For over 20 years, has lived by a code. Work hard. Don’t take the easy route. Do things differently. And with each new record, he has to find a new way to make things difficult for himself. Dorian Lynskey joins him at home in Nashville to see what kind of
COVER STORY: We head down Nashville way to meet up with the ex-White Stripe and find out why he’ll always be an awkward bugger.
Who killed that fucking elephant?” says Jack White. We are sitting on two red swivel chairs in the middle of the live space of Third Man Records in downtown Nashville, a 300- capacity blue room that has hosted shows by everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Conan O’Brien. Rock’s greatest showman is drinking coffee from an Elvis mug, smoking a cigarillo and explaining why there’s a stuffed elephant head mounted on the wall. “There’s a big part of me that would love to live in an apartment with nothing but a tea kettle,” he says. “There’s also a part of me that wants to save everything that I can. I want to rescue these animals that have been killed long ago and stuffed and treated as soulless.” We both swivel to contemplate the big, grey, mournful head. “Manmade objects tell a lot about us as a society. How do you see such a beautiful thing and want to kill it? And then make a trophy out of it?” He looks entranced. “It’s a multi-level source of meditation.” There are many animal heads at Third Man. When I arrive, a dozen staff members, all wearing the label’s yellow-and-black uniform, are plotting the reissue of a Northern soul single around a table that bears a hippopotamus skull. White founded Third Man in 2001 and opened this headquarters in 2009, sandwiched between a homeless shelter and a methadone clinic. It has grown into “an amazing monster” containing a shop, distribution warehouse, live venue, recording booth, photo studio and design workshop. White designed the interior himself, and everything White designs has rules. All walls of a certain colour (yellow, black, red or blue) face the same way. No adjoining walls are clad in the same material. Nothing is ugly. “This physical space is a great representation of how his mind works,” says Third Man’s amiable co-founder Ben Swank. On top of everything else, Third Man is one man’s museum of modern American folklore, stuffed with bygone artefacts, including a vintage US Mail box, a vinyl vending machine, and the 1947 Voice-O-Graph booth in which Neil Young recorded his album A Letter Home. Even White’s philanthropy skews towards saving the past from the predations of the modern world. In 2013, he donated $ 142,000 to singlehandedly save the Detroit Masonic Temple from foreclosure. “No man owns anything,” he says. “You’re a curator, you’re a nightwatchman, you’re just the custodian of it for a brief moment in time.” He disappears into a back room for a minute and returns with a slim cardboard envelope, from which he gently draws three recent
purchases: the police mugshots of Lee Harvey Oswald and Clyde Barrow, and Lenny Bruce’s New York City cabaret licence. “These are different kinds of outlaws,” White says. “This is what we do to anybody who’s left-ofcentre: we take their photo, in different ways.” White, 42, is a burly 6’ 2”, with a snowy complexion and crow-black hair but when he’s talking about something he loves, his face glows with boyish delight. He’s warmer, funnier and gentler than his intimidating reputation suggests. When he’s amused, a startling grin pops up like a jack in the box. He’s a conscientious interviewee, listening intently to every question. Like everything else he does, he wants to do it right. Back in the ’ 90s, Third Man was the name of White’s upholstery business and its slogan was: “Your furniture’s not dead.” The record label adapted this to: “Your turntable’s not dead.” Its 500- plus releases include the world’s first hologram-etched vinyl; the first playable gold and platinum discs; rare tracks by Elvis and Marvin Gaye; new recordings from Tom Jones, Stephen Colbert and Courtney Barnett. No label has done more to make vinyl desirable and viable in the 21st century. Recently, White visited the Sony Music headquarters in New York and saw that they had introduced a vinyl store. “Now, where’d that come from?” he cackles. “You just have to laugh, to be a part of that.” This is what White has been doing all his adult life. He takes things that are dead or dying or forgotten or lost and breathes new life into them. Jack White is in the preservation business.
