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Patrick Carney doesn't believe in reunions either, so the Black Keys are back after a break

Chicago Tribune • Sep 30, 2019 at 1:00 PM

Before the members pressed "pause" in 2015, blues-rock duo the Black Keys were one of the most successful rock 'n' roll bands in a world no longer very hospitable to rock 'n' roll bands.

But Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, who began playing music together as teenagers in Akron, Ohio, were burned out and exhausted from almost 14 nonstop years of touring and recording. In August 2015, they played a show in San Francisco that Carney secretly feared would be their last, and went on an indefinite hiatus.

During the break, Carney married singer-songwriter Michelle Branch, with whom he has a 1-year-old son. He's still trying to figure out how fatherhood will change the Black Keys' backstage vibe, which was never that interesting, anyway. "It's going to make things different," he said. "Our touring has always been kind of mellow in terms of after the show. I think the thing that's going to be different is missing him."

Carney and Auerbach, who now live in Nashville, Tenn., reunited last year, and this June released "Let's Rock," their first album in five years. In a recent phone interview, Carney explained how the Black Keys got their groove back.

Q: How is the — I shouldn't say the reunion — how's the reboot going?

A: Yeah, not the reunion. I don't believe in reunions. When something's done, it should be done. Looking at some of our peers like Vampire Weekend or Arcade Fire, it's pretty normal for a band to take three and four years off, which is essentially what we did. It's unusual for us because we've never done it before. We got to this point where, it wasn't that we needed a break from each other, or that we needed a break from making music together, we needed to figure out how to do the band in a way that wasn't going to completely dominate our lives. In the best possible way, the band totally dominated our lives from 2010 to 2015. It was one of the most amazing experiences I'll ever go through, I'm sure, second to becoming a father. But it became pretty unsustainable. When we'd turn in an album ... it was almost like a penalty, we'd be sentenced to a year on the road. It was like we were shell-shocked. We were not looking forward to things we had to do.

Q: To work so hard to get there and not enjoy it must be a bad feeling.

A: I enjoyed every show. The shows weren't a problem for me, it was more for Dan. I think he had two children by the time we played our last show. I understood. I stood by it. At times it was frustrating for me, but I feel like that's just part of the relationship, just to be supportive. Let him figure out what he needs. And I had an opportunity to get what I needed, and get some real perspective on life. Then we started talking more and more, texting more and more, and wanting to make music together. Since that first time back in the studio, which was early September last year, we've been talking more and more. We talk every day, and text multiple times a day. We're back into a healthy friendship.

Q: As you're playing your last show in San Francisco, is there a part of you that's wondering if you're going to play another?

A: Oh yeah. Absolutely. It was actually more of a superstition. It was the first time we'd played a show without anything else on the books. I just started thinking about how many bands had broken up in that city. The Beatles, the Sex Pistols, the Band. I made a long list.

Q: You don't know what's waiting for you when you come back. Streaming is changing everything, rock is changing.

A: During the time off I've been working on music, producing and paying attention to all this stuff, so when it came time to do this record, I was really aware of what was happening. Ultimately I haven't even looked at the record sales. It's no longer a statistic that interests me, because it's not an accurate representation of how many people are enjoying someone's music.

Q: If he hadn't texted you to get back together, would you have texted him? Somebody's gotta make the first move.

A: Well, I was the one that made the first move. I'm a much better communicator than Dan (laughs). Ultimately, he's the one who said he wanted to make a record. I talked to him and told him many times to take your time and do what you need to do, and if he wants to make a record, I'm down.

Q: He's said that during the hiatus he would forget about the Black Keys for long periods of time, and that playing arenas seemed like a distant dream he'd had. Can you relate to that feeling?

A: There's a lot of stuff that we've done over the years that seems like a dream, to be honest. Some of it seems really present, like it was yesterday. We've experienced quite a lot. The more traumatizing shows, the scarier ones, definitely seem like a dream. ... The thing about the arena shows is they're hard to remember sometimes. It is kind of a dreamlike experience, because it's this big, huge, black empty space that's cavernous. It feels like you're in a dream. If you're onstage at, like, the Abbey Pub or the Empty Bottle, you can picture (everyone's face), and remember how freezing cold it was.

Q: Assuming you can do it on your own terms, is it easy to see doing this down the road?

A: Absolutely. I think it's unsustainable if we try to have hits for a long time. The reason why we had hits on the radio is probably more to do with the way that radio was willing to receive our music. If we were to try to write a song (to get on the radio), the time has probably passed. Once you start realizing that kind of stuff, and you start taking control back of your own destiny, like, how much time do you want to spend on the road, you can sustain it for as long as you want.

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