Jack White's got something left to prove
For a man who’s finally committed to going it alone, Jack White has a lot of foot soldiers to wrangle these days. As he gets set to hit the road for his debut solo album, Blunderbuss, the man who brought us the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather is thinking about logistics. White isn’t going into battle by himself. Never one to do the expected, he’s enlisted two separate backing bands for his live shows, one made up of women, the other of men. It’s a crapshoot as to who will appear on-stage with him on any given night; which city gets which lineup will be game-day decisions.
What White isn’t leaving up to chance is the preparedness of his support units. Reached at his Nashville home, the rock ’n’ roll legend acknowledges that he’s got a lot on the go. On this day, his time is divided between amusing his two small children and finalizing plans for back-to-back shows at the hallowed Grand Ole Opry. All this is keeping him insanely busy, even by his admittedly over-scheduled standards.
“Once we got the record made, which was a lot of work, we got the idea of having the two bands come on the road,” White notes. “So that led to a lot of weeks of rehearsals, having these two bands, and then driving back and forth between them every day. It was about getting different versions cooking of the same songs. And also getting everyone used to the idea of not having set lists on-stage. It was a much larger task than I thought, trying to figure out how to pull that off with that many people on-stage. It was easier to do in the White Stripes—you could just take a left turn in the middle of a song, and start something new. It’s quite different with six people around you.”
The challenge for him and his recruits, he suggests excitedly, is bringing something new to the table.
“You can rehearse a song a thousand times, and it doesn’t really matter how tight you get it, or how much you jam it to keep it loose and keep it fresh,” White explains. “Until you actually get out on the road and play it in front of many people several times, it doesn’t really become something new. You have to go out there and drive it around the block a few times before everything comes together and really goes somewhere.
“I mean, it’s too easy to learn a song note for note and play it like it is on the album,” he continues, disdain suddenly seeping into his voice. “Big deal. Anybody could do that. I want to take it somewhere new and have an energy level that you can’t experience on a record. I want something that can only happen that night, where everything can almost fall apart. It’s a hard thing to do, but when you pull it off, it makes the whole thing worth it.”
And with that, the man born John Anthony Gillis sums up what’s made him the most fascinating artist of his generation. Blunderbuss hasn’t been out long enough for anyone to get sick of it, and White has yet to do his first full tour with nothing but the name Jack White on marquees. Nobody would be disappointed if he rolled into town and played the album faithfully front-to-back. But even though he’ll admit to missing the White Stripes more than fans will ever know, White isn’t interested in living in the past. Like every trailblazing rock icon that’s come before him, he understands that the only way he’s going to conquer the world is by charging forward with something game-changing and new.
Even though it debuted at number one on the charts—a first for any of White’s various projects—Blunderbuss isn’t a record that sinks its hooks in on first listen. The songs are indescribably, awesomely all over the map, unleashing everything from sweat-sprayed ’50s R&B (“I’m Shaking”) to son-of-a-preacher-man soul (“Love Interruption”) to church-service country (“Blunderbuss”). Because White throws one curve ball after another, it takes a few spins to truly appreciate the genius of what he has pulled off. This pleases the 36-year-old immensely.
“The best albums take at least two or three listens,” he suggests. “All of my favourite records are like that—they aren’t instantaneous. Like the Stooges’ Fun House, which I think is the best rock ’n’ roll album ever made. The first time I heard it, I was like, ‘Um, I dunno—this kind of sounds loud and noisy, not like the first Stooges albums, or like ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’. But then it just hit me—Like, ‘Holy hell!’ And you want that. You really don’t want people to like the songs the first time that they hear them. You want them to grow.”
Perhaps well aware that he was taking a risk by rebranding himself as something more than a crank-the-amps guitar slinger, White was careful about who he got feedback from during Blunderbuss’s creation.
“Most of the people that I played it for were women,” he reveals. “I don’t like to play music for men. For some reason, I think there’s too much cloudiness with men—too much territorial, egotistical competition with male musicians. I always feel like I don’t get an honest response. With women, it seems like you can really tell, immediately, if they are emotionally attaching themselves to a song.
