Why he’s bid farewell to “Mr Old Timey Analogue Guy”
To Liverpool, where Uncut joins JACK WHITE in his ongoing battle against complacency. White has spent 2018 touring in support of his Boarding House Reach album, the latest chapter in a remarkable career of invention and reinvention. Here, he reflects on the need to be contrary, and the highs and lows of 2018. We hear about audiophile scams with The White Stripes, the return of The Raconteurs and why there’s no more “Mr Old-Timey Analogue Guy”. As he tells Peter Watts, “It’s about putting myself in uncomfortable places and seeing what happens.”
J ack White sips his second cup of coffee and looks out over the Liverpool skyline. although it is early afternoon, White has only been up a few hours. He had stayed up all night, he explains, catching up on baseball. The World Series play-offs are taking place while White is on his latest European tour, so every night after the show he retires to his hotel room or tour bus and watches the day’s game until 6am. “This is proof that I don’t plan ahead because I would never tour during baseball play-off season,” he laughs, a man who loves the sport so much he co-owns a company that makes baseball bats.
Even without the on-field trials of his beloved Detroit Tigers, 2018 has proved eventful for White. as the afternoon progresses, he talks at length about the year’s assorted projects – album, bands, tours, the exotic emanations from his Third Man empire – as well as the long-anticipated return of The Raconteurs before taking us to meet his band. Later that evening, he charges around the stage of the city’s Echo arena like a demented buffalo. although it’s the penultimate date of the tour, there’s no indication our host is lacking enthusiasm – and critically, there’s no sign from the packed house that earlier this year he released the most controversial record of his career.
March’s Boarding House Reach, White’s third solo album, gained him an American No 1, but it also left a few people scratching their heads. Alongside bluesy sludge-rock like “Over And Over And Over” came digital effects, spoken word and a bold attempt at rapping. This was evidently not the record expected from an artist who has spent the last two decades staunchly perfecting his punk bluesman persona. Even friends were conflicted. “They would come by when I was mixing,” White recalls. “They’d say ‘Holy shit, that’s amazing!’ Then five minutes later, ‘Oh my God… are you really putting that on the record?’
“I knew this record would be divisive,” he continues. “There would be songs that people didn’t like. There were three spoken word songs. It was a way of making things harder for myself, putting hand grenades in front of myself.”
Ben Swank, one of the three owners of Third Man, was one of those advocating increased strangeness. “It needed to be over-the-top and packed with ideas,” he says. “He didn’t need to make Blunderbuss 3 at this point in his career.”
That ‘career’ has so far involved 14 studio albums spread over four different bands and covering multiple genres. White touches on all of them during the show in Liverpool. He also plays without a setlist, relying instead on the crowd’s reaction to guide him. It’s fascinating to see how this works at close quarters, as White takes his cues from the mood of the room. But even from the side of the stage, it’s hard to see how he communicates his intentions with his band. “I’d say it’s ESP but I don’t think he believes in that,” says Swank. “He’s wired into a kind of psychic understanding. When you watched The White Stripes there was very little communication between Jack and Meg, it might just be a raised eyebrow. The way he plays with no setlist and a high degree of improvisation and no safety net, there has to be a degree that these dudes get it. That stretches out across everything, from the band to the label to everybody he works with in all the different areas.” With such a vast, far-reaching empire, you might wonder how White stays on top of all this. Although it’s often tempting to peg him as an inflexible traditionalist – that dedication to analogue equipment, the uniforms, the obsession with the number three – but perhaps the random nature of Boarding House Reach is more indicative of his mindset than you might expect. White responds instinctively, but then drills down into the fine detail to get what he wants. “I worry that I’m way too spontaneous,” he confesses. “I can’t plan even five days ahead. Now my friends have children, I call them and say I want to see a movie. They say they need five or six days’ warning. I have kids but I can make it happen. I don’t have that level of planning. Spontaneity is almost a disease.” Although White is very much his own man, Swank acknowledges that Neil Young might be an “antecedent”. “There isn’t a template but they are both like lightning rods translating whatever comes to them at any given times,” says Swank. “I like artists that
“Friends said, are you really putting that on the record?” Jack white
surprise me and I still pick up most Neil Young records because at last he is still trying to do different stuff all the time. What’s the alternative? Do you want a complacent artist who isn’t trying to do anything different?”
