BY ANDREW LENTZ, PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICK MALKIN
Drummers might pat themselves on the back after mastering complicated licks, odd-time signatures, and multi-accessory speed fills, but technical razzle-dazzle won’t amount to a hill of beans if no one is around to hear it. That’s the first, and apparently, only lesson Patrick Carney got after being forced into the drum chair in the earliest stages of his band’s career, and it’s paid off handsomely. When Carney and guitarist Dan Auerbach began bashing out their primitive blooz-rock in an Akron, Ohio basement 15 years ago, the duo never dreamed they would one day go two-times platinum, have its songs featured on TV’s top-rated shows, and in 2010 alone, snag three Grammys.
“I wanted to be a guitar player,” confesses Carney in a sleepy voice from a hotel room in Seattle. Good thing he’s in the city that invented the triple latte — any drummer who starts an interview in our magazine with that sentence needs to smell the coffee. The occasion is a one-off performance celebrating the opening of a Microsoft store, and then it’s off to Europe for some promotional craziness.
Carney has come a long way from the Rubber City, not to mention his teenage dreams of six-string heroism. The Black Keys’ steadily upward-sloping career trajectory is apt to spike again with the release El Camino. Here’s the thing though: Carney admits he still can’t play a very consistent beat.
He also doesn’t care.
Besides being the Keys’ seventh and best album, El Caminoproves that chops not only aren’t everything, they’re oftentimes the enemy of success. So how did a rudiment-shunning scofflaw not sweat the technique? By transcending it.
In case we haven’t been 100 percent clear, the nuggets of wisdom herein are part of The Black Keys’ story. By no means is Carney saying his approach is orthodox or sanctioned or anything close to proper. However, if it works for a rock and roll loving Everydude from a broke-down Midwest berg, maybe it can work for you, too.
1. BE ENTERTAINING
When Carney and Auerback first started making records, Carney could barely keep time. The minimal, simple drum parts that he played were nothing more than pure imitation of his and the guitarist’s musical favorites, which ran from the cave-man art-rock of Captain Beefheart and, on an even more simplistic level, Wu-Tang Clan. “The samples that RZA would pull were so basic,” Carney says. “It’s so accessible for drummers that are just starting out.”
He eventually got it together enough to be able to perform in front of an audience, the occasion of which was so momentous the date of its occurrence, March 20, 2002, has been seared into his brain. There were probably 15 people who showed up, about a third of whom were aspiring rocker friends of his. “I remember getting off stage and just expected my friends who were musicians to make fun of me. But they all said it was a good show,” he recalls, still surprised. “So I slowly started to not really worry about whether or not I was as good as another drummer, but rather worry about if I thought my parts were interesting enough. We learned through the process that technical proficiency almost never plays a role in how good something is, except for singing. I think singing is the most important. If you can’t sing you’re not going to have a band. But if you can’t play the drums that well or the guitar that well, you can still have a band.”
It’s a strikingly black-and-white declaration from a guy whose whole aesthetic is more or less fudging it when you don’t know what to do. Singing drummers are often a necesssary evil for two-piece bands since they must do more with less, but to this day Carney refuses to do backing vocals.
“I can’t sing … or I won’t,” he clarifies. “If I could really sing maybe I’d consider it. Also, there are very few times I want to see a drummer sing.”
2. SURRENDER TO THE POWER
If you’ve seen The Black Keys live or watched their YouTube videos, you know that Carney is the proverbial hard hitter. He wasn’t always that way, which is evident in any clip prior to 2003.
The turning point came when The Black Keys were invited to London for a label showcase on the eve of the release for second album Thickfreakness. “I was just completely terrified,” he recalls of that night at the Camden Barfly. “For some reason I decided right then and there that it would be in my best interest to hit the drums a lot harder. So that show, I just decided to do it. And then I just never was able to not do it.”
Any instructor worth his 25 bucks an hour will tell you that power should not originate from nervousness. Strength should come from a relaxed and controlled place. But once Carney got over the stage fright and established a preference for the hard-hitting mode, he was able to see beyond the adrenaline. “There’s something that happens when you hit the drums harder other than, obviously, the drums are louder,” he says, pointing out that by the time you reach a certain-size venue it doesn’t matter how hard you hit the drums because the P.A. is doing most of the work anyway. “The thing that I realized that happens is you’re exerting yourself a lot more, and you start thinking about your surroundings a lot less. And because of that, for me at least, I end up thinking more about the music and the nuances within the music. It creates a much larger dynamic range.”
Ah, the “D” word. Now that’s vintage Keys: rollercoastering volume, cymbal crescendos, fluctuating time, flubbed licks, imperfect but awesome accents — all the sumptuous nooks and crannies of Carney’s approach. “We’re a two-piece band,” he continues. “You’re not going to have really high ups or really low downs. It’s in that in-between [part] then that I think you’re at an advantage. So then, once I figured out where [in the sound spectrum] we lived, it all kind of made sense to me the way I play.”
