- 09 Jul 21
Happy 46th Birthday, Jack White! To celebrate, we're revisiting his classic interview with Stuart Clark – originally published in Hot Press in 2009...
It’s nigh on impossible to keep things secret from the online rock ‘n’ roll community, but somehow word of Jack White flying in to be presented with an Honorary Patronage by the Trinity College Philosophical Society has managed to elude the bloggers, tweeters and other hi-tech whistleblowers who delight in bringing this sort of thing to the cyberpublic’s attention.
Not that there isn’t mayhem around campus as students try to ensure that they’re among the lucky 250 who get into the Graduates’ Memorial Building to see The White Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather man receive his gong and then bare his soul on stage to yours truly who’s Jeremy Paxman for the night.
Arriving a decidedly un-rock ‘n’ roll five minutes early, Jack looks super-sharp in, white buckled winklepickers aside, an all-black ensemble which one suspects is a homage to his filmic hero Orson Welles.
At 6’2” he’s as physically imposing as he is dapper-looking, and a lot leaner than he was when he first decamped to Nashville and was too frequent a visitor to all those fried chicken joints.
Asked how he is, the 34-year-old says “Kinda tired”, which is perfectly reasonable given the insane number of projects he’s been juggling this past year and a bit.
First there was the premiere in September 2008 of the documentary he stars in with Jimmy Page and The Edge, It Might Get Loud. Then he decided to build his own Third Man Records studio complex in Nashville, which since January has brought 22 shiny new bits of plastic into the world. When not pouring over architectural blueprints – most the draughtsmanship was down to him – our hero was to be found putting together new alt rock supergroup The Dead Weather; opening and then promptly closing ‘pop up’ record stores in New York and Los Angeles; and prepping the release of White Stripes rarities through his new “online subscription social network”, The Vault. And that’s just the stuff we know about.
So, all in all, Jack White is overdue a nice, relaxing sit-down…
STUART CLARK: Jack, I always get overawed in this place, when I think that Oscar Wilde used to hold court here. Did you have literary heroes as well as rock ‘n’ roll ones, growing up?
JACK WHITE: Oh yeah, Shakespeare was probably the first out of my childhood years that spoke to me in a different way and opened up a new life. I thought everything else was children’s stories. It’s funny, there was a quote from Oscar Wilde in the airport when we arrived in this morning – the only thing he had to declare was his genius. I thought that was brilliant!
And who did you have on your wall, poster-wise, as a kid?
(grins) Oscar Wilde!
You must have been totally blown away getting to jam on camera with Jimmy Page and The Edge.
Yeah, working with those two guys was a pretty incredible experience. I liked that there was no real idea what the movie was about. There was a two-sentence page that said, “This is about guitars and guitar players and let’s talk to each other and see what happens.” Some people have a huge five-page summary of what they think something’s going to be – a movie or a video or a project or an album or whatever. You just get less and less interested as you read. When the door is open to be creative and let things happen in the moment – that interests me, and, of course, they’re just incredible musicians.
Was it Jimmy that launched into the first song?
He was the first to pick up a guitar and start playing ‘Whole Lotta Love’. At the moment it was striking because we were caught off guard, thinking, “I wouldn’t expect that to happen so soon”. It was a funny moment.
Did you get performance anxiety thinking, “Jeez, that’s Jimmy Page sitting there!”
You know, I was reading the last couple of days about the philosophy of anxiety. It’s such an interesting notion because that word means 16 different things to me. Sometimes it means nervousness; I don’t really have much nervousness, I’ve always wondered why I don’t have more. Maybe it’s synonymous with the word ‘dread’ too. I was thinking about that word a lot lately. It’s really interesting because anxiety, the definition I had in my brain, almost feels like energy that can be used for good, it can be turned into something for good, like kinetic energy.
What was the first song you played for the boys?
I think Jimmy and I played Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’ together. It’s three chords.
You’ve always surrounded yourself with an amazing variety of musicians. Is there a wisdom to be gleaned from the elder statesmen and women?
