From The RTÉ Vaults: Detroit songwriter, producer and former White Stripe Jack White talks to Sinéad Gleeson for The Works about going solo, reinventing vinyl and the power of musical collaboration.
SG: Jack, a lot of people, when they’re growing up, have somebody in their family, an older brother or sister, who they can pilfer records off and you come from quite a big family so was there someone steering you towards music and what were they pushing you towards if they were?
JW: Well everybody in the family listened to lots of music, we had a lot of records in the house. My parents were into big band music and big drummers like Gene Krupa, singers like Nat King Cole and Roger Miller. My brothers and sisters were into country music and rock and roll. There was a lot of music going around all the time.
SG: At what point do you go from being a listener and a consumer of records to thinking “I want to be in a band”?
JW: I think the tough part is when you become a songwriter is to balance out those two notions, of being a record collector and a listener and an appreciator of music and someone who can also create. You sort of have to keep one foot in each world. I noticed when I was younger, when I was a teenager, a lot of people who were in bands worked at record stores or garage rock bands and they wanted everything to sound like this record they had, an obscure record they had: “I want it to sound like this”. Then you become a slave to this idea and you can’t generate anything of your own, original ideas, so you have to be careful with that.
SG: In a sense, as well, when you were discovering music, there’s no discrimination. There are different styles and sounds. Is that something that naturally comes out or is that something that’s your history - it’s something you grew up with, so you just can’t make one kind of music?
JW: Right, it’s the songs, they just come out that way. I never sit down and say “Okay, it’s time to write a soul song” or “It’s time to write a country song”. I try to let the song tell me what to do, but I’m self taught with the instruments so I don’t really know how to do it from the other angle where I’m telling the instrument what to do. I’m basically exploring all the time, no matter how much older I get. I’m still exploring an instrument like a child as much as possible.
SG: It's fifteen years since the [first] White Stripes album, and I’m wondering, especially when you say you're self taught, what kind of musician do you think you would have been had you not made so much music? Because it was a very productive time for you.
JW: Yeah, although, The White Stripes would change everything about how I attacked music and it always will for the rest of my life. I got into an idea at that time, I had been in many bands before that but the idea to make everything as simplistic as possible as I could... I mean, even with the way we presented ourselves, the colours we used, everything about the band was about simplicity and that’s changed how I look at everything. I mean, if you tell a filmmaker “You can only use three minutes of film and you can only use one light bulb - what can you come up with in this room of four walls?” And I did that with myself and I still do that to this day. Even if I work with eight people in a studio with a band I’m playing with now, I’ll still make rules for myself that I don't tell anybody else about, so that I know that I’m constricted and that I have to work under these guidelines and never go into any studio or any scenario and say “I can do whatever I want and I have all the time in the world!” and blah blah blah... I try to never do that.
SG: When I think of your work, one of the hallmarks is collaboration. What is it about that process that makes it so intriguing?
JW: I like to work with other musicians; I like to work with people who aren't like me, I like to work with women, I like to work with people who are in their seventies. Wanda (Jackson) and Loretta Lynn are both in their seventies or Neil Young or…those are albums I produced but you know, we work on them together, you make a record together. All those scenarios are me trying to put myself into some place I wouldn't normally be so I can do something new.
SG: I’m also intrigued by the idea that you were in The White Stripes for a long time and then came The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather - but why didn't you just go straight for the solo career after White Stripes?
JW: [laughs] I suppose you're supposed to do that. I think business-wise, show business-wise, you're supposed to stay in The White Stripes the whole time and [if you’re] Led Zeppelin, you just stay in Led Zeppelin, you know, or whatever band… but I don’t know, it didn't feel right to me. Maybe in a way The White Stripes was my solo records in a lot of ways. I don’t know, I wrote all those songs but it was just delivered to people in a different way, through me and Meg so it’s hard to tell. It’s sort of like Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails or Queens of the Stone Age is Josh Homme and his friends, these other talented musicians, but who is the name behind it? In a lot of ways I’ve never cared what the name was. If you want to call it me and Brendan Benson or you want to call it The Raconteurs, it’s fine, whatever you guys want it to be.
