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Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney talks of band’s long transition from clubs to arenas

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The Black Keys with Cage the Elephant

When: 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: United Center, 1901 W. Madison

Tickets: $35/$55/$75

Info:

Ticketmaster.com

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BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER

If you polled which band from last decade would emerge as one of the biggest bands of today, it’s likely the Black Keys would not be an obvious choice.

The duo — drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist-vocalist Dan Auerbach — lit things up with the minimalist blues of their earliest records that they combined with the raw power of punk rock and the rhythmic attack of hip-hop. After many years of enjoying critical success but a cult audience, the band started collaborating with producer Danger Mouse who pushed them to expand their sound, bring in keyboards and horns, and focus more on pop hooks. That clicked and the band is now playing arenas, racking up seven Grammy awards, and filtering their music to commercials, sport broadcasts, and video games.

Remarkably, all this happened without the music losing a shred of integrity. “True Blue” (Nonesuch), the band’s eighth album released in May, is still raw, still exciting, and still rooted in the blues.

The Black Keys headline the United Center for two shows starting Saturday. I recently talked with Carney and what follows is a transcript of that conversation.

Talk about the evolution of style over the last few records, especially “Turn Blue” which is a more pop-oriented departure from your earlier roots as a two-piece.

It started around 2007 when we went into the studio with [producer] Danger Mouse for the first time. Dan and I wanted to make a record as if we were a four-piece band. We wanted to try and move away of the restrictions of having to think about playing the songs live with guitar, drum, and vocals. We made [the 2008 album] “Attack & Release” and we went on tour and we were only able to play only three songs from that record live. But we had a lot of fun making the record that way. In 2009, we went to [famed Alabama recording studio] Muscle Shoals and made [the 2009 album] “Brothers” and we did the same thing. But even this time, it was a more minimal approach. This time we only used 12 tracks for each song.

We started every song with bass and drums basically. And keyboards figured into it heavily. But the guitar almost became an afterthought on that record. Whenever we went on out, we realized we had to take a bass player and keyboardist to play the song. That was the beginning of us moving into this thing in the studio where we feel we just want to make stuff that we’re into and not feel the restrictions of a two-piece. But primarily on the records, it’s just Dan and I playing.

“Turn Blue” is definitely more pop, but it does share the same feeling as those earlier records. I assume that’s connected to the dynamic between you and Dan.

Dan and I learned to play our instruments together. I learned to play drums to his guitar playing. We’re on the same page as far as what we’re into as far as an aesthetic. But when we started the band we didn’t know what we were doing. We just have been learning all along, and hopefully getting better at writing songs. It wasn’t until [the 2011 album] “El Camino,” our second record with Danger Mouse, that we really sat down and really learned how to write a melody. We never put too much stock into melodies prior to that; it was more about the groove. This record “Turn Blue” is the first record we made where there is as much focus on the groove and melody. There isn’t as much groove on “El Camino,” it’s pretty straightahead; there’s not much swing on that album. But that was the whole point. That was the whole experimental record even though it’s our most straightforward. It’s not the norm of what Dan and I normally do. But that was the fun part.

We really do like to go into the studio and try new things. We have a rule when we’re working that no idea is a bad idea. We can try anything out. That makes it a much more intense environment to write a song in.

I saw your United Show at Chicago the first time around and you really transcended that venue, which frankly was a revelation since the core of the band remains two people. Do you miss anything about the clubs or theaters or not?

I wish the United Center was located where the Metro is located. Or the Double Door. If you could put the United Center where the Double Door was, we’d be good. That’s what I miss. I miss walking around places like Chicago and easily being able to go to [Wicker Park bookstore] Myopic and look at conspiracy theory books. You get a little bit isolated on the road. But as far as performing in the [bigger] venues, I actually prefer it now. Because you just have a really reliable sound. We carry our own PA, we carry our own monitors. So every night we know it’ll sound as good as possible.

Another thing is, it’s been such a gradual thing for us. Our first shows in Chicago we used to drive up and play the Beat Kitchen once a month for about six months. Then we moved to the Empty Bottle and we played the Abbey Pub, Metro, the Vic, the Riv, the Aragon. So we covered the bases moving up. So by the time we got to the Aragon, I thought that would be the biggest show we’d ever play. And then we booked a New Year’s Eve gig there and that sold out and we ended up doing three shows there. It was insane.

