story / Gina Tron
art / courtesy of Michael Carney
Michael Carney is the art director for The Black Keys (who just recently sold out Madison Square Garden in 15 minutes!) He is also the brother of band member Pat Carney and has been designing album covers for the band since the dawn of their existence. He invited me to check out his art studio in Williamsburg which was jam packed with flea market finds, album design books, and works in progress. Also there was a piñata hanging from the ceiling. He told me that after our interview he would be meeting with a friend to watch the Lebron James. “Lebron grew up pretty close to where I grew up. I don’t know. I don’t really like sports but basketball is fun to watch because it’s fast.” Michael ain’t your average awkward artsy type by any stretch of the imagination. He’s overwhelmingly easy to talk to, the type of person you could shoot the shit with all evening at your local dive bar. But he does possess just a touch of shyness, which makes him all the more charming.
Why is there a piñata on the ceiling? I had to buy it for a project recently. I needed to take a picture of a piñata. I went to a party center and spent 20 minutes trying to find which piñata i wanted. Shot the photo, and was like, “This is cool. I’m gonna hang it up.” You know, piñatas are fun.
Do you think you’ll bash it apart someday? I don’t know. I’ve been to parties where they’ve had piñatas but I don’t think I’ve ever had a party when I was a kid where there was a piñata that I got to smash. I’ll probably keep it. I’ll throw it away at some point. Doesn’t that seem more depressing? The idea of throwing out a pinata? You walk down the street, see it in the trash and think, “Aww, that kid must have done something bad!”
What’s it like working with your brother’s band? It’s really good. We’ve worked together for so long and obviously it’s my brother so I’ve known him forever, and Dan I’ve known a long time. I was 19 or 20 when I did my first record for them. There is a huge level of trust because tastes tend to overlap. Its really cool. I couldn’t imagine not doing it.
Tell me why you decided to shoot and use a photograph of a minivan for The Black Keys album, El Camino. They gave me the title of the record, El Camino. We were stuck and then I thought, “Well, what if its a car that’s not an El Camino?’ I texted or called both of them [Pat and Dan of The Black Keys] and both were like ‘It has to be a minivan.” They both own minivans, they toured in minivans, and in addition to that the minivan sort of marked the time when we were growing up. It marked the end of an era and at the same time the beginning of the band, so I think there is a lot of significance to the idea of a minivan. With a band the first step is to get instruments, then write some songs. The next step is to get a van. It’s kind of the pre-2000 American dream.
What was your first car? My first car was a 1988 Chrysler maroon Caravan that had been my mom’s car forever. It was my ride. Real cool!
You grew up in Akron, Ohio. What do you miss most about your hometown? I miss my family. As far as friends I keep up with, there’s not a lot. There’s a lot of nostalgia there and when I think about Akron I reminisce for it. It’s an idealized thing.
Do you see yourself in NY forever? Good question. It depends from day to day. Like today was awesome. The weather was great. I think I love NY. I love being here but at the same time you walk around the streets and you see an 80 year old man with a walker trying to go down the subway steps and its like “I don’t want to be that.”
Laughs. Yeah, it seems like a nightmare to grow old here, with all the logistics and stuff. Yeah, and I think NY is very youth-oriented. And there are people who are pushing 40 going out 4 nights a week til 4 am. It’s a really specific style of living in NY which I really like and it’s exciting to be doing art and the stuff I’m doing. Anything you’re interested in you can get into in a major way, and not to say its not like that in other places but you have to work harder to find it.
Do you go out a lot in NY? Laughs. I do. It’s one of those things doing music. Different bands are coming through all the time. Probably once a week there’s a band coming through that I am friends with that I want to go catch up with. So, I end up going out more than I want to. Monday night I was out til 4am because my friend was DJing and it was like, “I need to go! He’s DJing!”
Yeah, sure! It’s an honorable gesture, supporting your friend right? It’s not just straight up partying! Yeah, then 5 hours later its like, “Wait, you’re DJing?! Where am I?”
What inspired you to move from illustration to font for the album, Brothers? I stepped back and looked at the catalog and I realized this was something we hadn’t done and wondered if there was a way we could do it and make it work with the aesthetic, with what the band is about and what the record is about. I was kind of bored with illustration. Illustration for me is a tool I try to use when I need it. I just wanted to put that down and work with something else.
