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Not far from the blues-rock duo's studio inside a toxic old rubber factory in an Akron, Ohio, slum, Lockheed Martin is building high-altitude surveillance airships -- battle blimps -- in the Airdock, one of the largest structures in the world without interior supports.
"It's a new place in town to get in trouble," says drummer Patrick Carney. "And I know there's really weird shit in there."
Carney and singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach couldn't resist snooping around the landmark building to take pictures for their new album, named Rubber Factory after the place where they mixed and recorded it. And they almost made it right past the security booth. "I told [the guard] we were going to a birthday party, and she was seriously about to just let us go into the building," says Carney.
So the Black Keys didn't end up sneaking into the military contractor's plant after all, but at least they got a shot of the Airdock, which shows up on the album cover in a photo collage of warehouses and run-down buildings, an old church and piles of tires. Hovering over the horizon of this cityscape pastiche are four giant blimps, as fat and round as bombs.
Rubber Factory, the band's third full-length release, gets more than just its name from Akron's industrial decay. The CD's insert looks like an old "Operations Manual" with song lyrics scribbled out on "Shift Notes." Auerbach's soulful groans and lonely serenades echo the pain of a city that saw drastic decline as a Midwestern rubber manufacturing capital in the late '70s. His raw, fuzzed-out guitar squeals with rage and loss. And Carney's stark drumming pounds onward like feet hitting crumbling pavement. It's blues so guttural, so down-and-dirty that the Black Keys must've absorbed the Akron grime straight through their pores.
Holing themselves up to record in an actual rubber factory might've had something to do with that. "We'd both have full-blown cancer if we lived there. There's completely weird particles floating around the studio and the hallways. It's like the old R&D lab for General Tire," says Carney. "The building itself is like the size of a city block and is three stories tall. And nobody occupies it except for somebody that burns stuff below us, and somebody else that melts stuff. We were in there about a month and a half before we started recording. And the more I think about it, we both felt sick the whole time we were recording it, inhaling this disgusting shit. That's probably why there's so many slow songs on our new record, because we were being poisoned."
Before this, the Black Keys' style was more sudden death than gradual demise. Carney and Auerbach grew up around the corner from each other and played together on and off through high school, but never seriously tried to start a band. Both went to college and dropped out, and hadn't played together in about a year and a half when Auerbach called Carney about starting something up. They made three demo tapes within days, and soon after got a record deal to make The Big Come-Up, which debuted on the Alive label in 2002. Outdoing their swift leap into the spotlight, they recorded their second album, 2003's thickfreakness (on Fat Possum/Epitaph), in one marathon session, and mixed it the following day.
Carney's voice oozes subtle but mischievous delight as he reminisces about the major label frenzy surrounding the Black Keys before they signed to Fat Possum. "Basically, Fat Possum offered us a record deal, and we decided to wait before we signed it. Within a matter of weeks, Sire and DreamWorks and Warner Bros. were all calling us, and Seymour Stein [the founder of Sire] flew out to see us play," he says. "It was pretty interesting playing to like 150 people in Cleveland, and then the guy who signed Madonna standing there in the front row."
So they didn't bite the major label lure. But these guys seem to shun the obvious anyway. Like how instead of finding an established director for their first music video, they asked David Cross, the cult fave comedian from HBO's Mr. Show, to direct "10 A.M. Automatic." Filmed like it's an Ohio Public Access show, the video starts off with a rabbi host reading scripture before introducing the Black Keys to an elderly audience. At one point, one of the awestruck old ladies walks toward the band like she's ready to hug them, and two beefy security guards force her back into her seat. "I don't think [Cross has] done a video before," says Carney with a laugh. "He wanted to make a really awkward video where it just felt uncomfortable to watch, and it does. It's pretty funny."
Funny and awkward. Coming from a guy who, at age 15, was in a "concept band" called the Deprogrammers -- their shtick was hijacking the open mikes at local coffee shops, playing songs all wrong and making the cool kids squirm -- this makes perfect sense.
And lately, Carney's been getting into something else that, until recently, was also making the cool kids squirm: prog rock, a term no hipster had uttered since the early '70s. It's a strain of classic rock so technical and complex that it seems completely at odds with the Black Keys' stripped-down blues, even though you could call Rubber Factory a kind of concept album.
Carney's shunning the obvious again. But he does reveal the real reason he's been grooving so much to the unlikely Yes Fragile album. "I guess what actually intrigues me is the fact that so many prog rock musicians are complete fucking weirdoes -- they're genuinely eccentric people, and they're not cool in any way. They're complete geeks," Carney says.
"I mean, I strive to do that."