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Published: Wednesday, 2/29/2012

Black Keys' success beyond anything duo ever dreamed

The Black Keys perform onstage at Chinatown’s Historical Central Plaza in Los Angeles.
The Black Keys perform onstage at Chinatown’s Historical Central Plaza in Los Angeles.

The Black Keys are rock and roll's little band that could -- and can, in a big way these days.

In the course of 10 years and seven albums, the duo from Akron have grown from garage-rock basement and club gigs to arena-filling status. Its album "Brothers" (2010) debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart, won three Grammy Awards, and launched the chart-topping hit "Tighten Up," as well as a Top 5 follow-up in "Howlin' for You."

That only stoked anticipation for "El Camino" (2011), which debuted at No. 2, went gold in its first month of release and notched another No. 1 single in "Lonely Boy."

Rest assured, all of this is well beyond anything singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney thought possible when they started jamming together as high school classmates.

"No, absolutely not," the 32-year-old Auerbach says, speaking by telephone from the London stop on the duo's European tour. "It's just exceeded all of our wildest dreams. It's an impossible thing to even wrap my head around, in a way. This kind of thing just doesn't happen, especially not for people like us who just don't ... I mean, usually when you get to a level like this, you have to have a real look, you know? It tends to be less about music and more about other [stuff]. But we've just stuck to doing our thing, and slowly but surely we've gotten here.

"It's just kind of unreal."

Particularly heartening, Auerbach says, is that fans who jumped on board for "Brothers" and "El Camino" also seem to be becoming aware of the music that preceded those albums.

"People are definitely picking up the old records," he says. "Our old record sales have jumped up a little bit. And we're playing songs from every album at our shows, and people know them all, so that's really cool too."

Auerbach and Carney, who is now 31, met as children, but did not become friends until high school. Auerbach was a jock, captaining the soccer team at Firestone High School, but had become enamored of blues and roots music through his father's record collection and his uncles who played music. Tall and bespectacled, Carney was a self-described "weirdo" who willingly played the role of outcast. They were not a pair anyone would expect to hang out together, but they were brought together by their younger brothers, who were friends.

The first time they jammed together, something magical happened.

"Maybe it's because we didn't know each other so well," Auerbach says, "but something clicked immediately."

A turning point came with "Attack and Release" (2008), on which the group worked with outside producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, a Grammy winner who subtly added new sonic textures, including keyboards, additional vocalists and guest musicians, to the duo's Spartan sound.

The fans may have had some doubts about Danger Mouse's more expansive vision for the group's sound, but the Keys themselves were fine with it.

"It was kind of time for a little bit of a change," Auerbach says. "We really wanted to use lots of instrumentation and just branch out, more so than we ever had. That was even more reason to have Brian come aboard. We just wanted to get into the studio and build from the ground up."

The experiment paid off: "Attack and Release" was the Keys' most successful album to that point, debuting at No. 14 on the Billboard 200 and making Rolling Stone magazine's list of 100 best albums of the year, with "I Got Mine" ranking No. 23 on its Best Songs list. It created a template for "Brothers" and "El Camino," which Danger Mouse also co-produced.

After the success of "Brothers," which was bolstered by extensive song placement in movie trailers and advertisements, "El Camino" might have been a pressure-packed endeavor. Auerbach and Carney seemed aware of that possibility, and even canceled some European shows to return more quickly to the studio, which Auerbach says "is the place we like to be most."

"We just wanted to make a record, you know?," he says. "We wanted to make a record that was stripped-down, not a lot of bells and whistles, just sort of simplicity for the most part -- organ, bass, drums, guitar and vocals."

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