“The second thing and the most important people that I like to play music for are children,” White continues. “If they don’t like it, they’re not going to lie. You can play anything that you’re thinking about releasing as a single for a group of children, and whichever one that they like, that’s going to be the hit.”
Blunderbuss doesn’t lack for the distortion-scorched rawkers that have served White well ever since he first roared out of Detroit with the White Stripes; there’s enough serrated guitar firepower in “Sixteen Saltines” to annihilate the most powerful seven-nation army.
At the same time, the record is a bold statement, even by the songwriter’s already unassailable standards. Consider how White meshes together speed-jacked piano plinking and Ink Spots–strength crooning in the super-suave “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep”. And the way that “Take Me With You When You Go” mashes golden-era country, porno-soundtrack jazz, and dream-theatre pop into something too sweet for words.
Ultimately, Blunderbuss confirms White as nothing less than a legend. Consider all that he’s accomplished over the past decade. When he first surfaced with drummer Meg White in the Stripes, rock ’n’ roll was a dormant art form, with the turn-of-the-millennium world fixated on superstar DJs and rave culture.
That changed, seemingly overnight, with the band’s landscape-shifting White Blood Cells, released in 2001. Oozing style and armed with hooks that transcended the band’s then-novelty status as a two-piece, the White Stripes sparked a full-on pop-music palace coup. Suddenly, good old-fashioned guitars and grimy dives seemed sexier than turntables and glitzy megaclubs. Forget wanting to party with Felix da Housecat and Tiësto; Jack and Meg White touched off a rawk explosion where, suddenly, it was all about the Hives, Strokes, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. If the White Stripes had never existed, you have to wonder where the Black Keys would be today.
Amazingly, going platinum with Meg wasn’t enough for White. Even as the Stripes were cementing their status as a global powerhouse, he proved tireless, first launching the pop-oriented Raconteurs with singer-songwriter Brendan Benson, and Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler of the Greenhornes. Evidently not one for downtime, White brought us a death-blues-bombed third band, the Dead Weather, in 2009. Mixing things up once again, the guitarist, who started out as a drummer with the mid-’90s alt-hillbilly act Goober & the Peas, slid back behind the kit, turning frontperson duties over to Kills supervixen Alison Mosshart. Side dalliances included acting in the Nicole Kidman hit movie Cold Mountain and moving into producing, most notably with Loretta Lynn’s critically lauded comeback album Van Lear Rose.
Somewhere along the way, White found the time to haul up stakes and move to Nashville, and establish a home base for his Third Man Records. Tellingly, it’s not just a label, but a Warhol-style creative hive, the company’s headquarters including a recording studio, live venue, practice space, lounge, and record store. Awesomely, the Third Man building is carefully colour-coordinated, with the inside mostly blue or red, the outside primarily yellow and black, inspired by the record label’s logo. Employees are required to wear yellow and black. Think Sun Records crossed with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
All this suggests White had absolutely nothing to prove with Blunderbuss. Not surprisingly, he didn’t see things that way.
“I get bored with the idea of being complacent,” he says flatly. “I feel a responsibility—not really a guilt, but responsibility—to the word artist. That’s a heavy, heavy word to say out loud, to even think of yourself as an artist. A lot of people throw that word around. If someone who’s 80 years old comes up in an airport and says, ‘What do you do for a living?’, if I have the gall to say artist, instead of musician or producer or whatever, I’m really going to be responsible to that word—it’s not an excuse to not work.
“So I push myself,” White continues. “I gave myself over to it a long time ago—gave myself over to not having a normal life or a normal experience, to not coming home and sitting on the couch and watching TV at night. I don’t get to have that. That was the sacrifice. But the good things that have come from that, the experiences and the things that have been created that didn’t exist before, I owe a lot of respect to.”
