CHICAGO — "You guys are on a rocketship to the moon," comedy-show host Stephen Colbert recently told his guests, Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.
Carney was stunned into silence. Auerbach laughed. For the boyhood friends from Akron, Ohio, it was a surreal punctuation point to a decade-long rise out of Midwestern obscurity into an international arena act.
"Colbert was telling us beforehand just to be ourselves," Auerbach says. "'Don't try to be funny. You'll never be funnier than my character.' But it was still pretty overwhelming. Pat was so nervous he couldn't even speak. Our first on-air TV interview was Colbert — that's just not fair, really."
If not quite a "rocketship to the moon," The Black Keys' career has certainly hit a new gear in recent years. Carney and Auerbach were packing large clubs and small theaters even before they had a song in regular rotation on commercial radio. After their single Tighten Up broke through in 2010, they've doubled their touring audience and are headlining arenas in America for the first time. (The band's nearest dates to Lexington are visits to Indianapolis on Friday and Cleveland on Tuesday.)
Auerbach isn't apologizing for graduating from the clubs into a realm where some of the band's original fans might have trouble recognizing them.
"You get to bring your own sound system when you play an arena, all the lights and visual stuff, which I think is really cool," he says. "There's something about those old arenas, where it feels larger than life. It's like walking into a (big-league) baseball or basketball game. It's on a different level, and I love that."
He remembers vividly his first arena show as a teen. "It was the Grateful Dead at Richfield Coliseum (outside Cleveland), and I had no idea what was going on. I didn't know about drugs, the whole culture, the Deadhead thing — my eyes were wide open for four hours."
When he and Carney started playing music together, they had no aspirations to get popular enough to ever play an arena, let alone get played on commercial radio.
"We were so far removed from the music and entertainment industry," Auerbach says. "The idea of making something 'catchy' enough was just not in our vocabulary. We were just trying to please ourselves. We'd make 10 or 12 songs, put them together and there's an album. It gave us a reason to go out and play more shows."
For their 2010 album, Brothers, their attitude changed, due in large part to the influence of producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, with whom they recorded their breakthrough hit, Tighten Up.
"Before Brothers, we were playing to 15,000 people in New York City, we'd built ourselves up as big as you could without having a radio hit," Auerbach says. "So the next logical step was to push ourselves to see if we could write a catchy song, and we did. And we did it without compromising."
On the band's seventh and latest studio album, El Camino, Auerbach and Carney tightened their relationship with Burton, bringing the producer into the songwriting process. It was a major departure for the duo, who previously had kept the songwriting completely in-house.
"It was difficult at times," Auerbach says. "Some days it worked great. Some days it was just infuriating. You gotta lose any kind of insecurity. It was a totally different way of thinking for me. This record was way more about melody and less about lyrical content. The lyrics had to fit into the little square we created for the melody. We didn't want to take a year making it, so I was coming up with lyrics that fit into the melody and doing it fast. For Brothers (the band's previous album), all the lyrics were written ahead of time. It was more free flowing, not so strict on the melody side. This was a different challenge. In a way, it was like Motown: How many different ways can you say, 'Oh, baby, baby'? It was all about the catchiness of the tunes."
Auerbach says he's not concerned if some fans miss the looser, more expansive sound of the band's earlier albums.
"I never gave a (expletive) about solos," he says. "Guitar solos bore the hell out of me. Only a few guitarists interest me, and it's not about the solos they play, it's about the grooves they create. I'm really not worried about what fans think. We love them, but we don't make records for them."