Red, white and full of the blues
From ecky to Icky, talks to Jack White about the White Stripes’ thumping good album
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