We’ve Got A File On You: Patrick Carney

Lloyd Bishop

We’ve Got A File On You: Patrick Carney

Lloyd Bishop

The Black Keys drummer on BoJack Horseman, Anthony Bourdain, Harmony Korine, and Brothers turning 10

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

For the better part of the last two decades, Patrick Carney’s been known as the drummer of the Black Keys, one half of the group alongside his longtime friend Dan Auerbach. But what exactly “being the drummer of the Black Keys” entails has changed radically in that time. For the first half of their existence, the Black Keys were a prolific, scuzzy garage blues band out of Akron, Ohio. They already had their version of success; their records were well-received, their songs often-synced even in earlier days. But in 2010, everything changed.

That’s when Brothers arrived. Suddenly the Black Keys were getting bigger and bigger, their songs creeping into the mainstream. The duo quickly followed it up with El Camino, and the arc was forever changed. The Black Keys were perhaps one of the least plausible rock success stories of their time. Now they were festival headliners, arena fillers, genuine hitmakers. A lot changes when you get that kind of notoriety. Carney and Auerbach had already dabbled in other projects. But in the decade since, they had a whole lot of other opportunities in front of them. Carney spent the following 10 years putting out Black Keys albums and touring relentlessly behind them. But he also found time to produce other people’s albums, and take on unexpected projects along the way. In recent times, he’s reportedly been working on his wife Michelle Branch’s new album, due out later this year.

In the meantime, the Black Keys also recently reissued Brothers, now with a few outtakes, as a 10th anniversary celebration. To mark the occasion, we called up Carney to talk about all the strange circumstances that have arisen since, from making one of the most memorable TV show themes in recent memory, to meeting Anthony Bourdain, to his one-time neighbor Harmony Korine making a batshit Black Keys video.

Brothers 10th Anniversary Reissue (2010/2020)

You just reissued Brothers for its 10th anniversary. That was such a big pivot point in the story of the Black Keys. How do you feel about that album now?

PATRICK CARNEY: The lead-up to making it was a rough year. The way 2009 started, I found out that Dan had a solo record coming out. The economy — I thought I was being really responsible and saving all this money up in the stock market and then I woke up one day and it was all gone. [Laughs] I went on a vacation to Tulum in February 2009 with my then wife, just wondering if the world was going to end in 2012.

My world completely flipped around within a year of that day. I got divorced. Dan and I got back on good terms and made this record. I moved to New York City. There was a lot of change that happened in that time of my life. I realized, going through all this stuff, I was turning 30 right before Brothers came out. It seems like a big deal, but when you turn 40, which I just did, you realize how young you are at 30, I guess. The point is, I felt like I had a lot riding on everything. How long can you be in a band and fucking around and everything seems slightly chaotic?

When Brothers came out and it took off, it kind of validated our work, to me, I guess. To see it resonate the way it did. I woke up every day — in fact, I still wake up every day 10 years later, like, “Is this really fucking happening?” Because it completely changed our lives. We went from having this underdog thing to coming out on top. It was very uncomfortable for me, to be honest, for a while. I wasn’t used to winning. [Laughs] It was kind of insane. I keep getting the 10-year Facebook reminders, just like, “Fuck, yeah OK, we just played SNL 10 years ago last weekend.” It was all a very pivotal moment in my life.

I remember listening to the Black Keys in those early days, and then when it started to shift; the songs were just in the atmosphere. I know you had a ton of syncs and such along the way, but did you ever experience that yourself, like suddenly realizing a song like “Tighten Up” was playing in public everywhere?

CARNEY: “Tighten Up” came out in April [of 2010], and we were essentially told “Tighten Up” wasn’t going to get played on the radio much, by people that programmed radio. It didn’t mean anything to us at the time, because we never had a song on the radio. It was like, “OK, more of the same, it doesn’t really matter.” We went to do a three week tour of Europe and we came back. I was living in New York at the time, this was July. I just remember walking around the city and I felt like I just kept hearing our record coming out of restaurants. Then we went and played Lollapalooza, which we’d played maybe four or five times before, and now there was just this huge sea of people. It was at that moment where I was kind of like, “Holy shit, something’s definitely shifted here.”