Jack White’s third solo album, Boarding House Reach, will come out two years and nine months after his last record, The Dead Weather’s Dodge And Burn. For such a prolific musician, this is an unprecedented hiatus. He wanted a break from touring to spend time with his children by ex-wife Karen Olsen: Scarlett, 11, and Hank, 10. “As they grow up you hold on for dear life,” he says. “It’s like they’re slipping out of your hands every week.” He still kept busy, of course. He featured on albums by Beyoncé and A Tribe Called Quest, finally cementing his affinity with hip-hop after a collaborative album with Jay-Z fizzled out. He sent a functioning turntable, suspended from a weather balloon, almost 18 miles into the stratosphere. He appeared on The Muppets, singing Fell In Love With A Girl with Kermit the Frog. With each new record, White has to find a new way to make things difficult for himself. He sometimes envies the musicians of the 1960s who had to make an album in a week, no excuses. “Independent music had taken all those rules away,” he says. “So I had to make my own constrictions. The White Stripes was nothing but constriction. We were pushing ourselves into a corner all the time and trying to fight our way out. That led to me being very, very creative. I feel like it’s better to put obstacles in my path in order to get someplace new. The hard part, when you’ve made so many albums, is how to think of new scenarios.” This time, he worked alone. As one of 10 siblings, he instinctively needs lots of people in his life but he’s always fantasised about living alone in a spartan apartment, like Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy. So he rented a two-room apartment in Nashville and went there once or twice a week for a year, until he got tired of fans pushing letters under the door. He furnished it with an army cot (for naps) and some basic equipment, including the reel-to-reel tape deck and four-track mixer he had when he was 14. “What would I do then with what I know now?” he says. “What would be different?” To avoid disturbing the neighbours, he had to run everything through the mixer and listen on headphones. Another constraint: he would compose melodies in his head, sing them, and only add the music later. Later, he developed the songs with session musicians from the world of hip-hop and R&B. White describes songwriting in mystical terms: the songs are out there and his self-imposed rules form the vessel he needs to catch them. “It’s egotistical for the artist to get in the way of what’s
There’s a big part of me that would love to live in an apartment with nothing but a tea kettle.
happening,” he says. “You’re just lucky to be there.” Lyrics are harder. White considers himself a “characteriser” rather than a singer: he imagines characters and writes in their voices. He considered releasing a video for every song, exploring each persona Bowie-style, but worried that would seem pretentious. “So I just have to sing them all under the guise of this guy named Jack White,” he says. “People take songs too literally. There’s a perception that everyone’s supposed to know exactly who this song is about, which sounds like death to me. Why would you want everybody to know that?” Of course, as with Bowie, this means that any autobiographical details can be plausibly denied. Featuring funk, electro, psychedelia, vocoders, synthesizers, spoken word, a bit of Dvorák, and something that sounds a lot like rapping, Boarding House Reach is White’s most diverse album and, he anticipates, his most divisive. “I know that certain things will upset people. It’s hard to say, ‘Man, I know that some people are going to have problems with it but I still have to put it out.’” The important thing is that he’s never made a record he can’t stand by. “I don’t know what it feels to dislike one of your own albums,” he says. “So far, every time I’ve felt like I’m pushing myself in a new direction. The public may be along for the ride at certain moments but I’m very happy with that number fluctuating.” He’s never really known where he fits in anyway. “I’m too strange for mainstream, I’m too mainstream for underground, I’m too this for that. If 16- year-olds run the internet and popular perception, what does a 16- year-old think is cool right now? The last time I put out an album, that 16- year-old was 12!” He laughs at the thought. “So of course he or she can’t be blamed for thinking, ‘Who the fuck is Jack White?’”