“People think I’m some kind of control freak,” says White. “But I’ve never stood and told a song what to do – you are going to be this kind of song, and then put stuff in, force it to emulate some kind of song from the past. People want to put you in the box, it’s easier for them, and so I became Mr OldTimey Analogue Guy. Then you do something different, as I always have, and they are thrown.” W HITE’S live band include a mix of old friends and new faces. Uncut talks to all four musicians in various locations – hotel rooms, backstage and on the tour bus, a surprisingly plush vehicle with two lounges, a well–stocked kitchen and bunks. “We talk constantly about the design of tour buses,” says keyboard player Neal Evans, who has a shock of white hair beneath a baseball cap that reads HUMAN BEING. “This one is very well designed.” Evans is one of the new faces, initially recruited for the
Boarding House Reach sessions. The album was recorded with more than a dozen other musicians, and in January, White chose the band to accompany him on the road. “There were, like, four keyboard players on the recordings and at first I wanted to bring them all out and take turns, but I needed to condense it down to something workable,” White explains.
The players on the album had been a mixture of “high-level proficient musicians and more primal autodidacts”, says bassist Charlotte Kemp Muhl – one half of The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger with Sean Lennon, and who places herself in the latter category. Muhl first met White at Beastie Boy Adam Yauch’s funeral in 2012. She played in sessions in New York and describes them as “very casual... I thought he would be really intense like James Brown but he was quite the opposite.” She says it was like a “cool little family”. This sentiment comes up repeatedly – the sense that White, the youngest of 10, builds teams he can trust but whose company he can enjoy. Muhl says that as a producer, White is a “horse whisperer”, quietly supportive. Even when being interviewed, he offers several “good question” nods by way of encouragement.
The album was recorded by two different bands – one in New York and the other in LA – and then finished at White’s studio in Nashville. A big influence was White’s experience on 2016’s A Tribe Called Quest album, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4
Your Service. White wanted to record with hip-hop and R&B artists who could play live. He watched YouTube videos and then signed up contributors like Kanye West bassist NeonPhoenix. “I wanted people I’d never played with before,” he says. “People who would really branch out. If you are playing a song with a country structure with a room of country musicians, it’s going to be a country song. But if you do that same song with R&B musicians it can be totally different, and that’s the space I was looking for. It’s a very specific kind of musician who can emulate songs that were probably made from samples and constructed by a producer. That was the type of musician I thought would be fun to record with.”
One was Louis Cato, who has recorded with Q-Tip and played drums, bass and guitar on Boarding House Reach. Cato played in New York with Muhl, keyboardist Neal
Evans and percussionist Bobby Allende. “You do a rock sessions with rock cats, it’s a different kind of fun,” explains Cato. “You do a rock session with a bass player who is a singer-songwriter and a keyboardist from funk and a Cuban percussionist – it makes for a different soup. It is clam chowder versus gumbo. But Jack is the through line for all the places the record goes.”
When the album came out, some were surprised White used so much synth and electronic percussion and edited with Pro Tools. It seemed this was a betrayal from a man who had once boasted about using the oldest equipment around. White says this reading is not entirely accurate. “When we did Elephant, we told everybody that all the equipment we used was made before 1963 but that was really just a joke to us,” he says. “It was a funny line for the press release, we didn’t even know it was true. It was analogue, it was done on an eight-track and very raw but when you say certain things people seize on them and suddenly I was somebody who only worked on old equipment, like everything I do is so dogmatic.”
For the tour, White brought in two keyboardists from the sessions, LA-based Quincy McCrary from Unknown Mortal Orchestra and New York’s Neal Evans of Soulive. They were teamed with White’s live rhythm section – Dominic Davis, a friend since school in Detroit, and drummer Carla Azar, who has known White since her band Autolux opened for the White Stripes. The live band included members from all sessions, as well as two old and two new members, two white and two black. That balance might be coincidence, but with White it feels deliberate.
The bequiffed Davis first performed with White in a high school duo called The Fuck Ups, playing surf and blues covers. Even then, he says, White was experimental. On one occasion, Davis came back from college to find that White had turned a cupboard into a recording booth and stuck a plastic cup on the mic to get a rattle. But there was also a strain of traditionalism. “I pulled out one of our tapes at Third Man the other day,” Davis says. “It was, like, seven Bob Dylan covers.” The pair had discovered classic rock in their early teens, and by the time they were 16 were already getting deep into Howlin’ Wolf and Chess blues. “Playing with Jack is special for me because Jack’s is the first voice I ever heard on a recording,” says Davis. “He will still play something by Link Wray or Dick Dale that we first learned together as kids. Everything Jack does is what he has ingested coming back out. Whether it’s surf rock, blues, garage, hip-hop or soul.”
