Balancing work life and home life is a delicate task for the average person. For a touring band, the teeter-totter is all the more precarious, in the form of the twin threats of burnout and the loss of creative integrity. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys found themselves in that position after their release of Turn Blue in 2014.
“The scariest thing about being obsessed with music and then doing it for work is you run the risk of burning out or shifting gears so that everything you do is about money,” Carney says. "And it makes the one thing that I’ve been passionate about since I was 12 — it would fuck it all up for me.”
The Black Keys drummer spoke with New Times ahead of the duo's show at the BB&T Center on November 5. And it was a re-energized version of Patrick Carney, who seems to have gained additional perspective on both aspects of his life, personal and professional. Although fans may have been anxious for new music, the Akron natives needed to press pause after touring for nearly three years straight.
“It’s a weird thing, taking a break. You know, our first show, we got paid ten dollars. And our second show, we got paid zero dollars,” he says with a laugh. “And then you get to this point where everything is clicking and working on that level, but your life is just like totally chaotic. The hardest thing to do was to make the decision, like we did in 2015, to stop booking shows for a while just so we could chill out. We got to the point where we getting paid a million dollars a show.
“It was never the playing. It was the amount of playing. It got to the point where we couldn’t do anything but tour, really.”
Eventually, Auerbach and Carney put their collective foot down and said no — more to themselves than to any outside forces — and wrestled back control of their lives. They spent the time between albums on side projects, which included their own music in separate bands (the Arcs, in Auerbach's case; and Carney’s Sad Planets!), producing records, and becoming family men. In particular, Carney married singer/songwriter Michelle Branch and the pair had a son, Rhys James Carney.
His eventual marriage to Branch was one of those weird, wonderfully random things that may not have happened if the Black Keys weren’t on a break. Although Branch’s first record, The Spirit Room came out a year before the Black Keys’ The Big Come Up, her career trajectory took a frustrating turn, thanks to a journey into record-label hell. When the two met at a Grammy party, Branch told Carney her troubling tale. After listening to her new demos, he produced her well-received 2017 effort, Hopeless Romantic, and the working relationship blossomed into a more intimate personal one.
The Black Keys' recent release, titled simply Let’s Rock, is a return to the sound that lured Auerbach and Carney into this world in the first place. They’ve trimmed the fat, and the result — clean, robust riffs and melodies driven by the fundamentals of guitar, percussion, and vocals — sounds freer, and almost cathartic.
Carney says recording the new material was a fluid, natural process, right down to songs that were written on the spot. The duo tends to work fairly quickly once they’re in the studio. “Most of the time, within a couple of hours we’ll know if a song is gonna work or not,” he says, adding that the band always winds up with a trove of unfinished material, made up of stuff they simply lost interest in.
He and Auerbach were also in agreement when they decided to cut back their touring workload. They’ll do about 35 shows this time around, Carney says, as opposed to the El Camino tour, which saw them play about 120 shows in 2012.
The tour two years later in support of Turn Blue proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back — or, in the Keys' case, the drummer's shoulder: “I hurt my shoulder bad. I broke it. I pulverized it and dislocated it,” Carney says. “Which I think was, you know, a blessing in disguise. Because it’s what ultimately started putting the brakes on the band in 2015. We had to cancel a whole European and Australian tour. But I imagine if we had gone on those tours, it would have been detrimental to our mental health and to the band. Dan was really miserable. He hadn’t been able to spend time with his family.”
Carney recovered enough to finish out a summer tour. Then came the much-needed hiatus. Today, Carney says he feels no pain when playing, though he's bothered afterward by discomfort in his ribs: The body is well aware that it's back on tour.
“I can feel I’ve played 20 shows in the last month," the drummer says. "When I was a kid, I wouldn’t have been able to feel that.”
At age 39, Carney has a kid of his own. It's a role he embraces and finds gratifying on an entirely different level than selling out arenas.
“I always looked forward to being a dad. I’m glad I waited to find the right person," he says. "My biggest fear was not finding the right person and then having a kid and having to deal with that bullshit. It’s rewarding beyond my imagination — and that’s the most surprising thing. It’s like, oh yeah, it would be cool to have a kid, blah blah blah, but you realize that it’s a lot more rewarding than you can describe. And it’s all-encompassing. When I lay down in bed, I’m thinking about him, worrying about him, making sure he’s okay.
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"It’s kind of the best thing that can happen to someone being in a band," he adds. "It makes you have to grow up and put someone else before you.”
In past interviews, Carney hasn't been shy about discussing the state of the world, his fears about where his country and its culture are headed. As a dad, his concerns are more focused, but no less honest.
“I worry about my kid not having the same experience that I had. Because it’s just not gonna happen: being middle class, from the Midwest. It helped put everything in perspective for me. That’s what I worry about for my stepdaughter and my son. Will they really appreciate what the fuck they have going on for them? Understand that it's not the norm? No one wants to raise a prick.”
The Black Keys. With Modest Mouse and Shannon & the Clams. 7 p.m. Tuesday, November 5, at BB&T Center, 1 Panther Pkwy, Sunrise; 954-835-7000; thebbtcenter.com; Tickets cost $25 to $475 via ticketmaster.com.