Long before he became Jack White, John Anthony Gillis was not like other kids. In 1986, when the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill was soundtracking street corners in South Detroit, he was the only one who knew where the samples came from. “The other kids were like, ‘So what? Who cares?’ and that upset me,” he remembers. “It didn’t occur to me that it could be cool even though they didn’t know.” As the youngest child by seven years, with a father born in the 1920s, White’s generational perspective was skewed. He has always sought advice from much older people, from punk-loving upholsterer Brian Muldoon through to Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, and has often been out of sync with his peers. “I was too mature, in ways that were off-putting to people around me,” he says. “I didn’t really party or do drugs or hang out with some dangerous weirdos in a building for weeks. There’s so many things I never did.” He offers a trivial example: “‘We’re all wearing Air Jordans and Jack, you aren’t wearing them so you’re a fucking asshole.’ And I’d be like, ‘That’s ridiculous. I’m not doing that because everyone else is doing it. I’m not falling for that.’ Whereas I should have just shut my mouth and bought some fucking Air Jordans like everybody else and I’d have had a lot better friends.” When he was 18, White was about to enter a Catholic seminary to become a priest but his all-or-nothing ethos stopped him at the last minute. “I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t I go to the natural extreme and become a cloistered monk who takes a vow of silence, and really dedicate myself to God? If I can’t go all the way, what does halfway mean?’ Years later, I saw a documentary with Priscilla Presley saying Elvis never did anything halfway. That’s kind of how I feel.” Instead, he repaired furniture, made music, fell in love with Meg White, changed his name and, in 1997, formed a band that epitomised his no-half-measures philosophy. “I couldn’t believe that people actually cared about what The White Stripes were doing,” he says. “It was always a shock to us, day by day.” The White Stripes were a throwdown: you either found them pretentious and absurd or fascinating and thrilling. “As an artist, you have the freedom and ability to turn people on to something new, something beautiful, something they haven’t thought about, something that’s not what
The White Stripes was nothing but constriction. We were pushing ourselves into a corner all the time and trying to fight our way out. That led to me being very, very creative.
everybody is doing,” he says. “And when you don’t do that, you’re being very boring and shallow, and not really living up to the responsibility of calling yourself an artist.” Not everybody warms to his defiant idiosyncrasies. The crude caricature of Jack White is a control freak, puritan, refusenik, scold: the High Sparrow of rock. He’s sufficiently sensitive to criticism to ventriloquise his detractors: “‘This guy wants everything to be on a wax cylinder and we’re supposed to live by candlelight or some stupid shit.’” The first time he revealed that he didn’t own a mobile phone, back in 2003, he didn’t imagine so many people would care. “Isn’t it my job to not do what everybody else is doing?” he says.“And are you really going to punish me for doing my job, which is exactly why you’re paying attention to me in the first place? To have opinions like everyone else seems like taking the easy way out and being a coward. It seems like nothing, but there are things that I can’t stand behind.” Fifteen years later, in the Black Mirror era of widespread digital anxiety, his scepticism doesn’t seem so quixotic. He still eschews phones and sends text messages from his computer in carefully composed paragraphs because he finds textspeak “Orwellian”. “Is that where we’re all headed? Are we going to get our conversations down to these one-sentence things? That would be a shame.” He also hates the online culture of anonymous abuse. “The avatars, the fake names, the spilling acid and running and hiding. I have a big chip on my shoulder about cowardice and I wish I could shake it. I think I was raised in Detroit too much with: ‘If you do this, you will get the shit beaten out of you.’ So when you see people getting away with it, it fucks with your sense of morality.” Recently, White announced that fans at his forthcoming shows would have to lock their phones in Yondr pouches. His original plan was to surprise people at the door and see who asked for their money back (“That would have been amazing”) but now it’s another chapter in the long-running media saga of Jack White vs the modern world. He says he just wants his audiences to collaborate with him in creating a special occasion. “People want to be put in a scenario that’s interesting for them, and the number one thing – it’s so easy it’s like shooting fish in a barrel – is, ‘Turn your phone off, you fucking little baby!’” He laughs like a machine gun. “There’s your headline.”
