Interview: Black Keys’ Patrick Carney on Reviews, Bieber & The Power of Jell-O Meat
By Shannon Carlin
The Black Keys don’t expect Turn Blue to sell as many copies as El Camino.
It’s not because they don’t think this album is as good as their GRAMMY-winning album from 2011, it’s just the mindset the guys go into the studio with. They want to temper expectations.
“It’s just logic, you know, what goes up must come down,” drummer Patrick Carney told Radio.com over the phone hours before his band hit the stage at this past weekend’s Hangout Fest in Alabama. “I think after the success of [2010’s] Brothers, the odds were that the next one would not do that good. And [El Camino] did better. But the odds are for sure that this won’t do as well. I think we both hope it does, but we just don’t expect it to.”
With Turn Blue, the band ditched some of their Midwestern garage-blues roots for something a bit more psychedelic. Turn Blue is more of a headphone record than one you blast out of your El Camino driving down dirt roads.
The Black Keys will soon head over to Europe for string of summer festivals before they head back to the States in September for a 42-date trek. The latter will feature openers like Cage the Elephant, Jake Bugg and St. Vincent, whom Carney personally picked to join them this time around.
For their upcoming tour, in addition to tracks off Turn Blue, Carney and his partner Dan Auerbach also plan to delve deep into their back catalog, a treat for longtime fans. Just don’t expect them to take any last-minute requests.
“We have almost 100 songs that we’ve released, and on any given night we play 19 or 20,” Carney explained. “I don’t think Dan and I have the brain capacity at any given time to know more than 30 or 40 of our songs. But we’ll give it our best shot.”
During our conversation, Carney talked about no longer being music’s favorite underdogs, why he reads reviews (but maybe shouldn’t) and how he plans to make amends with Justin Bieber over a hefty helping of Jell-O meat.
Radio.com: It’s a bold move to kick off your album with a song that’s over seven minutes long. Why did you guys feel “Weight of Love” should be the first track on Turn Blue?
Patrick Carney: I think it made sense to us, we knew the record was evolving into the complete opposite of El Camino, you know? It’s more dynamic and the songs have a little more openness. And I think it’s the kind of song that forces you to sit down and like slow down. And if you can’t, then you’re not going to enjoy the record that much.
Why was the idea of making a record that would force people to slow down important to you guys?
Well, I think certain records owe themselves to that type of listening, and some of them just don’t. Like El Camino is the kind of record you can put on at a party and not have to change a song. It’s all kind of uptempo. But that said, there’s a lot of singles on that record, so you could go and put it on a mixtape. And this record, you know, there are some singles, but not in the same way as the last. I find myself just getting so caught up with my iPad and my phone and realized when I do put everything down and pay attention, I end up enjoying the art — whatever I’m experiencing, a movie, a record, a TV show — I end up enjoying it much more.
The album flows very seamlessly. Was the track list something you worked on for a bit?
Yeah, I actually spent about three or four days in my studio sequencing the record to where I thought everything flowed the right way. I took it over to Dan and listened to it in his studio. It stayed the same, but at that point we added “Gotta Get Away” at the end. I just wanted the record to close with “In Our Prime,” but Dan was like, ‘It’s just too sad of a song to end the album that way.’ So, we decided to put the catchy, most upbeat song at the end. Actually, I think it works well at the end, too. It erases your brain from whatever heavy elements there are in the record. I think maybe it encourages you to go back and listen to the record again.
You went to Los Angeles to work on the record with Brian Burton, and you said the five months you spent there was the longest amount of time you have ever spent in that city. Do you feel like that had an effect on the music?
I actually felt like it did, just the way that room sounded in the studio, Sunset Sound, everything sounded better. There’s openness to it. I think that room kind of breathes. We had been on the road for like a three-week tour before we did the record and went to L.A. I like L.A., I find it fun. If you just kind of avoid the scene, it’s a really great place.
Since both you and Dan are producers yourselves, do you think that makes it easier to relate to the producer you’re working with? Or does it make you guys more combative, knowing where he’s coming from?
I mean, we’ll have disagreements in the studio, but you know, it’s never anything major. The main thing is — and this is something that Brian taught us years ago, and it’s the most important thing I’ve learned about making music — you can’t shoot down an idea until you try it once. So we started making records like that. If anybody has an idea, you should try it. Worse comes to worst, it doesn’t work. But it’s usually very obvious, and when it’s not, those are the times that’s there’s actually a disagreement. But even then, we’ll move onto something else and come back to it. See how it feels the next day.
