El Camino: The Black Keys and that Van

Post updated 17 October 2011 with a wise fan comment


The casual observer might be slightly bemused by the iconography of The Black Keys’ new album El Camino to be released on December 6, 2011. No doubt every music journalist before long will have the opportunity to ask the obvious question about the van’s significance on the album artwork and the album name’s car reference. The Black Keys Fan Lounge doesn’t profess to have any specific insight except to be interested enough to join the dots of what’s on the public record at present and form a hypothesis of sorts. The Black Keys’ have a rich history of car talk and van travel.

The Black Keys' album El Camino cover

We won’t dwell at this time on the other obvious question as expressed in this tweet by a fan george_matthews regarding the album name that describes a car and the actual van type:

@carneymichael @patrickcarney I’m filled with joy. Just 1 question, why a (sweet) dodge caravan instead of a real el camino?

These quotes from the El Camino album press release by Pat Carney express some of the importance of a beaten up old van:

Drummer Patrick Carney said of the band’s recent success, “We’ve taken the long road to get where we are. It’s pretty cool to be in your early 30s making music with your best friend. We’ve experienced everything from driving a thousand miles to play for no one to winning Grammys.” Auerbach further describes the band’s dynamic, “We don’t talk before we play. We don’t practice before we record, we just fly by the seat of our pants.” He says of El Camino, “I think where this record is going to shine for me is playing the songs live. This record is more straight ahead rock and roll—raw, driving, and back to basics.”

The press release sets the themes for discussion of the new album, El Camino. Pat harks back to past days and band mythology when he and Dan drove around the USA in a cheap van, a 1994 Plymouth Grand Voyager as it turns out.

One of the first trips they made as a new band was also with Pat’s brother, Michael. Michael Carney is, of course, responsible for all The Black Keys’ art direction.

“El Camino” translates to “the road, or the path” in Spanish. The 94′ Voyager and the album name have no physical or literal connection to a Chevy El Camino. The Black Keys appear to have used this title to portray their early struggles as a band, namely touring across the country in a beat up mini-van.

Pat and Dan spoke about those early days of touring in this January 2011 interview on the NPR radio show, Fresh Air:

GROSS: Well, I have a very probing question for you. You had mentioned earlier that you were earlier spending a lot of time driving around in your minivan doing concerts, and the minivan was really old, and it smelled like pee. And you said there is a story behind that. So let’s hear it.

Mr. CARNEY: Oh, you want that story?

GROSS: Yeah, I want to hear the pee story.

Mr. AUERBACH: That’s from Seattle, right?

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah, that’s – our first tour ever, we kind of got this, like, mercenary booking agent to book a tour as a favor to…

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah, by the end of the tour, the booking agent was in hiding.

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah, seriously.

Mr. AUERBACH: Yeah, okay, go ahead with the story.

Mr. CARNEY: So he booked us this tour as a favor to this guy, Patrick(ph), that put out our first record. And, you know, my dad helped me buy this $4,000 minivan, and we got in the van with my brother, Michael(ph), and we drove around the country playing a three-week tour.

So part of the deal was we had no money. So we couldn’t afford hotels or anything, and we didn’t know anybody, really. So we couldn’t stay on floors. So we were basically living in this car.

So I think it was about the seventh show of the tour, we play Seattle, Washington, and, I mean, there’s a lot of other interesting stories to this tour. This tour is a nightmare on a lot of levels.

But we play Seattle, and it’s the first show we’ve ever played where more than, like, 25 people show up at. There’s like 150 people at this show. And we are, like, really excited and…

Mr. AUERBACH: It was amazing, a place called Chop Suey, right?

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah, we were really excited. I remember we got an envelope with, like, $500 in it, and, you know, that was, like, so much money. It was going to pay for gas for the rest of the tour.

So anyway, my brother and Dan got invited to go to this party, and there was nowhere to park the van. So I decided I would, like, sleep, be the -sleep in the van and guard the van.

Mr. AUERBACH: And guard the money.

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah, outside of this bar that we just played. And there’s another bar next to it called the Manhole(ph), I believe. So anyway, I’m holding the money, I’m, like, sleeping. I wake up, and it’s like 2:30 in the morning, and I have to pee so bad.

And I look out the window, and there are, like, 30 guys in Santa Claus outfits.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: I’m so terrified. I have no idea what was going on. So I try to pee in this cup, and it doesn’t really work out that well. I get it all over the van, and I just – and I try calling Dan on our cell phone, and he didn’t pick up. I had no idea what to do. So I just fell back asleep.

And the next day, I told him about this, and they – I think they thought I was on PCP, and then we realized that it was July 25th the previous day. So it was, like, some – what was happening was it was Christmas in July at a gay bar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARNEY: So that’s what was going on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK, hence the odor in the car.

Mr. CARNEY: Yeah.

Mr. AUERBACH: Oh yeah, and that’s why the car smelled.

Mr. CARNEY: I mean, this story is – this basically, this is an epic. This is, like, “The Odyssey” of rock bands. The next day, we end up in Portland, Oregon, and we played a show to – we’ve never played a show to less people, ever. No one showed…

Mr. AUERBACH: It was disgusting.

The Black Keys’ have definitely paid their dues. Expect to hear this story trotted out plenty of times in the coming months.

Sense of place and past and grounded self-deprecating values have always marked The Black Keys ascent to rock stardom. A good illustration of this and Pat’s particular interest in cars was on show when he guest edited Magnet magazine in 2009 and noted a few of his favourite things:

Carney: My 1993 Ford Escort hatchback with manual transmission—I loved that damn car. Ran like a fucking dream, save for one potentially life-threatening problem. The front left tie rod had a tendency to snap off in transit. It happened three times, sending me into a full spin in the middle of traffic each time. I heard on Car Talk, some years after the car finally bit the dust, that this was a common issue with early-’90s Escorts. Apparently, it was some engineering flaw; the car was unevenly weighted or something, which put too much strain on the front tie rods and caused them to wear out before their time. I could have been killed. But hey, other than that, hell of a car.

Fans of The Black Keys have also, for one reason or another, been interested in what cars Dan and Pat are driving. It was in this Forum thread claimed that “Pat drives a Passat station wagon and has a MG convertible. Dan had a Subaru but now has some BMW.”

It was Pat’s MG that Pat and Dan were photographed in for the 2010 Rolling Stone interview by photographer Danny Clinch.

Dan and Pat in a MG car

After all the talk in the Rolling Stone interview of success, money, and big watches, you could be forgiven for thinking, consciously or unconsciously,  a subtle re-positioning of the band is occurring. We seem to be seeing the return to the simple proposition humble musicians who have earned their dues playing straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll; something that has always been at the heart of The Black Keys’ story. Maybe you can even say a car-related tipping point for the transition occurred when Damon Dash commssioned the Blakroc Camaro which The Black Keys subtly distanced themselves from.

Finally, The Black Keys’ have had their music used in some notable TV advertisements for car companies. The first advertisement the band ever licensed their music for Dan explained in the NPR interview was for a Nissan ad.

These are the other known car ads:


6 thoughts on “El Camino: The Black Keys and that Van

  1. This is simple. “El Camino” translates to “the road, or the path” in Spanish. The 94′ voyager and the album name have no physical or literal connection to a Chevy El Camino. The Black Keys used this title to portray their early struggles as a band, namely touring across the country in a beat up mini-van.

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