album, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart, won three Grammy Awards and launched the chart-topping rock hit "Tighten Up," as well as a Top 5 follow-up "Howlin' For You."
Then "El Camino," which rolled out in December, bowed at No. 2, went gold in just its first month of release, notched another No. 1 rock hit in "Lonely Boy" and allowed the Black Keys to become the only "Saturday Night Live" musical guest to ever perform twice in the same calendar year.
After "the biggest shows we've ever played" in Europe to begin the year, the Keys have moved up to arenas in North American, and Auerbach says the success is still "an impossible thing to even wrap my head around, in a way."
"This kind of thing just doesn't happen," he explains, "especially not for people like us who just don't...I mean, usually when you get to a level (of success) like this you have to have a real look, you know? It ends to be less about music and more about other (stuff).
"But we've just stuck to doing our thing, and slowly but surely we've gotten here. It's just kind of unreal."
That "thing" has evolved over the course of seven albums during the 11 years since Auerbach and drummer Carney, who met as high school classmates, put the Black Keys together in 2001. The group's sound has grown over that time, from a Spartan, biting blues-rock approach into more sophisticated arrangements and grooves and more instrumentation -- much of it the influence of Grammy Award-winning producer Danger Mouse (ne Brian Burton), who's been working with the Keys since 2008's "Attack and Release" and also on the 2009 "Blackroc" side project.
And Auerbach, 32, is confident that gradual climb has allowed the group to build an audience that's loyal rather than transient.
"Honestly, I think the majority of our fans, even our new fans, are not the kind of people that care about the other stuff. I feel they like it just because of the music," he explains. And he's heartened that even those who jumped aboard with "Brothers" and "El Camino" have opened themselves to the Keys' past.
"People are definitely picking up the old records," he notes. "Our old record sales have jumped up a little bit. And we're playing songs from every album at our shows and people now them all, so THAT'S really cool, too."
After "Brothers' " success -- which was bolstered by extensive song placements in movie trailers and advertisements -- "El Camino" could well have been a pressure-packed endeavor. But Auerbach and Carney seemed aware of that, and they even canceled some shows in Europe in order to return to the studio, which Auerbach says "is the place we like to be most."
"We just wanted to make a record, y'know?" he says, adding that after the sonic expansion on "Attack and Release" and "Brothers" he and Carney this time "wanted to make a record that was stripped-down, not a lot of bells and whistles, just sort of simplicity for the most part -- organ, bass, drums, guitar and vocals." They were listening to records by the Johnny Burnette Trio, the Sweet, Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, Creedence Clearwater Revival and others that also impacted their approach to the album.
"It was stuff from varying time periods, but they all had that common theme of simplicity," Auerbach says. "They were all simple in terms of instrumentation, which is what we wanted. We wanted the songs to stand up on their own, the melodies to stand up on their own without much fuss around them."
The recording -- the first time the Keys worked in Auerbach's Easy Eye Studio in Nashville -- went quickly. "We just hit the ground running, to be honest," recalls Auerbach, who's been recording other bands at the studio and also produced Dr. John's next album "Locked Down." "I had the chord changes for 'Dead and Gone' and we just started with that. A couple days later we had the song and we just kept going and didn't stop.
"When we were halfway through the record we looked at all the songs we had, and the whole thing was pretty uptempo. So we just sort of had to make a decision at that point -- Are we going to make this record more varied? Do we need more slow or medium tempo stuff? Or are we going to keep going like we are?
"We all decided just to keep going and keep all the songs up (tempo). That's just the way we were feeling."
With "El Camino" out and on a roll, Auerbach and Carney are already eyeballing the future. The tour will take them through the year -- including more European dates and shows in Australia -- but the pair also has its next album "already on the books."
"We don't know when it would come out, but we want to try to get in the studio this year just to start working," Auerbach says. As to what direction the Keys will turn this time, he says "we won't know 'til we get in there. We don't get to practice together on the road. We're always trying to write and keep ideas going, but where we're most comfortable is in the studio. I can't wait to get back in there."
The Black Keys and Arctic Monkeys perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at Joe Louis Arena, 600 Civic Center Drive, Detroit. Tickets are $54.50, $44.50 and $34.50. Call 313-471-6606 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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