3. USE YOUR MUSE
Another epiphany for Carney was when he first viewed a concert film of Black Sabbath playing the Olympia Theater in Paris in 1970 and watching Bill Ward work his magic on that 4-piece Ludwig. “If somebody could’ve shown me that when I was 15, I would’ve thought a lot differently about the drums,” he says. “I would’ve given up on the guitar a lot sooner. [laughs] You see certain people play and I think it puts the drums in a whole different light. It isn’t about keeping time and it isn’t about just being there for necessity. It’s part of the band. It can be a lead instrument.”
The Keys’ onstage dynamic — a musical interlocking of horns — is a dirty-funk telepathy. So it’s surprising to learn that despite the duo sharing a few favorite bands, Auerbach didn’t know Led Zeppelin or any of the British blues that Carney had dug since his teens. Both dudes’ listening habits have broadened in their years as a band and that is reflected in the music. Take the El Camino track “Sister” which has a driving beat so clean and wide you could drive a truck through it. “Every time I hear it I think of ‘Billie Jean,’” he says. The beat Ndugu Chancler supplied on Michael Jackson’s massive hit will always be cool, but Carney admits that even “Eye Of The Tiger” by one-hit-wonder Survivor was a kind of inspiration. “My favorite thing lately is, like, kind of rock revivalism in the ’70s, which was basically what glam-rock was,” he continues, naming T. Rex, The Stooges, and Bowie. “That’s basically ’50s rock with a much more prominent beat.”
Buddy Holly glasses and Ludwig reissue kit notwithstanding, Carney’s approach is not about being retro. It’s about cherry-picking from the best grooves of the last 60 years and discarding the rest. “Like prog and metal drummers,” he says. “I don’t listen to any of that music. I don’t care about how fast anyone can hit a kick drum or any of that crap. In my mind there are one or two drummers that are absolutely amazing and it’s, like, Bill Ward and John Bonham. After that there’s no point to try to be the best, because the best has already been done. It’s just a matter of trying to be as interesting as you can without getting in the way of the song.”
4. LET THE MUSIC BE YOUR GUIDE
Just when you thought the bare-bones Carney couldn’t get any barer, he has stripped down his approach to near-naked levels these days. His seat-of-the-pants, rough-hewn, sloppily coloring-outside-the-lines style was a work-in-progress that climaxed in 2010. “Brothers was me being able to unload whatever I wanted to on the record, always kind of going for a minimal-but-also-funky, I guess, type of style. Something that felt loose but tight. And this new record, it was the complete opposite. It’s much more straight up and down.
“In a lot of ways, I think that this record has some of the most simplistic beats we’ve ever used. So it was like a challenge for me to play as simply as possible but to try to make it interesting. And make it something that’s enjoyable as a drummer. Because, you know, lots of drummers want to really play whenever they get a chance.”
Now that he made the decision to play straighter and cleaner than on previous records, his natural pace and sense of swing didn’t jibe with the new songs in their early stages. As a matter of fact, on El Camino’s demos, the drums sounded like they were played in half time, so Carney had to subdivide and play faster to accommodate the new vibe. “My natural tempo, like, when I want to record drums, it’ll lie between 85 beats per minute and 110, you know? But usually 92 is kind of where I like to play. And most of [El Camino’s] stuff is around 125–130. We wanted it to be faster paced. You know, more of a rock album. Something less moody. On Brothers I think there’s a lot of that kind of slow dramatic kind of stuff. But [El Camino] we wanted it to move right along and be the kind of record that you can put on at a party.”
5. DON’T LET THE DRUMS PLAY YOU
When The Black Keys first started, Carney was just using a hi-hat, snare, kick, and a crash. In 2002 he finally added a floor tom while recording debut The Big Come Up. On that album there were two cover songs — blues standard “Leavin’ Trunk” and Junior Kimbrough’s “Do The Rump” — that he wanted to approach using the floor tom like hats. Problem was, using his right hand on the floor tom open-handed didn’t feel right. “Trying to do eighth-notes and different patterns was really difficult, so I moved it on the other side,” he explains. “Then it felt more like a hi-hat than a floor tom.”
After a couple of months of playing that way, the left hand effectively became the floor-tom hand and the catalyst for enticing beat novelty. “It’s a completely different feel because my right hand is more connected to my right foot I guess, so if played the [left] floor with my right hand it will be more on top of the beat.”
This way of thinking about drums and switching hands can really mix up the feels. On “Howlin’ For You” he crosses over with his right hand to play the left floor tom like a hi-hat. On “No Trust” from Thickfreakness, however, he’s open-handed, so that the pulse is more or less eighth-notes divided between the left hand on the left floor and the right hand whacking the snare hoop (but the snare proper on the 2). “It’s more off,” he says. “More along with the snare than it is with the kick, so it’s a weirder pattern.”
The larger point is that too few drums have never been an obstacle to tasty beats. Matter of fact, Carney didn’t start using a mounted tom until 2004, after the Keys put out their third record Rubber Factory. It’s been an excess of drums ever since. “About four years ago I bought one of the Ludwig ‘Bonham’ reissue kits, so I had two floor toms, so I just put the 18″ on my right-hand side just because I had it. I actually use it very, very little. I only play it on three or four songs, and just for brief moments.”