I think I saw you at that Lollapalooza actually. That was the first time you were bringing extra band members out onstage right?

CARNEY: Yeah. We played our first expanded band show at Madison Square Garden opening for Pearl Jam. When I think about that, like, we went onstage at Madison Square Garden for the first time as a four-piece? We didn’t play a single show before. It’s just, what the fuck. There was no pressure back then. That was the difference. No pressure, and then you get onstage in front of that many people expecting a good show, and then I started feeling the pressure. Stage fright and stuff like that.

We found out our record was getting played on the radio a lot when we got back from that European trip. It was just thing after thing after thing. Robert Plant was onstage watching us do this record release show. Hanging out with Robert Plant to then meeting Paul McCartney. This was all just a couple months in 2010. A fucking whirlwind. The weird thing was that we’d been doing it for eight years already, but then all the sudden we got access to the special club finally, or something.

Writing The BoJack Horseman Theme (2014)

It’s funny you say that. Obviously you get to that point with Brothers and El Camino where there’s a breakthrough and a lot more doors open up. Most of the other things I wanted to ask you about today, these other random activities, happened in the ensuing decade. One of those was the BoJack Horseman theme. I also always thought that theme worked so well. Had you seen the show when you worked on it? Did you know much about it?

CARNEY: A producer of the show named Noel Bright reached out to our management and asked if the Black Keys would be interested in doing a theme. We were on the road at the time. I sent something that I had made a couple months earlier. I had just built a new studio in my house, and that was the first thing I recorded, what became the BoJack theme. Then I sent it to my uncle Ralph, who has since passed away. He put a bunch of saxophone and clarinet down. I took it back and edited it and shifted some things around. Ralph and I always talked about making a record, so I thought that could be part of that.

But then I got this email from Noel, and I said, “I’ve never scored anything but here’s this thing I made, maybe it can work.” They loved it and they edited it from four and a half minutes to what it became. That was that. The crazy thing is: I know a lot of people really like it, and I guess I’d assume with the amount of times Dan and I have had songs synced in commercials and movies and then that — and we also had the theme song for the show Hung — you’d think someone would inquire about me doing another thing. But that’s not how the music industry works. [Laughs] It happened, people liked it, and in seven years I have not been asked to do anything else.

You and Michelle also did a cover of “A Horse With No Name” for the show, and you had a voice cameo as well.

CARNEY: Yeah, I had a cameo in the season that came out, I think, in 2015. Noel, the guy who asked me, he’s a friend now, and I always thank him for that. It was a big deal. It was also a big source of income for Ralph in the last few years of his life.

You mentioned you didn’t get other calls for this kinda stuff. Would you like to do more of it?

CARNEY: I mean, potentially, I don’t know. I just think it’s funny. How many calls did the really tall guy from Night Court get after Night Court?

Sad Planets’ Video Where Cheetah Chrome Gets Into A Bar Fight (2019)

So you had this video with Cheetah Chrome in 2019–

CARNEY: That was actually shot a long time before. I think we shot that in 2013 or 2014. See, I made this record — it was around the Brothers time, right before it. Early 2009. Dan was doing the solo thing, and I was just about to start this band called Drummer that I had with some friends. In the meantime, my friend John Petkovic, who is a journalist and musician from Cleveland — he and I have been friends since I was a teenager, because we’d go to the same shows. He had all these songs, and he asked if I wanted to help make an album. So he’d come down to Akron a couple times a month and we made this whole album that he called Sad Planets. We finished the record in like 2009, but he didn’t get around to putting it out until 10 years later.

John’s always busy, he’s one of the most prolific artists I know. [Ed: Petkovic is a member of Cobra Verde, Sweet Apple, and Death Of Samantha, among other bands.] So one day he was just like, “Hey.” There’s this old dive bar in Nashville, it’s called Springwater. The Black Keys have actually shot a video there ourselves, for “Little Black Submarines.” He was like, “I want to shoot a video with Cheetah Chrome.” So I got to meet him and yeah we shot this fucking video at Springwater. I don’t even know if John asked for permission. We were just in there with a handheld camera.