The straightforward design is borderline “smart-alec”. Where did you get the inspiration for it? There were a number of records that we all really liked, that had, whether it was type-base or artwork, the term I’d use for them is conversational. As if the record was saying something, almost like an advertisement. So in the back of my head I was collecting examples of people doing that. Honestly, I was afraid to do it, but then I was like you know what, I love this idea. If us referencing these things is going to make 1 percent of people to go out and buy those other records [that Michael was drawing influence from] then I’m so stoked. If I reference other work, a tip of the hat to other records, its always records that I love.
The album art for Brothers also has a generic look. You and the band seem to have a fascination with the generic. Why so? I remember being kids and thinking that generic food was really funny. I don’t know if that came from Pat or my older brother or my dad, but at the grocery store there was the generic potato chips. The packaging of all the generic potato chip stuff was all white with bold text. It’s the typography that is so non-descript its almost artfully done. I imagine there was somebody who was type setting all that stuff and was like “Hmm, what’s the most boring font I could use?”
Well, I bet you didn’t think you’d win a Grammy for the album design! No. No. No! I didn’t think I would even get it approved! Not to say the label would do anything like that. The label they’re on have been supportive with us doing pretty much whatever we want. We’ve never come to them with an idea and have them shoot it down. But, for the first time I was worried!
What did you do the night you found out you were nominated for a Grammy? My friend and I were hanging out and my brother told me. I believe the quote was “You were nominated for a fucking Grammy. And so was I.” He called me flipping out and I was flipping out, and then I called my parents. Then, I went to some dive bar near my apartment with my friend and we did shots of Petron. I don’t know why, I was like “Yeah, shots of Petron, great idea!” I don’t ever do shots, let alone drink tequila!
Well its not every night you get nominated for a Grammy so its understandable! Were you hungover? No….After I won though, that’s a different story. I was hungover that day.
How surreal was it when both you and your brother won separate Grammys for an album entitled, Brothers? It’s so out there. It’s such a weird unexpected thing. It’s something that does not happen. In my world, in my life, what I understand about the world, that is not something that would ever happen. And winning a Grammy for artwork is in itself, crazy.
How fast was your heart beating before you were announced as a winner? My category was the third or fourth that was announced. It was pre-recorded and this Hollywood voice-over read the names. But, it started reading the wrong names, the wrong category. So it cut out and there was about 30 seconds of dead air and then they played the category. So there was even more of a buildup. I was there with all these people that are super close to me so we were huddled up, flipping out.
What are your favorite albums to listen to while creating album covers? A lot of times when I work I listen to whole albums. I almost exclusively listen to whole albums from start to finish. Which I never realized is weird until I am going through people’s I-tunes and they’d have all the good songs off album and that’s it. Recently when I was working on El Camino, I was on a big Bob Dylan kick. And, Beauty and The Beat by Edan. He’s a rapper/ producer. He samples all this old weird garage rock in psychedelic ways and then he raps over it. Every millisecond of the album there is something going on that does not repeat. It’s awesome. Or, I’ll sit down and listen to Hall and Oates Greatest Hits all day and be really stoked.
I love Hall and Oates. Fave Hall and Oats song? “You Make My Dreams Come True.” It sounds like it was written by a machine.
You like hip hop a lot. What’s your favorite genre of it? As far as stuff right now, a lot of southern mix tapes. And the early era of Wutang and also their later era. Anything Rza produced. When I lived in Columbus there was a hip hop night every Sunday night and it was the only thing I would go out for. There were all these bad vibes and trouble would go on there.
Was it worth it for the music? Yeah. Definitely.
You like any early 90s gangster rap, by chance? Definitely. I must of been in 5th or 6th grade when “Doggy Style” came out and a kid I knew bought it and he told me specifically that he bought it because he read that it was a bad influence on kids. He literally said, “Yeah, I bought it cause my parents wouldn’t want me to have it.” It’s like an after school special. No kid actually says that but he said that to me!
That is straight out of an after school special! What group would you kill to design a record for? Kill?!
What group would you love to design a record for? I used to say big hip hop artists. The weird thing is in the last year The Black Keys had gotten so big that I guess they’re the big artist to do stuff for. Personally, I’d like to do a Waka Floka Flame record. But beyond that, I don’t know man, so many people. But usually the artists I like, they usually have their shit together so I don’t wanna fuck up what they’re doing.
Well, I doubt you would fuck up their shit. Do you think your albums will evolve into new realms in the future? Art on a record is such an open-ended thing. At this point my thought process is very different than it was a couple of years ago. Its something I definitely don’t see myself becoming bored with. I can’t tell you what were doing next but every time we do a record we have initially hundreds of ideas we flush out. As long as The Black Keys are putting out records, I’ll be making designs for them.