Note that stylistic evolution is possible despite — pffft, because of — having less drums and cymbals in one’s face. Don’t be surprised if in the future Carney pares down the setup even more. “There’s almost no rack tom on the whole record [El Camino]. The only song I think I really used the rack on is a couple fills on ‘Dead And Gone’ and ‘Little Black Submarine,’ and maybe ‘Mind Eraser.’ But for the most part I’m only really using hi-hat, kick, snare, crash, and floor tom.”
6. LEARN TO UNLEARN
This type of negative capability is usually prescribed for players whose creativity has been stifled by chronic sight reading and institutional dogma. But it also applies to a blood ‘n’ guts player such as Carney, who became more solid by letting go of the compulsion to overcompensate for a lack of chops — a tendency exacerbated by the fact that the Keys are a two-piece and he is responsible for filling 50 percent of the songs’ space without the benefit of backing vocals. “It’s just ten years of playing and finally getting comfortable enough and confident enough to play something that isn’t trying to be flashy or trying to be different or all dramatic.”
Drums Ludwig Classic Maple (Gold Sparkle)
1 24″ x 18″ Bass Drum
2 14″ x 6.5″ Black Beauty Snare Drum
3 13″ x 10″ Tom (in snare basket)
4 18″ x 16″ Floor Tom
5 16″ x 16″ Floor Tom
A 14″ Signature Hi-Hat (with Sound Edge bottom)
B 18″ 2002 Crash
C 22″ 2002 Ride
Patrick Carney also uses a Ludwig Black Magic snare drum and Ludwig hardware, Tama Iron Cobra bass drum pedal, DW 5000 series hi-hat and cymbal stands, Remo heads (PS3 on toms and bass; Ambassador X on snare), Vic Firth 5A sticks, Paiste Giant Beat cymbals, and LP cowbell.
The hopped-up vibe of El Camino called for mostly clean, straightforward beats. Problem was straight eighth-notes were counterintuitive for a player who thrived on spontaneity and emotion. “When I sit down with a drum set and want to just play just to play, it’s similar to something like “Go Getter” [from Brothers]. That’s kind of more where I play from, stumbl-y and stutter-y. Like a s__tty version of ’70s African funk. That’s what I play like when I’m just playing, not recording or in the band. So then it just so happens that when we made this record, it’s like the first time I actually was capable of playing drums like a traditional rock band would have.”
The uptempo propulsion of “Sister” is a perfect example of this cut-and-dry approach. “That’s a really, really basic drum beat,” he says. “I mean, it’s probably appeared in, like, 25,000 songs [in pop history]. Doing something like that, you try to make it your own if you can, maybe move into the bridge and into the chorus in a way that breaks up the familiarity of the beat.”
Most of El Camino’s beats are immediate and concrete, whether it’s the no-fuss chop of “Mind Eraser,” the boogaloo of “Stop Stop” or the percolating train on “Gold On The Ceiling.” In many ways the increasingly spare yet rich and full sounding style of the drumming has been a process of subtraction. In The Black Keys’ earlier days the slower blues-ier stuff was something Carney approached with his gut, not worrying about whether it was correct or not. “Lonely Boy”’s straight shuffle which Carney admits he could never truly play before, demonstrates his joy at a rediscovery of the essentials. “We have, like, 110 songs or something since we’ve been a band and I’ve never used that beat before. And it’s one of the easiest beats to play. I think that for a lot of things we are almost like a band in reverse.”
7. DIY TILL YOU DIE
We asked the self-taught Carney whether there was anything about his approach that he would like to improve. He mentions a few types of fills and time signatures, and when pressed, that he would not be opposed to taking a lesson. But you can tell he’s not serious and that he’ll do no such thing. “I’m kind of stubborn and have this attention-deficit problem to the point where I find that I learn the best if I just kind of figure it out on my own, you know? Listen to what other people are doing and pay attention to that and just kind of try to break the code myself. I have to learn hands-on.”
That philosophy is applied broadly to The Black Keys’ career: deciding what label to sign with, when to put out records, how to record, and so on. “That’s the most fun being in a band, actually, is when you are completely in control of everything as far as the creative side and the decision making and stuff,” he says. “It’s kind of a trip.”
The refreshing thing about speaking with Carney is that you get straight talk instead of glib statements about practicing six hours a day and committing Stick Control to memory. “I’m not a very good drummer,” he says as we wrap up our hour together. “But that’s the thing: Kids that were in my high school jazz band were focused on being good. They weren’t focused on being creative, and none of those guys ever became musicians. And then all of my friends who are musicians, they were never focused on being the best.”
The Keys’ drummer never claimed to be a role model and never will. But something about the institutionalization of the rhythmic urge and drum pedagogy in general rubs him the wrong way. “Sometimes when you read magazines like Guitar Player or whatever and a lot of the musicians are focused on being the best and going to the Berklee School Of Music and doing all these things, that’s one route,” he says. “But the teach-yourself, have-fun route is also a viable route. I recommend that route.”