Of course, of course. Too much. I mean, you can turn into a small child, pulling at their shirt, annoying them. It’s tough to find your moment to talk to them about certain things. You maybe have an easier way to talk to someone if you’re both artists, you’re both writers, you’re both poets, both musicians, whatever it is – you’d think you’d have an easier time talking to them but sometimes it’s more difficult.
Who are the most inspirational people you’ve met?
You know, I’ve got to say craftsmen. Carpenters and plumbers really turn me on, they really get me interested. I’m really inspired by them. I can sit and talk to somebody at a hardware store for an hour about some sort of tool, some sort of cross-cut saw or something. I get so much inspiration from the love of the idea of the beauty that they’re striving for, which is almost perfection, to finish their job. It’s compelling to take that and work it into the craft of poetry or songwriting and to apply those techniques.
You used to be a professional upholsterer, didn’t you?
That’s right. There was a lot of combining when I had my upholstery shop. I was doing sculpture and I was in a warehouse full of artists. I had a cutting table and sewing machines and all that. But I also brought a guitar with me which ended up being a big mistake because that drew me away from a lot of that work. But I got so obsessed with the design, the cartoonyness of the business. I started to write messages to other upholsterers because I thought, “We’re the only people who see the inside of these chairs.” I started writing to them, jokes that only they’d get, like, “This customer was a real jerk”. Then I started writing poetry. The peak of this was, I had another band called The Upholsterers. The guy I apprenticed with, Brian Mulvey, he had the 25th anniversary of his upholstery shop. So we recorded a three-song 45, which we put on see-through vinyl and had covers that were also transparent. We made 100 copies of that vinyl and put it in 100 pieces he upholstered that year. So you couldn’t even x-ray to see if it was in there because of the transparent nature of it. They could be records that’ll never be found!
I went to Nashville for the first time last year, and immediately spotted Little Richard being pushed through the airport in a wheel-chair, Billy Bob Thornton in a bar and Mick Jones from The Clash in a poster shop. Are the streets there paved with musicians?
It really is like that! It’s funny because none of those are country musicians – that’s who you usually see. It’s a real strange town. It’s a town which time forgot, in a way. But it’s also so current, so mega-commercial, mega-capitalist. The business side of music – it’s such an interesting place for me to be in. You can look at things from all angles, which I think you’re forced to do, once your art is accepted in the popular sense.
A lot of Nashville has become depressingly Disneyfield. Is it still possible to find raw country there?
It’s there, it’s sort of on the outskirts. And actually, I have a record label now, it’s looking for those people. Trying to find collections of one-hit wonders from the ‘50s and ‘60s and what they’re doing now because I’m assuming a lot of them still live in Tennessee. I’m trying to find a lot of them now to see if there’s any spark still left.
Was Loretta Lynn the first time you engaged with Nashville royalty?
Yeah, Meg and I loved country but we had no notion how to get anywhere close to that world, which wasn’t fake and plastic. Loretta had called us because we dedicated an album (White Blood Cells) we recorded in Memphis to her because we passed her house on the way home. We saw a sign for her famous Hurricane Mills ranch so Meg and I drove over there to take a look. Meg was smoking a cigarette and threw it out the window onto the driveway. We had an argument about it. I said, “Don’t put a cigarette out outside Loretta’s house!” She didn’t care, whatever. It turned into a funny argument so we said we should dedicate the album to her in honour of that cigarette. But that turned into Loretta inviting Meg and I for dinner at her house and making us chicken and dumplings!
Going back to being a fan, it must have been amazing joining Bob Dylan on stage in the Ryman Auditorium.
Bob Dylan, that’s right. We were rehearsing songs that day, Hank Williams songs, but he didn’t like the way they were sounding. We did a bunch of covers and it just didn’t feel right. He wanted to turn the PA off in the Ryman and let us sing acoustically because it’s a church. If any of you don’t know, the Grand Ole Opry was started in a church in Nashville but the Grand Ole Opry has moved out to the suburbs, it’s in a mall now, in a huge thing where they can have two shows a day and all that. But the original was in the Ryman Auditorium. My first performance at the Ryman was with Bob.