Was there anything that made it on the record that was originally a point of contention?
Everything is unanimous; we have to agree on everything. There’s a lot of great stuff that we did that did not make the record, and it’s only because we just didn’t finish it. There was like one song, just really one or two words in the chorus that Dan wasn’t happy with, so we left the whole song off. And there’s maybe like five or six other songs with real minimal things missing, but they weren’t done. So, at some point we’ll do something with those songs, but everything on the record we all agreed on.
Why did you guys decided to release “Fever” as the first single?
I mean, honestly, we make the record, we turn it into our label, and that’s the first time they hear it, and then we let them pick the single, because ultimately someone there at the label is going to have to work it at radio. They know what they’re doing, it’s their profession. There either is a single there or there isn’t. We stay out of it. We’re happy with every song on the record, so we don’t have a problem with whatever song they see fit as a single.
We’ve always done that, but then again, we’ve never had a song get played on the radio until “Tighten Up.” The label picked that song as a single, and at first, a lot of radio stations came back and said they would never play that song, that it just didn’t fit their playlists. And we just shrugged our shoulders and said, “Okay, nothing’s changed.” We’d never had a song played on the radio anyway. And then it ended up doing really, really well. Like a couple of months later it went to the top of the alternative charts and no one really expected it. But the guys at the label who picked it, those guys really worked their asses off.
You also recently said that the Black Keys aren’t underdogs anymore, which makes you more of a target. How do you adjust to that?
We’ve been doing this a long time, and the last few years have been crazy. I think now, more than ever, the only thing we have left to prove is that we can make good records and I think, it shouldn’t come down to anything else. Whether a critic likes it or not, or whether a diehard fan likes it, we can’t please everybody. We can only make music that we’re really happy with. Anytime you do something to please someone else artistically, then it’s hollow.
I read the first paragraph of it and read the last paragraph of it. And that was all I needed to see. Of course I’m curious [about reviews], I’m curious to see what people have to say. But the best review you can ever get is from your friends who you trust. I fully expected Pitchfork to not like this record. We didn’t advertise on their website. We didn’t play their festival. And frankly, I just don’t give a s–t. And they don’t give a s–t either, so it’s mutual.
But to get back to the review thing, you know, we got our best rating in Rolling Stone, we got like 4 ½ stars in Rolling Stone, and we got [a 5.8 on] Pitchfork. Dan, Brian and I have always said, if you make a record that’s polarizing people that much, then you’re doing something right.
Obviously, your Twitter war with Justin Bieber and his Beliebers is something you can’t escape from….
I didn’t even mean to call out Justin. I just got cornered by TMZ at like 11 o’clock at night after I had done the most nerve-wracking thing of my life [the Black Keys had just performed at the 2013 GRAMMYs that same night]. They asked me about Justin Bieber, and of course it all comes out wrong because I’m just like trying to go to a party, and this guy came out of the shadows. So yeah, I got like cornered, and I’ve never had so many cameras in front of my face to ask me questions before and air it all across the country. And Justin, of all people, should have understood that, but instead he said I “need to be slapped” on his Twitter feed. Which is one of the most irresponsible things I’ve ever seen a musician like him do. So at that point, I lost complete respect for him.
So maybe this whole thing would have never really started if he didn’t tweet that?
Well, the gist of what I was saying was, or trying to express to TMZ at f—ing midnight, unprepared, was that he should be happy that he has a successful music career, because I know tons and tons of musicians who are talented and they don’t make any money and don’t have any career yet, and they have to have day jobs. And I know completely, because I have friends that are way more talented than me, and I feel lucky. I don’t think he should take it for granted. And definitely, not feel like he’s entitled to an award. He was literally upset about not getting nominated for a GRAMMY. You can’t have it your way all the time. That’s just selfish.
Moving away from Twitter, your Instagram is filled with very interesting photos, specifically those of Jell-O meats. When did your interest in this odd delicacy start?
I can tell you exactly how it started, I think I was looking up recipes online for a hotdog casserole or something and I found something called a “frankfurter crown,” which is like hotdogs wrapped around lime jelly or Jell-O. And from that point I just went deep into the world.
Is there like a support group for people who get too deep into the Jell-O meat world?
There isn’t, but you know what, on this tour maybe I’ll start trying to make some of these recipes and blog about it.
Have you ever actually eaten any of these recipes?
No, I don’t eat any of them. I’m going to start making them and make my own cooking show. Yeah, I’m gonna probably get Bieber to be a guest on the first show, and we’ll make amends.