A story of strange beginnings, unlikely ascent, and diverse influences feeding into unexpected musical purity, The White Stripes' journey begins in Detroit, and continually circles back there. Emerging from a local scene that had grown bored of '90s rock trends, singer-guitarist Jack White and drummer Meg White presented themselves as a brother-and-sister act, and recorded three excellent albums between 1999 and 2001. The first two made them an underground favorite. The third, White Blood Cells, attracted national attention, thanks in part to Jack and Meg's unmistakable stagewear and ambiguous relationship, and in part to their furious and tender music. It was debatable which aided their success more, but the undeniable power of their new album, Elephant, should settle that debate once and for all. An upholsterer before he became a rock star, Jack White has expressed dismay over the attention directed at The White Stripes, but the spotlight seems unlikely to dim in a year that will also feature his acting debut in Cold Mountain, a role that last year took him to Romania. Shortly before Elephant's release, Jack White spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about how the blues changed his life, where his music comes from, and where it's going.
The Onion: You recorded Elephant in London and White Blood Cells in Memphis, and before that, you recorded in Detroit. How important is it for you to record where great music has been recorded before?
Jack White: I guess that's sort of a side note to it, this idea of being respectful to who's come before you, and probably done it better. But more important is just the confinement, for us to go to places where we're forced to work. We made a mistake with our second album, recording it in my living room. It's too distracting to be at home and do that kind of thing. You're better off when you're away from town, and you've got no choice but to get down to brass tacks.
O: Where does the title come from?
JW: There's a lot of reasons, the main one being that it was one creature that represented both me and Meg, our personalities on stage and in real life–ourselves, the myth, and the ideas people have about elephants. It's anger and innocence and majesty and clumsiness, and things like that. It seemed to represent both of our characteristics as one creature.
O: "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," your Burt Bacharach cover, will probably surprise a lot of people. What's your relationship to Bacharach's music?
JW: I really love him. I love his songwriting. With this particular song, Meg was fond of it and wanted us to do it, and we started to do it live. I love it because I started recognizing that it was really a blues song in its purest form, when you strip down the Bacharach production. The essence of the song was blues, so I really adapted to that.
O: What's been the toughest point of getting famous over the last year and a half?
JW: I don't know. We've stayed away from so many of the bad parts of it. Our goals have always been really low. Success to us has always been not having to listen to anybody, and doing whatever what we want to do, and not having to have a day job. Everything else was gravy on top of it, you know? We haven't really been forced to do things we don't like to do very much at all. I suppose the hardest thing is losing your free time. There was so much more free time when we would just do a little tour, come back home, and go back to our jobs or whatever. Now, free time seems so precious. When we get a week off, it seems very hard to just relax and not have to answer any questions about what we do. We've never put anybody in charge of making decisions for us. We still make all the decisions, when it comes down to it, whether it's artwork for a single, or who's going to direct a video, or what's going to be on a T-shirt we sell at the live show, or who's on tour with us. All these decisions have to be made constantly, so it really gives you almost no free time. That's a drag, but that's what we chose to do. We didn't want anybody else making our decisions for us.
O: Do you see that changing, reaching a point where you can't do it all anymore?
JW: Well, there was a time when it was people calling my house nonstop, and we're lucky now that we have people who handle all those phone calls and requests for us. But it still comes down to, "Okay, you have opportunities to do this, this, and this." And we say "no" all the time. I'm just worried about having somebody else make those decisions about where we're going to play, and who's going to be with us, and all that jazz. Because I want to stand behind everything that's represented by that name, The White Stripes. I want to be able to defend it. So it's best when it comes from us directly.
O: Is it true that you turned down a million dollars for a Gap ad?
JW: [Laughs.] No. It wasn't a million dollars, but we did turn down a Gap ad. I think a couple of them. There were so many insane offers like that. There still are, as you can imagine. I'm sure that any band that gets that kind of attention, that kind of buzz, gets stupid offers from people trying to leech off them.
O: Do you have a hard-and-fast rule about your music and advertising?
JW: Not really. It starts to bother you when you get so many offers and so much money is thrown at you from these generic companies who don't care about spending half a million dollars on this or that. When it all starts piling up, you start thinking, "Man, I might really want that money 50 years from now." We were never against it, and a lot of popular opinion nowadays has changed about those kinds of things. We still haven't done anything like a commercial, but I'm not really against it.
O: There is the mindset that it's so hard to get heard these days that doing an ad is as much promotion for the act as it is for the product.
