On August 18, 2009, in Salt Lake City, I was privileged enough to sit down with Jack White — variously a White Stripe, a Raconteur, a Dead Weatherman (and arguably the most prodigiously gifted American musician to emerge in the last decade) — and walk back through his career from pre-Stripes Detroit to present-day Nashville. These are the outtakes from an interview that ran as the cover story in the 150th issue of Uncut magazine——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
RBP: In an interview about two years ago you looked back to childhood and conjectured as to why you didn't "swim with all the other fish" at school and elsewhere. You said you were looking for something deeper, maybe in religion. When did music become part of that search?
JW: Probably in early childhood I didn't know any different, and I think that's sometimes how I reflect on it now when people say the word "fun": "Did you guys have fun playing that show last night?" "Did you have fun recording the album?" And I always want to answer that question honestly because "fun" is such a strange word. Fun is like an amusement park or playing baseball or something. Is it fun to make music and record it? I don't really know if it's supposed to be. I know that when I was a little kid, there was that excitement about it. Every time I sat down to play, something new was happening, and it was about these little tiny accomplishments, like learning how to play a drum fill or play along with one of the records I liked. I don't think I ever thought of it back then as anything different from anything else, like going outside to play army men or something.
You talk in the film It Might Get Loud about the "punk ideal" as "our chance to put you down..." Did your early feelings of alienation take you in a punk direction?
When I saw the film, I wondered what I was even talking about during that part of the interview. I wasn't even sure I agreed with that or what context it was in. I know in a different sense that there's a spot where my voice and presence doesn't cloud the intention of what I'm saying as much as my opinions or ideas that are stated out loud are maybe treated with an air of believability or given the benefit of the doubt.
Growing up in Detroit — an inner city that had been left to rot — did you later feel anything in common with Eminem?
No, he's from the suburbs and I'm from the city too, but he's a lot like the kids I went to school with. He reminds me of them, which is... a turnoff!
Why did your family stick it out in the tough Mexicantown neighbourhood, do you think?
It's a good question. I don't know. I don't think my family are the kind of people who would run with the crowd. We don't have that kind of mentality. But at some point I think maybe it wasn't very healthy. Someone asked me whether they should send their kids to the high school I went to in Detroit and I was like, 'I don't know...' I said, 'It's great to have all this diversity and go through these struggles in these rough neighbourhoods, but at the same time I look back and I don't feel like...' I don't really know, I can't really decide whether it was good or bad. It's like saying I was in the Bataan death march in World War II and it made me a better person — I mean, it's still a horrible experience, you know?
Did Meg have a very different childhood in Grosse Point?
I can't really say. You'd have to ask her.
It's curious to me that you're the youngest of 10 when your drive and determination would suggest the pathology of a firstborn. Do you still feel like the baby of the family when you get together with your siblings?
Yeah, very much so. My mother's the youngest of ten children too, so we have sort of have a special bond in that we know what that feels like. It's a strange spot to be in. And not only that, but I was raised by senior citizens too — my mother was 45 when she had me, so when I was in high school my parents were the same age as my friends' grandparents.
Has the ritualism of Catholicism had any effect on you as an artist?
Yeah, I think you can't really escape any kind of spiritual education as a child, whether it's New Age or Judaism or Buddhism or whatever it is. You can't escape it, even if you completely disagree with it, you still have it as a foundation that you base things off of. It's the first thing that you say, well, I either agree with this or I don't. Like, if I got into Buddhism later on, it would be in its contrast to Christianity. The interesting thing about Catholicism is that the word means "universal": it's a beautiful word, really. But I'm not really a religious person, I more just think about God and man's interpretation of God. It interests me, though: I read about all kinds of religions.
What sort of records did you listen to with your teenage pal Dominic Suchyta? Whose records were they, and did they include things like Son House?
