THE LAST ROCK STAR

Exclaim! - - FRONT PAGE - BY ALEX HUD­SON

When he an­swers Ex­claim!’s phone call, he’s in Nashville, try­ing to fig­ure out how on Earth to bring his synth-heavy, com­puter-cen­tric new al­bum, Board­ing House Reach, to the stage. For a guy who rose to fame play­ing pri­mal garage-blues with the White Stripes, this is an en­tirely new chal­lenge, and he sounds prac­ti­cally giddy about it.

“There’s no doubt that these are the most dif­fi­cult songs I’ve ever re­hearsed,” he gushes. “They’re very com­pli­cated to play. It re­quires trig­gers and sam­ples and drum ma­chine loops and two key­board-syn­the­sizer play­ers.”

Sam­ples, loops, syn­the­siz­ers — this isn’t your dad’s Jack White. Be­fore now, he’s been known as a retro re­vival­ist charged with res­cu­ing rock mu­sic from the evil clutches of rap and EDM. As block­buster rock’n’roll has dwin­dled in pop­u­lar­ity, White has car­ried the torch as one of the genre’s only A-lis­ters who can still gen­er­ate both com­mer­cial suc­cess and critical ex­cite­ment.

“When­ever I watch TV or lis­ten to the ra­dio, I al­ways think, ‘Aw man, I don’t even know how I fit in with any of this,’” he ad­mits. “I’m too main­stream for the un­der­ground world, I’m too un­der­ground for the main­stream world. I don’t fit in any­where.”

With his swag­ger and on-stage bravado, he’s cut from the same cloth as Jimi Hen­drix, Mick Jagger and Janis Jo­plin. A few decades ago, that would have made him a rock god; to­day, it makes him the last of the old guard.

Jack White’s place in the rock’n’roll pan­theon was ce­mented dur­ing a 2002 sound­check in Aus­tralia, when he com­posed a sim­ple seven-note riff that is now one of the most rec­og­niz­able mu­si­cal mo­tifs in the world. That melody, which be­came “Seven Na­tion Army,” is chanted at sports sta­di­ums around the globe, the kind of riff that every young gui­tarist learns.

In­stead of pan­der­ing to the gui­tar afi­ciona­dos who idol­ize him, how­ever, White is now in­tent on push­ing but­tons. “I’m sup­posed to pro­voke peo­ple’s thoughts and peo­ple’s ideas,” he as­serts. “That’s the whole rea­son for putting songs on a record and putting them in stores and go­ing on stage. I’m sup­posed to share some­thing with them. And the easy way out would be to cater to the per­son who just wants me to record ‘Fell in Love With a Girl’ or ‘Lazaretto’ over and over again, and then keep writ­ing 55 songs with heavy riffs in them. That’s just bor­ing to me. I just don’t have the pa­tience to numb my brain that much.”

In lieu of churn­ing out blues licks, White spent the years since his last solo al­bum — 2014’s Lazaretto — rub­bing shoul­ders with artists from out­side of his rock’n’roll wheel­house. He was a fea­tured guest on Bey­oncé’s Lemon­ade, played gui­tar on A Tribe Called Quest’s farewell al­bum We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Ser­vice, and recorded a scrapped col­lab­o­ra­tion with Jay-Z.

“It’s won­der­ful to work with any artist who does things com­pletely dif­fer­ently than I would,” he says. “It’s not my zone, it’s not my house, it’s not my record — they’re the ones call­ing the shots, and I get to be just the song­writer or just a gui­tar player or just a vo­cal­ist in their world.”

Along the way, he was grad­u­ally writ­ing solo ma­te­rial in a bare­bones apart­ment he rented spe­cially for the pur­pose in Nashville. He would go there alone, record­ing demos on the same reel-to-reel tape recorder he first bought as a teenager. Fol­low­ing fast and fu­ri­ous full-band ses­sions in Nashville, New York and Los An­ge­les, he took the record­ings back to the lab for an in­ten­sive ses­sion of sonic tin­ker­ing.

As he worked, he drew on some of the skills he picked up dur­ing his many col­lab­o­ra­tions. “Any­thing you do with other peo­ple, it sticks with you for­ever,” he muses. “Work­ing with Neil Young or Wanda Jack­son, all those mo­ments have stuck with me and they will stick for­ever.”