A few years ago, White was approached to direct The Current War, a movie about Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse’s battle for control of the electricity industry in the 1880s. He’s had filmmaking ambitions since he was an Orson Wellesbesotted teenager but when he read the screenplay he was outraged by the depiction of visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, one of his heroes. “It tries to turn Tesla into this eccentric weirdo who’s into aliens and crap, leaving Edison as a great American hero, when he’s a total villain bastard who never invented anything,” he says crossly. “I said, ‘Well, if you let me turn this around where Tesla’s the hero and Edison’s the villain…’ They weren’t down with that.” He sighs. “Maybe Tesla’s too much of a popular obscure thing. It’s almost like, ‘Oh, of course Jack would do a movie about Tesla.” As it turns out, he dodged a bullet. The Current War was pulled from release last year after the shocking revelations about its producer, Harvey Weinstein. White had his own run-in with
Why would we possibly give one human being the unbridled ability to destroy human life? And you didn’t give it to a Harvard professor or a nuclear physicist; you gave it to this dipshit!
Weinstein when he was working on the soundtrack for 2003’ s Cold Mountain, in which he played a folk-singing deserter. “People told me, ‘You have to watch out for that guy, he’s a huge bully,’” he remembers. “He tried to get me to play all these events and I kept telling him, ‘Sorry man, I’m not interested.’ He wasn’t used to hearing the word no. It didn’t matter to me because I didn’t know who the fuck he was. I wasn’t living in that world.” White is a fan of the #MeToo movement that grew out of Weinstein’s downfall. “People are finally listening in a lot of sectors that should have been listening a long time ago, and that’s a beautiful thing. Maybe that’s the great side-effect of Trump getting into office: ‘Holy shit. We did it, didn’t we? Now what do we do?’” America’s current predicament depresses the hell out of him. “It’s so disgustingly embarrassing,” he says. “And we deserve it. We deserve the scenario we’ve created. The only thing that America might learn from this is the knowledge that we’ve given one single human being the ability to obliterate all of humanity. You need 12 people on a city council to change a street sign! Why would we possibly give one human being the unbridled ability to destroy human life? And you didn’t give it to a Harvard professor or a nuclear physicist; you gave it to this dipshit!” The President figures, obliquely, on Corporation, a psych-funk rant that resembles early-’ 90s Beastie Boys. “It was the idea of running a country like a corporation,” White explains. “‘Can the average man on the street enjoy the same liberty that Donald Trump was afforded? OK, then I want to start a corporation!’” What’s Done Is Done’s eerie country-soul was inspired by the absurdity of American gun laws. “It’s an exploration of how easy it is to buy a gun and ask what is that character going through?” White says, just two hours before a 19- year-old walks into a Florida high school and murders 17 people with an assault rifle that he bought from a store. “The hero syndrome in America’s pretty ridiculous. The idea that some evil man’s going to break in and I’m going to pull out this magic weapon and save the family? That never happens. Statistically, you’re more likely to shoot yourself or hurt someone you love by accident. But he who holds the gun is the hero, and we’ve been taught that since we were babies.” Last year, White made a surprising cameo appearance in British politics when Labour supporters set the words “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” to the indelible riff from Seven Nation Army. “I’ve heard about it but I don’t know anything about Jeremy Corbyn,” he says apologetically. “I don’t really know who he is. I’ve been depressed about politics since Trump came on the scene so I kind of lost interest in the world.” When White wrote that riff in 2002, he thought it sounded like a James Bond theme. It’s since become ubiquitous as a chant in sports stadiums around the world. It used to surprise him that Seven Nation Army was so big, despite not having a chorus, but it became a phenomenon because it doesn’t have a chorus. “It’s arguably the biggest multicultural hit of all time because nobody’s singing any words; they’re chanting a melody,” he says. “Anyway, whatever. We spent very little time on it and moved on to the next song.”
You have to completely sacrifice everything about yourself to art. If you really care, you realise you never get to go home again. It’s a sad thing. That brings me to tears at times.
It reminds me of something he said about why he paid well over a million dollars for a copy of Action Comics # 1 from 1938. The comic book is so rare because nobody knew how iconic this new Superman character would turn out to be. “Some of the most beautiful things happen when people don’t realise how important they are at that moment,” he said. Maybe that seven-note riff is Jack White’s Superman.