SG: Talk to me about your interest in sound: you’re very interested in your guitars, you've got a lovely Gretsch, but talk to me about the way things sound and the analog way of recording things. Why is that important to you? Because it’s probably easier and faster to do it digitally.
JW: It definitely is faster and easier to record digitally, but whenever I A/B them and record both ways, I always like the analog style better. It always sounds alive to me; maybe its the tape hiss or maybe it’s the subtle fluctuations. Maybe it’s psychological, I don't know, but it always sounds better to me. A tube amp always sounds better than a solid-state amp to me, I just don't know why!
I think certain things get invented and we progress, we progress with them and we reach a pinnacle with them technology wise and then it sort of flatlines and starts to get worse. A lot of times, that pinnacle happens very quickly; they invent the electric amplifier and then Fender’s amplifiers very quickly, within the first couple of years, they were incredible. To this day I consider them, most people consider them, the best amplifiers ever made. The light bulb, the incandescent lightbulb, that’s basically the exact same light bulb we’ve been using for 120 years.
SG: We went from vinyl to CD and now we’re onto downloads. So the way things sound is incredibly different.
JW: It is, yeah - the way it sounds, the way it’s consumed, the way we pass it to one another. It’s very different and a very confusing time right now but I think that we see that a lot of people are really clamouring onto something they can really hold in their hands with vinyl records, and that makes me happy because it’s something that you can actually share with another human being. You can still share a digital song with someone but it’s just harder, you know, if we have a record we can talk about it and look at it and discuss [it] like when you're in an art museum or in a movie theatre.
SG: It’s a tangible thing.
JW: That’s right, yeah.
SG: Even the idea that you listen to one side and you have to walk to the other side of the room to flip it over. There’s no skipping or shuffle.
JW: You’re involved, you're involved in the process. It’s going to get harder and harder as the decades go on because we’re pausing television now. We didn't used to be able to pause television and we’re saving films and watching them on an iPhone instead of watching them in a theatre or listening to a song in the car instead of listening to it on a turntable. We have a lot of choices now, and for the most part it doesn’t matter, as your day goes if you're at work and there’s music playing in the corner, who cares if it’s analog or digital or iPod or the radio? But when it comes down to being a real music lover and being involved in the art of it, I think you have to dig deeper and get involved with something you can put your hands on.
SG: It’s been two years since the first [solo] record and Lazaretto. That feels like a pretty short time to me - did it feel short to you?
JW: Yeah [smiles], I thought I took last year off too, but I guess I did it working on the record the whole time.
SG: Talk to me a little bit about the record, the album is here [holds up vinyl copy of record] and it’s a very unusual object. You might talk me through it, because this isn't an ordinary piece of vinyl.
JW: It’s strange, it would take me a while to talk about all the points...
SG: [Points at label] This is playable?
JW: That’s right, there’s a song under each label on each side that you can play if you just put the needle on it, it will play through the paper. Then we have a matt finish side like an old 78 and this is a glossy finish side with a hologram carved into it by an artist, so there’s a spinning angel. Its flat-edged like an old 78, it has locked grooves on the outside and inside. It’s very complicated but at the same time, very much a regular record.
SG: And it seems like a lot of people have been opting for the vinyl record over the download and over the CD - but it’s an awful lot of trouble to go to for a record.
JW: Yeah, it broke the record in the United States for the most records sold - most vinyl records sold - in the week. That was an amazing surprise to us. We thought we were making a beautiful object that some people would dig and would maybe turn some new people on (to vinyl), but the amount of people that have been turned on to this and the stories we’re hearing of people going out and buying turntables, kids and older people and you know “My uncle went and bought one and my little brother wants a turntable now” because of this record and because of the things that are in it, the novelties that are involved. I don’t care, any novelty; if the cover’s 3-D or if the thing floats in mid air, whatever it is... anything to suck you in and get you involved in the story that’s being told, to the melody of the music, is fine with me. Always has been. I love novelty and I love drawing people in because novelty is a MacGuffin; it doesn't mean anything, it’s meaningless, the colours, what you're wearing, what you call the band or what you call yourself doesn't mean anything by the time you get to the music. If you can’t get past all that and get down to what it’s really about then, go enjoy something else I guess.
