- 07 Jun 07
As The White Stripes prepare to unleash another work of scuzz-bucket genius, frontman Jack White talks about his Catholic upbringing and explains why, as a teenager in blue collar Detroit, he fell hopelessly in love with the blues.
In rock ‘n’ roll’s alternative history, the south also rises. And rises again. Below the Bible Belt that girdles America, a wellspring of Delta blues, Pentecostal gospel, New Orleans jazz, Nashville country and Memphis rock ‘n’ roll, from Elvis to Johnny Cash to Jerry Lee, from John Lee to Muddy to Buddy Holly, from the 13th Floor Elevators to the Allman Brothers to Gram Parsons to REM.
Berry Gordy’s Motown dynasty excepted, the postwar pop boom was the story of Jewish and Gentile singers, songwriters and A&R wizards buzzing like worker bees in Brill Building cubicles. But the component parts of rock ‘n’ roll’s electric bone machine were manufactured in Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas before being shipped upriver to the industrialised northern zones of Chicago, Detroit and New York.
So powerful are the Confederate states’ psychogeographical allure that some of the most evocative songs of the south have been written by artists who never lived there. John Fogerty, a Berkeley boy, based Creedence’s swampy sound on a bayou that existed solely in his imagination. Toronto’s Robbie Robertson gleaned the historical detail for ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ second hand from Levon Helm’s Arkansan grandfather. The Rolling Stones’ most potent period was based on a southern fried blueprint, but they didn’t do any significant recording there until the Sticky Fingers sessions in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Nick Cave only spent one night in the south, but that didn’t stop him from basing a half dozen albums and a novel on a mongrelised vision of backwoods swamplands.
And while much has been made of the influence of Detroit’s industrial wasteland on the White Stripes’ corrosive garage blues, Jack and Meg White have always comported themselves like southern belle and gent, dressed in rhinestone finery and Nudie suits and Scarlet O’ Hara gowns, lamenting the death of the sweetheart, eulogising country marms like Loretta Lynn and delivering explosive covers of standards like Son House’s ‘Death Letter Blues’, Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘John The Revelator’, Robert Johnson’s ‘Stop Breakin’ Down’, Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Your Southern Can Is Mine’ and the apocryphal ‘Saint James Infirmary Blues’.
Jack White himself currently resides in Tennessee, and his band’s forthcoming sixth album Icky Thump was recorded in Blackbird Studios in Nashville. A three-headed monster of a record, it frequently sounds like an unruly No Wave outfit appropriating classic southern-fried ‘70s rock (the scorching title track), bagpipe-addled, Zep-inflected folk (‘Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn’) and a bizarre Mexican mariachi-metal hybrid (‘Conquest’).
So, for a city boy who grew up drip-fed on imaginative notions of the old south, how was it for real?
“Good question,” White concedes, on a break from the recording of the second Raconteurs album which, ever the workaholic, he’s intent on completing before the start of the forthcoming White Stripes tour.
“The south has always been a sort of metaphysical home for me, if not the White Stripes,” he says. “We recorded White Blood Cells in Memphis, and that felt so much like Detroit there was almost no difference at all. But I gotta say it felt good, felt positive, a lot more connected to reality. It’s not the harsh reality of Detroit, it doesn’t have that urban decay that was in a lot of our songs in the past, but I dunno, for me I just feel so much at home.”
And, as White admits, interesting things happen when big city hipsters and northern reactionaries – from Dylan to Neil Young to Frank Black – decamp to Nashville.
“Yeah, something weird happens,” he says. “A lot of hipsters go there ’cos they like the sounds and the process. That’s why I like it so much, there’s such a community. I envy artists in places like Memphis who can be professionals but they don’t have to take part in the business side. I envy the way they don’t have to think about a lot of contemporary crap. Y’know, the whole fanbase for the garage rock genre, we seem to have people drop away, and we pick up new audiences with each record. But with country artists, I think if they have fans, they’ve fans for life, that’s it.”
Jack White was born and brought up in southwestern Detroit, the youngest of 10 siblings. Most of his schoolmates were black and Mexican kids whose music of choice was house and hip-hop, which he detested, so he sought out garage acts such as The Sonics, The Monks, The Rats and The Gories and punk mutants like The Gun Club. Crucially, he also found solace in the arcane language and unadulterated sounds of Delta blues. His family background was Catholic: his father and mother worked for the Archbishop of Detroit as the maintenance man and the Cardinal’s secretary respectively. Like six of his brothers, Jack served as an altar boy, and at the age of 12 scored a small part in the 1987 religious thriller The Rosary Murders, starring Donald Sutherland. He later considered studying for the priesthood in a Wisconsin seminary, but backed out when he realized he’d have to leave his amp at home. Still, the potent voodoo of Catholic symbolism stayed with him.