While White has long been an ana­logue purist, his hip-hop col­lab­o­ra­tors were ac­cus­tomed to work­ing with com­put­ers. As Board­ing House Reach be­gan to take shape, White in­cor­po­rated a few of his new tech-savvy tricks, us­ing Pro Tools to metic­u­lously edit to­gether his band’s free­wheel­ing stu­dio jam ses­sions into con­cise songs.

This cut-and-paste method, com­bin­ing ana­logue record­ing with dig­i­tal edit­ing, re­sulted in wildly ex­ploratory ar­range­ments that de­con­struct and make hair­pin struc­tural shifts. “Re­spect Com­man­der,” for ex­am­ple, be­gins with swag­ger­ing MPC beats and loom­ing riffs be­fore sud­denly ramp­ing up into a jit­tery collage of syn­the­sized or­ches­tra stabs and bluesy break­downs. Sim­i­larly strange, “Get in the Mind Shaft” be­gins with an over­ture of cin­e­matic synth strings that’s pure Blade Run­ner be­fore mor­ph­ing into a squelchy slab of elec­tro-funk.

The al­bum’s 13 tracks are an any­thing-goes patch­work of gen­res. “Abu­lia and Akra­sia” is less a song than it is a the­atri­cal spaghetti western mood piece, while “Hyper­miso­pho­niac” is a post­mod­ern mashup of bar­room pi­ano and queasy synth whirrs. “Over and Over and Over” is the clos­est thing to a riff-driven rock song, but even it con­tains pe­cu­liar pitch-warped har­monies.

The song that’s likely to raise the most eye­brows is “Ice Sta­tion Ze­bra,” a beat-driven num­ber that dives head­long into hip-hop and fea­tures no-bones-about-it rap­ping from White. Ac­cord­ing to the song­writer, rap is some­thing that he’s of­ten flirted with through­out his ca­reer.

“I’ve been sneak­ing it un­der the radar and no one re­ally no­tices,” he says. “I’ve ba­si­cally been spit­ting lyrics in ‘Icky Thump,’ ‘Lazaretto,’ ‘Black Bat Li­corice’ — all the way back to early White Stripes songs like ‘The Big Three Killed My Baby’ and ‘Can­non.’ I’ve done a lot of spo­ken-word de­liv­ery that peo­ple didn’t re­ally no­tice.”

Now, he’s ready to un­abashedly em­brace his rap in­flu­ences. “I can’t lie and say that’s not what I’m try­ing to do,” he con­fesses. “The power of a kick drum in hip-hop is dif­fer­ent than the kick drum you find in dif­fer­ent types of al­ter­na­tive mu­sic. I envy that 808 sound, where that kick drum is right in your face. You can spend hours try­ing to record a real kick drum and try to get it that pow­er­ful. And it’s right there at one press of a but­ton.”

That kind of pro­duc­tion short­cut is ex­actly the kind of thing that used to make White un­com­fort­able. This time, how­ever, he says that his ide­al­ism fell by the way­side: “If that’s what makes the sound — if it’s a ma­chine or a com­puter or a syn­the­sizer — that’s what I want to use.”

Board­ing House Reach rep­re­sents a new chap­ter in a ca­reer that, more than any­thing else, has been a quest for au­then­tic­ity. As a teenager in Detroit, White be­came trans­fixed with the raw emo­tion of early blues­men like Son House and Robert John­son; now 42, he’s still ex­per­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent ways to achieve that level of hon­esty. Back in his White Stripes days, it meant strip­ping his songs down to their bare essen­tials with vin­tage gear and a begin­ner-level drum­mer. In more re­cent years, his com­pany, Third Man Records, has been at the van­guard of the vinyl resur­gence, and White is widely re­garded as a nos­tal­gia fetishist who hates new­fan­gled tech­nol­ogy. Case in point: when he hits the road this year, cell phones and other pho­to­tak­ing de­vices will be banned from shows.

