Danny McBride takes on The Black Keys -- read this week's cover story
Note: this is an extended version of the cover story on stands now.
We here at Entertainment Weekly like to think of our jobs as highly specialized. (Not just anyone can push that little voice-recorder button while simultaneously asking questions and nodding wisely, you know.) But when the Black Keys said they wanted to be interviewed by Danny McBride, how could we refuse? After all, the platinum-selling, Grammy-sweeping rock duo just released their eighth studio album, Turn Blue, and will be dominating festivals and headlining arena shows from Croatia to Cleveland this summer.
We asked McBride, 37—so memorable as egomaniacal pitcher Kenny Powers on HBO’s late, lamented Eastbound & Down and as himself in last year’s star-packed apocalyptic meta-comedy This Is the End—to man the tiny microphone for us. While he and drummer Patrick Carney, 34, already knew each other socially, singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach, also 34, hadn’t met McBride before our EW photo shoot. Soon enough, the duct tape appeared, the pants came off, and a friendship was born. Of course, bondage is one thing; hard-hitting journalism is quite another. Does McBride feel up to the task of conducting his first cover-story interview? “To be on this end of it,” he says with Powers-like confidence, “that’s the easy stuff, right?” Well, actually, no. “I will be the judge of that!”
Danny McBride: Entertainment Weekly wants us to kick this off by talking about the first time we came across each other’s work. I’ve been along since the very first album. I was unemployed, living at my parents’ house. I was the person always telling all my friends, “The Black Keys, the Black Keys!” Then we set up our show, Eastbound & Down, and you guys’ music is all that we scored our pilot with.
Dan Auerbach: That’s weird. We have something in common. Because when we made that record, we were unemployed, living at our parents’ houses too. [Laughs]
McBride: So I sense kindred spirits! No, you guys’ music was pretty influential on our show. It was mainly R.L. Burnside and you that we were using to find the tone. And then at the end of the pilot, Kenny comes to school to accept the job and we used “Your Touch.” That was the moment we felt like we’d found who Kenny Powers was.
Auerbach: We love that.
Patrick Carney: Yeah. We used to watch Eastbound & Down on tour all the time.
McBride: Your new album, Turn Blue, was announced via a tweet by Mike Tyson. Who approached him?
Auerbach: We had just let him use a couple of songs for a documentary. He actually called to thank us and said, “If I can ever return the favor, let me know.” We had to announce the video, so Pat had the idea that we should have Mike do it.
McBride: Do you guys feel social media is useful to you?
Carney: It’s useful if you want to have Mike Tyson post something. But I’ll wake up and check my Twitter sometimes and some dude in Arkansas just wakes up and is like, “You know what I should do? The drummer from the Black Keys, I should just let him know he sucks.” That’s what it is. You have this instant access to just tell people to f— themselves.
McBride: I’ve never gotten into it. I’m afraid to, and I think it’s for that reason—giving a–holes access to you.
Carney: Well, whoever writes the Kenny Powers Twitter account, it’s pretty funny.
McBride: He’s not associated with the show. He just started doing it on his own. We thought the whole time it was HBO, and they thought it was us. It wasn’t until two years in, we were like, “It’s not us, either.” So anyway, Entertainment Weekly thinks your new album is pretty trippy. I wouldn’t call it that. But they want to know if Danger Mouse dosed you in the studio. I’m curious how you guys even met.
Auerbach: He approached us about doing the music for an Ike Turner record. We started doing little demos and we sent them back to him. He would take the demos down to Ike’s house, get Ike to overdub his vocals on them. It was a really slow process. Ike was not super-interested. But that’s how we met Brian [Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse], anyway. And then Ike passed away. But when we were thinking about the next record [2008’s Attack & Release], we had Brian come along.
McBride: I heard that you guys played Madison Square Garden on your last tour. What as going through your mind before you guys went onstage? Is that something you guys have always wanted to do?
Auerbach: Yeah, man, it was cool as hell. Everybody knows Madison Square Garden, all over the world. It’s one of those universal places. We had opened for a couple of bands there, but that was the first time we ever headlined it.
Carney: It’s weird, though, because everybody flips out about Madison Square Garden. Like, “I can’t believe you’re playing Madison Square Garden!” I’m always like, “Dude, isn’t it a bigger deal to play like a big arena in like Salt Lake City, where like no one lives?” It always trips me out more when we go to Grand Rapids or something and there’ll be like 10,000 people. There’s like 10 million people [in New York City] — it shouldn’t be that hard to sell out Madison Square Garden.
McBride: Gotcha. No, that makes sense. It’s like a lay-up, playing Madison Square Gardens: “Okay, I’ll take that.” When you guys became successful what was the first thing you got added to your rider?
Carney:.I don’t think we’ve added anything since 2008. It is bigger though.
McBride: You guys don’t get into that weird s— of like, “We only want blue M&Ms!” or any of that kind of stuff?
Carney: Uh-huh. The weirdest thing was when we started getting metal silverware.
McBride: Was there ever any pushback from your families about you guys wanting to be musicians?
Auerbach: My parents were always supportive of me playing music, but they didn’t want me just f—ing around. They said, “You can drop out of college, but you’ve got to do it for real, you’ve got to work on it.” My dad would make me go down to busk on the street and make me go up on stages and play. I wouldn’t have done it without them, to be honest. Because I’m not naturally comfortable on stage. Those first few gigs were pretty rough, especially playing, like, a sports bar in Canton, Ohio, where no one gives a s— who you are. That’s just brutal.
McBride: How about you, Patrick?
Carney: My dad was always supportive. But I think he was freaked out when I decided to drop out of college.
McBride: You guys were in high school together, right? Did you drop out at the same time?
