The Black Keys: “I had the most fun on Dropout Boogie over any other record”

In Nashville, the world's biggest small band talk early days, detentions and lost fingers

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Patrick Carney, drummer for The Black Keys, is telling the story of how he nearly chopped off his finger. Sitting in the kitchen area of Easy Eye Sound Studio, he grows more and more animated as he recalls working at a health food store called the Mustard Seed back in Akron, Ohio, chopping vegetables with a crew of older guys. “I was 16, but I was able to use the knife because I lied about my age. They thought I was older than I really was. This guy walks up and shows me this little catalogue of people going at it. What the hell? I kept chopping with the knife and cut my fucking pinky off! I didn’t even realise I’d done it.”

He pauses for dramatic effect as his bandmate Dan Auerbach laughs heartily. “So the guy grabs some duct tape and tapes my finger back. Of course he does. He’s a punk rock dude. They fix everything with duct tape.” Doctors were able to reattach the finger, but Carney lost some feeling in it and had to stop playing guitar. That’s when he took up the drums.

Carney holds up his finger to show off the scar. Dressed in a grey and gold shirt, he might have a bit of white in his beard, but he’s still the class clown – the guy who developed an outgoing sense of humour to fend off bullies. By contrast, Auerbach is the quiet kid who sits in the back of the classroom, doesn’t say much, maybe doodles band logos in his notebook. He’s most expressive when he’s laughing at Carney’s jokes, and Carney is always cracking jokes. It’s a comfortable dynamic that has persisted ever since they were students back at Firestone High, but they’ve honed it through years of taking on the world as The Black Keys.

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Technically, they’re here at Easy Eye Sound to discuss their 11th studio album, the eclectic Dropout Boogie, but The Black Keys are easily distracted. The conversation constantly derails into tales of teenage hijinks, Saturdays spent in detention, old jobs, lost fingers and first concerts (AuerbachWhitney Houston; Carney Dinosaur Jr). Having recently entered their forties, they’ve both been doing a lot of reminiscing lately, especially as they’ve been getting notices about their 25th high school reunions. They don’t plan to attend – and not simply because they’ll be touring – but it’s put them in a reflective mood.

Neither of them anticipated it, but Dropout Boogie embodies that sense of nostalgia. It’s a record that’s defined by their youthful enthusiasm for rock’n’roll and rhythm & blues, that tries to buck all the pressure that comes from being one of the world’s biggest small rock bands. Opener “Wild Child” kicks up a ruckus and “It Ain’t Over” sets the stakes over a fierce groove: “You live for the thrill/You die for the dream”.

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