That’s when we knew that the next time we’d come back it would be at the United Center. It was definitely intimidating when you make that switch to arenas. The first time at Madison Square Garden, it was scary. Because you put all this weight on these places. But once you get past the history of these buildings, they just become rooms that serve more concessions.

The floor at your United Center was general admission, so in many ways felt the same as being at, say, the Aragon.

One thing about the arenas that is different – It’s a little bit better playing arenas in England or Europe in general because you’re allowed to fill the floor up, but [in the U.S.] there’s a lot of empty space on the floor because everyone needs to have six square feet around them. That’s the one thing I miss — seeing a covered floor

You were talking about you and Dan learning your instruments together. Did that musical relationship change over time and do you often find one person is chasing the instincts of the other? How do you maintain the balance that was there in the beginning?

We’re both pretty much on the same page. But what does happen is, if we’re not recording or playing, I like to step away from drums and play them as little as possible. Because I’m not very good at the drums. I’ve always approach them from a creative kind of thing than a technical thing. I don’t sit around striving to get tighter. I’ve never thought about it like that. But what I do like is I sort of forget how to play after a couple of weeks of not playing. I’ll basically start playing the drums slightly different. Every time I walk away from drums. Dan does the same thing. He’s way more technically proficient in his instrument than I am. But when it comes time for us to work, we’ll play our instruments totally differently.

What’s the advantage of not being so technically proficient?

It wouldn’t work for me if I played keyboard. If I played violin, it wouldn’t work. Or horns. You have to have some sort of real deep understanding. I understand rhythm, I understand how to write a drum beat. But I’ve always looked at the drums way more than a time keeping element. I learned to play drums listening to hip-hop. Dan listened to a lot of hip-hop and we wanted our drums to sound like that. RZA is always sampling old Stax records and Hi record. Those [Memphis] guys were all jazz drummers, but they were dumbing it way down. There’s a groove there that we are constantly searching for. That keeps us going back to making more music. Because, by the end of the day, we feel we haven’t quite got it yet.

There’s a kind of chase, but it’s to find the sound of each album.

We have nothing else to do. We can’t do anything else but make music. We make music together better than we do with other people or on our own. Part of it is because we learned to play together. But yes, there’s something exciting about when we go into the studio, we don’t discuss what we’re doing to do, it just comes out. Part of it is having the perfect timing to make a record. If we waited three months to record “Turn Blue,” it would have been a much different record. And maybe that would be the smarter thing to do. I don’t know. But that’s what keeps us back to making records.

Talk to my about Spotify. You are one of the few well-known bands that decided not to have your full catalog up there for streaming because you feel it’s geared to hurt, not help, artists. Is there anything that would convince you otherwise?

Every week I’ll be asked by someone, the label or management, if we’re ready to put “El Camino” or “Turn Blue” on Spotify, because everything else is up there.

Look, Dan and I make a lot of money. It is not about Dan and me making money. There’s a lot of bands out there that are getting really screwed. The question I want to raise is why would Warner Bros., Universal, Sony open up their catalogs for free streaming? The answer is because they’re getting something really major in return and that’s not being shared with the artists. The artist is always the one that gets [expletive]. The minute I raise concern about what Warner Bros. is getting in exchange for getting this music up on Spotify, no one has any answer. There’s all these songs up there, tons of hits going back 70 years that they’re leveraging to get stock in Spotify. That’s a problem for me. But at the same time I can’t do anything about it. All I can do is say I don’t agree with the way the thing is set up. It’s not necessarily Spotify’s fault, it’s much deeper than that.

Everything is moving toward streaming. I’m down with it. And because it is so user friendly, the minute I say something bad about it, people start the rhetoric that we have one foot in the past. It is not about us embracing technology. It’s about fairness.

If you own a copyright of an intellectual property you have the right to protect it in certain ways. The one good thing about streaming is that it cut down people stealing stuff because they have legal way to [listen]. Which is awesome. But it could be much more fair to the artists, except there are people here who are greedy. [Spotify founder] Daniel Ek is a smart guy but all he did was come up with way to get people’s intellectual property in their hands. He is basically a distributor. He should be paid like a distributor.

The Black Keys with Cage the Elephant play United Center, 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $35/$55/$75. Ticketmaster.com.

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