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