How's this for a big year: In the time since they started teasing their album "El Camino," two-piece rock band the Black Keys played "Saturday Night Live" twice, sold out two nights at Madison Square Garden, headlined Coachella and scored a Cadillac commercial. By the time they gigged two evenings at Staples Center in the fall, label bosses at Warner Music Group were waiting to surprise them with platinum records for "El Camino," their seventh record.
The year culminated Wednesday night when the duo was nominated for five Grammys, including nods for album of the year and record of the year for the hit single "Lonely Boy," and singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach was nominated in the producer's category.
As evidenced by Wednesday's tally, the ragged duo from Akron, Ohio, now relocated to Nashville, has over the decade gradually risen to become one of America's biggest, and best, rock bands. Not art rock, indie rock, rap rock, punk rock, prog rock or dance rock. Rock rock.
"This has been a crazy year for us," said drummer Patrick Carney, 32, backstage before he first of the two Staples Center gigs. His basketball-player height is hidden when he hunches over his drum kit, disguising the fact that he's an imposing presence up close.
Also this year, drummer Carney blamed Nickelback for the decline of rock — and played drums on the new Kesha record. Auerbach spent time in New Orleans banging on an out-of-tune piano with Dr. John before producing one of the year's best records, Dr. John's "Locked Down." The band scored big on the fall TV season through its many song placements even as it reached a settlement with Pizza Hut and Home Depot over musical knockoffs that traded on the Black Keys' sound.
Most important for the duo, this past summer it fulfilled a lifelong dream: The band was inducted into the hall of fame of Firestone High School in Akron, Ohio, where the two met as teenagers. There, said Carney, their portrait hangs alongside fellow alumni astronaut Judy Resnick, Olympic gold medal diver Phil Boggs and singer Chrissie Hynde.
"We were always making fun of the fact that that was our main goal: To try and get on the wall of Firestone High School," said Carney, smoking a cigarette in a lounge across from the Clippers' locker room.
"I was such a bad student," said Auerbach the next night backstage, taking to heart the Firestone honor, citing it as evidence that any number of roads can lead to success. "It's not all about school. It's about following your dreams. So hopefully some kids get inspired by that and don't feel down because they suck in classes."
The odds are high they'll make that connection, based on the sold-out nights at Staples Center. The crowd consisted of fifty-something men reared on Led Zeppelin, garage rock fans connected to the Black Keys' roots in the underground and fans of commercial rock powerhouse KROQ-FM and the NFL who can chant all the words to megahit "Gold on the Ceiling."
The Black Keys' sound and attitude are just as versatile: In their jeans and leather, they look like roughnecks. Carney's jumbo black glasses suggest an artiness, while his high-profile spot onstage next to Auerbach signals that this is a partnership and not a drummer-for-hire gig. But he also has a dorky quality, something that he says he's well aware of when he finds himself at hip clubs or Hollywood Hills cocktail parties: "I'm not a cool dude. I don't have a cool outfit. I don't have, you know, an edgy thing."
The edge is in the music, and since they started working with producer Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse) in 2007, it has resulted in a beefier arena-ready sound augmented with organ-based filigree, heavy-duty shout-along choruses and surprising twists and turns. A Black Keys song has a blues logic, but a Beatles sensibility. At their best, these conflicting allegiances merge to create singalong tension.
Out front, Auerbach exudes a certain shy distance but sings about challenging love with an openness while hitting his electric guitar. He's not a wordsmith, doesn't present himself as an iconoclast like Jack White. He builds sturdy, unpretentious songs that highlight a workmanlike voice, and does so with a sound steeped in an American musical tradition he understands well.
The demographic blend of their audiences has been one of the great joys of success, said Carney when asked about adapting to arena shows from the theater and club circuit. "Looking out into the crowd is a beautiful thing to me, to see our audience, because it's so diverse. At this point, there's 14-year-old girls and 65-year-old men, and they're all hanging out, somehow drawn to the same event. It blows my mind."
When the Black Keys were coming out of Ohio in the early '00s, their aspirations were smaller. Even after the band had been touring for a few years — their first national run was as opener for Sleater-Kinney — Carney imagined a more blue-collar existence. "I thought that, realistically, selling out a 300-seat venue in Cleveland was top of the game."
The band rose in the wake of a particularly fruitful — and oft-overlooked — period in Midwest rock, when the Cleveland/Columbus/Akron axis delivered an inspired, inventive blue-collar rock sound cultivated by bands including Guided by Voices, the Bassholes, New Bomb Turks, Brainiac and Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments.
Auerbach, who is 33, married and has a daughter, describes the vibe in that insular environment as the "weird Midwestern record store nerd hate-the-world kind of thing. I don't know what it is, but it's where we're from. It seems like everybody we looked up to was the most grumpy person on the face of the Earth." Auerbach, though soft-spoken, isn't a grump.
"I'd buy anything that was from Ohio," said Carney of his regular trips to the Columbus record store Used Kids. "Because when you're from a place like that, or a town like that, you're just so impressed that somebody has a record out."
As the multiple nominations confirm, they've moved beyond that simple thrill millions of times over. The band has added touring members over the years to ratchet up their sound, but remain an efficient two-piece entity.
"They know each other so well," Carney's father, Jim Carney, said via email Thursday morning of the band's success. Jim, a writer for the Akron Beacon-Journal, flew in for the Staples Center shows. "They complement each other in so many ways. They are old friends who happen to be in a band and business together. They know all about each other and can finish each other's sentences."
He compared the sensation of the duo getting so many nominations to when the Cleveland Indians nearly went all the way in '95. "[I]t feels magical like that. Even if they don't win, they are playing in the World Series in February!"
Reached on the phone while making their way from Dusseldorf, Germany, to Nottingham, England, for more Black Keys shows, Auerbach said they were on the bus when the Grammy news arrived. "We found out when we were on the highway rolling down the road. It was amazing, really. It was fun.
"Obviously it's not why we make records, and we don't think about it while we're making a record, but it sure is nice when we get one," he said. "We won a couple last year, and it felt pretty good, I ain't gonna lie." Those 2011 trophies came for "Brothers" in the categories of best rock performance by a duo or group with vocals, and for best recording package.
Patrick Carney's enthusiasm was more tempered. He characterized one of the most prestigious nods in particular as being "a little bittersweet, in a way. When I was growing up, almost every record I ever listened to was never nominated for album of the year — but they were life-changing albums.
"When we started a band, we started it in a basement," he said. "And this is the furthest thing away from that — the Grammys."