“Well, I love the imagery and am still astonished by it,” he says. “I always wondered why those images got approved by the church at a certain point. It seemed like, some of them are so over the top that if you introduced them today, there’s no way the church would approve of it. And it makes me wonder how it got approved a hundred or 200 years ago. Certain saints, certain venerations and things like that, I love that, I’ve spent most of my life looking at it.
“When I was a kid I just thought all of these things were not created by men, they all had such deep meanings. The sacred heart for example. What’s the meaning of that, apart from it’s a sacred heart? Who decided to put a crown of thorns around the heart to make it bleed? I love that idea.”
One imagines if Marilyn Manson came out with an image like that tomorrow, he’d be banned all over the place.
And, as was evident in the cover art and promo shots that accompanied 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan, the Mexican strain of Catholicism, with its feathered skeletons and macabre masks and Day Of The Dead altars, is so close to pagan and occult symbology you can hardly see the join.
“Yeah, I wonder if a lot of those got approved to make an easier transition to Catholicism,” White says. “The Indians did the same with their culture.”
Icky Thump took three weeks to record, the longest stretch The White Stripes have spent on an album to date. It sounds like it, but in a good way. If Get Behind Me Satan was a solid, if somewhat rag-bag collection of piano stompers, marimba-flavoured oddities and red-blooded riffola, Icky Thump is a far more cohesive piece of work. Rather than being mellowed by marriage and fatherhood, White is spitting ire on tunes – and they are tunes – such as ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)’, the Dylan-esque ‘300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues’ and spring-loaded strumalong ‘Effect & Cause’.
The sessions began directly after Jack’s finished touring The Raconteurs first album, which superceded his turn as producer, writer and bandleader on Loretta Lynn’s superlative Van Lear Rose album as his most high profile extra-curricular venture to date.
“I talked to Meg as we were ending the tour and started writing songs with her,” Jack explains. “We got distracted from the sessions a few times, and we ended up not having that much time, so it ended up taking a bit longer. So what was different this time was the album was sort of half written in the studio.”
Publicity shots taken in Blackbird depict the duo playing under the baleful glare of a portrait of the rake, dandy and hard man Charlie Patton.
“Yeah, he was sort of a guardian angel, I hope. It felt like it. We also had Harpo Marx on the other wall.”
As an image, it’s too good to resist. Icky Thump is halfway between Harpo and Charlie, the anarchic, antic possibilities of garage punk shotgun-wedded to the raw power and bullhorn authority of the blues, a music that sounds so ancient it could be almost pre-Biblical.
“It really does, it sounds like, how could it even have been recorded by human beings?” White says. “That’s how I would feel about it. I can’t believe that these guys thought enough of Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton to record them. I don’t even know if they really liked them, but I guess they thought it would sell records in the south. That’s what I heard.”
This, more than anything else, is why the band’s first three albums breached the Mojo/MySpace generation gap: MTV might have dug the raw energy and innovative videos, but old salts like Charles Shaar Murray and John Peel identified the band’s sound with Brit blues bloomers like The Animals, The Yardbirds and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
“Well, I think if your roots only go back a few years, you’ve got no tradition,” Jack says, “you’ve got nothing to hold onto, and it’s harder to be grounded and have a long career. If your records only go back a couple of generations of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s much harder to know where you’re coming from.”
All of which echoes White’s closest antecedent Bob Dylan, whose Chronicles repeatedly stressed the importance of tradition. This reader approached that book expecting to be bamboozled by self mythologising and verbal shadowplay, but came away from it with a sense of the author’s gratitude toward those who came before: Hank, Woody, Elvis, Roy Orbison and Harry Belafonte.
“Yeah, with Dylan it’s obvious how important it was. Almost like talking to your grandfather and learning about your family. If you don’t have that knowledge it’s almost like, ‘How dare you pick up a guitar?’”
Speaking of family, since the last White Stripes album was recorded, Jack married the model Karen Elson after a whirlwind three week courtship. Their daughter, Scarlet Teresa White, was born last May. Given that some of White’s subtlest songs (‘We’re Going To Be Friends’, ‘Apple Blossom’) evoke a vivid child’s-eye perspective through a Huck Finn lens, one imagines White is revelling in one of the hidden benefits of parenthood: the reliving of childhood through the eyes of your progeny.