So you didn’t even know what you were getting into, all the sudden it’s a video and Cheetah Chrome’s getting into a bar fight.

CARNEY: Oh yeah. I just agreed because it was John. I had no idea what was going on.

Appearing On Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations (2012)

CARNEY: We filmed in December 2011. I know that because we were with him when we found out how many records we’d sold. Dan and I were huge fans of his. For the couple years leading up to that, I’d read his books and watched the series. Mary Moyer, our publicist, we asked her. We said we wanted to be on Anthony Bourdain’s show. She sorted it out. She said, “Hey, Bourdain wants to have you, but he only has this one day before he’s taking a break for the holidays.” We were playing some radio shit in LA the day before, so we took a red eye and landed in Kansas City. It was the very end of the promo run for El Camino. We’d just done SNL.

I remember being tired but excited and also freezing fucking cold. We sat outside of this barbecue place and the food was… not bad, but it was just whatever. We had procured a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, which is now hundreds and hundreds of dollars a bottle, but this had just started to become a thing when we got this bottle. He had never had it at that point. We kind of popped his cherry I guess, the night we drank this bottle. He had this Russian friend there. It was just so genuine. They were both so nice. I ended up staying in touch with him off and on until he passed away.

He was saying, that day, that he was pretty much sick of the road. He was like, “Fuck this.” I was like, “I know how you feel.” He said, “That’s why I like hanging out with musicians.” At that point, we were all kind of road-weary. He said they were going to go eat at this steak place, if you guys are bored come meet us. We went there, and he was so over it: “If I have to eat another steak, man.” But we got to hang out with him. We found out we had the #2 record in the US. That was that.

Inducting Steve Miller Into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (2016)

I know Dan talked about this at the time, but there was a bit of an uncomfortable fallout from this, stuff Miller said and then him reportedly not being the friendliest presence that night. I was wondering what your experience was like with this.

CARNEY: I have nothing against the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame personally. I’ve never been through the museum, I would actually like to go through it. The induction thing… I didn’t have the same issue Dan had, but Dan is my bandmate and I’m always going to support him. I think he was also going through some other stuff. I don’t know.

I will say this. I have never watched a Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction speech. To this day. I still haven’t. We were asked to give one. I had heard Steve Miller songs. I was familiar with Steve Miller. At the time especially, I was friends with Boz Scaggs’ son, so I was familiar with their history together. I googled Steve Miller. I didn’t know anything about him other than that he lived in San Francisco and at some other point Texas with Boz Scaggs. It said he was born in Milwaukee. So I wrote the first line of the speech, which was: “There have been a lot of Millers made in Milwaukee, but only one Steve Miller.” That was my contribution to the speech. [Laughs] It didn’t fucking fly as high as I thought it would. You know, a third-rate late night TV joke just doesn’t work in a celebration of a 40-year career I guess.

I was totally oblivious to what was going on anyway. I was like, “Oh, yeah, this is what it’s like in here, all these guys I grew up listening to are here.” I was still a fan, and I was also still a smartass from Ohio. My favorite moment of the night was kind of this Spinal Tap moment. David Coverdale was inducted with Deep Purple, even though he was only the singer of the band for like, 18 months and they never had a hit with him. He thanks his business manager first, of all people. And he does it in this very proper Spinal Tap voice, [jokey posh accent] “I would like to thank my business manager.” Then he thanks his personal assistant. This is fucking crazy. Out of all the people. He doesn’t thank his dad. He doesn’t thank his friends. He thanks his business manager. No offense to business managers, but honestly, if I’m getting inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, you’re not going to be mentioned, probably.

Funny Or Die MasterClass Spoof (2019)

CARNEY: That whole thing was created by the director, Bryan [Schlam]. He brought us the idea and we thought it was funny as hell. We made it independently with Bryan and then partnered with Funny Or Die.

Had you seen these MasterClass ads?