In her dressing room at the Echo Arena, Carla Azar sits on a couch in semi-darkness. You could be forgiven for thinking the gloom is deliberate, bringing some Goth cool to the interview, but the answer is more mundane. The lights aren’t working. The all-action Azar has a different drumming style to Meg White, but she and White enjoy a similar bond. During shows, he constantly careers over to her side of the stage, timing his power chords with her beats and sending a cymbal crashing to the floor in the finale. At times, it feels as if they are the only two musicians on the stage.
Azar has a deadpan sense of humour and drums in bare feet. Before the show, she gives an indication of White’s recording style. “He loves throwing people
together and making a situation,” she says. “He’ll never stop an idea before he’s heard it through. He can always press delete at the end – that’s where he has the control.” White works fast – sometimes completing a take before Azar has settled on the part she wants to play. So she’s learnt to make deliberate mistakes, forcing him to go back and do another take. “I trick him into playing what I really want to play,” she grins. “I’ve never told him that – put it in, he’ll love it.”
For Evans and McCrary, the chance to tour with White was unexpected and exciting. They had played their respective sessions and expected to hear nothing more, but then get a call from White’s tour manager, Lalo. The challenge in rehearsal was incorporating these new members as well as the complex sounds of
Boarding House Reach without surrendering White’s love of improvisation. Some songs took time to work out. Wearing dark glasses to shield himself from the late autumn sun, McCrary says, “On ‘Connected By Love’ we use a different keyboard to the one on the record and it took a few shows to get that right. It wasn’t heavy enough, it wasn’t sitting well, then finally we got it and Jack turned round and said, ‘That’s it! Don’t move it from that position!’”
Azar had it hardest, White admits. The new songs often had two or three drummers, and she had to learn to sample herself and then play over the top of her own loop. McCrary and Evans, meanwhile, had to get to grips with the “no setlist” policy, which meant learning pretty much every song in the White canon – The White Stripes, solo, Dead Weather and The Raconteurs – plus any covers he might throw in given his mood. As the new band prepared for their debut at Third Man in Nashville, the laidback Neal Evans says he could tell White was nervous. Sprawled on a sofa on the tour bus, Evans relates what happens next. “I said, ‘We got your back, man. We got your back.’ Then we went out there and it was like a bomb went off.” R EgINA McCrary mulls over the characteristics that Jack White shares with Bob Dylan. McCrary has, after all, sung with them both. She toured with Dylan between 1979 and 1985. For White, meanwhile, she and her sister Ann provided backing vocals for three songs on Boarding House Reach; then she appeared on TV with sisters Deborah and Alfreda backing White on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show
With Jimmy Fallon. gospel singers from Nashville, the sisters were unfamiliar with their latest admirer. “I’d heard Jack’s name but not his music,” says Regina. “I liked his style. It was like when I met Bob Dylan. I didn’t know who he was and he was standing right in front of me and I was thinking, ‘Who is that white man?’ It’s kind of like how we met Jack, he was there in the studio but we didn’t know he was Jack. But just like I fell in love with Bob Dylan, I fell in love with Jack. He’s downto-earth and real, very creative. A good person, not hard to talk to or work with at all.”
In London, White played a free solo show at the george Inn in Borough – London’s oldest existing coaching inn, which White chose in a nod to the album title. He was also connecting with some more personal history. “I wanted to play a small club like we had with the 100 Club years ago,” he says, referring to the White Stripe’s legendary London arrival in 2001. “It really was electric, and so hot in that room, we were just sweating standing still. It was a great one, because we thought it was just another gig and it was 100 times more impactful or exciting than we thought it would be. You don’t get those moments very much in music. We’d already done three albums and thought it was just something a few people in each town would like. I had no aspirations, we just thought it was going to be nice to have this one time in our lives when we could play a few shows in England.”
White wears the legacy of The White Stripes well. He plays their songs on stage without holding back, and many ideas first trialled with the band remain intact – the improvisation, the colour scheme, the relationship between drummer and guitarist. “Let’s also not forget The White Stripes were a pretty experimental band,” says Swank, pointing out another link to Boarding
House Reach. “It’s a very weird thing that band were as popular as they were, it makes no sense.” Although White seems to have extraordinary self-belief – and
Boarding House Reach is, if nothing else, a very confident piece of work – he admits he has moments of self-doubt. When he’s recording new songs, he says, he likes to pretend he’s doing a cover. “I’m more comfortable covering other people’s music so I pretend my song has been written by somebody else a long time ago,” he says. “I started that in The White Stripes and have carried it in all my projects. I used to write my own songs and think they were OK, but then cover somebody else’s and find the chord changes amazing and felt so alive, more comfortable. So I began to pretend I was covering my own songs and it frees me up.”