SG: Tell me about the premise of this album, about going back to the past and maybe discovering some of your older writing and maybe it being a catalyst for the work?
JW: Well I had written a lot of music for this record, it was about 25 songs, and that’s not how I usually work. I usually work fast and maybe in two or three weeks finish a whole record from writing to mixing. This was different, I wanted to spend a lot of time with my children last year so I took things differently and found myself in a spot where months later I had written music but I hadn't sung to the music yet. I was writing in a different style, I was writing with the live band in the room and directing things as it was happening and recording live and editing things together in a strange way, so I had to figure out “How am I going to attack these songs? This is very different for me.” So I thought of an idea which was to go through these old writings that I did when I was a teenager and pull things out that I thought were interesting; different characters and different lines of poetry or these plays I wrote or whatever they were when I was younger.
SG: Any bad teenage poetry in there?
JW: [laughs] I think all of it. I don't know I’ve never really released poetry that I’ve written. I’ve written one-page things here and there, and liner notes on the internet. I suppose but one day I’ll release that stuff, but I destroyed other things that I worked on involved in this record because I wanted them to become part of this new thing, and not just relics and remnants of something else. They weren't good enough anyways.
SG: It seems listening to it, that it sounds both introspective and honest but also declarative. Was this album more difficult to work on than previous work?
JW: They're all… the songs sort of tell me what to do, sometimes they'll come out and they’ll sound a certain way and I’ll think “People might take that song that way or they might think that song means that or because I said the word ‘he’ or ‘she’ or called God a male or God female it means something bigger than it is, and I should change those words because you’ll give people the wrong impression...” But artists can’t be at the service of the listener at all times. You have to find a balance and write down what makes sense to you at the time, find a place where other people can relate to it, too. I find that people mistake a lot of the ideas in it. Not in the sense that I was trying to tell them, I’m not really trying to tell people something, I’m trying to give people some ideas to tell themselves something - which is the best place to be as a songwriter.
SG: You've been so productive at music and you've mentioned these writings and clearly you’re interested in poetry as well. Could you be interested in writing a novel or something longer that didn't involve music?
JW: Oh, very much so. I’ve written a lot of things over the years, but I’ve never put them out. I think music has just consumed me in the last decade. In the next couple of years I’m going to try to find some other alternate ways to create, because I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time, maybe five times as much as I normally would have or someone else would have or I don’t know…it feels like I’ve spent a lot of time with music and I need to take a breath and work with something else; direct films or write plays or maybe work with music for a score for a film or Broadway or something like that.
SG: Would you like to act again?
JW: Yeah I liked acting a lot but a lot of the roles I get are music-based roles so I’m not interested in doing that very much again, maybe once in a while but I haven’t pursued it. I mean you really have to go into Hollywood and talk to everybody and make a lot of networking friends to try and really get involved in that world, and I’ve just spent so much time in the music world, so maybe in the future.
SG: You talked a little about this record and the idea of vinyl, you are a world record holder as of this year!
JW: That's right! We didn't submit that to the Guinness World Records because I don’t believe in Guinness World Records, I think they're kind of an elitist organisation [laughs]. I think that records are by the people and for the people, not to sell books or whatever. We never submitted that, we knew the record was ours, we made the fastest record so we don't have to submit it to anybody. It exists because we said it exists.
SG: Why did you want to do it so quickly, and put yourself under that pressure?
