The White Stripes: getting to know the most interesting band in music today

The White Stripes: getting to know the most interesting band in music today – Interview

Jim Jarmusch

It has been only four years since the White Stripes released their self-titled debut album–and just two since the release of their third album, White Blood Cells, which catapulted them to MTV fame–but already the band has reached a status that can only be described as iconic.

Not that you could get its members–guitarist-vocalist Jack White and drummer Meg White–to admit it. Unwitting players in the so-called rock resurgence of 2001–2002, Jack and Meg were wary of the media attention that suddenly swept their way. Somehow, despite exhaustive scrutiny (are they brother and sister or former husband and wife?), they managed to maintain a veil of mystery. Call it remarkable restraint or smart strategy, their indifference to playing the marketing game has only intensified the fast-growing legend of Detroit’s White Stripes.

Their new album, Elephant (V2 Records), is a potent reminder of why the band was embraced in the first place. Recorded on vintage equipment in London’s Toe Rag Studio, the album bristles with the thumping rock, plaintive songwriting, and catchy hooks that we’ve come to expect–plus a few surprises (Meg’s coolly detached vocals on “In the Cold, Cold Night” and an amped-up rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”). Here, Jack and Meg talk sandwiches, musical inspiration, and the importance of creating your own little world, with a friend and fan, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.

JIM JABMUSCH: Hey, Jack and Meg.


JACK WHITE: Hey, Jimmy James. What’s happening?

JJ: I’m in the editing room. How are you guys?

JW: Good. I’m watching Rosemary’s Baby [1968]–for the third time in two days.

JJ: Well, I’m going to start off by saying congratulations on a great rock ‘n’ roll record. I love it so much.

MW: Oh, thank you.

JW: Thanks.

JJ: And I love having it on vinyl–I got the promotional copy.

JW: Yeah, we didn’t want any journalists who didn’t own a record player writing about us.

JJ: That’s what I suspected. [Jack and Meg laugh] OK, I want to ask each of you: What is your favorite sandwich?

JW: I think mine has got to be a Reuben.

MW: The Cuban sandwich is my favorite.

JJ: Cuban and Reuben!

JW: Maybe we should change the name of the band to “Cuban and Reuben.” [Meg laughs]

JJ: Wow, you guys are such carnivores. So, is it true that you’re distantly related to Bukka White? [Jack and Meg laugh] Or is it Vanna White?

JW: Betty White from The Golden Girls.

JJ: Whitesnake. Great White. [Meg laughs] James White & the Blacks. Soft White Underbelly [Jack and Meg laugh]–that was the original name of Blue Oyster Cult. [pause] I’m sorry, I’ve lost track here. [pause] Oh, well, that should be enough for the interview.

JW: OK, thanks! [all laugh]

JJ: I don’t want to ask you questions like. “What does the title Elephant mean?” But I just read that the oldest living elephant on earth died last week, at the age of 86. And I have a friend who lives in Africa, and she’s been studying a group of elephants for 12 years. I have a recording of the elephants from her that I’m going to send to you guys, because it’s really beautiful.

JW: Oh, excellent.

JJ: But Elephant has so many beautiful things, I don even know where to start. “Seven Nation Army” is really a great song. I was trying to think of other angry songs, with people talking shit about other people in them. “Dirt,” by Iggy [Pop], is a little like that, and there was a Neil Young song called “Walk On”–I don’t know if you ever heard it. That was the same kind of thing. But that’s one way to interpret it, right? As a sort of angry–

JW: –Yeah. I’ve always tried to stay away from [writing songs about anger] for the most part, but it came out a couple of times on this record. I don’t know why. “Seven Nation Army” is about this character who is involved in the realm of gossip with his friends and family and is so enraged by it that he wants to leave town.

JJ: Great lyrics, as usual. And “In ‘the Cold, Cold Night” is so beautiful, too.

MW: Oh, thanks.

