On his pandemic-era rebirth, making mysterious furniture, and feeling hopeful about rock’s future
The musical Willy Wonka has mellowed out — 2022 Jack White giggles; 2022 Jack White hasn’t had sugar in two years; 2022 Jack White was transformed by the past two years. “There’s been a complete rebirth on all levels of my life throughout the pandemic,” he says. “I made a goal to myself that no matter how long it lasted I was going to come out of it with a totally different scenario of looking at life.” The evidence is in a new double album, of sorts, that spans the gamut of old-school White Stripes, Beatlesque experimentation, and American-jazz flare: Fear of the Dawn, out April 8, and Entering Heaven Alive, out July 22. The consummate frontman took a break from tweaking his upcoming albums even as they’ve been committed to wax — Dondastyle — and shopping at bigbox retailers to talk about his transformation.
You recorded two LPs during the pandemic. Was it hard to stay still for so long?
I don’t really usually write about myself, but I wrote a song a few years ago [“That Black Bat Licorice”] about a hospital, a prison, an asylum, any place where I could lay on a cot and clear my vision and clear my head. I push myself so hard that sometimes I would find myself in the middle of a 16-hour day. I might fantasize about breaking my leg, that way I’m forced to lay in a hospital bed and forced to take a break and reevaluate what I’m working on.
I got to work on furniture again [during the pandemic], and it cleared my head. I didn’t write a song for eight months. Creatively, that took me to a place I had missed.
So why two albums?
I started writing a lot of songs, and they were in all different directions: some incredibly heavy; almost some like speed metal; some sounded so gentle. I ended up with 20, 25 songs. People don’t respond well to double albums these days. I wanted to put them out on the same day, but there’s no way we could press all that vinyl and have them all out on the same day.
You made your first foray into sampling on Fear of the Dawn, specifically Cab Calloway on “Hi De Ho.” How did that come about?
I heard that Cab Calloway song on the radio in the kitchen one day, and I thought, “I love that song; it’s just so powerful.” So I sampled it, then played a drumbeat that seemed to go along with it. Then I grabbed a bass and I wrote a bass line for that drumbeat, and on and on it went. Pretty soon, I thought, “Man, this is so interesting. I wonder if Q-Tip would find something interesting about this?”
Five minutes later, he sent me back his own scatting on top of it. I love synthesizing different moments, different areas of music, different time periods. The best part about it is everybody I played it to kept thinking that Cab Calloway was me. I thought, “Do I actually sound like that?” So that was bizarre.
Where do you see rock heading?
The genre has been done by thousands and thousands of artists, and some of the people who were the greatest to ever do it did their thing long ago. But look at the hope we have, because people thought hip-hop was only going to last a couple years, and look how long it’s lasted. They’re still doing incredible things. Like what Kendrick
Lamar is doing with hip-hop right now is incredible. It always has room to grow, but it takes that sort of youthful, teenage angst and ambition and energy. And that really means people getting in a room and playing music together, sweating it out.
What was a piece that you were most proud of during those eight months of working on furniture?
[A bench called] My Sonic Temple. It came from a Masonic Temple, like, a hundred years ago. I rebuilt it from the ground up, and you can plug an instrument into the side and play music through this bench. I made it for Johnny Walker; we came up together in the Detroit garage-rock scene. I never explained what’s making it make the sound. It’s very mysterious.
Do you have anything special planned for the vinyl editions of your records?
There’s going to be a bunch of variants. I’m really glad that pop stars have embraced that and released multiple variants of their records. Nothing makes me more excited when I’m walking with my kids in Target and saying, “Look, you can buy a Ramones T-shirt over here, and you can go over and buy a Sex Pistols vinyl record here.” I mean, that’s incredible. I think it’s very, very cool to make that accessible to as many people as possible.
I’m on a campaign that I want to spread in every interview I do this year, which is to beg the major labels to put their money into building new plants just like they used to have 40 years ago. They have more money than God.
So tell us about your new hair. I like the blue!
I don’t know . . . but it’s really nice not being recognized at a Target anymore! Let me buy my Ramones T-shirt in peace, please! No, I’m just kidding. People have always been nice to me. I’m not complaining about that. Everything’s been a rebirth for me. I have a new team I work with. I’m not suffering anybody that seems to be bringing negativity. And I guess that’s exemplified by the way I look, too. Everything is brand-new for me.