The Black Keys Have Finally Hit Their Stride (20 Years Later) On ‘Dropout Boogie’

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Patrick Carney doesn’t want to come across like an asshole today. One half of The Black Keys for the past 20+ years, he has just landed in Los Angeles from his home in Nashville ahead of the band’s show at The Troubadour in West Hollywood to celebrate the release of their latest album, Dropout Boogie. With a 500-person capacity, The Troubadour gig represents a massive underplay for The Black Keys, who could easily fill an arena for this purpose. And while Carney and his creative partner Dan Auerbach appreciate the untouched ’60s and ’70s classicism of The Troub, it’s not without its challenges.

“It’s actually a headache when we do this sh*t because we’ve been a band for so long, we’ve got so many friends in these cities that I just have to be an asshole to all my friends and tell them they can’t come,” Carney says on a call.

Fortunately for people who can’t make it through the door, the band has a full US tour scheduled this summer in support of Dropout Boogie. The band’s 11th album, it arrives exactly 20 years after the Akron, Ohio duo’s basement-recorded debut, The Big Come Up. The pair have become one of the most recognizable rock bands through the years, staying famously insular, save for the presence of producer Danger Mouse on four of their albums. But for Dropout Boogie, things were different. Carney and Auerbach welcomed new faces into the fold of Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville, and the result is an album that embraces the band’s longtime blues influences like never before. We caught up with Carney to talk about it all.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

So the Dropout Boogie release is within a day of the 20 year anniversary of your first album, The Big Come Up, and this album really reminds me of that first one, more so than any other Black Keys release.

I agree with that, yeah.

Were you thinking about that a lot when you worked on these songs? Did that play into it at all?

Not really, because I’ve never really had too many 20th anniversaries of anything. Even in my high school class, we were so cynical that we canceled our 20th reunion because no one wanted to go. But just thinking, while we’re making it like, “Oh yeah, we started this band like 20 years ago…” One thing that I was sure of going into making the record, was that I wanted the drums to sound a little bit more f*cked up. Closer to some sonic stuff that we were doing on Brothers. And I guess if you listen to the first record, it just sounds really bizarre, in a cool way. But the last song [“Didn’t I Love You”] on the new record definitely feels like something that would’ve come out of the basement.


I guess it’s like a poetic statement putting that song last, because it finishes a 20-year cycle which kind of demonstrates the overall aesthetic or even the point of the band. We edited some stuff off of the front of that, and a little bit of stuff at the end, but really what you hear is us just kind of tumbling in and out of a song. And that’s the take, it’s the first take.

There’s definitely a rawness about these songs that I hadn’t heard on a Black Keys record for a while. Is it from that first take approach that you guys did with a lot of songs on this album?

Well, we’ve always been the first take type of band. But after Brothers, we went in the studio with Danger Mouse to make what became El Camino. He had this idea that we should make some stuff that was faster, because my typical operating frequency for rhythm is like Wu-Tang Clan speed, 95 BPM or something. It’s like a no-go zone for rock and roll because it’s really good for a big riff, but it’s hard for other types of stuff. And I never really understood that, but Brian (Danger Mouse) was like, “Yeah, we should go a little faster.” So when we started making El Camino, it was the first time I realized that, “Okay, I gotta play drums.” And I gotta keep the beat straight. It can’t swing as hard.

And one of the bad aspects of that, was it got way in my head for close to a decade of like, “Okay, I should really worry about playing in time to this click, or to this beat, or what I think it should be?” When previous to that, up through Brothers it was just like, “I should just let things sway however I play it. You know? So on this record I really got back to that mentality of just letting it swing. And not worrying so much about keeping the tempo where it needs to be, if it’s going to be there it’s going to flow. Because of that — at least for me — it feels like it has a little bit more of a laid-back kind of loose groove to it.

Yeah, yeah. I definitely hear that in a lot of songs. Like on “How Long,” that one really has a laid-back, loose feel to it.

That’s another first take, that song.

In the last few years, you guys have really embraced the blues. And that’s always been present in your music, but it’s just so evident now. I think about how Delta Kream was a straight homage to Mississippi Hill Country Blues musicians like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside that have inspired you from the beginning. Can you talk a little bit about just fully embracing the blues in these last two albums?

When we first started the band, we were almost a North Mississippi Hill Country blues tribute act. We were just really into the Kimbrough and R.L. stuff, and we bonded so heavily over that. Then when we were making that first record, we started trying to figure out how to write songs and we kind of got swept up in that kind of garage rock revivalists press thing that was happening in 2002-2003. The first time we opened up an alt-weekly and read someone described us as like “Blues Hammer 2.0” or something. We were 23-year-old kids. And we were like, “F*ck that. We cannot tell people we’re a blues band.” And we kind of ran away from that as fast as we could. Definitely did not embrace it. We didn’t want to get the stigma of that. And I still don’t think we’re a blues band, I think we’re a rock and roll band and we moved into the territory.

But we just got more comfortable embracing the things that we like, and not shying away from talking about them and shining the light on these musicians who inspired us so much. It outweighs getting called “blues hammer.” We can take it now, but I think it was a confusing time around 2002 where The White Stripes were being called a blues band. We just ran away from it and eventually ended up coming out as this arena band. Then before this, Dan and I took some time off. We hung out once or twice during 2016 and 17. We spent very little time around each other for those two years.

Was that by design? Because you guys were both producing projects for other people.

