Jack White isn't like you
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Jack White could hardly be accused of staying out of the public eye once The White Stripes fell into an extended hiatus after 2007’s Icky Thump. His most famous musical project might’ve been inactive, but White never stopped working. He played with two successful bands, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, and he ran his own label, Third Man Records, overseeing releases by everyone from Tom Jones to Insane Clown Posse. But after The White Stripes officially called it quits in 2011, anticipation was high for a Jack White solo record, and when Blunderbuss was finally released last week, it received more scrutiny than any album White has been involved with in years. Critics have spent a lot of time poring over the lyrics, and the verdict is that Blunderbuss is White’s “divorce” record, with many tracks appearing to comment on the end of his marriage to Karen Elson and the parting of The White Stripes.
What does the man himself think about this? In an e-mail interview, The A.V. Club asked White about the album, the prevalence of troublesome women in his new songs, and what the oft-unpredictable star is going to do next.
The A.V. Club: You've said that you only started working on Blunderbuss because RZA didn’t show up for a recording session. Were you planning on making solo record eventually? Why didn’t you make one before now?
Jack White: I think that most people, and by people I mean journalists, think that I pre-conceive everything and that I spend my afternoons dreaming up self-mythologizing points of interest. That’s only on the weekends, I can assure you that. But the thing they possibly don’t know about me, they being people, is that my albums, and even the bands I’m in, all come from songs, and the songs come one at a time to me without any plan or idea of how they should sound. Premeditation is something like, “I’m going to make a country record,” but I’ve never done that. I’ve written a lot of country songs I suppose, but they only became “country” after I mixed them and put them out there.
AVC: You recently said that you wanted to break up The White Stripes before making a solo record, because you didn’t want to go through the “dumb perception battle of people who couldn’t be broad-minded enough to understand the difference between Jack White and The White Stripes.” What, in your mind, is the difference between Jack White and The White Stripes, in terms of the music you’re making?
JW: To be clear, recording solo records had almost nothing to do with ending The Stripes. Ending the band was more romantic and somber for Meg and I. It was about clearing the path for everyone to move on so we didn’t have to answer questions about the band while we were trying to do other things. It’s no fun producing a Tom Jones record, or playing a gig with The Dead Weather, if you keep getting asked about The Beatles—I mean The White Stripes.
The different thing on this album of mine, I would say, is the orchestration. In my bands, I don’t really walk around telling people what to play, just out of respect really. I mean, if there’s something I feel in my gut, I’ll bring it up. But this is the first album where I was instructing eight to 12 people what to play for my own music instead of somebody else’s as a producer. I’d never done that with my own songs before, having whatever I wanted or needed for the song. Very different for me.
AVC: Would you say you have a preference as far as being in a band vs. being a solo artist? If so, why and what do you see as the advantages or disadvantages of these situations?
JW: I like to work with others. I don’t like the word “collaborate” or “side project.” Ick. What a terrible way to describe something. But working with others can alleviate a lot of ego and “this is about me” attitude, and you get down to real creation for the right reasons when you diffuse your thoughts with other people’s input. I mean, we all get sold on these names and labels, so I love to play with that. We could’ve called Loretta Lynn’s album “Loretta Lynn And The Do Whaters,” or we could’ve called The Dead Weather “Alison Mosshart And Her Filthy Flatmates.” I could’ve made a band’s name for myself like Nine Inch Nails or Cat Power. It’s interesting and baffling that what you name something has so much influence over people interested in music; you’d think we’d all see through that by now. All these albums are albums I’ve made, all these songs are songs I’ve created. Who cares what it’s called, you know?
AVC: I think there was a perception among your fans that you were, in a sense, avoiding making a solo record for several years by starting new bands instead. Is there any truth to that belief? If so, why did you do this?
JW: I come from a long stream of barstool-judging hipsters in the garage-rock world of the turn of the century. It took a lot of the wind out of my sails because a lot of those people have their knives out about ego and authenticity. Saying you love something out loud with the wrong intonation in your face can damn you and destroy what you’re working on. So, I was sort of trained to think that putting myself out front was an egotistical move that would be frowned upon. I think I’ve been a good boy long enough and given everyone around me a fair piece of the pie as far as all of the fleeting glory and reward that comes from the heavens—or the music press, whatever you want to call it.
AVC: Do you feel like Blunderbuss is showing a “truer” picture of who you are because you’re completely in control of it?