“Yeah, of course,” he says, “it’s maybe the best part about it, that you get to start all over again. You try and teach your kids whatever knowledge you have, but you also get to see things through a child’s eyes. I mean, we’re all either haunted or plagued or inspired by our childhood, and that follows you for the rest of your life. It’s always with us; it’s one of the mysteries we’re always trying to solve. If you’re a songwriter, you’ll try and think about that and figure it out. It’s not easy, it’s hard to get the picture, but that’s what you want to get to the bottom of in a song.
“With the White Stripes, we’ve always been trying to see things like five-year-olds. That’s the kind of feeling I get with Meg, ’cos she plays the drums in such a childish way, that anybody else who tries to imitate her, they couldn’t play like her if they tried. They really can’t. They try to be that simple, they try to play a White Stripes song, but they can’t do it. And I love that people don’t get it, they just don’t get it! It makes me laugh.”
So is the band’s strict aesthetic of three chords, three colours and three primary instruments still as important as it was in the beginning?
“Oh yeah, it is, and it always will be. It’s been 10 years now, and it’s still as important in the shows and the records. I think we’re blessed in that we’re one of the few bands who are grounded in that. You know, there have been so many bands over the last few years who’ve put red, black and white in photos and album covers. That’s just the visual component, never mind the way we write. It also gives us the ability to find the beauty in breaking our own rules. We can pick and choose how to break those rules once we’ve acknowledged them. ’Cos if there are no rules…”
You get bewildered by options.
“Yeah. I’m not a fan of options.”
What this writer initially found most intriguing about White’s strict criteria was how it harked back to Harry Smith’s colour coding of his Anthology Of American Folk Music. It also reminded me of the connections Nick Tosches explored in his book Where Dead Voices Gather, relating ancient Mesopotamian and Greek etymology to Emmet Miller’s blues yodel.
The band’s second album De Stijl, a reference to the Dutch art movement that inspired their visuals, reinforced the notion that rock ‘n’ roll is at its most potent when it intersects with other arts, be it punks and Situationists, free jazzers and abstract expressionists, or blues loving beatniks referencing French existentialism. The blues might sound ancient, but it boomed in the Modernist years between the wars, the age of Ulysses and The Waste Land, German Expressionism, Dada-ism, Cubism, Surrealism. Round about the time Bunuel and Dali were cooking up Un Chien Andalou, Bascom Lamar Lunsford was recording his own surruralist manifesto in April 1928, wishing he was a mole in the ground and warning the listener about railroad men who drink up your blood like wine, images later appropriated by Dylan for ‘Stuck Inside Of Mobile (With The Memphis Blues Again)’. And when Dali’s friend the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca arrived in pre-war New York, he was struck by the presence of duende in black jazz and blues musicians.
The point being, it’s not so much the substance of the White Stripes’ manifesto that is so fascinating as the fact that they have one at all.
“Right,” Jack acknowledges. “I’m in The Raconteurs, and obviously there’s absolutely no restrictions on it at all, and I enjoy that, and I enjoy playing songs and making records with those guys and stretching as a band, but I find myself, even within that, I give myself my own restrictions. I don’t impose it on those guys, but I put it on myself.
“I think they (the Cubists and Surrealists) were trying to break it down to components, particular lines and colours,” he says, “and at the same time a lot of musicians were doing that with music. It was a visual/aural thing coming down. I dunno, maybe it was like a post-industrial revolution thing going crazy and people were going, ‘Wait a second’, it was seeping through their consciousness maybe. How could all this stuff have a beginning, a starting point?”
Dylan was talking in Rolling Stone recently about the impact of the Atomic Bomb on 20th-century culture. Before Oppenheimer, music was agrarian and strange and insular. Afterwards, rock ‘n’ roll felt urgent and imperative because everyone felt like the world might blow up at any moment.
“The atom bomb fueled the entire world that came after it,” he said. “I know it gave rise to the music we were playing. If you look at all those early performers, they were atom-bomb-fueled. Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran… They were fast and furious, their songs were all on the edge. Music was never like that before. Lyrically you had the blues singers, but Ma Rainey wasn’t singing about the stuff that Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee were singing about, nobody was singing with that type of fire and destruction.”
“That’s so funny,” White says. “I was having that same conversation with Dylan. (White duetted with Dylan on ‘Ball & Biscuit’ at a live show in 2004). It’s really interesting that maybe the atomic age was what fuelled that manic energy of rock ‘n’ roll.”
It certainly gives a whole new meaning to ‘Great Balls Of Fire’. This tape will self destruct in five seconds.
Icky Thump is released on June 18 on XL, distributed by Vital.