CARNEY: I had been seeing them. Right when he came up with the idea to spoof them I had just started seeing them a lot. To this day, when I see them they still kind of irk the fuck out of me. Especially the ones that are about… man, see, the songwriting ones really kinda get under my fucking skin. There are a few people who do them about mixing or mastering, and I could see how giving the basic knowledge about things like that would be useful. But, I don’t know. I do think with how useful YouTube or the internet in general is with learning how to do something, it’s kind of incredible, I just find it hard it to believe someone has the balls to consider themselves a master of the craft.

Having said all this, is there a person in the music world you could imagine actually wanting to take a MasterClass from?

CARNEY: OK, of all the people involved in music, the guy I would want to sit down and learn from is Tchad Blake. I’d like to watch him mix. He’s mixed a lot of our records. I’m a huge fan. That’s a technical and artistic skill that I could probably learn something from. If I watch a drummer teach me how to drum I wouldn’t learn anything. If I was able to learn from something like that I’d be a much better drummer. [Laughs] That’s like saying, “Oh, if I watch Jose Conseco hit home runs I’ll be able to hit home runs.” It just doesn’t work like that.

“The Baddest Man Alive” With RZA (2012), Blackroc (2009)

In 2012 you had this track with RZA, and a few years before that you’d made a whole rap-oriented album as Blackroc. Looking back at these couple of years where you were kind of interacting with the rap world a bit, would you like to revisit that sometime?

CARNEY: I’d be up for working with any artist I’m interested in. The last time I did anything for a hip-hop song I did some drums for a MF DOOM song that Danger Mouse produced, which came out a couple months ago. The RZA stuff was a big deal for us. We got to work with him a couple times. The Wu-Tang solo records and the Wu-Tang records are massively important to Dan and me. In the Venn diagram, Captain Beefheart and Wu-Tang Clan are the places where we share the most taste.

That “Baddest Man Alive” song was actually recorded in early February in 2010, before Brothers even came out. We went to LA — we were asked by Rick Rubin to come out and jam with Billy Gibbons for a couple days to see if anything could come of that. We did that during the day in Malibu and then we were moonlighting in Eagle Rock at Danger Mouse’s studio with RZA. We recorded a whole album essentially, some songs more finished than others. We kind of forgot about it. One day my friend who’s a music supervisor was working on the RZA movie The Man With The Iron Fists and he was like, “Hey, RZA mentioned you guys did a whole record together.” I said, “Well, sort of,” and I played him that one song. He said that should be the title song. There’s like nine more songs that never came out from that.

Do you think that material will see the light of day at some point?

CARNEY: There’s a couple songs I think are good enough. I think at this point we’d just rather do something fresh with him.

What about Blackroc? Do you think you’d resurrect that?

CARNEY: I’d be up for doing something like that again. It was a little difficult to work with Damon [Dash]. So I’d prefer not to do that again.

Iggy Pop And Ginger Baker Covering “Lonely Boy” (2012)

I know you had a lot of bizarre “is this happening” experiences during those big breakthrough years, but to have a Black Keys tribute album that features Iggy Pop and Ginger Baker still seems… pretty unique.

CARNEY: I mean, OK, the Stooges are one of the most important bands to me. I turned Dan on to the Stooges and we ended up covering one of their songs on our first record. Cream, and Ginger Baker, I grew up listening to. It’s crazy because I didn’t find out about it until it was out. It came out and I was like, “What the fuck is this?” There’s a lot of people on [the tribute album].

I still have never met Iggy Pop. I’ve been in the same room as him, but I met Scott and Ron Asheton. I hung out with them. I think having the existence of that [cover] is very bizarre, and I don’t think many people know that exists. But I think the experience of getting to hang with Ron and Scott Asheton’s even cooler. My mom’s family is from Toledo, these guys are from Ann Arbor. They’re very close. It basically felt like hanging out with two of my uncles, sitting there chain-smoking cigs talking about changing the alternator on one of their cars. These are my musical heroes, sitting around talking just like my uncles about their fucking alternator. [Laughs] It’s fucking amazing. How lucky am I that I get to see this.