JW: Not at all. I think it’s very funny that people nowadays still think if you use the word “I” or “she” you are talking about yourself or your girlfriend at the time! I mean, what year is it? Didn’t they get rid of that prison in the ’60s? If I say, “I want to kill that man that came to my door” in a song today, by that logic a detective should be calling my house. Oddly enough, since I moved from Detroit I don’t get too many calls from the cops from my old friends filing a report. Good thing, too, ’cause I’ve got a lot of work to do. I guess they didn’t.
AVC: Images of bewitching, elusive, even treacherous women recur frequently in the songs on this album. Was this something you were conscious of when you were writing the lyrics? If so, why was this on your mind? Was this informed by any lingering feelings about your divorce or the break-up of The White Stripes?
JW: People have sort of a problem trying to see an end to a situation as being positive or romantic. Relationships of any kind are powerful, and they always influence an artist. It’s inescapable. If you’re asking if I would be foolish enough, or insulting enough, to write about people in my life that I respect and sell it to the masses as a “break-up song,” I can’t imagine doing that to people I love. How embarrassing. Now people I don’t like? That’s a different story. I’ll sing you a song about them right now.
AVC: I’m intrigued by some of the lyrics on this record that seem to comment on the dissolution of The White Stripes. For instance, in the song “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy,” you sing: “And you’ll be watching me, girl / Taking over the world / Let the stripes unfurl / Gettin’ rich singin’ poor boy / Poor boy.” Am I misreading this lyric? If so, what did you mean?
JW: That “Hip (Eponymous)” track was actually something I forced myself to go record at 5 in the morning. A melody and some lyrics I dreamed that I thought must’ve been something I saw a boy band do on MTV the day before. The story in the song is about white hipster musicianship and authenticity. The “stripes” are me talking about the flag and the American dream of profiting at any cost. The boy and girl in the song are arbitrary. I could’ve said grandma and Old Joe.
AVC: You came from an underground, punk, indie-rock scene, but you’ve consciously moved away from that as you’ve grown older. What’s your perspective now on your roots? Do you have any lingering connections to punk ideas of “selling out” or artistic purity or any of that stuff?
JW: The day that music is taken for free by the majority is the day that the phrase “sell out” doesn’t exist any more. You can’t steal an artist’s songs and also tell him he can’t license that music to a commercial. Punk is an attitude, not a genre, age group, or time period. But what’s interesting is trying to define the blues and punk in different ways. They are very close cousins.
AVC: It’s fascinating what you’ve been doing lately with your live bands, where you have an all-male band and an all-female band. When you performed with both bands at SXSW, there did seem to be certain qualities that each band brought to the table. Speaking broadly (and perhaps stereotypically), the female band sounded a bit warmer and more soulful, while the male band was more aggressive and super-charged. Why you decided to create your bands this way, and what do you think about the qualities of male vs. female musicians?
JW: At that Texas show the problem I faced was that whatever band came second was going to probably get more electricity from me, because I try to aim upwards as the show progresses rather than mellow out. The gals bring the attitude in full swing, I can assure you, and all the individual musicians definitely push each other in strange ways in this setup. How great to have a drummer like Daru [Jones] who comes from a mainly hip-hop background playing Hank Williams songs with us, or a fiddle player like Lillie Mae [Rische] coming from her bluegrass and country background playing dueling guitar solos with me on a heavy White Stripes track. It’s very unique and inspiring because people are pushing from many different directions and playing with a lot of notions of preconception. And the best part is, we’re all a big family that goes bowling together, eats breakfast, and plays old songs backstage. I love all of them for agreeing to take on such an enormous amount of work for this idea.
AVC: Do you have a vision for how your career will evolve over the next several years?
JW: I have to let the songs start off first on accident, really, and then after a while let them tell me where they want to go. Might sound pretentious but that’s all I’ve ever done with songs, try to be their servant. If it feels right it could be another record called “Jack White” or it could go somewhere else. I’m not starting any other new bands ever again, I can tell you. I’ve still got The Dead Weather and Raconteurs if we need to write together.
AVC: You’re involved in pretty much every aspect of your music, from how it’s recorded to how it’s sold and marketed. As you grow older, do you see that part of your career—the record mogul part—taking precedence over the musician part? Do you ever see yourself working only behind the scenes and putting out records by other artists?
JW: I run a record label by default, really, because I just want to see things get created that weren’t there before. I have very little interest in the bottom line or signing artists to help make the label profit. That’s a lucky, unique position to be in, but it all comes out in the wash. A Raconteurs album royalty can help pay for me recording a single with a punk band that’ll only sell a few copies. The big picture is a nice way to think of things if you have the freedom to.
AVC: What’s the one thing that people still don’t understand about you and your music?
JW: That I’m not like you.