JJ: I read somewhere that you described it as “Mazzy Star meets Peggy Lee.” [Jack and Meg laugh) When I heard it, though, I thought, “Young Marble Giants meets Charlie, Feathers.” What’s so amazing to: me about you guys and your music is all the different influences you have–such a wide range of things interest you. You go for what speaks to you, and you incorporate it and make it your own. I mean. I could imagine you doing a weird version of a gospel song just as much as the Popeye theme, and it would still somehow be the White Stripes. [Jack and Meg laugh]

JW: I can’t believe you said that. Yesterday, I was whistling the Popeye song all day. [Jim and Meg laugh] But, yeah, I don’t know if it’s a side joke of ours, or a side idea, but [we’re interested in] what two people can do.

JJ: Well, in all forms of expression, there are periods where things have to get stripped down to what is essential. And it seems like you have done that.

JW: What’s always been a question for us is: If we’re breaking things down, how simple could they be? It seems to revolve around the number three–songwriting is storytelling, melody, and rhythm, those three components. If you break it down but you keep the three components, then you have what songwriting really is, without excess and overthinking.

JJ: What was It like working on the album at Toe Rag Studio?

JW: It was really great. It’s just a couple of rooms in an old warehouse that the owner and engineer, Liam Watson, rented out to set up his whole studio. It’s very much like an English Beat studio from the ’60s. Liam wears a white lab coat. It’s not like an L.A. studio, where it’s nicely carpeted and warm, with a cappuccino machine and video games between takes. It was freezing. I liked that, because it forced us to concentrate on what we were doing.

JJ: Jack, you were also in Romania for a long time last year, working on the movie Cold Mountain. Did you record something with [bluegrass legend) Ralph Stanley?

JW: He was there. He recorded some things for the soundtrack, and there was one song, where it was a call and response with about 50 people in the room. He was calling out phrases, and people would sing them back to him, sort of like a gospel number. I was part of that.

JJ: Wow. Meg, while lack was gone all that time, what were you up to?

MW: I was mostly being a hermit. [laughs] Then I went on tour with some friends for a little while.

JJ: You see, while lack was doing that, we should’ve been making a silent film biography of someone like Pola Negri.

MW: Yes. [laughs]

JJ: Really. I have this dream that maybe we’ll do something like that sometime. You both have this thing: You look like silent-film stars to me. [Jack and Meg laugh) I’d love to do something in that style together.

JW: That’d be great. Silent films are also about stripping things back. There were no special effects or budgets, and they were doing such amazing things. You had to have talent; you had to be like Buster Keaton.

JJ: He’s one of my heroes. But, you know, when you strip away the sound in films, it’s more evident that the flow and rhythm of images is musical.

JW: Right. I think so, too.

JJ: Since we’re talking about film … you’ve made some really innovative, interesting videos and done a bit of film work–but I understand it’s not something you sought out. People came to you, right?

JW: Yeah, it’s really odd. Something clicked in the last year–people were having so many different takes on us and what we put out there. Like T-Bone Burnett and Anthony Minghella [musical director and director, respectively, of Cold Mountain), who associated me with a love of American folk music, I guess. And they wanted that to be portrayed in their film. And Michel Gondry [who directed the White Stripes video “Fell in Love With a Girl”] latched onto the childishness of the band and used visuals like Lego. It’s really flattering that all those people are asking [to work with us].

JJ: Now, Meg, I recently found a beautiful quote, where you said, “We’ve created our own little world. When you do that, nothing can get you.” [Tack and Meg laugh] And that really moves me. I mean, I’m a lot older than you guys, but I’ve been trying for years to build a little world around myself, where the things that I don’t want to affect my work get closed out. And it’s hard. It must be very hard for you to do that with the amount of attention you have been getting since White Blood Cells.