JW: We've had that kind of discussion, where people would say, "Oh, this cell-phone commercial in Europe broke this band. You guys should do it." It's very hard to say, "No, I'd rather not get famous from a cell-phone commercial." It's hard to make those decisions.
O: Do you find you can still be involved in Detroit's music scene?
JW: That family's still… Those are all of our friends. Pretty much the only friends we have are those people, and it still feels like the same family we've always been a part of. I'm still very involved. I just produced this band, Whirlwind Heat, and their album is coming out on my label. We're still playing shows with those bands, and I still feel very much a part of it.
O: How was playing Transylvania?
JW: It was great. It was surreal, very odd. There was this Romanian dance troupe there, and they had rehearsed a couple of numbers–"Fell In Love With A Girl" and "I Think I Smell A Rat"–to dance with us when we played behind them. So there were these very clumsy Romanian dancers in these '20s flapper outfits in this Communist cabaret theater with Nicole Kidman and Jude Law dancing in front of us. It was very odd. [Laughs.]
O: How was your Cold Mountain experience?
JW: It was great. If it was just straight-up an acting opportunity, I don't know if I would have done it. But they were looking for someone to bring folk music to the film, and this character was to sing three songs in the film. T-Bone Burnett did the soundtrack, and I was flattered that T-Bone recommended me for the part. I was amazed that they picked me, and I felt really honored and scared by it. I love American folk music so much. I'm so flattered that they recognized that in me, and that they asked me to be a part of that. I was there for six weeks, with a lot of downtime, freezing in the winter, and it was worth every minute of it.
O: Your web site has a lot of kids' fan art on it. Do you find that children connect to your music?
JW: Very much, yeah. It's great. That's the best compliment of all, when a kid likes it, because you know they're not lying. A young child… When they get older, they start maybe liking what everybody else likes, but little kids don't lie. I love that, because it seems like… I don't know what it might be that appeals to them. Maybe there's some sort of cartoony aspect of our band that on one level appeals to them. People tell us, "Our 5-year-old listens to you all day long, and knows the lyrics to certain songs." It's flattering.
O: There aren't a lot of rock songs about childhood, but it's kind of a recurring theme in your music. Why is that?
JW: Well, sometimes I feel like it's an easy way for me to get honest. My love for the blues, and how I relate to it from where I'm from… I would feel really fake sitting down, adopting a black accent, and singing about trains or something. My easy way out of that is to just go into childhood, because that honesty seems to reflect the same nature that the blues was reflecting. That's my way of getting involved in that tradition.
O: You've said that Elephant's theme is "the death of the sweetheart." What does that mean?
JW: I guess it's a notion… It wasn't a political statement so much as a social idea about the attitude, you know–teenage girls with tattoos and body piercings, and the white boy from the suburbs who adopts a ghetto accent. There's this whole attitude that you have to be hard, like, right out of the gate. And the sweetness and gentlemanly ideas are really going away. I'm sort of scared to bring up this notion, because I don't want it to sound like I'm some sort of conservative, old-fashioned person. But I've gotten the feeling that parenting and the way people are brought up now is getting away from these natural ideas and natural instincts in the male or female personalities. They're being sacrificed for the idea of equality or good parenting, or relaxed parenting: "I don't want to be like my dad was. He was always on my case about getting a job, or whatever. So that means I'm parenting like, 'Oh, whatever, let 'em figure it out for themselves.'" Do you know what I mean? There's this relaxing of natural ideals. I'm just bringing up the question, really. What is natural about being feminine? What is natural about being masculine? And what's fake about it?
O: What key moments formed your musical tastes growing up?
JW: I just always wanted to be involved in music. I was so excited by it. I was the kind of kid who wanted to play at 4 o'clock in the morning, play the drums or something. I was joining bands as a younger teenager. I just wanted to be a part of it, at any cost. And when I discovered the blues, I wanted to get super honest and super in touch with soulfulness and truth. I didn't want to overtly express that notion, because it would be superficial-sounding or egotistical. The blues was the biggest thing that blew my mind. I felt that I'd missed so much, and wasted so much time on useless ideas about music. I wanted to become a songwriter and express myself.
O: How did you discover the blues?