No, we hadn't gotten there yet. This was the late '80s, so it was a bad period in terms of what popular rock and roll bands were out there. I didn't know many people who were sharing their record collections with me: Dominic was probably the only one I knew who liked rock and roll at all. We were going backwards and listening to '70s and '60s rock and roll, Jimi Hendrix and the Who and all that. By the time I was 16 I was getting away from the white-boy blues generation. I was finally digging deeper, though I think what led to it first was Howlin' Wolf. We got Howlin' Wolf when I was in a band with my brother Eddie and Dominic and I started playing together. Eddie wanted to do 'Sittin' on Top of the World', the Howlin' Wolf version. So we got that album and loved it, and then once we got to that level I started moving left and right of Howlin' Wolf to see what else was cooking. There was no way you couldn't have hopped over from that to Robert Johnson and everything else.
How do you look back now on musical life before the White Stripes? Were any of those bands going anywhere?
No. And neither were the White Stripes! And to talk about experiences that are maybe bad or good for you, that was a good experience. I thought, 'I don't care anymore, this is what I like.' We made three albums before we got signed. So it was fulfilling and safe, because it didn't have any worries about fame or trying to get anywhere.
How about '60s garage rock — did you also discover all those sneering protopunk bands like the Sonics, the ones playing those stompy Bo Diddley riffs?
Dominic and I liked Fugazi and Flat Duo Jets, which I got to from working at the upholstery shop. Those were those punk influences coming up, and then by the time, a few years later, it had turned into probably one of the Nuggets box sets started coming out. And we started playing in Detroit in that whole garage-rock scene, and I learned a lot about it really fast. I didn't really know about a lot of those bands, but most of the garage-rockers in Detroit were record collectors, and I was envious of them when I met them, and they embraced the White Stripes and I started seeing that they had all grown up with lots of friends listening to records after school. A lot of them had worked at record stores and had gotten so much influence from so many bands that I never could have had a chance to hear. I was jealous because I felt like I was ten years behind these guys. They just knew — from going to work every day — what albums to get and what albums not to get. The problem that I started to not like was that a lot of them were aspiring to idols that they thought were purposely not succeeding.
So how did you get to Son House and company?
One of the first things was just the name 'Son House'. What the hell was that name about?! I had gotten into Robert Johnson and it felt really, really compelling and beautiful. So I was there. But then at a Radiohead show that I went to as a teenager, [Son House's] 'John the Revelator' was playing, a capella. And no one I was with knew who it was, so I went looking and that was how I got to 'Grinning in Your Face'. So it was Howlin' Wolf to Robert Johnson to Son House, and then to Charley Patton after that. When I first got Charley Patton — this was after I was out playing shows with the White Stripes, maybe around 1999 — I didn't understand him. I got Blind Willie McTell and Blind Willie Johnson and was absorbing them, but Charley Patton, I don't know! But now, I love him so much. It's so great to purely love the music when you're listening to it. By now, the confusion of the garage rock scene is such a bizarre filter to have: it surrounds you, and it becomes socially antagonistic. I'm trying to not like things just to tell people this is what I like. It's like, 'I've got this obscure record and you don't.' So to finally have Charley Patton connect with you is such a great thing. It's not like trying to trick yourself into believing a painting has artistic significance because everybody else says it does. When it's music, when it really does connect with you, you know it because you can only really do it by yourself. Because you can't trust the people around you, you can't trust that they're truly getting it the way you're getting it. They can tell you and you can't believe it and you can share it and you can hope, but you don't really know.
What ultimately was it about hearing those grainy old blues recordings — was it something heroic and lonely and emotionally almost primal?
It's just so truthful. It is the truth to me — musical truth. It's broken down to its simplest component. The romance of it, too, the timing of it — the recording technology of the time, and the fact that they even bothered to record it — is just so perfect. It's like the frame around the picture.
Did you know you belonged in the South when you heard that music?
Detroit had a lot of southerners because of all the car factories. Every time I talked to someone with a southern accent, it always felt like, This is an American... when someone has a Northern accent you don't know — you could be from Canada.
What life lessons did you take from working in the upholstery business?
