15 May 2021

The Black Keys on hill country blues: 'It's almost like a religious service'

From Music 101, 7:15 pm on 15 May 2021

The Black Keys' Patrick Carney tells Music 101 how finding hill country blues as a teen changed his life - and it's come full circle with the band having just released a covers album of their favourite songs.

The Black Keys members Dan Auerbach  and Patrick Carney

The Black Keys members Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney Photo: supplied

When he was a teenager, finding hill country blues changed The Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney's life - it was a foundation of the band. Things have now come full circle - they've just released a covers album of their favourite songs.

Their 10th studio album, Delta Kream, features eleven Mississippi hill country blues standards including songs by R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, among others.

Delta Kream was recorded at Auerbach's Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville, where they were joined by musicians Kenny Brown and Eric Deaton, who are long-time members of the bands of blues legends including R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough.

Click here to buy/stream Delta Kream

Carney told RNZ "If it weren't this type of music my life would be completely different. I know that sounds like a cliché thing to say but it's true.

"When I was in high school there was this band called the John Spencer Blues Explosion and I used to go and see them play and I'd buy their records and they made this record with someone called R. L. Burnside and I had no idea who he was.

"I went and bought an R. L. Burnside record and saw this label called Fat Possum from Mississippi and I just kinda of got immersed into a lot of the releases.

"It just so happened that there was a guy who lived around the corner from me and I wasn't really tight with at all called Dan who was also into this music and we both figured out we were into this weird blues music. It was very random that we lived very close and could not be friends and find out that we were both into this stuff and we started jamming.

"I was a guitar player. I started playing the drums only because Dan was so much better than me at guitar and I that's what I did. I'd play drums and he'd play guitar and there was this guy called T-Model Ford and he had a band that was just him and a drummer so that's what we would do. We would do this two-piece thing.

"This story actually gets a little more interesting. Dan and I kind of jam at high school, part ways and go to college. Then we find ourselves back living at our parents' house and Dan has this bar band playing at college bars and he wanted me to record them.

"I set up a time for him to come to my house to make the recording and the band didn't show up. And it's just him and I."

Carney ended up playing the drums after a year-and-a-half - despite his concerns, Auerbach thought that'd make it better.

"We went down and made this demo, in one afternoon we recorded like five songs and I mixed it and gave him a CD and he loved it, he said we should start a band and boom, we hit it off, had a record deal.

"The demo we made was all covers of R. L. Burnside. So that's how it started. We always put Junior Kimbrough songs on our first couple of records.

"But since we had our biggest successes we haven't done much of this music at all so it just so happened that Dan was making this record for his label, Easy Eye, for this artist Robert Findlay, and he asked a slide guitar player from Mississippi called Kenny Brown to come up and a bass player called Eric Deaton - and these two guys have played north Mississippi blues all their lives, including with Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, who Dan and I were completely obsessed with.

"So they were up making this record and Dan said they finished early and wanted to know if I wanted to come and jam and play some of those songs at his studio so we went over there and we just jammed like when we made that recording of that first demo. We just off the cuff played these songs and made a record in a matter of hours. So that's how the thing came about."

What is hill country blues?

"The genre of north Mississippi blues, hill country blues, everyone is familiar with blues, which is like this 12-bar thing, and it's similar, but the hill country stuff to me there's more of a drone element and more of a rhythmic element to it and it has more pep in it and the structure is much more insane.

"It's hypnotic music, it's droney, repetitive music, and that's the aspect of it that was so striking when I first heard it and Dan first heard it because it was like hip-hop in a way... it felt mystical, it felt truly spiritual to hear it. It can really take to you to a different spot.

"So Junior Kimbrough, one of our artists we are paying tribute to on this album, he would play these songs that we're doing for about 40 minutes and it's almost like a religious service or something. So that's the best way it can describe where Delta Kream came from and what it is."

Delta Kream

The Black Keys Delta Kream album cover.

The Delta Kream cover. Photo: The Black Keys

The recording was made in December 2019 and it was not until the end of the next summer that they decided they should put it out.

"My hope is that this record can do the same thing that the John Spencer Blues Explosion did for me which was they put this music on the map for me."

But it was hard to release the songs individually.

"These aren't singles... this is a different type of music... it's meant to be digested as a whole set."

The album name comes from a photograph by photographer William Eggleston, of whom the Keys were a big fan.

It's a photo of drive-up ice cream shop in Mississippi from the early 1970s.

"When we made the record and put it out we were like 'what should we call this thing?'. And Dan was like 'I don't know but maybe we should use a William Eggleston photograph'. I was like 'dude there's no way we can afford that'. He said 'why don't we just ask?'

"So we both found one we liked and we sent each other the exact same photograph. We didn't even have to name it, Delta Kream was the implied title... it just seemed perfect."