How a $1,000 credit card purchase led to the band's 2002 debut, and the shifting motivations that have helped the Grammy-winning duo navigate nearly two decades in rock music together

Prior to starting the Black Keys alongside singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach in the fall of 2001 in Akron, Ohio, drummer Patrick Carney was mired in a rough patch.

He had recently lost a job he loved at the Highland Square Theatre, which forced him to take a gig in telemarketing. He lasted less than two weeks before getting fired, never receiving a paycheck. At the time, Carney also drove a car from which the stereo had been stolen, so he’d commute while listening to a dubbed cassette of Daft Punk’s 2001 album Discovery that he played on a boom box placed in the passenger seat beside him.

“It was a low, lowly time, and I ended up basically doubling down and saying, ‘Fuck it. I’m going to go to this music store in Cleveland, Sam Ash, and I’m going to get a credit card from them and buy this digital recorder,’” Carney said by phone in September from Los Angeles, where the band was gearing up to kick off its comeback tour, which stops at Nationwide Arena on Wednesday, Oct. 2. “I had no money, but it was like, ‘I might as well get this $1,000 thing. If I have it, at least I’ll be happy because I can make music, and if I don’t have it, I can’t fucking function.’ So I bought it, and it was the best decision I ever made. It was because of buying that thing in the summer of 2001 that Dan wanted to make a record with me.”

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Carney dropped out of school at the University of Akron, where he said he felt “miserable and directionless,” in order to pursue music full-time. While the events of Sept. 11 didn’t spur the decision directly, Carney said “it probably did subconsciously.”

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A few weeks prior, Carney and Auerbach had recorded the demos that would become 2002 debut The Big Come Up. Upon release of the album, which received a glowing four-star review in Rolling Stone, things grew slowly but steadily for the band, the pair continually setting new goals and consistently reaching them as the Black Keys grew from a basement project to a Grammy-winning arena act over the course of 18 years and nine full-length albums, including this year’s Let’s Rock (Easy Eye Sound).

“You want to succeed, so you set the bar, whatever that may be,” Carney said. “‘Let’s try to sell out the Empty Bottle [in Chicago]. If we can sell out the Empty Bottle then we’re fucking crushing it.’ And you get there, you’re like, ‘Fuck, OK, we did it.’ And then you set the next goal.”

But having set and achieved goals to headline both major music festivals (Lollapalooza and Coachella, among myriad others) and arenas spanning from Los Angeles (Staples Center and the Forum) to New York City (Madison Square Garden), Carney said the motivations do start to change, and it becomes more about keeping music fun, even if “it means we play smaller venues and sell fewer records.”

“Your decision is this: You can try to make more money and risk becoming a parody of yourself, potentially, or you can realize how crazy it is that you’ve been able to maintain a relationship and a band for almost two decades,” Carney said. “And that’s what we’ve been doing and putting the emphasis on in the last year, making sure we enjoy making music together.”

The downtime between the more streamlined, aggressive Let’s Rock and moody 2014 album Turn Blue allowed the bandmates, both of whom now live in Nashville, to pursue various musical interests outside of the Keys. Auerbach released his debut with the Arcs (Yours, Dreamily) in 2015, and his second solo album, Waiting on a Song, in 2017, while keeping up a busy slate as a producer. Carney, meanwhile, produced albums for, among others, Beat Happening singer Calvin Johnson, Karen Elson and Michelle Branch, whom he married in April; the two now have a 13-month-old son.

Amid these celebratory moments, Carney also endured tragedies, including a close family member who experienced a life-or-death medical emergency and the deaths of onetime Black Keys touring bassist Richard Swift in 2018 and Carney’s uncle, Ralph Carney, a singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist who had a long professional association with Tom Waits, in 2017. The day Carney received word of his uncle’s accident (the elder Carney fell at home in Portland, Oregon, sustaining head injuries that led to his death the next day), he also learned that Branch was pregnant with the couple’s first child. “It was a slap in the face,” Carney said. “Circle of life. Here it is.”

More recently, Carney has struggled with the passing of friend and fellow musician David Berman, who died of suicide earlier this year (Auerbach co-wrote “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me” off of Berman’s 2019 album, released under the name Purple Mountains). Carney met Berman living in Nashville, and the two remained acquaintances, Berman occasionally emailing dark, hilarious missives. After Carney attended the musician’s funeral in August, Berman appeared to him overnight in a short, surreal dream. “We were in New York City, and [Berman] was like, ‘Man, you know what’s so fucked up? People now think I’m a sad motherfucker, but I was really more of a funny guy,’” said Carney, who never worked with Berman in the studio. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I know.’ And he was like, ‘Isn’t that fucked up?’ And that was the whole dream.”

Collectively, these accumulated valleys and peaks have steadily shifted Carney’s priorities, making him less eager to spend interminable stretches on the road away from his wife and young son, which has meant taking a less aggressive approach to touring than the Black Keys have in past years.

“I’ve been trying to keep the emphasis on enjoying things and taking everything in … because I know in a couple of years my son isn’t going to be a cute little cuddly kid. It’s going to be a different experience, and I want to see all of those stages,” said Carney, who still visits Akron at least a couple of times a year and wants his son to grow up with an intimate knowledge of the place that he still considers home. “I want to be in a rock band and tour, but also have a family I’m engaged with every day, where I know what homework assignments my stepdaughter has. To me, that’s more important than the music.”