In the five years since the band’s last full-length album, the drummer has spread his creative wings as a producer of note. Here we talk about that growth, and spend time with the drummer’s partner, Dan Auerbach.
The hiatus between the Black Keys’ 2014 album Turn Blue and 2019’s ‘Let’s Rock’ was hardly a time of kicking back and coasting for the Akron, Ohio–reared, Nashville-based duo. Drummer Patrick Carney and singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach each kept busy with projects that often found them veering out of the arena-rattling lane they’ve occupied since enhancing their blues and garage rock-informed game on 2010’s Brothers.
Carney established himself as a legitimate hyphenate, producing, co-writing, and/or serving as a multi-instrumentalist on records by Elle King, the Rentals, *repeat repeat, and Calvin Johnson—as well as Michelle Branch, who he married in 2017. Last year he applied all those skills on Sad Planets’ spacey and experimental Akron, Ohio album, which he made with fellow Akron native/rock vet John Petkovic.
MD: You’ve taken up many roles outside of being “the drummer in the Black Keys”: songwriter, producer, engineer…. Do you still think of yourself as a drummer first, or does the pecking order not even matter?
Patrick: When it comes to the band, yeah, I’m a drummer. I guess I like to think of myself as more of a music maker, producer, contributor. But the drums are something I pay a great deal of attention to when I’m producing. And a lot of that is tone more than technical performance.
MD: How has serving in those different musical capacities informed your drumming and the way you make records with the Black Keys and others?
Patrick: I worked with this band called *repeat repeat. I produced the record, played drums, and co-wrote. It was the first time I ever made a record where I did it on the click, with just a kick and snare and a hi-hat programmed. And the very last thing I did was drums. It was completely counterintuitive to how I normally work, where it’s about getting a drum take together and building on it. But it was inspiring to me to know that I could do it that way.
Every record is different in how it gets approached. As an engineer, producer, drummer, musician—whatever—each record is going to have a different strong suit that depends on the musicians or the types of songs that you’re presented with. It’s worth embracing whatever the song or the singer is capable of delivering and building around it. And [it’s about] accepting the fact that most good music won’t get played on the radio, so it’s not worth chasing that. But it’s taken me years to figure that out. It should be obvious. By the time you figure it out, you’re forty years old, and you’re not cool anymore. [laughs]
MD: We spoke about ten years ago, when you were touring behind Brothers, and you talked then about being inspired by the drum sounds on the Motown records. Since then some of the drum sounds on the Black Keys records have become more stylized.
Patrick: That was a phase I was in. Around Brothers we got focused on simplistic, mono. But since then I have a whole different system with my engineer at my studio, Marc Whitmore. I got these Schoeps tube mics. They’re kind of like Neumann KM 54s. I have them spaced stereo off the side of the kit. I’ve been more into spatial nuance. When I put the studio together that I have now, I got a few pieces of gear that I’d never had. I bought this old API desk, which is like the center of the whole studio. And I bought a bunch of vintage cymbals, which I never had the luxury of buying before. I’m talking tons of things: Zildjian As and Ks from the ’60s, all different sizes, riveted rides, vintage Paistes, every size you could find, including Formula 602s, which I’ve been using for the last four years on the Keys records, as well as Paiste Giant Beats…. And I found myself obsessing over finding drums that just recorded well. I like it to sound open to an extent, but I hate overtones that are overwhelming.
MD: What kind of drum setup have you been using in the studio recently?
Patrick: The last Keys record and the last couple records I’ve produced have all been with my wife Michelle’s kit. She has a mid-’70s Vistalite. I just got obsessed with it. I’d never recorded with it before. I think I’m probably nearing the end of using it, just to mix it up. But I do love it. I have a pretty dead snare. I’ve been using Black Beautys for years, but I was just given a Supraphonic that’s really cool, 6.5″ deep.
MD: What was the learning curve like when you went from playing as a guitar-drums duo live to a full band with a bass player?
Patrick: It was crazy what I had to go through learning to play like that. Dan and I had this type of communication when we were a two-piece live. I never considered the drums an instrument that kept time. I just didn’t. I know that sounds crazy. We never used loops, or a grid, or a click; it was just a performance, in the studio and live. Our first time playing live with a [full] band was at Madison Square Garden. Insane. We were opening for Pearl Jam. It was maybe the day Brothers came out. I kind of just played the same way I was playing. I had a really hard time that year. I started to realize certain things wouldn’t work, and that I had much less room to…wobble, I guess you’d say. Basically, at age thirty, I actually had to learn to play the drums. Up until then I was almost able to be a percussionist in a way. I was keeping a beat. It was cool, but it was its own unique skill set.
“I don’t really want to get rid of the weird factor, whatever I used to do, but it naturally decays as you learn.”
