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Black Keys Battle Demons and Ghosts to Make ‘Brothers’

When the Black Keys decided to record their latest album, ‘Brothers,’ at famed recording studio Muscle Shoals, drummer/producer Pat Carney was stoked. He and bandmate Dan Auerbach had been looking for a classic American recording studio and Muscle Shoals had the perfect pedigree, having seen the likes of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones walk through its doors.

But Carney didn’t anticipate choosing the iconic studio would mean being trapped in a Marriott Hotel in Alabama with absolutely nothing to do.

“It was definitely an experience,” he said “There isn’t much there, there really isn’t a bar, it was devoid of distraction. At the time it was really, really difficult for me because I had just split with my wife after a 9-year relationship and the last place I wanted to be was the middle of f—ing nowhere in Alabama, sitting in a dark room. But I guess all those factors contributed to the record — it’s much moodier and heavier than anything we’ve done before.”

Indeed, between the sinister guitar riffs, murky keyboards, insistent drums and mournful vocals, ‘Brothers’ is a broody, bluesy affair that hangs in the air long after the last melancholy note has faded. Though the band’s engineer insisted that the studio was haunted, Carney felt burdened by a different kind of lingering spirit.

“It’s just inspiring to be in a studio where such cool things happened back in the day,” he says. “You know that s—ty kids TV show from the ’80s? The premise was that these kids broke into this abandoned TV station and made their own retarded TV show. [it was called ‘Kidsongs,’ for those curious or nostalgic enough to Google it.] That’s how we felt. We couldn’t use anything in the studio, we had to bring in all outside equipment, nothing really had been recorded there in the past 15 to 20 years. Dan and I felt like, I don’t know, we were trying to breathe some life into the place.”

And then there was the incident with the harpsichord.

“We were just so bored that we were getting so f—ed up every night at the hotel, staying up watching YouTube clips of Freddy King,” says Carney. “And then I showed up at the studio one day and Dan was there, like, ‘What’s up with this f—ing harpsichord?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ My manager said, ‘You called me and left a message at three in the morning asking for a harpsichord.’ I think I specifically asked for an electric harpsichord, but they bought a real one.”

Before they started recording ‘Brothers,’ both Auerbach and Carney embarked on side projects. There was the Blakroc collaboration with five MCs — including Raekwon, RZA and Mos Def; Auerbach released a solo album, ‘Keep it Hid,’ and Carney started a band called Drummer, made up of five drummers (naturally) playing guitars, bass (Carney’s role), drums, keyboards and vocals. Carney says the time apart helped him appreciate the deep bond he shares with Auerbach, who he’s known since they were little kids growing up in Akron, Ohio.

“It’s really hard to find another person that you can communicate with that easily,” he says. “We have a special bond, we kind of know exactly where each other wants to go with it, there’s no need for a conversation. Dan and I also always had a common goal. We want the same things — to make music, to be successful and not compromise our integrity.”

In addition to being a positive creative experience, recording ‘Brothers’ helped Carney get through his own personal troubles.

“I left Muscle Shoals ready to move on, knowing we accomplished something great — what I think is our best record — and a little more confident.”