For 20 years, The Black Keys’ incendiary blues-rock formula has remained largely the same: Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney sitting in a room, jamming for hours, seeing what sticks. At first, those practice spaces were humbling; Carney’s basement in Akron, Ohio was complete with exterminator breaks.
“I remember having to pick up dead rats in the kitchen,” Auerbach tells Billboard over Zoom. “With a Cleveland Scene magazine, we’d just scoop them up, roll them up in the magazine. Then we’d just go down into the basement and continue to practice.”
Those early sessions, laid down on an eight-track tape recorder, would birth The Big Come Up, the band’s blazing D.I.Y. debut and a pillar of the ‘00s garage-rock revival. Through relentless touring and prolific studio work, the Keys eventually transcended the movement – scoring five Grammy Awards between 2011 and 2013, booking mammoth arena roadshows and notching sky-high album sales to cement the group as one of the most successful rock duos of their generation.
Now, Auerbach and Carney, both 42, are looking to shake up the band a bit, as they prepare to release their 11th studio album Dropout Boogie on May 18 and embark on their first full post-pandemic tour this summer. In October, the Black Keys parted ways with longtime manager John Peets of Q Prime South, and have teamed up with Steve Moir and industry legend Irving Azoff, whose artist roster has included everyone from Van Halen to No Doubt to Christina Aguilera, as a partnership between Full Stop and Moir Entertainment.
“I think we had all gotten to a place where it felt a little bit stale and I don’t think that was fair for anybody,” Carney says, assuring the band parted with Q Prime on good terms. “We only interviewed essentially two people: It was between Coran Capshaw [of Red Light Management] and Full Stop, and it was a really hard decision. [Azoff], with his focus on touring and selling our tickets and stuff, seemed to be more on page with where we wanted to be. Also, we still think radio is an important part of our strategy and I think that Full Stop just had that kind of dialed in.” (Full Stop Management did not respond to requests for comment.)
Dropout also marks the band’s first album to include multiple outside contributors in the songwriting process. For “Wild Child” – the record’s pumping lead single released last month, and which spends its third week at No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Airplay chart this week – Auerbach and Carney tapped longtime friends Greg Cartwright (Reigning Sound) and Angelo Petraglia (Kings of Leon co-writer) to polish the verses and booming chorus.
“‘Wild Child’ was one of those songs that in the past wouldn’t have gotten finished,” Carney notes. Auerbach chimes in on the band’s fading egos. “Now we’re comfortable enough with ourselves that we can open up to people like [Cartwright and Petraglia],” Auerbach says. “We didn’t used to feel like we could do that.”
The guys have also found sounding boards in their families. Auerbach calls his son and daughter, ages 6 and 14, the band’s “secret weapon” for honest criticism. But Carney may have the ultimate ace in the hole, as he’s married to pop-rock stalwart Michelle Branch.
“I played the record for [Branch] in its original sequence and she was like, ‘If you want my honest opinion, I would take these couple songs off, they don’t really flow,’” Carney says. And so Dropout Boogie was trimmed to 10 tracks, the group’s shortest record to date, and one of its most cohesive.
“[This album] is just us feeling for the first time in a while, maybe since [2010’s] Brothers, really being in the groove together,” Carney adds, “to the point where we’ve been continuing to record even after this record is done, we’ve been in the studio working.”
The new record churns with the group’s familiarly driving blues-rock foundation, though it’s noticeably more relaxed than its predecessor, 2019’s Let’s Rock. The guys say Boogie plays as a natural follow-up to last May’s Delta Kream, the Keys’ country-blues covers album, which was recorded in a single impromptu 10-hour session. “It was kind of like the ultimate reset, a recalibration for us,” Carney says of the Delta recording.
They kept that vibe heading back into the studio last year for the new LP. “We wanted [the songs] to flow almost subconsciously, to just be fun — kind of how half of them came to us,” says Auerbach, adding that several new tracks including “Good Love” (featuring ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons), “Burn the Damn Thing Down” and “Didn’t I Love You” are all first takes, with imperfections left in.
In the name of shirking all self-seriousness, the band filmed a riotous “Wild Child” music video, which mocks the contemporary high school experience, with burnt-out teachers battling students plucked straight from a Euphoria-fueled fever dream.
For the video, Auerbach played a cigar-puffing janitor and Carney a lunchroom cook serving horse meat to vegan students. When deciding the video roles, Carney wondered if he and Auerbach could play a teacher and principal.
“Then [Auerbach] was like, ‘We couldn’t get those jobs because we dropped out of school, dumbass,’” Carney says with a laugh.
Hence Dropout Boogie’s moniker, which also nods to the eponymous 1967 song by rock and blues innovator Captain Beefheart — one of the Keys’ deepest influences, whom they’ve covered several times over the years.
A 32-date arena and amphitheater tour supporting Dropout Boogie kicks off July 9, familiar turf for a band known for its near-constant touring schedule and festival spots throughout the ‘00s, up until 2014’s Turn Blue, their last LP before a five-year hiatus. But after bouts of exhaustion in those heavy touring years, the guys are cautious as they approach the road ahead.
“We’re being very careful about what we agree to do, so we don’t get to that space where we start resenting it, or that the band would become a burden on our personal lives,” Carney says.
Yet after two decades, thousands of shows and nearly a dozen album cycles, the guys feel as confident about the band’s future as they ever have. “There was a time when we weren’t really hanging out, we weren’t on the same page and the band felt tense,” Carney says. “But now the band feels like a band’s supposed to feel, like we’re in our little treehouse trading baseball cards again.”