July, 2002: two young men, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, college dropouts the both of them, are working together for an Akron, Ohio property owner, the type of fella who owns a variety of low-rent apartment buildings around town in various states of repair and, well, disrepair. You get the picture. That sort of operation. "horticultural technicians" for this property owner. Not to put too fine a point on it, the boys mow lawns for the landlord. Between them, they've got a truck, two lawnmowers and a weedwhacker. In addition to working together, these two childhood friends play in a band, a duo called The Black Keys. In a week's time, they're to embark on their first tour ever, playing songs off of their debut album, The Big Come Up, at tiny venues around the country, and the job is a vital cog in the big plan: work, save money, tour, come back to Akron, mow some more lawns, save money, maybe tour again, and so on. Humble rock dreams. A week to go. Big deal. So what do they do?
They go and get themselves fired, that's what they do.
And how exactly do they manage that? "Well, " explains Patrick, 24 years old, Bigfoot-tall, bespectacled and lanky, the imposing drumming half of the now unemployed Black Keys, "we didn't edge a lawn correctly. I always fuck up details like that."
And that detail leaves them dangling, for a bit at least. Unemployment be damned, they leave Akron and drive around the U.S. in a small hatchback (one of the advantages of being a low-profile, travel-light duo). Dan, a year Patrick's senior, compact and sometimes bearded, quiet and wry, plays fuzzed-out guitar and sings - scratch that - howls sweetly and growls soulfully, like a man whose only friends in the world are his songs of suffering and true romance. Patrick plays his drums like he's dragging them into a ditch and strangling them, attacking them like they stole his mother's purse. The combination sparks. Folks come on down to see their shows (the band almost spooks in Seattle at the sight of 100 people waiting to see them play their unique brand of atavistic boogie). Rolling Stone magazine gives The Big Come Up four stars, and all of a sudden, getting a job once back home seems like a bit of a sucker's bet.
They're broke, to be sure, but Akron living is still cheap compared to the rest of the country and Dan and Patrick figure that if they spend almost every waking hour on their music – writing, practicing, and touring - they can make this enterprise work. So, like the proverbial one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, the boys get busy. They rehearse non-stop in Patrick's rat-infested basement (there's that cheap Akron rent for you). They play show after show after show, getting terrifically road-seasoned. In early 2003, they record their second album, Thickfreakness, in said Ohio basement for Mississippi-based iconoclast label Fat Possum. In less than twelve hours. Albums recorded in half a day can only go two ways, really: they can be total crap or, very rarely, they can be shit-hot. There isn't much in-between. Audiences and critics worldwide seem to think Thickfreakness falls into the latter category as the record becomes a surprise resounding success. Their explosive, compelling live shows become the talk of the town.
In late 2003, having been evicted from their former rodent-populated digs, The Black Keys set up stakes on the second floor of a cavernous former General Tire factory in a desolate, industrial section of East Akron. Putting together an ad hoc studio of cobbled together, second-hand equipment (and dubbing the new practice space/recording studio Sentient Sound in honor of the particles that float around the hallways of the warehouse in a seemingly intelligent and possibly toxic nimbus), sessions for Rubber Factory, the band's third record in as many years, begin in January and, in fits and starts, last until May 2004. But don't let the seemingly leisurely recording pace make you think that the band's gone all uptown. Oh, hell no. Dan will even tell you (truthfully, too) that the magnetic tape the album was recorded on, "was recycled from the Fat Possum studio in Northern Mississippi; we recorded over not-quite-right versions of radio commercials for local fried chicken joints."
No, one thing Rubber Factory is NOT is slick, but what it IS is a whole bunch of other, finer things: it's an album that manages to swing like a rump-shaking backroom party at 4 AM on one track ("Just Couldn't Tie Me Down") yet doesn't hesitate to turn around and raise the hair on the back of your neck with something eerie and lonely ("The Lengths"). Leaving the edges ragged might not work for the greenswards of the downwardly mobile, but it's the sort of thing that works just fine for music if you have the right touch, and the Black Keys have that indelicacy down to a gutter science. Rubber Factory is raw in the best meaning of the word. Rubber Factory is unadulterated and pure. Raw in the Iggy and the Stooges sense. Raw in the way Ol' Dirty Bastard meant it when he crooned that that was the way he liked it. Raw in the manner of Charley Patton's scratchiest gospel blues sides. Rubber Factory is the sound of The Black Keys reveling in all their high ragged glory, but also coming into their own as stunningly talented songwriters and producers. It’s a classic album, vital and fresh, that rewards the listener continually from start to finish.
And Dan and Patrick, to this day, still haven't held another day job between them.