Northeast Ohio’s Most Successful Band Begins to Cut Its Hometown Ties

The Black Keys are the biggest local-music success of the past decade. But the duo’s latest album, Brothers, could be their last as an Akron band. Drummer Patrick Carney has already moved to New York City. Frontman Dan Auerbach is still in Akron, but he’s got his eyes on Nashville.

“Akron’s a great place,” says Auerbach. “But we get to see all these great cities and spend time in these beautiful cities, and sometimes you come home and it’s a little bit of a bummer. We have to drive to Cleveland to go to Whole Foods and the West Side Market almost every week. To see an independent film, you’ve got to drive 40 minutes.”

After nine years, the Keys have sold nearly a million records. They’ve cracked the upper reaches of Billboard’s album chart: Brothers debuted at No. 3, moving 73,000 copies its first week. They’ve championed local music, seen the world, and played the biggest stages with the biggest bands — Radiohead and Pearl Jam have personally invited them to open shows. Unlike LeBron, Auerbach isn’t certain yet. But with Carney already out the door, it could be only a matter of time before Auerbach follows him.

If the Keys leave for good, it won’t be as sudden or as shocking as LeBron’s departure. But it will mark a shift in the band’s relationship with its hometown. Carney has been one of the Akron music scene’s staunchest supporters, repeatedly telling folks he’s in Ohio for the long haul. (“Devo, one of my favorite bands ever...,” he told Scene in 2008, “...the fact that they left, I hate it. When something good goes away, it’s something everybody’s missing.”)

But things change. Carney’s marriage ended in an ugly divorce last year. He skipped town and abruptly pulled the plug on Audio Eagle, his locally based record label. He recently told Rolling Stone that the group nets more than $2 million a year. Since 2005, he’s spent some of his take releasing albums by Ohio bands Other Girls, Beaten Awake, Houseguest, and Gil Mantera’s Party Dream.

Audio Eagle’s last and biggest release was Feel Good Together by Drummer, an Akron all-star group featuring Carney and members of the Black Keys’ extended family. When the tour wrapped in Cleveland, nobody knew it would be the band’s last gig. “For people who claim Ohio Pride, I don’t think just walking away is the most respectful way to do it,” says Drummer’s Greg Boyd, who’s also a member of Other Girls. “But [leaving after the divorce] makes sense to me. (Carney declined to be interviewed through the Keys’ publicist.)

Auerbach chuckles at his partner’s new zip code. “He gave a bunch of people shit about leaving Akron,” he says. “I always shook my head when he did that. There were personal reasons why [he left]. He got a divorce, but that was just one of the reasons. He’s a grown-up. He loves New York City. Quite honestly, he’s never been healthier or happier.”

Like Carney, Auerbach has generously shared the spotlight over the years. Rather than renting name-brand talent for last year’s solo debut, Keep It Hid, Auerbach recorded with locals like Kent singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield, who appeared on the Keys’ Attack and Release. Auerbach has also produced albums by Mayfield and Massillon troubadour Patrick Sweany.

In fact, it’s Auerbach’s sideline as a producer that led him to cast a serious eye toward Nashville, where he’d like to build a studio. “The idea of investing a lot of money into a proper studio in Akron, that’s not a good idea,” he says. “There’s a lot of benefits [in Nashville]. Lots of art, great schools, great restaurants, affordable housing, nice weather.”

Brothers, their sixth album, is the first Black Keys record that wasn’t recorded entirely locally. They cut the bulk of it at Alabama’s renowned Muscle Shoals studio; they recorded more tracks at Auerbach’s Akron studio and reunited with Danger Mouse (the A-list producer who worked on 2008’s Attack and Release) for the first single, “Tighten Up.”

The Keys will hit the road with the Kings of Leon later this summer. After a fall tour, Auerbach will return to Akron, maybe for the last time. He says he and Carney are actually the last ones on the scene. “Every single friend that went to Firestone High School went out of town,” he says. “They’re gone — San Francisco, Chicago, New York City. Pat and I never lived anywhere else.”

Send feedback to dferris@clevescene.com.

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