Patrick Carney: From ‘Bad Boy Bands’ to the Black Keys

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As one half of The Black Keys, Patrick Carney has enjoyed more success in the music industry by the age of 31 than most do in their entire careers. Since the band first formed a decade ago, they have released six full-length records, including Attack & Release, which hit the Billboard top 20, and Brothers, their most recent album, which earned three Grammy awards.

Yet as Carney describes in this interview with Opening Lines, he went through many false starts before ending up in The Black Keys, playing in several failed bands in high school, trying out multiple majors in college and working his fair share of lousy jobs after dropping out. Along the way, he’s learned why some bands make it and others fail.

“For every band I’ve seen that hasn’t been that successful, it has to do with one of three things,” Carney says. “Either they don’t work hard enough, they didn’t get a lucky break (luck plays into it a lot), or their songs just don’t appeal to that many people.”

Hard work and good songs have certainly contributed to the band’s success and if luck has been involved, it may simply be the luck of having started out in the music industry ten years ago rather than first trying to make it right now.

“I do think it’d be harder to make it now even if we had the same drive we did when we were 22,” he said. “It used to be that if you got a write-up in Spin magazine or Rolling Stone or Magnet, those were the big publications and once you got there, that was it. But now you have to give credibility to all the music blogs that are run by one or two people with very specific tastes.”

In this interview, Carney speaks candidly with Opening Lines about how he got peer pressured into playing drums in high school, his lowest point while in The Black Keys and why he thinks hiring a lawyer could just be a band’s secret to making it big.

Opening Lines: When did you first get interested in music?

Carney: My dad played me Beatles records and things like that as a kid, but I know the first thing that really made me get obsessed with music was in 6th grade when my dad played me Jimmy Hendrix, and the song “Purple Haze” in particular. Within the next few months, my dad introduced me to Led Zeppelin II, and it was around that time that Nirvana’s Nevermind came out.

The following year some of my friends started playing music, so I wanted to play music as well. I asked my dad for an electric guitar, and he got me one for Christmas in 7th grade. I took lessons for a year, but I’m pretty impatient so all I wanted to do was learn particular riffs. I can play the guitar now but I never really got an understanding of how it worked and got good at it.
I was always pissed off throughout high school because every band I would start would break up but then my friends had this one serious band the whole time that I wasn’t allowed in.

OL: How did you go from playing guitar to playing the drums then?

Carney: Well I wanted to start bands with friends but none of us could drive and haul equipment to my house. I got a part-time job washing dishes in high school, saved up money and I bought a cheap drum set for $150 and a shitty Cassio keyboard from the early 80s and a four trak, so I had everything we needed to start a band in my house. But then I realized that every single person I knew played guitar, and I wasn’t even that good at it, so I got forced into playing drums cause I had a set.

OL: Just out of curiosity, did you ever maybe consider singing instead?

Carney: I have an intense fear of singing. I’ve never really tried but I just don’t think I can do that.

OL: Fair enough. So what kind of bands did you join during high school?

Carney: Mostly what we were doing was starting bad boy bands and watching lots of Sonic Youth concerts on DVD. We believed we could compensate for not being great by making lots of noise.

One band, we called the Deprogrammers, and we kind of rotated instruments. Another band was called Example Figure 3. We would book shows at this DIY spot in Kent, Ohio, where all the 22-year old bands were playing. We’d drive out there when we were 16, and maybe play one or two shows, and then we’d lose interest and we’d start another band two weeks later. It was like the same six people over and over, and I was in maybe four bands. But I was always pissed off throughout high school because every band I would start would break up but then my friends had this one serious band the whole time that I wasn’t allowed in.

OL: I know that you and Dan [Auerbach, singer/guitarist for the Black Keys] both grew up in Akron, Ohio, but did you play music together at all during this period, or was it only after college that you started?

Carney:  Dan and I were sort of playing off and on occasionally, starting in the summer of ‘97. We would get together and play once every two months. But it was really later when I came back home from college to live my parents and Dan was living with his parents too that we decided to play music. We both hated our friends who moved away to school and we were bored. Dan had a regular gig at the time playing cover songs, and he was the only guy I knew who could sing. So we officially decided to start the band in 2000.

OL: Just to take a quick step back, why did you decide to drop out of college?

Carney: I went to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for four or five months and I started a band with an older painter down there who liked a lot of the same bands, and we made a few tapes. Originally I wanted to study photography but I didn’t want to take pictures of cheeseburgers my whole life. Then I wanted to get into photo-journalism but I couldn’t get into the right programs. So I switched to the University of Akron and did five semesters there, but I was still a freshman because I kept changing my major. I took a few philosophy classes and studied medieval philosophy but decided I hated it. Then I took a few art classes and a general music class, but I ended up dropping out of school for the spring semester of 2002, and Dan had already dropped out.

For the first 6 or 7 years of the band existing, I didn’t think there was much in the way of security because everything in this industry can be so fickle. I thought I’d need a backup plan but there were really no other options for what I wanted to do.

OL: By this point, The Black Keys had technically been around for two years, but you hadn’t put out a record yet, so what did you do to make ends meet when you were out of school for good?

Carney: During the winters at college I worked at a restaurant flipping burgers and making pizzas, and during the summers I mowed lawns. After I dropped out, I kept working at the restaurant job and mowing lawns, while Dan and I started making a record. The record came out on May 14, 2002, we went on tour in mid-July and I haven’t had a job since then.

OL: Obviously you had been in your fair share of bands before this, so did you do anything different early on with The Black Keys to get some more attention for the material you were working on?

Carney: Well, I’d sent a bunch of tapes out to people in the past about other projects, but this was the first time that we were trying to get a label that actually had some kind of decent distribution. We were pretty aware of what labels we could find so we didn’t pursue big labels for the first album because we didn’t think we could get noticed by them.

OL: Did the money start rolling in pretty quickly after the first record came out and you went on tour, or did you still have to struggle a bit to get by?

Carney: We came back from that first tour and had a couple hundred bucks each from the few weeks of basically killing ourselves touring, but I’d rather do that than have a shitty job not doing what I wanted to do.

OL: I think for a lot of aspiring musicians, there’s a perception that once you put out a record, you’re suddenly on solid ground financially as well as artistically. When did you really start to feel comfortable in the band’s future and your own?

Carney: I think for the first 6 or 7 years of the band existing, I didn’t think there was much in the way of security because everything in this industry can be so fickle. I thought for a long time that I would need a backup plan but there were really no other options for what I wanted to do.

When we first started out, there were just two of us, then we hired a booking agent, and then a manger and then a lawyer, and things kept growing. The scariest time for me financially in the band was fall of 2004, we had just had Rubber Factory come out. We went on a tour of Europe for  five weeks and didn’t make a single dollar because we had grown to have a manager and lawyer but the income from the shows didn’t increase.

OL: With all that in mind, if you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice for your music career, what would it be?

Carney: When a lot of bands, including ours, are first starting out – and especially when the members are young – they feel they don’t need to trust or rely on anybody else’s advice. I know we kind of went out on a limb a lot of times and did things completely the opposite of what we should have done. It worked for us but there’s definitely been some ups and downs.

If somebody is in a band and they think it’s something special, they should get a lawyer. Never sell yourself short. Lawyers play a couple different roles: lawyers will shop your album around and they have relationships in the industry. And there are a lot of good music lawyers. It’s harder to get hooked up with a good music manager early on, but a lawyer can play the same role and they’re easier to find.

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