Red, white and full of the blues

From ecky to Icky, talks to Jack White about the White Stripes’ thump­ing good album

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Iain Shed­den

THE town of Old­ham in Eng­land’s north­west has a ten­u­ous link with Amer­i­can blues mu­sic. In the 19th cen­tury, Old­ham was the show pony of the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion. Its highly pro­duc­tive cot­ton mills im­ported tonnes of raw cot­ton from plan­ta­tions in Amer­ica’s deep south. It was from those same plan­ta­tions, al­beit much later, that many of the south’s blues prac­ti­tion­ers emerged.

It hardly seems like fair trade, but in the 21st cen­tury what the cot­ton town has given the US in re­turn is the term ‘‘ ecky thump’’, a Lan­cashire col­lo­qui­al­ism used as an ex­cla­ma­tion of sur­prise and fa­mously lam­pooned as the name of an English mar­tial art by English com­edy trio the Good­ies in the 1970s.

Oddly, this ver­nac­u­lar pe­cu­liar­ity crossed the At­lantic re­cently thanks to Jack White, a 32- year- old for­mer up­hol­sterer from Detroit who, along with his drum­mer and for­mer wife Meg White, has put the blues on the agenda for a new gen­er­a­tion of mu­sic fans across the world.

Two years ago White, singer, gui­tarist and song­writer for the Grammy- win­ning duo the White Stripes, mar­ried Bri­tish model Karen El­son on a ca­noe in the mid­dle of the Ama­zon basin in Brazil, as you do. It’s not known if El­son, Old­ham born and bred, cried ‘‘ ecky thump’’ as the cou­ple sailed off into the Ama­zo­nian sun­set, but she used the words of­ten enough af­ter­wards for them to have a pro­found ef­fect on her hus­band, so much so that he adapted the term, chang­ing it to Icky Thump, and stuck it on the cover of the White Stripes’ sixth album, which has its world­wide re­lease next Satur­day.

‘‘ She said it a cou­ple of times and I thought it was funny,’’ White — whose sense of hu­mour is as acute as his pas­sion for the rough- hewn, dirty au­then­tic blues that has in­spired the White Stripes’ sound — tells Re­view . ‘‘ I started say­ing it out loud when Meg and I were work­ing on the new songs,’’ he goes on. ‘‘ Soon I was start­ing ev­ery verse with that phrase, for no rea­son. It started to have a lot of mean­ing.’’

English ti­tle aside, Icky Thump is in­stantly recog­nis­able as a White Stripes album, awash with Meg’s pri­mal, rum­bling beats, Jack’s soar­ing, dis­tinc­tive and painstak­ingly crafted gui­tar chops and his voice, a boy- man squeak that chan­nels, ap­pro­pri­ately, Robert John­son, Son House, Blind Wil­lie McTell and many other great blues­men who danced with the devil and his mu­sic.

But there’s more to the White Stripes than just the blues. Tracks on the new album re­flect the pair’s pen­chant for pop, punk, psychedelia and coun­try, the last of which has been a reg­u­lar touch­stone dur­ing their 10- year ten­ure.

Dur­ing that time the band has cov­ered ma­te­rial by Hank Wil­liams and Dolly Par­ton, among oth­ers, and Jack pro­duced the Gram­my­win­ning album Van Lear Rose by vet­eran coun­try per­former Loretta Lynn in 2004. ‘‘ Not bad for a kid from Detroit,’’ he says of his gen­re­hop­ping Grammy suc­cess.

The mar­riage with coun­try mu­sic was con­sum­mated last year when White and his wife moved to Nashville, Ten­nessee, the home of Amer­i­can coun­try mu­sic, shortly be­fore the birth of their daugh­ter, Scar­lett.

Icky Thump was recorded in one of Nashville’s more state- of- the- art stu­dios, as was the up­com­ing album by White’s other band project, the Racon­teurs ( called the Sabo­teurs in Aus­tralia).

The latest Stripes record­ing marks a sig­nif­i­cant de­par­ture for the duo. Un­til now all the group’s al­bums have been recorded on rel­a­tively prim­i­tive equip­ment in rel­a­tively prim­i­tive lofts, base­ments and stu­dios. The aim has been to shun tech­nol­ogy in or­der to in­form the record­ings with a raw, au­then­tic blues blus­ter. Icky Thump has those char­ac­ter­is­tics too and was recorded, as with all of their ma­te­rial, us­ing ana­log record­ing equip­ment rather than com­put­ers. But in terms of fa­cil­i­ties, Nashville’s Black­bird Stu­dio was a step up.

‘‘ We were leery at first,’’ White says. ‘‘ We’ve never wanted to do the big stu­dio be­cause we thought it wouldn’t work. Now was the time to do it, though. A few al­bums ago it wouldn’t have been a good idea.’’

A fur­ther ad­di­tion to their reper­toire is the Celtic in­flu­ence ap­par­ent on two of the tracks from the album, St Andrew and Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn. Bag­pipes, for in­stance, are a rather un­ex­pected in­gre­di­ent in their po­tent brew. ‘‘ The tough part was find­ing a bag­piper in Nashville,’’ White says. ‘‘ Es­pe­cially [ one with] a set of pipes in the key of D. Most pipes are in B flat.’’