White’s studio is housed in a compact block on the seven-acre grounds of his home on the southern outskirts of Nashville. It stands near an upholstery shop, a bowling alley and a coop for three rare white peacocks that, he’s discovered, can’t roam free without escaping. “I’ve almost raised these little slave creatures and I keep them in a box for my own personal pleasure,” he says glumly. “I need to sell them because I feel horrible about it.” If yellow and black signify work to White, then red and white remain the colours of musical creativity. Almost everything in the studio obeys The White Stripes’ candy-stripe binary, from the vintage Coca-Cola dispenser to the toilet-roll holder. Above the mixing desk hangs a very large, very strange photograph of Michael Jackson, swaddled in so much sportswear that I don’t even realise it’s Michael Jackson until White points it out. “It almost seems like was he ever here to begin with?” White says, taking a seat. “Was he from some other planet? It was inhuman, his talent.” This morning, White has assembled four musicians and two engineers to rehearse songs for the tour. The vibe is loose and friendly as they work on recreating complex new songs like Connected By Love, a synthy soul ballad, and Over And Over And Over, a riff monster which sounds surprisingly like Rage Against The Machine. They finish off by tearing through something more familiar: the White Stripes’ Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground. The White Stripes became, in the end, one scenario that White could not control; one beautiful thing he could not preserve. For this A+ student of rock history, it was also that rare twist for which he could not find a precedent. White wrote and produced every song, conceived every visual, led every interview, but as soon as Meg had had enough – effectively 2007, officially 2011 – it was over, and he still doesn’t fully understand why. “It’s not easy for me to categorise,” he says, jiggling his knees with agitation. He only slept for an hour and a half last night and he seems more vulnerable than yesterday, his voice more husky. “It would be easier if I was in a band and could say the guitar player’s on heroin, the band’s over.” He shakes his fist and laughs. “Damn you, heroin!” Still, what’s done is done. “I think everything’s meant to be. If I was living in a trailer, sitting around for 10 years waiting for someone to call me, that would be pretty depressing, but I had so much going on.” That includes the solo records, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, Third Man and numerous one-off projects but White still thinks The White Stripes is “probably the greatest thing I’ll ever be involved in. For lightning to strike twice is pretty rare. But the people who come to see me play aren’t coming to see some nostalgia act who’s playing his old band’s songs. ‘Remember this one, kids?’ That would be depressing.” So White continues to take the path of most resistance. For his music to be worthwhile, it has to be interesting; for it to be interesting, it has to be hard. It’s as if this is his God-given calling: his alternative priesthood. What has he had to sacrifice in order to do this? “Everything,” he says. “Everything.” He clasps his hands into a pillow and leans against the window, as if he’s about to go to sleep. “You have to completely sacrifice everything about yourself to art.
If you really care, you realise you never get to go home again. It’s a sad thing. You can go back and visit and wave to it, but you can never go home. That brings me to tears at times.” His voice trembles slightly. “Even in those moments of taking children to school, it still to me seems like I’m playing house, or it’s a holiday from what I’m supposed to be doing.” It must be exhausting sometimes, being Jack White. For over 20 years he has lived by a code. Work hard. Don’t take the easy route. Do things differently. Don’t be afraid. And, even now, retain some mystery. “If you put out the things that mean the most to you, people will tear them apart,” he says. “When I do music or interviews I can only give you a sanitised version of what really drives me and what I really love. I can’t give you the real things because they could get walked all over, and they’re too precious to me. It’s a shame because I see other artists that are able to tell you everything that’s on their mind whereas I’m spending a lot of time protecting the things that I love from getting destroyed.” He pauses and laughs helplessly. “It’s stupid. But I don’t know what else to do.” Jack White is in the preservation business.
I saw a documentary with Priscilla Presley saying Elvis never did anything halfway. That’s kind of how I feel.
White Stripes to pin stripes: at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts festival, 14 June, 2014, Manchester, Tennessee.
Two of a kind: The White Stripes’ Jack and Meg in 1999.
You muppet! Jack White and furry friends in 2016.
“Anybody NAME in there?”: HERE Jack White keeps an eye on things, Nashville.
White and his black car: West Nashville, 7 February, 2018.