Well, from Brian's shop it was perfectionism to the hilt — to the last nail and the last tack. He's got it down to the last wrinkle. And I just recently rebuilt my shop in Nashville, so I've got it back going again. But I learned to take a step back from perfectionism: that there's beauty in not achieving it. The pursuit of it is interesting, but the actual achieving of it can be a disaster at times — especially with technology, and the sounds that come from trying to achieve perfect recording. There's a balance going on there. I'm glad I had perfectionism in the mix, because I think a lot of artists don't get that in the mix. Like, if you come up through punk you think, 'Well, I can just do anything — and it's punk!' But if you have a mix of that with the perfectionist side, then something interesting can happen.
Meg remains a mystery for many of us, even if we understand that she may in some way hold the key to your success. Is she the Moe Tucker of the 21st Century, some kind of naïve genius?
There's a lot of it that that she doesn't understand herself, and doesn't understand what she's providing to the music that's being made — or even, iconically, to the world. And how identifiable it is, and how inspiring she is to people. I don't know if she can really comprehend it. Part of her doesn't care, even if it's true.
Is she ever bemused by the success and fame she's experienced as the drummer in the White Stripes?
She's an enigma to me. I don't really know what she takes from it, in a lot of ways. My ears prick up when she actually mentions something about what we've done. I'm so interested to hear what her take on it is. But it quickly dissolves into, 'I don't know what she's taking from that... I'm just so happy that she knew that we played that one show!' [huge laugh]
You've said that 'Screwdriver' was the first song you did together. What else do you remember about the early days of the band?
Meg wanted to do 'Moonage Daydream' by David Bowie. And I thought, well, that's great, 'cause I wasn't doing anything. I thought, if we just left a lot of space in there and hit the notes here and there, then all the space would provide something interesting and we wouldn't really need to know how to play these instruments. I still wasn't that great of a guitar player, in my own space at the time, either or anything. I was like, I'm really a drummer so I'm not really not supposed to be doing this. But I'll do it because there's someone else that wants to make music for a second, which is hard to find. So that all felt good, and it actually felt way better than I expected. I'd been in other lo-fi bands and done recordings but it wasn't powerful like that. It didn't make a point.
How did you meet Dave Buick? What do you remember about signing to his Italy label?
He wanted to put out a 45 vinyl of the band. I asked him how much it cost at the bar, to which he began to tell me about the expenses incurred for a single from the factory. So I told him, 'We don't have that kind of money.' I didn't understand that he would of course be paying for it. After a few days he explained it to me, so we ended up doing two 45s in the end.
As a matter of curiosity, given your cameo in Shine a Light, did you listen to Beggars Banquet and Exile on Main St. when you were a teenager?
We had Beggars at the house but not Exile. But 'Loving Cup' was an interesting choice from Mick because that used to be the walk out music on the speakers at the end of White Stripes shows.
What suggested the concept of doing Elephant on the cheap in London?
I liked the Toe Rag sound, and had gone to test it out with the song we did with Holly Golightly. I loved Liam's studio.
Elephant confirmed that there was something so unique and almost obtuse about the White Stripes — like you were just out there on your own, outside the indie rock scene. Was it vital to establish your own little principality within pop culture?
It was strange because Elephant stayed in the can for almost a year. We had to wait for White Blood Cells to die away before we could release it, which we weren't used to. But then I remember we played it for a couple of journalists, I think, when we done mixing at Toe Rag, and they didn't seem to be salivating, so I started to wonder. And then neither of the labels in the US or the UK wanted to put 'Seven Nation Army' out as a single, which was baffling because I was insisting. It's so hard to tell right at the moment — even when people are excited all around you — whether the next move is right or not.
Success brought you right up against the media's need for what you called "dissection". Having just grappled with the life of Tom Waits, is it fair of me to perceive parallels in the way you've protected yourself against the awe and envy of the world?
I don't know what to think or do with any of that. There have been times that I wanted to disappear, and times where I've posed gladly for photographs. I think it takes a lot of trickery to keep up with the media and its perception of you. I don't know if I have it in me most of the time to care. The music is made first, and the interviews or photos to keep it alive come later as a necessary evil, I suppose.