As part of that respect, White has learned to appreciate the idea that rock ’n’ roll is a business. The last-born in a working-class family of 10, he had nothing handed to him growing up in inner-city Detroit. Before music started paying the bills, he ran his own upholstering company, titled Third Man Upholstery, the blue-collar ethic from that period of his life never leaving him.
What he also took away from that job was a deep-seated appreciation for aesthetics.
“For a long time I didn’t care about money—I’d get a cheque for reupholstering something and think, ‘I’m going to buy some gas and pay the phone bill and the electrical bill, and then it’s going to be gone.’ I was more into the creativity and the cartoony-ness of the job. When I started putting out records, I wasn’t interested in the money, but more in getting mom-and-pop stores interested in carrying something like vinyl records. It became like little challenges to myself to involve novelty, and also beauty and romance, in what I was doing. I love tricking myself into thinking ‘What if I was 12 years old, and I walked into Third Man Records?’ There’s a P.T. Barnum aspect to how I like to present things.”
That was more than evident in the White Stripes, who were famous for their attachment to the colours red and white. That colour scheme, White suggests proudly, was one of the big things that helped turn a new generation onto the blues.
“So many people were like, ‘These are art-school students—how dare they say that this is the blues?’ ” he notes with a laugh. “Like, if we’d worn blue jeans and T-shirts, that would have made it real. That’s so stupid. I always think that’s funny.”
White no doubt finds it hilarious, then, that he’s embraced the colour blue for Blunderbuss, a record noticeably removed from the Delta-blasted sonic template adhered to by the White Stripes. The album’s cover and accompanying artwork is a cool, cadaver-coloured hue, that colour tweaked for his live setup.
“People think my interest in aesthetics is always premeditated, which I also think is really funny,” White says. “I usually stumble into things really awkwardly. I really love that part of it. The Third Man Records colours of yellow, white, and black came from Third Man Upholstery, which were the colours of my power tools and hand tools, which were all yellow, white, and black. With this record, I had a baby-blue Telecaster that I kept using, and also an old, public-school RCA amplifier that I was playing through. I kind of built things off of that. That’s the lighting element that we’ll be using live on-stage. I love the way that, on the most tiniest level, the tools you are using can go all the way to a huge stage show, and that it has meaning the whole way there.”
To further illustrate where he’s coming from as he prepares to launch his latest assault on the world with Blunderbuss, White tells a story. Recently, he found himself in New York. Because he is who he is, he was able to score tickets to a Saturday Night Live taping featuring Will Ferrell and Usher. Watching Usher, White got to thinking about how Usher fans probably have no clue who Jack White is, the same going for those who love Nicki Minaj, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears, all of whom he makes a point of praising.
“Their fans don’t give a flying fuck about what I do,” he says with a laugh. “And that feels really good and bad to me. It’s so interesting to me, because it shows it’s impossible to understand fame and popularity and the mainstream. If you took Tom Cruise down the street, and knocked on a hundred doors in a neighbourhood, everyone would know who he was. With me, maybe one or two would know who I was. I’ve never been interested in celebrity at all—I’ve never pursued it. I’ve never hung out at L.A. parties, or networked and all that jazz.
“You can be in this business, and you can be in it for a 100 different reasons,” White continues. “Some people are in it just for fame, or just for money, or just for attention. Or just to get things, or to prove something to somebody, or because of some childhood problem they are trying to overcome. It’s funny how many different ways you can be involved, and it all interests me. It’s great to shake hands with Usher, and think about where his world is, and where my world is, to think about what parts collide and what parts don’t have anything to do with each other. Again, it’s interesting.”
You can call Jack White a lot of things, then, including a style-conscious visionary, a rock icon, a guitar god, and the commander-in-chief of not one but two mobile Blunderbuss mini-armies. He doesn’t care about any of that. He’s too busy plotting his next big move to pay attention to such flattery. And his motivations, ironically, given the amazingly long list of things he’s already accomplished, are really quite simple: because that’s what great artists do.
Jack White plays the sold-out Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Sunday (May 27).
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