JW: Older people started playing it for me. I always had older friends, people who were twice my age when I was a teenager. I was looking for something more mature and away from childish kind of… When I got out of high school, I went to college for one semester, and I was so upset that those kids acted exactly the same way that they did in high school. I thought there was going to be a new thing, where all of a sudden you wouldn't have to deal with that crap anymore, with peer pressure and people judging everyone. I was so upset that it was the same thing all over again. My way to deal with it was to try to relate to older people and get away from that. Their turning me on to the blues made me so happy. It happened when I was about 18, right when I was getting out of high school, and I just felt like I'd left so much behind after getting involved with that.
O: This year has been appointed, by whoever appoints these things, as "The Year Of The Blues." Do you see more people getting turned on to the blues in the future?
JW: I hope so. I think it's the pinnacle of songwriting. It's never been topped, and I don't think it ever will be. It sort of accidentally broke songwriting down to its three basic components: storytelling, melody, and rhythm. And that's the way I see it. It's so truthful, it can't be glamorized. If people really love music, they're going to start being drawn toward honesty, and if they're drawn to that, it's a direct line right back to Charley Patton and Son House. I'm very skeptical of musicians who say they love music and don't love the blues. It's like someone saying they don't like The Beatles: It makes you think they're in it for the wrong ideas.
O: A lot of people seem to write off blues produced from the '70s on. Is that true for you, as well?
JW: Pretty much, yeah. I think electric blues, most of it's a waste of time. Because that was happening when modern recording techniques… I mean, after Howlin' Wolf, it's slim pickings.
O: You play a guitar solo on Elephant. That's a first for you on record, right?
JW: Yeah, it was a restriction I relaxed on this album. There's a few on there. I've always kept away from doing that, and I finally let myself do it for some reason. Sometimes, I would do it live. But since there's only me and Meg onstage, there was never much time to do that. It's hard to play rhythm and lead at the same time without losing people's interest.
O: What made you switch from drums?
JW: I think it was songwriting. I felt like I wasn't expressing myself enough, and that I was just being walked all over. People were telling me what to do all the time. Drummers always get the short end of the stick. No matter how great you are, or how simple you are, you get shafted. I mean, we see it all the time in this band. There's only the two of us, and people will direct all their questions toward me. When you've broken it down to just me and the drummer, it's still the drummer getting the short end of the stick. And then she gets ripped for not being Neil Peart or something. People miss the point. A lot of other guitar players that I liked started out being drummers, like Dick Dale. I think it's a smart thing, because you have that rhythm in your brain, so when you're writing music, that's a huge component of it.
O: Do you think there's a certain amount of sexism behind the criticism of Meg's drumming?
JW: I don't know. It can be taken in a couple of ways. The way I look at it is, I love Meg's innocence and her childishness. And whether that's a feminine characteristic that's disregarded or degraded or whatever… Or maybe it's not even a feminine characteristic at all. Maybe I could be that way just as easily. But I love that, and I think that's the most important part of the band. Almost everything we do is based around her. It wouldn't be The White Stripes without her. If it was some guy in the band, it wouldn't work. I just love that. I don't know if it's sexist. Charlie Watts and Ringo, those guys got ribbed all the time because they weren't doing drum fills every two seconds. It's kind of stupid, especially once you get involved and realize how great Ringo and Charlie were and still are. I think they're amazing drummers.
O: Was Meg nervous about singing on this album?
JW: Yeah, she doesn't like her own voice at all. I wrote that song for her to sing specifically. And she adapted to it, I guess. She likes it all right now, but she wouldn't tell you that.
O: Does she have any songwriting aspirations?
JW: I don't think so. She's too shy. In songwriting and presenting something that you create to people, you kind of have to have an extroverted attitude and a little bit of ego or something, but not too much. You have to have enough that it makes you want to express yourself. It's almost a "look at me" kind of attitude. She just doesn't have that. She's very shy and she's super-polite and she won't speak unless spoken to. That's not really the personality of a songwriter.
O: Is it fair to say that the ambiguity of your relationship with Meg and the revelations about it focused attention on your band that it might not have received otherwise?
JW: I don't know. If you look at The White Stripes from a distance, somebody who didn't really want to dig deep into us would say that we were super-gimmicky. "They dress in these colors, and they're a boy and a girl, and they're brother and sister, but people think they're really married." They could say that it's all just gimmicks. For us, the funniest thing is that that's so great. If that's what you think, then go away. It's perfect for us, because it weeds out all the people who don't really love the honesty of music. It's a great uniform. The whole box that we're in repels a lot of ignorance. It's really funny to us.
O: What was it like running an upholstery shop?
JW: It was hard for me. I was an apprentice for years, but when I opened my own place, I just didn't have that love for money that's necessary to run a business. I was so into the cartooniness of it.
