In a testament to the bond between Jack White and Brendan Benson, the Raconteurs founders haven’t needed a band to maintain their friendship. So even though the supergroup they put together with bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler went dormant for almost a decade after 2008’s Consolers of the Lonely, it’s not like the two songwriters went their separate ways.
Living in the same city—Nashville—helped White and Benson stay in contact, and not just when it was time to record the Raconteurs’ comeback album, the recently released Help Us Stranger.
“We have kids and they hang out together,” Benson says, on a conference call with White from a Los Angeles tour stop. “Thanks to the Nashville contingent and Third Man, we’re all kind of like a family. We get together for dinners and have parties and that kind of stuff. But also we’re all kind of busy—if we’re not doing the Raconteurs, chances are we’re doing something else very time-consuming.”
Indeed, Lawrence has filled his schedule playing and recording with acts that include the Greenhornes, City and Colour, and the Dead Weather (which also features White). Keeler has been occupied not just with the Greenhornes, but also with work as a touring member of the Afghan Whigs. Benson, meanwhile, decided to step back from his solo career to focus on producing and hired-gun writing with others.
White famously kept the busiest schedule of all after the Raconteurs fulfilled obligations for Consolers of the Lonely, bouncing between the Dead Weather and three critically acclaimed solo records: Blunderbuss, Lazaretto, and Boarding House Reach. Somehow, in the middle of constant touring and writing for those projects, he found time to oversee the expansion of his Third Man Records empire. (The multifaceted company now includes a label, a booming record-pressing plant, and physical stores in Detroit and Music City with recording and live-performance spaces.)
All that means White is usually the man responsible for, well, everything, which is why he’s glad to be part of a team with the Raconteurs.
“It’s a blessing to be able to share the load, especially with people that you trust,” he says. “And people whose taste you trust, and with these guys I really do trust their taste in the same way that I trusted Meg in the White Stripes.”
Intense is a good basic description of Help Us Stranger. The album hits harder than Consolers and the Raconteurs’ 2006 debut, Broken Boy Soldiers. This time out, the guitars are blistering, the drumming louder and more frenetic, and the production fantastically overamped on numbers like the rolling-thunder opener, “Bored and Razed”, and the turbo-blues detonator “Help Me Stranger”.
Benson attributes part of the rawness to the equipment (much of it amassed by White) that was at the band’s disposal.
“We made it at Jack’s studio, and he’s got a great amp collection,” he says. “Like, lots of little amps that break up nicely and record well. Everything is kind of set up for big, loud sounds.”
But White suggests that the way Help Us Stranger turned out can’t be entirely tied to technology, vintage or otherwise.
“The sound isn’t really chosen by us—it’s more that the four of us get together and start playing, and then it becomes a sound without any of us saying anything out loud,” White offers. “There’s no sitting down and going ‘We’re going to do a quiet song, or a bluesy song, or a country song.’ Something just comes out and then everyone plays along because they want to make it better.”
Most important, White continues, the members of the Raconteurs know that each idea—arriving from whatever astral plane—is a gift that’s not to be forced into a box.
“I think it’s very hard for people who aren’t songwriters—and that’s not meant to be an insult in any way—to understand how songs come together. I think that maybe 90 percent of people think you go ‘I’m going to sit down and write a song like the Rolling Stones—something that sounds like something off of, say, Sticky Fingers.’ That’s not what good songwriters do. You never do that, unless you’re a person with no original ideas at all. You start with having something come out of you. You work with it a little bit, manipulate it a little bit, but mostly you don’t try and control it. You’re just a bystander, which is a beautiful process.”
And out of that process come beautiful things. One of the most powerful moments on Help Us Stranger comes at the end of “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)”, a song Benson came up with the basic template for. After swinging between easy-going MOR country and monolithic riff rock for two-and-a-half minutes, it almost grinds to a complete stop. What then follows builds from a soft acoustic-guitar mantra (“I’m here right now/I’m not dead yet”) to a sun-flooded, all-hands-on-deck celebration.
“Just like everyone else, I have my dark days,” Benson acknowledges. “ ‘Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)’ is a song that I happened to write on one of those dark days. It’s funny, because it’s kind of becoming a bigger and bigger deal every time I talk about it. Truthfully, it’s just one of many sad songs that I have. I think it’s a really good song and I’m really proud of it. And what I’m most excited about is the optimism at the end.”
And that optimism about where the Raconteurs go from here is strong for the two friends.
As this decade hurtles to a close, rock has been written off as a dying art form. As much as White is a massive fan of hip-hop, which currently rules pop music, he’s heard this story before.
When the White Stripes broke big-time with White Blood Cells in 2001, rock was also considered dead in the water, killed off by rave culture and what was then known as electronica. Right from when the Raconteurs returned to the stage for Help Us Stranger, White and Benson have seen crowds packed with kids.
“The audience was much younger than I anticipated,” Benson says. “I thought it would mostly be our fans, but just older. But there’s a whole slew of new fans now, and they are young kids. I was really glad to see that.”
And while that was a surprise, maybe it shouldn’t have been.
“We thought that the White Stripes would never connect with the mainstream because, at the time, no one gave a damn about rock ’n’ roll anymore,” White recalls. “That’s happened many times in history—it’s like ‘Synthesizers have now become more popular than guitars. It’s happened something like 27 times, and it’s nothing new. What is great to see is that, every few years, you get a new crop of kids who want to go to concerts and listen to guitars. That’s pretty incredible.”
The Raconteurs play the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on July 19 and 20.