Dan Auerbach, right, and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys. (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)
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.
GRAMMYS 2013: Top nominees | Snubs & surprises | Nominations concert | Complete list | Full coverage
"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."