O: Everything was in yellow and black?
JW: Yellow, white, and black. All my tools and everything. I delivered in a yellow van.
O: That seems like a good marketing hook.
JW: I thought so, but I don't think people dug it. I had these cards–it was "Third Man Upholstery," and my slogan was "Your furniture's not dead," and it had a bloody upholstery tag on the card. I used real red paint, and I sprinkled it on each business card. The people getting their chairs upholstered are like old ladies, and they were like, "What the hell is this?" I was broke all the time.
O: You did that right up until White Blood Cells, right?
JW: I think we started to tour right after De Stijl came out, and that's when I had to close that shop up.
O: When did you first encounter the de stijl movement?
JW: When I was a teenager and started apprenticing and working on furniture, I started really loving all these furniture designers, and I got into Gerrit Rietveld–he did "Red And Blue Chair," which is a super-important piece. That got me into the de stijl movement. I thought that was great, how they broke things down to their simplest components.
O: Is that generally what attracts you to art?
JW: I like when people limit themselves. I love when artists do something with very little opportunity. I love forced creation. I used to own a record by William S. Burroughs, called Break Through In Grey Room. I always thought that was so great, just him in a room with a recording machine, cutting up the tape. I love that notion, anyone saying "I'm going to set up rules for myself and live by them." You find that in the great designers and the great architects and the great painters and the great songwriters, I think.
O: Do you find exceptions to that?
JW: Very much so, but it's appealing to know that people had standards. I think people are always attracted to that. If you were touring the house of some old famous person, and he never liked any lightbulbs in the house, and he only lit the house by candle… People are so enthused by that. "Oh, that's interesting that he had these rules." It makes you feel like this guy lived by certain notions that propelled him to be happy and to create. I like that idea. It at least symbolizes that that person is working toward something. When you see flagrant excess and rule-breaking and chaos in songwriting and art nowadays, you think that it's not really coming from anything, that they're just getting lucky.
O: How would you assess the current state of music?
JW: MTV and radio have taken over so much of it, and they're so focused on the major record buyers, which are 10- to 12-year-old kids. The radio stations are a monopoly. They're all owned by these corporations. MTV is a monopoly. They have so much power. I feel bad that we never got to experience the things that they used to have in the '50s and '60s, when you could be a band and have a local hit in your own town. You could release a 45 that was just a hit in Columbus, Ohio, or something. Radio stations had real DJs, who had their own shows and played what they liked. Now the DJs are just playing what they're told to play by some corporation. It doesn't have any personality anymore. You talk to those people at MTV and those radio stations, and they all love really great music, and they're just so under that thumb of money that they can't… That's the thing we were getting last year. All these journalists and people who work in that industry were like, "Oh, thank God I can finally write about a band that I like." Or "I can finally play a band on my radio show that I like." We were getting that so much, and we were just laughing and shaking our heads, saying, "Why can't you just play what you like?" "Well, it's out of my hands, you know?"
O: What do you think made The White Stripes break through?
JW: I don't know. I really don't. We've been asked, and it's very hard to say. If I ventured a guess, it would be egotistical. I don't even want to know.
O: You're inspired by many styles of music. Do any styles turn you off?
JW: Modern computerized things that don't have any emotion to them. I think that's kind of useless music. It doesn't do anything to me.
O: You grew up liking classic rock in a high school full of hip-hop fans. Have you come around on hip-hop at all?
JW: Sometimes I hear things that are cool. I think the good stuff is underground still. A lot of the stuff that's on MTV… I can't stand those videos over and over again, the same gold chains and cars and hot tubs. That's getting old. There's been 15 years of that stuff, and it needs to go away. I love OutKast, and Wu-Tang Clan has done some cool stuff. But there's a thing that's being shoved down these 12-year-old throats with these shows on MTV, like "how to be a player," and "this is a mansion," and Cribs, like "look at my six cars out front." It's teaching kids the wrong ideas about aspirations and life. I find it kind of sick.
O: What would The White Stripes' Cribs be like?
JW: Pretty disappointing, probably.
O: You've hinted that The White Stripes won't last forever. When will you know that it's time to end it?
JW: When we're just not relevant to ourselves anymore, and it feels like we're being repetitive and doing it just for the money. If we cross some line where we just look at each other onstage and it's worthless, because we're so far away from where we started, then we're just going to have to stop. I refuse to beat a dead horse or do it just for the money. I couldn't live like that.