Carney: Yeah, Dan dropped out a semester before me. I was working at a burger place as a cook, and my dad and grandfather came in. My grandfather has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering—I don’t even know what chemistry is. I came out of the kitchen and told them while they were eating, “I’m going to drop out of school to play music.” My grandfather was totally cool with it. My dad was like, “Patrick, you can’t.” And as he was talking, my grandfather was like, “Give it a year and see what happens.”
Auerbach: We sent out 12 demos. We’d never played a show before. And we got a record deal.
McBride: Off of your demo?
Auerbach: This guy Patrick Boissel, a French guy who lives in Los Angeles, was like, “Send me 11 songs, I’ll put out your record.” And we did it. We did a couple of awful tours, and then it got reviewed in Rolling Stone and this band Sleater-Kinney took us out on tour. They introduced us to Beck, and Beck took us out on tour, and then Beck introduced us to Radiohead, and they took us on tour. It literally hasn’t stopped since we put out that demo.
Carney: That first record, [Boissel] didn’t give us any money to make it. He only had a $350 promo budget that he used to put an ad in the back of Magnet magazine. And he told us, “If you guys sell 5,000 records, I’ll throw you the biggest party you’ve ever been to. There’ll be strippers there, man!” The record has sold 220,000 copies now. And no party.
McBride: I was able to start working with guys that I grew up with as well. It’s pretty crazy to take this journey with people that you’ve known since you were younger.
Auerbach: We don’t know any other way. I mean, I’ve never toured in a band other than the Black Keys. People always ask, “What’s it like, being in a two-piece?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” I don’t know what it’s like being in any other band.
McBride: Do you guys have any crazy f—in’ rituals to help you get into the zone?
Auerbach: When we made the first record, we just drank coffee nonstop. And then my roommate’s girlfriend washed the coffeemaker with, like, 308 or whatever, that surface cleaner. [Laughs] Our ritual backfired. I think we both got ulcers.
McBride: You guys turned down a mayo commercial back in the day. You were like, “No way, no bueno.” But since then, you’re one of the most consistently coveted bands for ads.
Carney: That’s not true anymore. We sued, like, three companies, and their ad agencies, and their jingle houses, for doing soundalikes. And basically have been blacklisted because of it.
Carney: Yeah, there was this one song which sounded exactly like our song “Howlin’ for You.” I started getting these messages on my Twitter account like “You sellout piece of s—, you put this song in this f- - -ing ad!” We weren’t going to do anything, but it kept getting worse. Another ad came out that sounded like “Gold on the Ceiling,” and then another ad came out that sounded like “Lonely Boy.” We basically sued, like, two or three of the biggest ad agencies. And we are now c–kblocked. Legally c- -kblocked.
McBride: Where do you guys keep your Grammys?
Carney: Have you seen that show Pawn Stars? They have all mine.
Auerbach: What do you do with all your awards?
McBride: I’ve never won any awards. I’m asking just in case there’s a day when I do win an award, I’ll know where to store it.
Carney: You put it on a shelf, usually.
Auerbach: Yeah, you put it on a shelf, sort of display it. But you’ve got to put it on an out-of-the-way shelf. You pretend you don’t really care about it. But it’s there.
McBride: So people can say, “Oh, there’s a Grammy!”
Auerbach: Yeah, they see it and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, whatever.”
Carney: I’ve got a room with about 30 photos of Dan and I—mostly of me, though—and my Grammys in a semicircle with a crystal.
McBride: Oh, that’s perfect.
Carney: I have candles burning 24 hours. That’s my centering room. I make my wife go in there daily, for hours.
McBride: In the studio, how do you know when a song or an album is done?
Auerbach: We try to get a song done a day, maybe two days tops. Every time we’ve spent more than a couple of days on a song, it just ends up sucking.
Carney: It usually comes down to the label saying, “You have to have the recording to us by this particular date.” We always wait till the last minute to finish it.
McBride: In TV and movies, you have the studio give you notes on what you’re doing. Have you guys never gotten notes at all?
Carney: We’ve never had an A&R guy. We’ve had like people at labels tell us that Dan needs to have an amp that’s like 15 feet tall. Like, that kind of weird, insane bull—.
Carney: We’ve both worked on projects that have an A&R guy attached to it though. I worked with this one band and I had this huge engineer mixing the record and the A&R guy’s input was, “This hi-hat sounds really harsh.” And I’m like a f—ing drummer and this is a f—ing mix engineer and I’m like, “Okay, what should I do, tell him to turn to down?” He’s like, “Yeah, I think it really needs to come down.” So just sent him the track the next day and said, “He brought it down.” He was like, “It sounds so much better!” Nothing happened.
McBride: But nothing changed?
Carney: Nothing changed.
McBride: They would give us notes on Eastbound and instead of fighting them, we just wouldn’t do them, and then just send them back like we did do them.
Auerbach: And say, “You’re suggestions were great…”
McBride: “Really took it up a notch!” It’s a good technique.What’s the strangest gift you’ve ever gotten from a fan?
Auerbach: We got some voodoo dolls with our faces on them.
McBride: With your faces on them?
Auerbach: Yeah, yeah. That was weird.
McBride: Have you ever tried to put a little needle in there and see if anyone gets hurt?
Carney: We actually take really good care of them.
Auerbach: Mine’s back in my room right now watching Game of Thrones. Season 3. [Laughs]
Carney: Mine’s getting its d— sucked.
Auerbach: Oh, that’s dope!
McBride: Now you guys get to go rehearse?
Auerbach: We’re off for the night, man.
McBride: F—, dude, what are you guys doing?
Auerbach: We’re going to go rock & roll.
McBride: I’m doing nothing. Stroking it.
Auerbach: Want to come back to the hotel? Hang out?
McBride: Let’s do it. Let’s dance!
—Reported, recorded, and bartended by Clark Collis