Interview: Michael Carney Talks About the Grammy Award Winning Packaging of the Black Keys Album Brothers

(Photo from www.Grammy.Com)

The Black Keys’s art director Michael Carney won a Grammy for the packaging of the the Black Keys’s album Brothers. The Black Keys also won Grammy’s for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Rock Performance By a Duo or Group With Vocals.

I interviewed Michael Carney back in December for an article that I wrote in the Other Paper when he was initially nominated.

Here is the full interview where Mike talks about what is unique about Brother’s packaging, CCAD, Columbus, and more.

Where were you when you found out you were nominated officially?

I was in my apartment in Fort Greene with my friend Mike Swen refreshing the Grammy’s website when my brother called and told me.

Are you going to the ceremony?


What was the last official ceremony that you have been to?

I guess graduation from Art School, unless a Trey Songs concert counts.

In this age of downloading…what role do you think art direction plays in what gets purchased, and what gets downloaded?

I have found in the past few years larger labels are actually willing to go over the top when it comes to packaging. It seems like right now it is really easy to get people to listen to your music, but to get people to actually buy it is a whole different story. There are so many bands that seem like they are huge because they get tons of press, but they don’t actually sell any records.

I don’t think good art direction means that a record will sell, but I do think that bad art direction could easily keep your record from selling.

Besides the accessible cover, what are some other things that were included in the art direction?

Normally art direction is mainly a stylistic thing, what colors and what fonts, how everything is executed. For this record I think the art direction was more about the personality of the packaging. Since the text was conversational (as if the record is talking to you) I think we were able to express ideas using the wording that would have been hard to communicate using just color and design elements.

Beyond all that, I printed everything that was related to this album. So we did not have to worry about the record label designing the disc, and some one else designing the stickers. This was the type of record art that only works if it is consistent, since it looks vaguely generic or not designed you have to walk a very thin line to make sure the style works in your favor instead of making your record look stupid.

How did you do the hypercolor thing?

I told one of the people at Nonesuch that I heard about color changing ink and I wanted to find out if we could source it and if we could do some test runs to find out how it works. She found a company that made it and I sent the art to a factory for mock ups. We got it back, thought it was insane so we used it. The funny thing is I didn’t really tell any one other than Pat and Dan that I used it, so when the final cds came back i got this crazy voice mail from the Black Keys management saying “the cds are misprinted. What are we gonna do…?” He was freaked out and I called him and I was like take the cd, and hold it up to your forehead for a minute then look at it. He did it and then lost his mind when he saw the heat sensitive ink.

I loved the poster insert. What does being able to freak a kinko’s copier help a designer? What is you history with b+w, flyer design?

I used to make flyers in for shows with my friend Martin and my friend Brandon. Basically the only rule was that you had to do everything in one sitting at kinkos using only what they had there and what you brought.
So we would bring old font books or rub off letters and then photos or magazines or whatever. We were working under alot of restrictions that you don’t have with a computer so I think we learned how to be very resourceful. Plus they stopped making font books a while ago so all the fonts we had were like pre 1985 so we kinda learned how to use old fonts as a way to reference something with out looking like your trying to be retro.

What did you make of your time at CCAD? What do think they helped you with? Where do you think they need improvement?

CCAD was weird. When I left to move into the dorm my brother (Pat from the Black Keys) gave me the Eightball comic with Art School Confidential in it (they made a movie out of it years later). I found that to be very similar to my experience. I thought it was kinda strange that I felt like an outcast at a place that was supposed to be only outcasts. I’m not saying that I was some emo tortured art school kid, but I made it a point to be more involved with what was going on in Columbus than what was going on at CCAD. In regards to the school itself, I honestly think if you want to go into a creative field you need to go to art school because you are given a chance to focus on your craft or your thought process. But at the same time my major was in time based media and I ended up being some sort of print artist so take that for what it is.

You are in a few graffiti crews BSA and PBJ. What is your graffiti history? What did you learn from graffiti writers?

A lot of my friends painted graffiti and it just seemed like a natural thing to do. I was never very good at it, but I learned a lot more hanging out with graffiti writers than I did hanging out with art school kids. I skateboarded growing up and I still skate, and most of the kids that painted graff skated too, so we could go skate and then go paint trains and then go to some terrible OSU frat party and drink free beer. I also learned alot about working with a limited color scheme and limited space and limited time.

What is your favorite project you’ve done outside of the Keys?

I don’t know. I have been doing this for like 9 years and I honestly feel like I am only recently coming into my own on it. Pretty much everything I have done I look back and wish I could go back and edit it. That being said I have done some stuff for Columbus Discount Records, and I love those dudes and I love working with them on stuff. I recently did some stuff for RJD2 that was pretty cool. There are some Heartless Bastards t-shirts that I did that I really like.

What is the importance of fonts?

I look at fonts like people, I either like them to have a huge family or to be really weird and have no family to speak of. I tend to use old fonts because font design as an art form died sometime in the 80’s (nerds are gonna be mad about that comment). Also I think fonts are a really good subliminal way of referencing other things, whether it is old records or whatever. Using the same font as something else is a good subliminal tip of the hat.

What was your first design?

Black Keys demo…

You were a sophmore at CCAD when you did your first National release. What was is like going to school while already working in your field?

Really weird. Everyone there was out of touch enough that no one knew about it so it was not that bugged out… by the third album (Rubber Factory) when they were getting big, it was super weird. I definately flunked a few classes on purpose so that I could get freelance work done.

What advice would you give any aspiring designers?

Stay focused, don’t look at the internet, buy a turtle neck.

What are a few Black Keys Columbus moments that stick out in your head?

Dan almost beating the shit out of some indie rocker for talking shit at the first show in Columbus right after the first record coming out. Pat and I held him back, but that guy was a real shit head, and he was friends of my friends. A few all night boozing sessions with my brother in my last apartment in Columbus, when they played at Used Kids around the first record. When they played with Beck at the LC.

What is the relationship of the Black Keys to Columbus?

I don’t know, for about the first five years I thought everyone in Columbus was mad at them, but I don’t think that is the case anymore.

What did you learn from Akron?

Science is everywhere.

You make electronic music. How are graphic design and electronic music similar?

I started making music as a creative outlet when I was struggling with the idea that almost all of the creative work I do is client based. I think graphic design and electronic music are similar because they are usually successfull or unsuccessful based on the person who makes its taste level. Graphic design is visual collage and electronic music, the way i think of it, is audio collage.