White’s rep­u­ta­tion as a Lud­dite is at least partly de­served. While the lyrics on Board­ing House Reach are largely as es­o­teric as the mu­sic it­self, there are mo­ments when his trade­mark cyn­i­cism bub­bles to the sur­face. On the spo­ken lul­laby “Ezmerelda Steals the Show,” he qui­etly in­tones, “Fools de­sire dis­trac­tion and not take to heart. Their faces to their gad­gets fall south, ig­nor­ing the beauty of fog on a hill and a kit­ten with a mouse in its mouth.” On the jit­tery “Cor­po­ra­tion,” he yelps, “I’m think­ing about start­ing a cor­po­ra­tion! Who’s with me? Nowa­days, that’s how you get adu­la­tion.”

And yet, when White speaks modern tech­nol­ogy, or young peo­ple’s de­clin­ing in­ter­est in rock, there’s no bitterness in his voice — a lit­tle re­gret, per­haps, but no venom. “Mu­sic is in an in­sane amount of com­pe­ti­tion with videogames, Net­flix, the in­ter­net, et cetera,” he re­flects. “That’s a lot of com­pe­ti­tion, and it’s no sur­prise that cer­tain forms of mu­sic are go­ing to suf­fer from that. Jazz, blues — how many teenagers like jazz?”

White has two kids of his own, Scar­lett (age 11) and Henry (age 10), and they’ve be­come a sound­ing board for his mu­si­cal cre­ations. “I get to look at art through chil­dren’s eyes di­rectly every day,” he en­thuses, his voice filled with won­der. “If I play my new record for my kids, it’s so bizarre the things that they like. I’m like, ‘Re­ally? You like that melody?’ It blows my mind.”

Hav­ing got­ten his chil­dren’s seal of ap­proval, it’s now time for the rest of the world to hear Board­ing House Reach. The al­bum is not a sure bet for big sales — but nei­ther was leav­ing be­hind the White Stripes at the peak of their com­mer­cial pow­ers to dab­ble in spinoff projects like the Racon­teurs and the Dead Weather. Nor are any of the quirky projects he un­der­takes as the boss of Third Man Records, like re­fur­bish­ing a coin-op record­ing booth from the 1940s, send­ing a record into space, or break­ing a world record by re­leas­ing a vinyl sin­gle less than four hours af­ter it was recorded.

“Third Man Records is such a beast that is con­stantly evolv­ing and needs to be fed fuel,” White says. “We show avant-garde films now on 16mm pro­jec­tors in Nashville, and we have po­etry read­ings, and we put live-to-ac­etate con­certs on con­stantly with un­der­ground acts. We don’t spe­cial­ize in any genre, from hiphop to coun­try to rock to blues. It’s just a life­time of cre­ativ­ity that I can put into that world alone, let alone my own stuff.”

This is a man who says he’s never ex­pe­ri­enced writer’s block, who has so many brain­waves that he’s con­stantly play­ing catchup on ideas he had years prior. While other big-ticket rock stars have faded into ob­so­les­cence, White has thrived by never los­ing his cre­ative hunger.

Ul­ti­mately, the elec­tronic flour­ishes on Board­ing House Reach are an ex­ten­sion of the same rest­less drive that has been push­ing White to­ward great­ness since be­fore his mu­sic ca­reer be­gan, back when he ran a one-man fur­ni­ture re­pair shop in the ’90s called Third Man Up­hol­stery.

“When I opened my own up­hol­stery shop, I never had to ad­ver­tise, never had to take out an ad in the Yel­low Pages or any­thing,” he says. “I started my first cou­ple of projects and all of sud­den, work just kept com­ing to me word-of-mouth. Peo­ple told their friends, their rel­a­tives, and all of sud­den I was never out of work in the up­hol­stery world.”

Barely paus­ing for breath, he con­cludes, “That’s the thing — you do what you love and you’re pas­sion­ate about and it at­tracts other peo­ple’s at­ten­tion. They want to come and check it out, they want to share in it, and some­times they want to give you 25 cents for the priv­i­lege. That keeps the ball rolling.”

JACK WHITE IS IN THE MIDST OF A BAND PRAC­TICE UN­LIKE ANY HE’S EVER EX­PE­RI­ENCED. I’M TOO MAIN­STREAM FOR THE UN­DER­GROUND WORLD,

I’M TOO UN­DER­GROUND FOR THE MAIN­STREAM WORLD.

I DON’T FIT IN ANY­WHERE.

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