MD: And now you have to take different things into consideration musically.
Patrick: I listened to the bass and played with it. Before, when I tried to play drums with another band or friends, I literally couldn’t do it. I’d end up picking up the guitar or the bass, because it was like I was hearing [the drums] in a way I don’t think you’re supposed to. I had to start changing my perspective. If you listen to Brothers, you can tell. I think I’d gotten to this point where I was playing the drums like a real drummer, but it was all very strange. [laughs] The next thing I know, we have a hit song, and we’re approaching things a little bit differently. There’s a full band, and I have to learn how to keep things tighter. I think I just recently got to the point where I’m able to play drums like a drummer live. I used to get so into it—I’d speed up, I’d get really slow. I thought that was cool. Dan and I tried to do that live with a full band, but it was weird.
MD: After doing it one way for so long, was that a big hurdle to overcome mentally?
Patrick: I think it was a little bit. It definitely changed my perspective on the instrument. I was then able to see why certain drummer jokes existed. [laughs] I always like the drums to be a very important aspect of the music. Like “Howlin’ for You,” or “Tighten Up,” or “Next Girl,” or “Ten Cent Pistol”—that whole Brothers record is all these pretty unorthodox drumbeats. On “Howlin’ for You” you can tell I was definitely listening to a couple of ’70s glam things, but a lot of the stuff I was playing was just [messed] up interpretations of drumbeats. Then we started doing El Camino, and as a rule switch I started helping more with songwriting, adding hooks. I came up with the “Gold on the Ceiling” intro lick on the Farfisa, and I helped write the chorus hook to “Lonely Boy.” I added the octave pedal to the intro, that kind of stuff.
The drums had to take kind of a backseat for those songs to work. And I had to learn how to play fast. I’d never played fast songs. In the early days we’d do a Stooges cover like “No Fun” that would be kind of fast, but our songs were like 100 bpm. When we went into the studio to do El Camino, we started to touch 160. I’d never done anything like that. And having to play straight. It was all new to me. It made me a more versatile drummer. But I’m happiest when the drums work and they seem interesting. If a song can allow that, great. If a song can’t, then I’m hoping they at least sound cool.
MD: As you were reevaluating your drumming, had you given any thought to taking lessons, relearning in a more academic way, working on particular things?
Patrick: Sure, I thought about it, but I never did it. The reason is I approach [the drums] through a really pure and ignorant point of view. I already feel like I’ve learned so much doing it that it more and more defaults into how anybody else would do it. I don’t really want to get rid of the weird factor, whatever I used to do, but it naturally decays as you learn. It’s more about how it’s done and what’s not there. The nuances, the sound. The way a shaker can rub against the snare—that’s where the magic lies for me.
You listen to someone like Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse. How does he keep that instrument sounding the way he does? He keeps his sound; it doesn’t go away. A drummer like Jay Bellerose—I don’t know if he studied it. He’s technically a wizard, but he also has exactly what I’m talking about, always. I wish I could play like that, but I’ll never be able to, so I’ll just play the way I can play. Patrick Keeler, he’s also an incredible drummer. Very advanced. Not over flashy, doesn’t have to be. But I can tell it’s Keeler playing. I hope that when somebody hears me play, they say, “That’s that dude from Black Keys.” It’s like Eric Clapton playing in Cream, versus Eric Clapton playing ten years later. It’s totally different. I want to always sound like Cream Clapton. [laughs] I don’t want to lose the grip, you know?
Patrick Carney plays Ludwig drums and Paiste cymbals and uses Remo heads and Vic Firth sticks.
During his sabbatical from the Keys, Dan Auerbach developed a reputation as a world-class producer with exceptional taste in drummers, leaning on Memphis/Nashville studio legend Gene Chrisman, Jeffrey Clemens (G. Love), and the late Richard Swift to supply vibrant and soulful grooves on records, including Yola’s Grammy-nominated Walk Through Fire, the Pretenders’ Alone, Robert Finley’s Goin’ Platinum!, and Marcus King’s El Dorado.
Recorded at his Easy Eye Sound studio, Auerbach’s productions recall the sides cut at legendary southern rooms like Muscle Shoals and Memphis’s American Sound Studio—where Chrisman did some of his best work with Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Neil Diamond, and others. But the pleasingly retro aesthetic really just boils down to Auerbach’s mastery of a timeless production technique: the ability to capture a performance that best serves the song.
MD: Is there one constant you look for in a drum performance or sound?
Dan: I look for personality and I look for the groove to be right on the money. You can’t ever really tell what the right thing is until you hear it. Until then you’re searching. It always turns out best if you’re around extra-creative drummers.
MD: Has your philosophy on drums and the role they play in your music changed much since the days when you and Patrick were hacking it out in the basement?
