The Saboteurs: Staying The Course When Rock'N'Roll Seems To Be Dying

20 June 2019 | 10:41 am | Anthony Carew

Patrick Keeler, drummer for The Saboteurs, tells Anthony Carew about making a rock'n'roll record in a world where it feels like most music is electronic.

Pic by Olivia Jean

Pic by Olivia Jean

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The Saboteurs are a band with two names. Outside of Australia, the project – songwriters Jack White and Brendan Benson, rhythm section Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler— are known as The Raconteurs, having only changed their name here because of a pre-existing group. Whatever the name of the band, you know the names of their members. White is, of course, the guy behind The White Stripes, The Dead Weather, and Third Man Records. Benson has put out six solo albums. Lawrence and Keeler played together in The Greenhornes, and have appeared on various White projects. They’re all rock’n’roll lifers, an idea that’s at the heart of their newly released third LP, Help Us Stranger.

“One thing that we kept talking about was making a rock’n’roll record,” says Keeler, the 43-year-old drummer talking while driving along the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles. “Rock’n’roll is getting harder to get people to listen to it, and it’s getting less and less like rock’n’roll. A lot of rock music exists more in this grey area, drawing from all genres. We didn’t want to do that. We were just like, ‘Let’s make a rock’n’roll record.’

"We’re two guys from Detroit and a couple guys from Cincinnati, and we like rock’n’roll.”

“People talk about it like it’s a dying genre,” Keeler continues. “It is, in a way: it’s hard to get something on the radio if it’s not recorded on a cell phone. Everything’s electronic, a lot of stuff is produced using the same gear, it all sounds a lot alike. There’s a lot of great stuff, but it’s hard to break through the culture as a rock’n’roll band... It’s just getting harder to find, especially on the radio. It’s no longer at the centre of culture. But it’s who we are. We all came up listening to and playing this kind of music. Rather than being like those artists who’ve gone with the trends, we just decided to play like how we all play. We’re two guys from Detroit and a couple guys from Cincinnati, and we like rock’n’roll.”

Keeler is from Cincinnati, raised on the city’s outskirts in rural Indiana. Growing up, he played drums endlessly. Years on, he’s sat behind the kit for White’s solo records, Loretta Lynn, The Dirtbombs and The Afghan Whigs. The Saboteurs were founded as a songwriting collaboration between Benson and White in 2005, and their first two albums, 2006’s Broken Boy Soldiers and 2008’s Consolers Of The Lonely, arrived when White was in the midst of a wild creative output. But, by 2009, the project was dormant. Last year, White and Benson started swapping songs, and the band came back to life with no great expectations.

Given their long histories together, it wasn’t hard for The Saboteurs to hit their stride again. “I’ve been playing with the bass player, Jack Lawrence, forever,” Keeler says. “We’ve been playing together for 23 years. You can’t help but know the way each other plays, whether you like it or not. Getting that familiarity to it, again, that was awesome.”

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Even though there was a riding-your-bike sense to the return, Keeler also felt the difference, too: Help Us Stranger the result of a band now all in their 40s. “We’re all ten years older, now, we’ve all got ten years worth of stuff in between. It gives a different perspective to each of us.”

The LP takes its title, nearly, from the song Help Me Stranger, whose “‘give out to get back’” lyrics echo the record’s “good vibes”. The band first got to roadtest the finished songs early this year, in Australia, where the would-be Raconteurs finally got to feel the novelty of playing under their Australia-only handle.

“Well, it wasn’t really a novelty, it was more of a legality,” Keeler laughs. “We’d been waiting to play under the name for so long. We’d been trying to come to Australia for such a long time. We’d all been there numerous times in various different bands, different projects. I’ve always loved Australia a lot. So, it was really exciting. It felt like a really cool way to kick off this record: to go somewhere we hadn’t gone before. And be the band we’d never been before. We’d never got to play as The Saboteurs before. And then, there we were. You couldn’t ask for anything better.”