Is it essential to keep things new, to keep reinventing yourself — both to keep yourself creatively alive and to hold the attention of your audience?
I'm trying to find that balance where there's creativity and art to it, as well as keeping myself afloat. But I can tell you, it's harder and harder to come up with these tricks. You sit down with these labels and they say you need to do this and you need to do that, and so much of it is unappealing. At least with Third Man there are twelve records that wouldn't have been made if I hadn't built this building. The Dead Weather wouldn't have happened. And I think everyone who becomes involved in these ideas knows from the beginning that this isn't necessarily something we're gonna do for the rest of our lives. It might be something we just do for now.
Was moving to Nashville, and setting up the studio complex there, ultimately a matter of pragmatism? I mean, you could have taken things to some extreme and holed up in the backwoods of Mississippi.
It's got everything that I want. I feel bad that I've ended up having to talk about it so much. It would have been nice not to make such a stink about the move. But I guess I was such a purveyor of and pusher of Detroit music that I had to defend myself. I just played Detroit last week and it was a sad experience for me. But it was a sad experience when I was a teenager. At my high school all the windows were busted up — an abandoned gorgeous hundred-year-old building that's just been left for the rats. I actually spent some time just sitting there looking at it, and I don't have any fond memories of high school anyways. But just the idea of that building looking the way it did, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Are you going to become some kind of hip mogul figure with the Third Man setup? Is there any danger of burning yourself out or spreading yourself too thin?
If the songs aren't any good then maybe there's too much going on, but I haven't felt that yet. It all feels inspiring so far, and they're all things I'm proud of.
There has been mention of a singer-songwriter named Mildred — anyone else you want to flag up at this stage?
There are lots of new acts coming out — we've done twelve records this year. One called Transit that's made up entirely of Nashville bus drivers. The B-side "after party" was the first rap I recorded in my studio. A very intense session with 15 people crammed in the room.
Given that Icky Thump boasted some of the most outrageously visceral playing of your life, what new paths lie ahead for the White Stripes?
We've done a little bit of recording, but mostly playing. I mean, I've just been working on so many records in the last year. I'm working on five seven-inch records right now.
There was a quote from you I read the other day, which said: "I want to be part of the resurgence of things that are tangible, beautiful and soulful, rather than just give in to the digital age." Does it sometimes feel like you can't express misgivings about the internet and all its attendant gadgetry without being dismissed as a caveman?
Yeah, I've been the poster boy for it. And I'm not saying everybody has to record the way I do. I'm also getting asked 'What's the problem with music?', like they're asking everybody. And I have no opinion, which is that technology has something to do with it. I'm reading right now about when they switched to electrical recording from acoustic recording, in Edison's time, and they were having exactly the same moral and ethical debates about 'enhancing' tones that shouldn't be enhanced. What is recording? Is it a record of something that actually happened or is it a complete fallacy? What's it like to grow up in a generation where you don't know what instrument you're hearing on the radio? You just hear that noise and you don't know what's making it. And you don't care. I can't imagine being a young musician and not caring what make that sound. You used to hear someone playing an oboe and you'd think, 'I can't believe what he's doing on the oboe.' Now it's like, 'Can you believe what he's doing with ProTools?' Or it's like, 'He's really good at PhotoShop'. I mean, it's hard to respect that.
The solo single Fly Farm Blues' is just thrilling, by the way. Do you feel you can always return to the deep source that is the delta blues — that that will always be there and possess you?
Yeah, it's number one. It's the first thing on the menu with anything I'm involved in. The Dead Weather is a really dark and murky area of the blues, a place where you find bands like the Gun Club, and that's something we couldn't get to with the White Stripes or the Raconteurs.
You've spoken before about not recording solo, about being an essentially collaborative artist. Can you see yourself now doing more work on your own?
I will record any and every way for the rest of my life, but I have no long-term plans for any of my bands or songs.
© Barney Hoskyns, 2009
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