Dan: Drums were always the most important, to me and to Pat. In most of the music that we really loved, drums were the key, the foundation. All the bands we loved had the best drummers. It’s just always been extra important to us.
MD: As a producer and mixer, how involved do you get in gear choices and miking setups with the drums?
Dan: When I record, most of these guys just come to my studio and don’t bring anything. I’ve got a selection of drums; they can pick whatever they want, whatever sizes they want. We can quickly change kick drums and snares to adjust for different songs. And I’m way into that. I’m way into a drummer who thinks creatively and is hearing themselves as a voice in the song.
MD: What’s the drum selection like at Easy Eye?
Dan: We’ve got a couple different Gretsch Round Badge kick drums. I’ve got the old [Ludwig] Salesman kit. I’ve got some bigger marching band–type drums. We’ve got a couple snares that we use. One of them might be a little uncommon; it’s an older, weirder brass snare. It’s kind of big. People seem to like that one a lot. I found that one in an antique store. We use a Ludwig Acrolite, too.
MD: You’ve worked with a rotation of great drummers, each of whom brings something different to the music. Gene Chrisman, for instance, has that classic “lay it down, get out of the way” Memphis/Nashville vibe of the ’60s and ’70s.
Dan: Man, Gene Chrisman. When you talk about personality, Bubba’s personality shines through. That’s why he hadn’t had a lot of work in the last fifteen, twenty years. A lot of producers in Nashville don’t know what to do with all that personality. With formulaic pop music, you can’t really use that so much. He’s flourishing in the environment that I have at Easy Eye. He told me that this is more like recording at American with Chips Moman than anything has since then, which I took as the highest compliment he
could give me.
“Drums were always the most important, to me and to Pat. All the bands we loved had the best drummers.”
MD: Was he playing at all when you hooked up with him?
Dan: He was retired. He was playing one gig a month. He was happy to work. He absolutely loves it. I’ve had days where we would get together at 10 a.m. and we wouldn’t leave the studio until 2 a.m. And he’d be back at 10 a.m. He’s eighty years old!
MD: There are so many great nuances to his playing. I love how in Yola’s “Ride Out in the Country,” he plays a 16th-note pattern on the ride that pushes it ever so slightly, where the natural thing would probably be to just lay back and play 8ths on the hats. I guess with a player who’s that seasoned, you’re giving him free rein to inject idiosyncrasies like that?
Dan: I like every musician in the studio to be able to give me an idea, feel comfortable to give me something. Show me what you got, you know what I mean? Bubba’s no exception. But at the same time, everybody’s got to be open to some suggestions. If Bubba’s doing something I don’t dig, I’ll let him know it, and he will adjust. Instantly. That’s what he does. These guys don’t have ego about this stuff.
MD: Richard Swift’s drumming always seemed like an extension of his songwriting and production—so musical and compositional.
Dan: [Sighs] He was just so talented, so musical. Anything he did, so rhythmic. That’s why he was so good at building tracks.
MD: His work on that last Pretenders record you did was pretty bananas, but fit those songs perfectly.
Dan: I know. He wouldn’t really have considered himself a drummer. That’s what was so cool about Swift. Same thing with Patrick Carney. Neither of them would consider themselves drummers; that’s why they’re such great drummers.
MD: And Swift’s drum parts were hooky, just like Ringo’s fills were hooks.
Dan: Absolutely. Swift was always listening to the song. You could always count on him to play the pushes where they needed to go. He knew where the bridge was—you didn’t have to tell him. He knew when it was coming, and he was going to do something interesting to put you into that section. I loved Richard Swift.
MD: Jeffrey Clemens brings his own thing. He’s so skilled at just laying down that huge groove.
Dan: I’d always been a huge fan of his drumming, especially those first couple records he did with G. Love. I always knew he had a great New Orleans feel, better than just about anybody, in a song kind of way. Not just doing a damn second-line strut and playing the China cymbal all to hell. I’m talking about the real stuff. Jeffrey really has that. I sent him this song recently, this old gospel song, because I liked the drumbeat on it. He told me he hung out with George Clinton one time, who told him that in P-Funk terminology they call that drumbeat “the lock.” I said, “You would know that.” He plays like somebody who would know that. He plays like somebody who would’ve been told that by George Clinton.
MD: When you hear a song initially, in its skeletal form, are you mapping out a drum vibe or sound?
Dan: I am, but at the same time, I try not to impose my will on my drummers. I hire them for a reason. And maybe my stupid guitar-playing ass shouldn’t be telling a drummer how to drum. Now, it all changes if they play something I don’t like. [laughs] But I place my trust in them that they’re going to do something cool.
Story by Patrick Berkery, Photography by Alysse Gafkjen