It’s funny, I got married on the stage of that. We were looking for a place to live in Nashville, my wife and I. We’d already been married, a couple of months before, on the Amazon River. We were in town looking for a place. On the lunch break we went to the courthouse and tried to get legally married and they said, “No, you have to pre-arrange that with a judge, you have to book a day and all that.” We said, “We’re only in town for today.” Next to where we bought the marriage license there was a flyer for a guy named Pastor Red Michaels, who’ll marry anybody, anywhere for $150. I called him up and said, “We’d like to get married.” He said, “When?” I said, “Well how about right now?” He said, “That’s fine with me – where would you like to get married?” I said, “I don’t know, I don’t really know Nashville very well.” He said, “Well, how about the steps of the Ryman Auditorium?” I said, “That’s great, that’d be perfect.” He said, “Ok, I’ll meet you there in 15 minutes.” So we drove up to the Ryman, got out of the car looking around for him, we didn’t know where he was. Then this white Cadillac pulls up and Pastor Red Michaels gets out. We were signing the license on the hood of the Cadillac and somebody comes out from the Ryman, recognises me and says, “Are you guys getting married?” “Yeah, we’re getting married.” “Do you want to get married on stage? Come in and get married on stage.” I’d never been in the building so, on top of being there, to go up on stage in front of that famous microphone and also to get married at the same time was overwhelming. It was made even funnier when they asked us to leave because Dolly Parton was coming to shoot a video!
Bob Dylan also invited you to work on his Hank Williams project, which is different people writing music to go with recently discovered Hank lyrics. How close is that to fruition?
I don’t know what’s going on with that. I recorded my track three years ago. I don’t exactly know where that album is going.
So it’s a case of, “Bob, pull your finger out!”
(Smiles) It was a monumental moment for myself, it was really fulfilling. That’s probably one of the most special things I’ve been involved with because I live on the street Hank Williams used to live on in Nashville. I leafed through this pile of lyric sheets, one of which was found on the floor of the back seat of the car he died in. I don’t know who’s tackling that one, I don’t know if anyone did. One of them ‘You Know That I Know’, it sort of screamed out at me – that was mine, I had to be a part of it. I sort of asked Hank to help me finish it and in five minutes it was done. I played it for Dylan a few weeks later. He said something good about it! (laughs)
Right, time to go to the audience for some questions…
Student: What do you consider to be the biggest achievement of your life?
Well, I’ve got two kids, Scarlet and Henry Lee. They like a song right now called ‘Buttermilk Sky’ by Hoagy Carmichael. Scarlet, my daughter, really likes this Edith Piaf song that I don’t know how to pronounce. I have it on a record. I told her it’s called ‘The Clouds And The Rain’!
Student: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming musicians and bands?
I guess but my advice is sort of filtered, I don’t know if it’ll make any sense or not. The easiest way to say it, is to be true to what they’re doing, not to what other people want. I can get more complicated and say, stay away from the t-shirts and the MySpace and all those things that are really distractions, rather than keeping things true. You should start something that makes sense to you. If you don’t love it, how can other people love it?
Student: How do you feel your taste as a listener has developed with your success?
That’s a good question. I almost re-evaluate that on a daily basis. I try to cleanse my palate and rethink about music and open my eyes to something I wouldn’t normally like. A couple of months ago I was trying to listen to La Roux and really get into this song of hers. I was reading recently about the philosophy of authenticism – something being authentic and what we really feel is authentic. I always feel like I’m looking for that in music and art. I’m looking for truth, I’m looking for something beautiful. In my own mind, I imagine that as authentic. I don’t know sometimes, the artists that I love the most, if they truly are authentic. I don’t know if Bob Dylan and Tom Waits are as authentic as I think they are. Perhaps they’re not, perhaps they’re like David Bowie, a creation that they’ve made themselves. I’m a Polish-Scottish descendant who grew up in the ‘70s, what business do I have playing the blues? Dylan is a Jewish kid from Minnesota, what business did he have playing these Woody Guthrie songs, when he started? It goes on and on and on. Sometimes you start thinking maybe Britney Spears, or someone like that, who’s doing what they want to do, is more authentic than any of those people you could mention. It’s a tough call. You listen to all that music through a filter all the time. I’m always listening to it through a filter. You assume that Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson are authentic and I love them for it, and I think that the mystery surrounding the way they recorded music is what I want music to be. The beauty of that coming off the needle is exactly what I’m hoping for.