Michelle Branch’s Hopeless Romantic (2015) And Other Production Work

Through the middle of last decade you began doing some more production work. How did you start to figure out your role there vs. being the drummer in Black Keys?

CARNEY: I’ve always wanted to be a producer, or an engineer. That’s actually where the Black Keys started. Dan came to me to record his bar band, called the Barnburners, and the guys didn’t show up. Dan and I had jammed in the past when we were neighbors growing up. So he said why don’t you just record this and play drums. I had an idea of what he wanted. I made us a demo and it got us a record deal.

But I always maintained a studio, for the most part. I’ve always been recording bands. I try not to impart too much of a sonic imprint on the records I make. I try to just help the artist make a record they’re interested in making, and subtly help here and there. It’s been a passion of mine. But it’s a frustrating passion. I don’t charge to do it. I take a back-end royalty, and nothing I’ve ever worked on has made a royalty. [Laughs] It’s truly a labor of love, I suppose.

I did a record for Tennis that did well, a couple years ago. I did a record for this band from Canada called the Sheepdogs. Everything was set against them. They won a contest to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. I met them and was like, “You guys gotta make sure you deliver a song that gets played on the radio, because everyone’s going to fucking hate you because of that.” So I did this record right before the tour for El Camino. January of 2012, it came out the next fall or something. I got a call from the president of Atlantic asking if he could do an edit to the intro so it was better for radio. I said, “You can do whatever you want to the song, as long as you promote it. What the fuck do I care.” Anyway, the record never got promoted to radio. It went Platinum in Canada.

And that’s just the music industry. It’s completely unreliable. I’ve seen the mismanagement, the failures of the music industry, more so than I’ve seen the other side. That’s why I wake up every day still shocked our situation worked out, because it just isn’t designed to work.

Some artists you’ve worked with make sense aesthetically, but with something like Tennis — or Michelle, especially with that album being such a big deal in the arc of her career — what makes you gravitate towards working with someone?

CARNEY: The gravitational pull for me to want to work with someone is typically them being up against the fucking wall. Needing guidance, I guess. Maybe Tennis, I heard the demos and the songs were good but there was some rhythmic stuff — they hadn’t opened it up yet, and I didn’t want them to stay in a rut. I think they needed some basic guidance, I suppose.

Michelle had been dealing with some poor management situations and poor business decisions. There’s a lot going on there. She needed an advocate, and that was the role I kind of provided. That’s sort of what I do when I work with someone. They need an advocate. I don’t know how to make a fucking hit song. I’ve done it, in the past, with other people. But I would never go into the studio promising someone that. I would go in and say, “This is what I’d do to change things,” and maybe just help psych them out a little bit.

Sometimes I’m just a fan and I want to work with the band. I do very little producing stuff, to be honest. I do a record a year, maybe two. Emotionally, I just invest a lot into every project I do, and it’s just too exhausting. And then if I need to compound that with a piece of shit manager or something, I start losing my mind.

Harmony Korine Directing A Video For “Gold On The Ceiling” (2012)

What was it like working with Harmony Korine?

CARNEY: I’ve been a fan of Harmony’s since Gummo, Kids. When Dan and I moved to Nashville, Harmony was our neighbor. He lived between us. We became friends. He’s since moved to Miami, but we still text. We became pretty tight, and he had this idea to do this video, and we shot it at this DIY party house in East Nashville. He had these masks made by the guy who does The Walking Dead masks or something. I think Dan thought it was a little too weird maybe. In retrospect, it is fucking weird. But it’s exactly what we signed up for. Like most cool things, it floats under the radar.

But Harmony’s a close friend and through him — when I first moved to town, within a couple of weeks, he brought David Berman over my house. Kind of introduced me to a lot of people around town. I’d been a huge Silver Jews fan. I got to know David a little bit, got on the receiving end of some of his late-night really bizarre emails. He was a really sweet dude. Harmony is 100 percent the best storyteller. I don’t know how factual those stories are but they are the best stories out of anyone that I’ve ever met.

Alysse Gafkjen

The Brothers reissue is out now. Listen here.

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