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Success hasn't changed the Black Keys' tune

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THE Black Keys are one of the biggest bands in North America today, but things are still low-key for Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, according to the former.

"It's essentially the same," the vocalist-guitarist says over the phone from St. Louis. "It's the two of us in the studio, kind of just improvising and coming up with stuff and seeing what sticks. Usually the first thought is generally the best thought.

"That's why our records are spontaneous and different. We don't do demos: we just get in there and do it."

Not demo-ing new material came from a lack of money when the duo started out in Akron, Ohio, in 2001. Studio time costs money, so the band's first two albums were recorded on an eight-track tape recorder in Carney's basement.

These days, the duo could afford to record demos, but why fix what's not broken?

"It's the way we've always operated," Auerbach says.

Not that there haven't been changes. Over the years the duo has evolved from a bare-bones, garagey blues duo to a genre-busting band incorporating elements of soul, funk, fuzz-pop and classic rock into their sound.

The band's musical growth has coincided with its popularity. The Black Keys won three Grammy Awards last year on the strength of the 2010 album Brothers, and since then the band has moved from theatres to arenas, appeared on television shows like Saturday Night Live and The Colbert Report and gone from festival side stages to the main stage. This year they even headlined the Friday night at Coachella, one of the largest music festivals in the United States, and sold out two nights at Madison Square Gardens.

"It's certainly taken a jump in the last year; the last two. It has felt steady: we've slowly gone from under-50-seat rooms to theatres to arenas. It gets to a certain point where it doesn't matter if it's 6,000 or 17,000 -- it's a lot of people," Auerbach says with a laugh. "You can never aim for this, and to have it happen takes luck and chance and timing and somehow it happened for us. We didn't have to whore ourselves or change what we do, not really.

"We've certainly changed, but it's been a natural progression. I think we both feel very fortunate where we're at and where we got to doing what we do."

The next stop on their journey is a western Canadian arena tour with British indie-rock group the Arctic Monkeys that hits the MTS Centre on Monday (which happens to be Auerbach's 33rd birthday if the Internet isn't lying.) Tickets are $45.50 and $68 at Ticketmaster.

The band was just here last summer, but is supporting its latest release, El Camino, which has gone platinum in Canada with sales of 110,000 since being released in December.

The success hasn't come overnight.

Auerbach and drummer Carney, 32, grew up in the same neighbourhood and attended the same high school, but were a grade apart and didn't hang out. They formed the band in 2001 when they were both out of high school, recorded their first albums in Carney's basement and toured in a 1994 Plymouth Grand Voyageur, similar to the one on the cover of El Camino (the photo of a used van on an album named after a car is nothing but a joke).

The band famously turned down £200,000 to have one of its songs appear in a mayonnaise commercial in 2003, but since then, its music has been used in more than 300 commercials, televisions shows, movies and video games, so people who say they don't know the Black Keys have probably heard the music somewhere.

The band's deals were even the subject of a "sell-out-off" on the Colbert report in January 2011, with the Black Keys up against the Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koeing. Host Stephen Colbert declaring a tie, proclaiming, "Clearly, you have equally whored out your music."

It was all tongue-in-cheek and both bands were good sports about it. The Black Keys returned to the show the day El Camino was released.

"Colbert's a whole different beast. You have to know when you go in there you're going to be made fun of. They tell you that ahead of time. They suggest we try not to be funny because you'll never be as funny as him," Auerbach says.

Another recent highlight for Auerbach was producing New Orleans legend Dr. John's new album, Locked Down, released April 3 to widespread acclaim.

"It was amazing working with him," he says. "He was just, I don't know, he's a gem musically and he's just a complete character. He still had some fire and wanted to make a really good record. I think we accomplished our goal."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2012 E9

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