Student: Do you see going from The White Stripes to The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather as a transition or a progression?
You always think in your head that it’s a progression. Anything that’s new to you doesn’t feel like you’re repeating yourself, it feels like a progression. The Dead Weather, the band I’m in now, those people were just at my house one day and we were going to record a 7” together. We did two songs, which turned into four songs, which turned into 12 songs. Then we had an album and we had a band and we didn’t know it. That’s when you have to start making a distinction and say, “Well, we know that what we – as musicians and as friends – think of us, is not how other people are going to think of us.” If we had a song that feels extremely good to us but somebody else thinks it sounds like some T.Rex song from years ago, do you release it? It’s only when you’re finished with a song, recording and mixing, when you’re done with your creation, that you have to think about it on a grander scale. Which does a disservice to the music that’s being created. It’s easy for a critic to listen to a record and say, “Why would you do this? It sounds just like Devo, or it sounds just like Deep Purple. You’re not progressing forward, you’re repeating something somebody else did.” They don’t realise that a lot of musicians don’t sit down and say, “Today we’re going to record a song that sounds like this Led Zeppelin song and tomorrow we’re going to have a song that sounds like Robert Johnson.” You don’t do that. It comes from inside you and you sort of have to throw it to the lions at the end. You’re giving a child away to strangers but the whole reason you did it at the beginning was to share it with other people. It’s a minefield. While you’re creating, it feels like progression, every step of the way.
Student: In a lot of your lyrics and videos, it seems like you’re preoccupied with old houses, with weird old America – interesting things on the back roads between east and west. Are you still searching for ‘weird old America?’
The America that you’re talking about is all around. I just went the other day to New Orleans and I got a cobalt blue ball. My daughter was having some nightmares recently. You put it in a glass of water next to the bed and you’re not supposed to have nightmares. That’s a voodoo shop in New Orleans but there’s also a place in the tourist part of town who could sell you that with a nice printed out price tag on it. But I think it’s sort of everybody’s duty to search that out. I wouldn’t call it “old and weird”, I’d call it truth, really.
Student: Do you have a favourite song you’ve written?
It’s hard to pick your favourite, they’re all sort of children. I wrote a song recently called ‘Carolina Drama’ for this band I’m in, The Raconteurs. I don’t know if I recorded it exactly the way I wanted it but the intention that I had when I wrote the song felt really good. It felt like the story that was evolving came out of thin air. It was a story that didn’t exist before. Sometimes you write a song and think, “Maybe that existed, maybe I heard that melody somewhere else or saw that story on a TV show” or something ridiculous like that. But sometimes you can listen to something you’ve done and it’s, “I don’t think that existed until I picked the guitar up”. That’s when you feel as though you’re getting somewhere. You may write another 40 songs that don’t get to that point. But you have to get all those out of the way to get to that point. ‘Carolina Drama’ felt like that to me.
Stuart Clark: A final question, Jack. How much of your life is mapped out in advance? Is 2010 all pencilled in or will you just go the way the mood takes you?
It’s very much the way the mood takes me. Last winter, for example, I got a building in Nashville and I was going to start a physical location for this record label. I thought, “There’ll be a place where I can do everything. A place where you can do a photo shoot or where you can print out record sleeves, whatever it is.” In two and a half months I’d designed the whole building from scratch, we gutted the whole thing. And now, we’re in October, we’re on our 22nd record. And none of those records existed in January of this year. But I had no notion in January what I was going to do this year. And on top of that, I started a new band too so I’m really busy. I couldn’t ask for more than that!