Prickly Thorn started as a song about a this­tle as White strummed his man­dolin, but de­vel­oped into ‘‘ a song about Scot­land. Then I started play­ing pump or­gan on it and did a demo in my house and it was sound­ing like bag­pipes.’’

Meg White sings, or rather talks, the song, a rare vo­cal ap­pear­ance for her, and the pair make their first stab at di­a­logue on a White Stripes album on Rag and Bone , a song best de­scribed as rap boo­gie. The chem­istry be­tween the two hasn’t changed since they started out, says Jack White. ‘‘ I don’t think it has changed 1 per cent,’’ he says.

‘‘ It’s the same as it has al­ways been. The great thing about mak­ing records — what we’re proud­est of — is that no mat­ter what songs we’re record­ing, we’re cre­at­ing them in the same way as we al­ways have. Maybe we’re more knowl­edge­able about the tools we use, but we’re still do­ing it the same way, which is pretty hard, I think, over 10 years.’’

The White Stripes be­gan in 1997, when the cou­ple, who mar­ried in 1994, played small shows around Detroit. Their self- ti­tled, self- recorded album was re­leased in 1999, but like its fol­lowup De Stijl ( 2000), recorded on an eight- track ma­chine in Jack’s liv­ing room, had lit­tle com­mer­cial im­pact. The cou­ple then di­vorced, but held on to their pro­fes­sional as­so­ci­a­tion.

The break­through came with 2001’ s White Blood Cells , which was crit­i­cally ac­claimed in Bri­tain, the US and Aus­tralia. The pair’s shrewd plan of us­ing only the colours red and white ( and oc­ca­sion­ally black) in their stage cloth­ing, set de­signs and album cov­ers brought them fur­ther into the me­dia spot­light, as did the fact that they were es­sen­tially a gui­tar and drums out­fit. Since then, al­bums Ele­phant ( 2003) and Get Be­hind Me Satan ( 2005) have brought Gram­mys and raised them to the sta­tus of the most suc­cess­ful rock duo on the planet. Last year they head­lined Aus­tralia’s Big Day Out fes­ti­val, clos­ing the show each night be­fore crowds of 30,000.

That kind of ac­claim has given them — Jack in par­tic­u­lar — celebrity sta­tus. His ro­mance with ac­tor Re­nee Zell­weger sev­eral years ago put the me­dia on his tail and he’s been flirt­ing with the fame game since be­fore then. His face has also adorned the big screen. He played the char­ac­ter of Ge­or­gia in Cold Moun­tain ( 2003) and ap­peared the same year with Meg in Jim Jar­musch’s Cig­a­rettes and Cof­fee . He has just fin­ished shoot­ing his role as Elvis Pres­ley in the up­com­ing spoof doc­u­men­tary Walk Hard .

‘‘[ It was] such short no­tice, I thought it was for TV or some­thing,’’ White says, ‘‘ but it’s ac­tu­ally a big- bud­get movie. I’m play­ing Elvis in 1957. The main char­ac­ter meets Elvis back­stage. It’s only one scene but it’s in­ter­est­ing.’’

White hasn’t had to cope with the sort of pri­vacy in­tru­sions the King had to put up with, but he’s hop­ing that his move to Nashville and a rel­a­tively set­tled fam­ily life will cool his celebrity sta­tus.

‘‘ You re­ally get jeal­ous of peo­ple in the coun­try and west­ern world, as they are in Nashville,’’ he says.

‘‘ They’ve got it made, man, be­cause they don’t have to worry about be­ing cool. That’s why I can envy those coun­try artists. If they get their pic­ture on the side of a bus, that’s a proud mo­ment.’’

Whether the White Stripes make it on to Nashville’s pub­lic trans­port sys­tem in any ca­pac­ity re­mains to be seen, but what­ever in­flu­ence the place has on them, one can be sure that the blues re­mains the White Stripes’s rai­son d’etre.

Through all their suc­cess and the in­flu­ences they have ab­sorbed, the record­ings of those blues in­no­va­tors such as John­son, McTell and House are the ones clos­est to White’s heart and soul.

‘‘ I can’t get away from them,’’ he says. ‘‘ They are just too truth­ful to es­cape from. You know, you can like cer­tain things, say 1980s mu­sic, tongue in cheek — ‘ Hey, I love that song’ — but it might not be able to stick with you for the rest of your life, es­pe­cially if there’s a lot of tech­nol­ogy in­volved.

‘‘ But when you get down to some­thing re­ally soul­ful like those early songs, you can’t get away from it. It’s kinda like when you hear your na­tional an­them. No mat­ter how you feel about it, it makes you a lit­tle bit emo­tional.’’ Icky Thump is re­leased through Re­mote Con­trol on June 16.

Seek­ing some soul: Meg and Jack White are in re­mark­able coun­try

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