JW: Because of our cutting engineer George Ingram, who is brilliant; it was his idea because we had set up the live-to-acetate machine in our studio to record live albums. He said “Well now that we have this, we can record the fastest studio-to-store record that’s ever been made, because you have a record store here in the building, we have the cutting machine, we can do this all here.” How fast could we do it? We didn't even know, even the day we did it we didn't know how fast it would take, we didn't know if it was going to take 6 hours or 2 hours. We did it in under 4 hours, it was a very intriguing thing to be a part of, because everybody in it didn't even really know what we were doing or why we were doing it, even the people involved. It’s just such a compelling notion to be involved in something like that.
SG: I interviewed PJ Harvey once and she said that when she was making White Chalk she learned to play the piano and when she was making Let England Shake she learned how to play the autoharp. Do you have that experience when you go into a new record as in you want to learn something from scratch or do something different that you've never done before?
JW: I do, but what I think I get most out of it is [with] musicians who are playing with me. I like to make them play other instruments that they don’t normally play. That usually gets to a better place. I mean, I can sit behind an instrument and stumble my way through it and get somewhere, I think, but some things I’ll refuse to do like, just to cleanse myself. People who work on Persian rugs or - I don't know the proper words - but maybe if you work on a rug in Afghanistan, they leave a bad thread in there on purpose, they leave a mistake in there on purpose, so that it can never be perfect. I don’t allow myself to play harmonica, I refuse to play the harmonica, I’ve never tried to [smiles] but I really want to, very badly.
SG: Why don’t you?
JW: I’m just trying to cleanse that from myself, leave things that I don’t touch so that it keeps my mind focused on things and keeps myself creative. Opportunity is the antithesis to creativity. Opportunity destroys creativity and if you don’t limit yourself, even in small ways as an artist, I think I would run into a lot of trouble.
SG: Obviously you want people to focus on the music, that’s primarily what you do and what you love but there’s a hugely visual element to what you to do; the music videos to the album sleeves to the way you look. How important is it to you?
JW: It’s not that important to me in one sense, but when you got out on stage there are all these choices you sort of have to make whether you like it or not: Is there a curtain? Is there not a curtain? What colours are the lights on you? You can decide not to care as an artist or you can decide to care about that or you can decide to over-care and get completely neurotic about every little detail. I try to stay somewhere in the middle, where I present it the way I think might be beautiful, and maybe other people might think it’s beautiful as well, but also helps lend itself to diving into the music and not distracting too much.
A little bit of obfuscation is great, it draws people in and people want to know ‘What’s this spectacle is that going on’ but if you give them too much - fire, pyrotechnics and lasers and everything like that - it’s kind of like, ‘Well is there music here?’ So you have to find a balance into anything you present, whether it’s an album cover or a stage presentation or whatever clothes you're wearing. I guess you have to make these choices whether you like it or not if you're going to go up on stage. You know I could stay in a studio, slide records under the door and have my manager deliver them to the world with a grainy photograph from a 100 yards away and be focused on the music in that way, but I guess I’ve always tried my best, in business and in show business, to balance it all out with art which is probably the hardest way to attack art.
SG: How important is Third Man? I guess it gives you a lot of autonomy and a lot of control and gives you freedom to work with who you want to work with if you're behind the desk?
JW: Yeah, Third Man Records has opened up a million opportunities for me, and not the bad kind, the kind that now if we want to film a video, we can do it right here. If we want to do a photoshoot, if we want to develop the photos we can do it here in the house. We have the graphic designers to design the covers, we can cut the final masters there, we can do the recordings there. We try to do everything we can in one building, and I always liked the notion, when I was younger, from the Ford motor company, the idea Henry Ford had was that you could drop the raw materials on one side of the factory and on the other side of the factory out popped a Model T. I think in that sense Third Man Records has a little bit of that style to it, in that these raw materials of our music and creativity are on one side and at the end a record comes out. Maybe that’s how the world’s fastest record was the bestest explanation of that involving ourselves in creating everything all at once - and somehow it paid off.
Jack White: Acoustic Recordings 1998 - 2016 is released on September 9th on Third Man Records.