In his constant battle against complacency, White loves to set himself challenges. This year, he has been playing with three guitars designed by musicians, including one by St Vincent intended for women. “It’s about putting myself in uncomfortable places and seeing what happens,” he says. “People think that as you gain more freedom, things become easier – somebody will tune your guitar, they’ll find you nicer mics – but that doesn’t make it easier. If you are a painter, you can’t have somebody else mix your paints, you can’t delegate the heavy work to somebody else. You need to find ways to make things harder. Paint on a jagged rock. Paint on dirt.
“I’m not a pop star, so I don’t have to come up with hits to stay alive,” he continues. “I’m very glad I don’t have that sort of pressure, because that wouldn’t be interesting. I get to serve the song rather than any image. That’s something people might not know about me, but it’s always about the song. Whatever it takes to keep the song alive. It’s not about, ‘This is who I am, or this is who people think I am, or this is what people expect so I’m going to give them what they expect or be contrary.’ That’s a lot of work that doesn’t interest me. With me that would turn into comedy.”
“I trick him into playing what I really want to play” carla azar
“The best way to care about money is not to care about it” jaCk white
W ITH Jack White on tour, the team at Third Man have been holding the fort in Nashville. Having a Jack White record on the shelves is always the biggest event in their year, but that doesn’t mean everything else goes on hold. This year there have been reissues of Trout Mask Replica and a box set of Supremes rarities, a Father John Misty live album and a new record by Sleep. That’s before you throw in the seven-inches, books, live shows and everything else. “We had no plan and it’s turned out way bigger than we thought and can often deal with,” White says. “But it’s allowed me to give back to so many of the things that gave to me as I was coming up in ways that people will never know about.”
Ben Blackwell, White’s nephew and another Third Man ringleader, explains “there’s no grand five-year or 10-year plan. We got a lot of pots on the stove and some are ready before the others. You deal with what you need to at any one time.”
A case in point is the Third Man photo-developing studio, which was announced in October but began operating quietly in June. White had purchased the equipment nine years before, but hadn’t yet found the right person to run it. Getting the right personalities is vital for White, who likes to “work closely until he knows you’ve got it”, says Swank. As with the band, it’s not just a case of finding somebody who has the technical chops – they also need to be good company.
The success of Third Man surprises even White, who bought the building to store his equipment and then set up a label when he began reissuing White Stripes 45s. Everybody assumed it would be a vanity project, but Third Man is expanding its remit each year – there’s also a Third Man in Detroit, complete with record-pressing plant. White might not look like a CEO, but he’s never been afraid of business. Dominic Davis says in high school White took a business major then opened Third Man Upholstery while his friends were at college. Even when he was 15, he’d mow lawns so he could save up money to buy a drum kit. “What was very different to the other Detroit garage rockers was that he always had a job,” says Davis. “He didn’t have the attitude you had to make money from music or you failed. He wasn’t doing it for that. He was doing it to do it.”
“I’d never have picked myself to run a record label 10 years ago,” says White. “But it’s so different to any record label, it doesn’t feel awkward. I have two different heads and I can’t think too much on the artistic side or too much on the business side. I need to have the split and that’s why I need other people to talk to about it. That was the problem when I had my upholstery shop. I didn’t care about the money at all. I only cared about the work and the art behind it, and putting art behind things that weren’t there before. But I know now that you have to care about the money to keep it rolling and that can be difficult. In some ways, the best way to care about the money is not to care about the money part and trust your instincts.”
One example Blackwell picks is the mobile recording booth. When this was acquired, it was assumed it would be a financial writeoff. White told them there was no way it would make money on this but it needed to exist. “Then Neil Young makes a record in there, we take it on TV and holy shit, we made a ton of money from this thing we had chalked up as a huge loss,” says Blackwell. “That was only because we had focused on making it as beautiful as it could be. If we’d stuck to our budget it would never have got to that point. But you also have to know when it’s OK to step away. If you are on year six of an album you can stop spending thousands promoting it.”
