Interview: Designer Michael Carney Talks About The Black Keys, The Grammys, and Being a Disco DJ

We’re super honored to present an interview with Michael Carney, the designer/art director behind The Black Keys (and brother of drummer Patrick Carney). He’s fresh off a Grammy win, his design for “Brothers” won Best Recording Package. We’re trying to make interviews a more regular thing here, but we can’t guarantee they’ll all be this awesome. Enjoy.

I’m going to start with a couple of obligatory questions that you’re probably sick of being asked. First off, let’s get the formal stuff out of the way, please tell everyone a bit about who you are, what you do most days, etc…
My name is Michael Carney. I was born in Akron, Ohio, and I currently reside in Brooklyn. I am the Art Director / Visual Artist for The Black Keys.

Before we talk about your work, what are some of your favorite album designs of all-time?
Another Green World – Brian Eno
Let it Bleed – Rolling Stones
Trans Europe Express – Kraftwerk

Putting visual aesthetic aside, what were some of your favorite albums from 2010 musically?
Gil Scott Heron – I’m New Here
Broken Bells
Morning Benders – Big Echo
Tyler the Creator – Bastard
Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part Two
Actress – Hazyville
LCD Soundsystem – This is happening

Are you a vinyl guy at all? What format do you prefer to listen to at home?
I collect vinyl, and I used to DJ. I listen to vinyl when I am at home, though headphones though my computer is usually how I listen when i am working.

I’m interested in hearing more about you DJ’ing…what kind of stuff did you play? Where did you usually play out?
I mainly played disco, not string arrangement and horn disco, but more minimal groove-based disco. I DJ’d a lot when I lived in Columbus, Ohio, I had a monthly DJ night and would play at a few other things around town. I have not DJ’d since I moved to NYC.

What’s your turntable/stereo setup like? Anything fancy? How big is your record collection?
Not really a fancy stereo set up, I have really good Mackie Monitors hooked up to my computer. I own like four turntables and probably 14 crates of records, though alot of my collection consists of 12″ singles, so I could use to get rid of alot of that.

Any particular genre or era you’ve been scouring the shops for lately?
Minimal synth, proto-techno, early electronic, kraut. early Detroit stuff, early Miami stuff, post disco, pre miami bass… lots of vocoders and 808s.

How did it feel to win a Grammy? Did getting nominated and winning change your opinion on traditional awards format or cement it?
Winning was unreal. Getting nominated never really felt like something that could happen, so I guess unreal is a good way to describe it. As far as my opinion on the award itself, I am honored to be among such an amazing group of artists and designers who have received this award in the past.

What was the whole Grammy experience like? What happens after they escort you offstage?
It was crazy just to be walking the red carpet, i stood next to Rick Ross at one point, Bieber looked at me. After you win you go get your picture taken and do interviews and stuff. It was a long day, the pre-telecast is where like 90% of awards are given out and after that is over you have to rewalk the red carpet, then go to the actual telecast.

Do you have another job or does working for the Black Keys and freelance gigs comprise your day job mostly?
I have a 9-5 job doing t-shirt graphics at a fashion label. I have done that the last four years to in order to curate my freelance work, so that I don’t have to work on stuff I don’t want to just because I need money.

The thermo-inks on the Brothers CD was pretty surprising. Have there ever been any design plans for past records you really wanted to implement but got cut for budgetary reasons?
I was excited to be able to use the thermo-ink, but in the past I have usually been able to do what I ask for in terms of type of packaging and paper qualities and stuff. When I first started, you kinda had to fight to get even little things like matte paper, but now labels are willing to go the extra mile in order to make a product that people will want to buy.

How much input do you have with the merch side of things? Has there been anything you wanted made for a tour that just couldn’t get done for whatever reason?
I am in charge of all the merch for The Black Keys, I design all the t-shirts and sweatshirts and such. We have never really tried to go crazy with the merch for the band, so we have never been limited. Though I will say we have some new merch in development that will be pretty crazy once we get it finished. For the past few years, my main focus has been trying to make consistent, wearable merch that is true to the band’s aesthetic.

