How the Black Keys Finally Broke Through With ‘Brothers’
The Black Keys appeared poised for breakthrough success with their 2008 album, Attack & Release — and two years later, they delivered on that promise in a big way.
Brothers, the band's sixth LP, arrived May 18, 2010, the culmination of a long journey that had taken guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney from humble beginnings recording in abandoned buildings to their first hints of worldwide stardom. But before they could finish the album, they had to face a long list of setbacks that nearly destroyed their partnership, including bad blood surrounding Carney's contentious divorce.
"I really hated her from the start and didn't want anything to do with her," Auerbach later said of Carney's ex-wife, explaining to Rolling Stone how the tension between the duo became almost unmanageable during the months leading into the Brothers sessions. "We were probably both being uncommunicative. But the circumstances that were surrounding all of that were just making everything worse."
Also complicating things was Auerbach's decision to release a solo album, 2009's Keep It Hid, without telling Carney it would be coming out — something that didn't sit well with the drummer. But after therapy, a divorce and a recommitment to the band, both Black Keys were completely on board as they set about recording the new album with engineer/co-producer Mark Neill, who'd helped guide Keep It Hid to completion.
It was Neill's familiarity and fascination with vintage equipment that had put him on Auerbach's radar — and those qualities made him the perfect steward for Brothers, which was partly recorded at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. The only problem? Muscle Shoals didn't technically exist as a studio anymore.
"It had been turned into a museum and hadn't been a fully functioning studio for over 30 years — it was basically a place to walk through and say, 'Wow, this is where it all happened,'" Neill told Sound on Sound. "We were getting nothing but an empty building ... If we'd gotten out of there with nothing more than five finished backing tracks without vocals, that would have been considered a major accomplishment."
Getting the studio up and running took some effort. Neill told Rock'n'Reel that he had to put plexiglass over the console so he could put a functional one on top of it — and Auerbach admitted that the building's reverential atmosphere made it emotionally difficult to get anything done at first.
Finding the walls covered with pictures of the legendary artists who'd recorded at Muscle Shoals in years gone by, Auerbach admitted, "I had to get the guy to take them down. I didn't want to feel like I was recording in a museum. The room used to be carpeted and it had burlap walls, which helped create the sound, but that's all gone. It's just the skeleton of what it was, an old cinder block building."
Watch the Black Keys' 'Tighten Up' Video
Happily, the trio's risks started paying off as soon as tape rolled on the first session. "Things were happening that were very, very transcendent, as soon as they began playing," Neill told Sound on Sound. "First few takes, we literally couldn't believe what we were hearing. Dan and Pat were kind of looking at each other saying, 'That doesn't even sound like us.' Seriously."
By this point, what the Black Keys sounded like had changed a bit. Attack & Release found them moving beyond their basement-born garage rock to experiment with a more layered and varied approach courtesy of producer Danger Mouse, who returned to man the boards for the Brothers single "Tighten Up." "He understands all the different kinds of music we’re into," Auerbach told Spin. "He’s got really great ideas about melody and song structure. For him it’s all about the song."
At the time of their first collaboration, Danger Mouse was chiefly known for his hip-hop background, and his involvement came as something of a surprise to a segment of the Black Keys' fan base. But 2009's Blakroc project had found Auerbach and Carney working alongside a variety of rap MCs, so they were more than just the blues revivalists that many listeners expected. Calling the Blakroc record "spring training" for Brothers, Auerbach told Interview that they "listened to a lot of hip-hop while we recorded this album. Some of our new material literally rips off hip-hop songs."
He stressed that point further during an interview with the Guardian, shrugging off a question comparing the Brothers track "Next Girl" to Muddy Waters: "When I listen to our records, I don't hear blues music. It's ridiculous to say we play blues music. It's weird because we ripped off a hip-hop song, directly. We do that and you think it's a blues song."
Despite the emotional and logistical obstacles that cropped up after Attack & Release, and regardless of the project's various strands of musical DNA, Brothers captured a reinvigorated Black Keys. "Having finished [the previous LP] and toured for two years, we came into this one as stronger musicians," Carney told Interview. "We could see more clearly how to complete a song, how to achieve a desired effect without overdoing it."
It achieved a significant commercial effect as well, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and spinning off a pair of gold-selling singles in "Tighten Up" and "Howlin' for You." Neither track was particularly cut out for pop radio, but the Black Keys found crossover inroads through other means – most notably with an array of commercial-licensing deals. In the end, the LP that might never have been made — and started out being recorded in a gutted Alabama landmark — sold more than a million copies and won three Grammy awards.
Subsequent efforts have continued to build on that success: El Camino peaked at No. 2 in 2011, and three years later, Turn Blue gave the Black Keys their first No. 1 album. But while they'd been around for roughly a decade by the time it was released, Brothers marked one of the more critical turning points in the band's career.
"What Pat and I learned from making this album was that it doesn't matter where we record," Auerbach told Rock'n'Reel. "A basement, a big studio, a cinder-block building in Muscle Shoals – we can make it happen anywhere. Already we've seen bands come and go and it's amazing to us that we're still surviving and we're selling more records, playing to bigger audiences than ever. It's just wild to us, because we're just two complete knuckleheads."