The Black Keys are a welcome reminder that some artists still dive into music for the pure love of it, not for fame or fortune. Childhood friends Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, who are the Black Keys, just entered their 20th year of releasing records, and their enthusiasm for their potent, blues-edged music hasn’t ebbed in the slightest.
“We have had this special connection since we were kids, and I can’t really explain it because we pretty much sound exactly like we did when we were 16, 17 years old. We just got lucky,” Auerbach says of the duo’s Akron, Ohio, roots. “We never talk about it. We just get together and start bashing away and start making music.”
Singer-guitarist Auerbach and drummer-producer Carney dedicated themselves to music full time after both dropped out of the University of Akron. Penniless, they took a gig that meant driving from Akron to Seattle for almost nothing.
“When you don’t have anything, getting paid $10 seems like a lot,” Auerbach says in a recent phone interview from his current home in Nashville. “We would have driven anywhere to play a show. We didn’t really have any long-term plans or goals. We were just going year to year, making records and playing shows. And fortunately every year got a little better than the one before.
“We were just going for it. We were going into the great unknown, driving for hours from state to state. We’ve experienced so much together. The older I get, the more I appreciate the relationship I have with Pat, because it is so special.”
Their latest album is aptly titled “Dropout Boogie.” It has spun off a No. 1 alternative rock hit, “High Life,” and will help power the Keys on their first tour in three years, which hits the Xfinity Center in Mansfield on July 29. Here’s more of what Auerbach had to say on a range of topics, including the best live artist he’s ever seen, bridging blues and rock, and bonding with Carney over Captain Beefheart.
Q. I love the idea that “Dropout Boogie,” the title of your new record, was actually also the title of a song on a Captain Beefheart record, “Safe as Milk,” back in 1967. I read that you and Pat used to play his records hundreds of times and you were fanatics. What was it about Beefheart that got you so excited?
A. I love everything about his “Safe as Milk” album. We listened to that so much. It has Ry Cooder all over it playing open tuning of the slide guitar, and I really understood that stuff because I was obsessed with blues music. And at the same time it was weird and strange rock ‘n’ roll. And Pat loved it because it was weird and strange and was rock ‘n’ roll. It was something we both bonded over.
Q. You guys have been like a two-man SWAT team for keeping the blues alive. Blues is not always an easy genre commercially, but you’ve floated above the fray.
A. I think it’s partly because we stayed away from the blues world in a way. We never played blues festivals. We always saw ourselves as more of a rock ‘n’ roll band. And I think a lot of that has to do with being so influenced by [Mississippi label] Fat Possum Records and going to see people like R.L. Burnside and T Model Ford and all those guys. When they’d go on tour they wouldn’t put them in blues clubs, they put them in rock ‘n’ roll clubs. It’s just a different aesthetic, and I think it helped bridge the gap in my mind. I mean, I saw R.L. Burnside at the same place that I saw Link Wray. You know what I mean? And it was all connected for me.
Q. How did you get into the Fat Possum roster — people like Burnside and Junior Kimbrough and Mississippi Fred McDowell? You did some of their songs on the covers album of [Mississippi] hill country blues that you released last year called “Delta Kream.” I love that one.
A. My dad had a great record collection. He used to play blues records all the time mixed in with everything else. He’d play the Son House collection and Robert Johnson’s complete recordings — that was on all the time. So before I even played guitar, I knew all of those songs by heart. But then I started searching. As I played guitar, I started forming my own taste, and I would search for the stuff that was extra raw. It just kind of led me down this path where I was finding weird, obscure records. And all of a sudden some label [Fat Possum] from Oxford, Miss., starts releasing albums, and it wasn’t like something from decades past with some deceased blues guy. All of a sudden I could go to a bar and see this guy in person and talk to him. It was life-changing going to see R.L. Burnside play. We followed him around a bit. Those were the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life.
Q. Are you doing much of the “Delta Kream” material live on tour now? How do you decide what to play? You have a lot of material at this point.
A. Yeah, we’ve got a lot of catalog to pick from. We’re going to try to play a little bit of all of it. But for this tour, we’re going to bring [Fat Possum session players] Kenny Brown and Eric Deaton with us, and we’re going to do a mini-”Delta Kream” set, which will really be fun. It’s pure joy playing with those guys.
Q. You have your own label now [Easy Eye Sound, which has released records by Yola, the Velveteers, Ceramic Animal, Robert Finley, and others]. How does that fit in with what you do?
A. My whole label is based out of things that I love and people that I want to work with. I never think about making money. I just think, “Can I make a great record with this person?” That has been my main focus. And being in the Black Keys has afforded me the luxury to do that. So I take full advantage of it. And I’m always looking. The search continues.
THE BLACK KEYS
With Band of Horses and Ceramic Animal. July 29 at 7 p.m. Xfinity Center, Mansfield. Tickets from $39.50. 800-745-3000, livenation.com
Interview was edited and condensed. Steve Morse can be reached at email@example.com.