Some of the albums you’ve worked on, namely Blakroc, Magic Potion, Chulahoma, and Attack and Release, have designs based around hand-rendered artwork. Is the hand-drawn stuff more fulfilling than the collage/graphic design work?
I have tried to vary my style up from album to album in order to fit the aesthetic of each. The first album I hand-painted was Chulahoma and that was really scary to do and took a long time. I actually repainted it a few times. Though I found Brothers to be the scariest project to work on because it was such a simple album cover. It was so simple that it felt like a real leap of faith to turn it in, it seemed like it would either be loved or hated. With a hand-painted cover, I don’t think things end up being as black and white, they tend to just be accepted as fact, whereas design-based stuff seems like someone could call bullshit easier. But there is something to be said for having the original artwork that is used on an album cover.

Outside of the design/art world, what has been the biggest influence on your work?
Music. I collect old records and listen to tons of music, that is usually what inspires me. I like to look and see how people did stuff in the past and what I can take away from that. Also listening to an amazing album really inspires me to try and push things further.

I notice that The Black Keys do a ton of concert posters, but I’ve had a difficult time finding any from you online. Is that a medium you’re not as interested in?
As far as concert posters, I have a huge respect for the art form. I don’t do the posters for the Keys because I think it should be an organic thing where each poster is different and different artists make them. If I did one, I would want to do them all, and if I did them all they would get really boring really fast. Plus if that is a way for someone who is just starting out to make some money or get some exposure, I am totally into that. And that is not to say that’s the situation with everyone doing the posters by any means, I just think that if there is one kid out there who gets do a poster for a Black Keys show, and that helps him get work down the line, I am way into that.

Has your email inbox been filling up since the Grammy win? As your work becomes more in-demand, are there any bands in particular you’d like to tackle visually?
i have received a lot of emails, though my twitter has really been blowing up since I won. As far as my work becoming more in demand, I guess we will see. I have a few possible projects that have come up in the last week which are pretty amazing. Regarding artists I want to work with, I would love to do a real radio-pop album, like Katy Perry or Bieber, or a radio-rap album. Taylor Swift, that is who I want to work with. As far as bands I would like to work with, I dunno…if I take on a new band,  I want to do it in a way where we are building a relationship that is bigger than one-off records. The hardest project is being brought in on a band’s 3rd album and told to fix the mess that happened for the first two, because usually the band is going to be reluctant to trust you since the past art has not worked.

We can’t thank you enough for your time. Major labels, get in touch with Michael Carney to design your pop and rap albums!

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13 Responses to “Interview: Designer Michael Carney Talks About The Black Keys, The Grammys, and Being a Disco DJ”

  1. Class act. He could take a few tips from Rob Jones on proper Grammy attire, though. Just sayin’.

  2. I want to know if using Cooper Black was a pun or a happy coincidence.

  3. Great article! Thanks!

  4. awesome!

  5. How about interviewing the real artist, Mark Neil, who made all of this possible as the producer?? Give credit where credit is due.

  6. I am so impressed!! As a fellow artist/ musician, I felt obliged to comment- Great Job Guys!!! Nice Interview, and what a team!! The Black Keys have truly hit the nail on the head, and I feel great every time I’m listening to them, and holding the album in my hand, looking at it, flipping it over and over for entire song lengths, with a curly smile on;) Thank you from the bottom of my little pink heart, for sharing all this awesomeness with me and the world;) You guys rock;)

  7. Bieber looked at me.

  8. While I love the cover that he did, I can’t help but cringe every time I see Cooper.

  9. That Thickfreakness cover is superdope.

  10. Great interview! Congrats on the win!

  11. James, at least he didn’t use you-know-what ([insert despised typeface here]).

  12. [...] Reads: Redesigning MailChimp, 10 Lessons for Young Designers, Interview: Designer Michael Carney Talks About The Black Keys, The Grammys, and Being a Disco DJ, The Disconcertion of Spec. This entry was written by Courtney, posted on February 28, 2011 at [...]

  13. [...] Carney wins a Grammy for best package design with [...]

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