We just f*cked off and did our own thing. We were busy. I was starting a family, I had just gotten remarried. And then when it came time to make another Keys record, I left the ball in Dan’s court: “Whenever you’re ready let me know.” And he hit me up in 2018, and I guess really the last couple years has been us figuring out how to have a healthy relationship again; one that’s enjoyable. We both started associating each other’s presence with us grinding really hard. Like 2010 through 2014, we did three tours that were all over a hundred dates. So I think we figured it out. And I think the crowning kind of moment of our relationship, figuring it out, was the making of Delta Kream. It was an accidental undertaking where Dan was making a record for Easy Eye with this artist named Robert Finley and it was like, “Oh yeah, this is how it should f*cking feel. This is what it should feel like for us.”

And then in 2021 we both were kind of chomping at the bit to get back to work and once we got in the studio to make this record things just really started clicking. By the time we finished it in November, we felt the opposite of that usual creatively drained feeling. We’ve been continuing to work the whole time since we finished. So we’re deep into another record already.

You brought in other people to help you in the process for the first time in the process of Dropout Boogie. How was that different? Did that kind of help bridge this gap that you guys had?

Yeah, I mean in the past when we worked with Danger Mouse, the band would essentially become a three-piece for those times that he was there. And it was a true democracy where if one person didn’t like something we would move on. For better or worse. And I think part of the situation with Dan when we made Let’s Rock, was us figuring out not just how to get along or just what it felt like to be around each other, but also like, “What’s it like to be creative without Danger Mouse there?” So making Let’s Rock was at times sort of tense.

By the time we made this record, I felt comfortable enough to know that if I added something while Dan was taking his kid to soccer or vice versa, if one of us didn’t like it, we would just say something. It wasn’t a big deal. It sounds like a little thing, but when you’re in a band for 20 years, it could be a big thing. I’ve heard that Metallica can’t even be critical to each other about their parts anymore. They have a hard time even critiquing each other. But for Dan and I, we learned really productive ways to talk to each other about what we’re working on. And I think Dan’s Easy Eye work and doing all of those records he’s made, it’s got him more in the zone of co-writing with different people. He’s figured out ways to spark something when he’s not feeling 100% sure where to come at it.

So how did bringing in songwriters in Angelo Petraglia and Greg Cartwright help?

With “Wild Child,” we had the music, the whole song was just basically done but not the vocals, and Dan was like, “I’m not really sure what we should do?” So when we brought in Greg, it was like “Boom. Oh my God, we should have been doing this for the last 20 years!” It was f*cking insane. It was just so natural. And I’m watching Dan get so inspired and watching him… feel less like the burden of work is just sitting there. And of a record where the music is done, but the vocals aren’t. Now it becomes an actually exciting thing because we could just pick and choose who we want to come into the studio to take a listen and see if they have anything, any perspective. And it’s funny because it’s what we both do when we’re both producing records outside of the Keys, but we never applied that to our band. So it’s the first time that we’re actually, in a way, producing our own band, fully.

The guitar on “Good Love” super stood out to me. And then lo and behold, that was the Billy Gibbons track. What was it like having freakin’ ZZ Top playing guitar on your track?

Well, it’s crazy because definitely during the pandemic, especially when sports weren’t happening, I just went down the rabbit hole of watching real nerdy guitar stuff. One of the videos I remember watching was someone talking about Billy Gibbons. How he gets his guitar sound and how he uses these special strings, very light strings, etc… So here we are in the studio, months later after I watched that video, and Dan gets a text from, I think Rick Rubin, saying, “Hey, Billy’s in town. You guys should hang.” So we invite Billy over and we ask if he wants to jam. He picks up this guitar. It’s a Gibson Trini Lopez, a Dave Grohl guitar. Like the exact opposite type of guitar that he normally plays. He wanted to play this particular guitar because it used to belong to Mississippi Fred McDowell.

He plugged it in and instantly, it sounded exactly like ZZ Top. It was different amps, a different guitar, just the only common factor was Billy’s hands and Billy’s brain. It’s why being a singer is such a cool thing, because you’re instantly recognizable. Your voice is instantly distinct. But being a musician, being able to get your own singular voice out of an instrument is so rare. And when it happens, when you can hear someone play an instrument like, “Oh sh*t! That’s so and so playing guitar, or playing drums.” That’s the goal. And to see Billy do it and realizing he was doing some very simplistic sh*t, and it was so him. He can just play with two notes, and it would sound amazing.

If there’s a through-line in the songs that you guys write, it’s this dive bar yarn. Always making sense of what went wrong in a relationship and how to move on. Brothers was amazing in that sense and now I hear songs on this album like “How Long” and “It Ain’t Over” that are very much in the same spirit. What is it that draws The Black Keys to this?

I think it’s just our experience. It’s what happens when you’re a co-dependent musician. You’re going to end up taking a while to learn your lesson. It takes a while to figure out what you want. I’ve been married three times, I got that true rock star Wikipedia page developing there. But in reality, it just took me a long time to figure it out. My first wife was one of those stories. That’s what Brothers was all written basically based around my breakup with someone I was with for 10 years.

It’s about when you realize that you can’t be with someone after you thought that was who you were going to spend the rest of your life with. And then you realize that there’s this whole other world. Then you rush into your next thing because you’re just trying to prove to yourself that you’re not a piece of sh*t. And then of course, that’s always a bad idea too. I guess that’s why they say that third time’s the charm. But relationships and marriages are never easy. At least the good ones. I think if you find yourself in a challenging relationship, a lot of times it’s because you’re dealing with people who are vocal about what they want, and not being complacent. So you’re going to have endless material there.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that I just got married on Saturday.

Oh, dude. Congratulations! Think about the record Johnny Depp should have been writing rather than sitting there. He had the record ready to go.

Oh, man. If they only had a studio set up in that courtroom, huh?

Jesus Christ.

Dropout Boogie is out now via Nonesuch Records. Hear it here.

The Black Keys are Warner Music artists. .