Originally, there were stunts such as launching a record and turntable in space or seeing how fast they could record, press and release an album. These have since slowed down as the label has matured. “Early days it was a lot more about us sitting in a room and making jokes and then trying to make them reality,” says Swank. “Now we are trying to concentrate on projects we care about rather than crazy ideas.”
The issue is always how much to involve White, especially when he is busy recording or touring. White doesn’t want to know every last detail but stays in touch via daily emails. “The label has been around long enough without him having to always cheerlead for it,” says Swank. “We can tell him, but it’s his call how much control he wants. Right now he’s on the road and he’ll come back and in a meeting, drop two or three points that will be the best ideas of that campaign. His brain is hardwired that way.” T HIRD Man’s 2019 schedule is far from settled, but it will definitely feature a new record by The Raconteurs. In Liverpool, “Steady, As She Goes” is received almost as rapturously as “Seven Nation Army”, and there’s clearly a lot of love for the band. Why have they suddenly come back? “How do I decide which project to pick up?” White says. “I don’t know, it’s about what feels right I guess.” For the album, he wants to record the band’s live sound but he doesn’t rule out editing via Pro Tools, as he did with Boarding House Reach.
“We recorded live to tape but edited on Pro Tools,” he says. “That’s the best part of Pro Tools. What we usually do with razor blades and record tape is dangerous, you can screw things up – and I have – and you can’t get it back. Now I could do the things I’d always imagined. But it’s not necessarily a great place for my brain to live, the knowledge that I can fix things on a computer. I need to keep one foot on the ground and remember where music comes from.”
This tour has also allowed White to think about where he personally comes from. On October 9, the band played in Poland, where White’s maternal grandparents were born. The show in Warsaw fell on his mother’s 88th birthday, so he brought her on to the stage for the crowd to sing “Happy birthday” in Polish. It’s a classic social media moment, but nobody was allowed a phone to record it. “When I turned 30 we were in Poland on my birthday and the tour manager flew my mum out as a surprise,” he says. “It was a festival and 20,000 people sang “Sto lat, sto lat” like we always did in my family. So on my mum’s birthday I flew her to Poland and I got the crowd to sing. It was a great moment. We had a Polish upbringing, Catholic, Polish food, Polish saints. I found my great-grandmother and great-grandfather’s graves in this tiny village on this trip.’”
There are no birthday songs in Liverpool, and not much in the way of conversation. White instead puts his head down and plunders his back catalogue. It’s hard to believe the band have hit the stage blind. They know only that the show will probably start with “Over And Over And Over” and end with “Seven Nation Army” (“we’ve tried to play songs after ‘Seven Nation Army’ but it doesn’t make much sense from a showbusiness point of view,” shrugs White).
Before the show, White cranks up the volume backstage, playing everything from the Yardbirds to JayZ. The band are in their own spaces – meditating, doing make-up, tuning up – but White calls them together in preparation for the moment. The pre-gig ritual involves tequila shots – or water if preferred. By show time, White is like a spring. The band go out first and start to jam. Then White charges to the lip of the stage and shakes his guitar at the crowd like the head of a defeated enemy. He won’t stand still for a minute. “I am deadly afraid of dead air at any moment,” he admits. “There’s always noise and feedback between songs.”
Two hours later, the band finish with “Seven Nation Army”, and White still manages to make it sound as if he loves it as much as the crowd does. “You’ve been amazing and I’ve been Jack White,” he bellows. Immediately after the show, he’s already outside the stage door, chatting to locals. He strides over to shake hands. “You stayed for the show,” he grins. “That was fun.” Then he heads for the tour bus. Edinburgh awaits and the baseball is about to start. There’s a Raconteurs album to make and the MC5 are coming to Third Man for a 50th anniversary show. And that’s just what he’s planned. For Jack White, 2018 still has a lot to give. Boarding House Reach is released by XL
blue period: (from top) Blunderbuss, 2012; Lazaretto, 2014; Boarding House Reach, 2018
Go West: White’s LA band featuring Carla Azar and Quincy McCrary (far left)
The aboveaverage White band (clockwise from top left): Dominic Davis, Neal Evans, Carla Azar and Quincy McCrary
Old school: White plays a secret show at the George Inn, London , March 28, 2018
Mama’s boy: White is joined on stage by his mother Theresa Gillis, Warsaw, Poland, October 9, 2018
Neil Young with White and the mobile recording booth where Young recorded ALetter Home (above), The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, May 12, 2014
High five: taking a bow at the end of the show, Liverpool Echo Arena, October 20, 2018