MW: I’ve always kind of lived in my own world. Everything else outside me seems far, far away. 1W: When do I get a copy of the key to your world, Meg? [Meg laughs]

JJ: It’s invisible. [Jack laughs]

MW: We never really cared about all the things that other people cared about, you know? Like, people recognizing me on the street never interested me. I’ve always been kind of suspicious of the world, anyway, so it’s pretty easy for me to live in my own little world.

JW: Well, Meg, I disagree, because I know you love cotton candy. [Meg laughs] Yet you don’t know how to make cotton candy yourself. So you do need the rest of the world. [laughs]

MW: That’s true. I have to have the cotton candy shipped in.

JJ: [laughs] One thing I have to say, Meg, is that there are themes in the White Stripes’ songs–of innocence, of childhood, as well as a lot of other things–and your style as a drummer is beautifully integrated into what the songs are saying. I always felt that the Beatles would never have had their sound without Ringo. I mean, obviously, you can’t stack him up against people like Max Roach, technically, but it’s so beautifully integrated–like your work.

MW: Ringo knew what was needed, and he did what was right for the band, down to every little tiny thing needed for that song. And as much as I love all of the great drummers, there is that thing where it’s about what the band needs. You know, when I hear music, I just hear the whole thing. I’ve never been much into picking things apart. It’s the emotion of it that hits me, more than anything technical.

JW: I get jealous of Meg that way. I can be emotionally involved in the music, too, but then that sort of male thing comes out of me where I have to figure out how it works, why it sounds good, why the guitar tone is interesting. I have to mechanically pick things apart sometimes. Maybe that’s what’s good, though–the idea of the male and the female onstage and nothing else. It’s two different sides of looking at the same thing. It feels like you can see that. I can feel it onstage.

JJ: I wanted to ask you about this unusual situation where you have very strong control over your work. You have control over the music and the production and the videos and, to some degree, the marketing strategy–like giving vinyl to critics. I think that’s so admirable, but it’s pretty rare, isn’t it?

JJ: Yeah.

JJ: Did you fight for control from the start?

JW: Yes. It’s hard for me, because I’m constantly battling what’s good and bad about ego. But because Orson Welles is such a big idol of mine, I love that whole auteur aspect. He was given complete control to do Citizen Kane [1941]. With us, being a two-piece band and because the songs are generated from me, it seems wrong to get a producer involved. Some bands can write amazing songs but they don’t know how to record them, so they have to have a producer. But I was always hacking away at recording other bands 45s in my attic. I’m not very good at recording: I don’t know where to put mikes; I don’t know what the right frequencies are for things. I just try to do what sounds right. But if we can keep everything in this big box and keep people away from us, at least we can be proud of it. Like, if someone says it’s a good live show or it’s a good album, we know it wasn’t because it was the producer’s idea or the record label’s marketing plan. We have a manager now, but all of the decisions have to come through us–which gets to be a lot of work. But it’s better, because I like to be able to defend everything we do.

JJ: You know, I love the song “Ball and Biscuit” from Elephant, because I ‘love to think of you as Mr. Jack White. “the Seventh Son,” singing the blues. [Jack laughs] You’ve already done “Boll Weevil” by Leadbelly. You did a Blind Willie McTell tune, “Your Southern Can Is Mine.” And you dedicated The White Stripes to Son House. And I’m right there with you. That’s the music I can never not listen to: Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Willie Johnson …

JW: Oh, it’s the pinnacle of all music. I think everything from the 20th century goes right back to that [the blues]. It’s like the correlation we made with our second album, Do Stijl [and the Dutch art movement of the same name]. It was about breaking down visuals into next-to-basic components. The bluesmen have always been doing that, stripping songwriting down to those three components I was talking about earlier: storytelling, melody, and rhythm. I hate the fact that the bluesman has been parodied–“Oh, I woke up this morning and my baby’s gone,” Blues Brothers kind of thing–when those guys are the gods of music. I mean, there should be statues of them everywhere.

JJ: You mentioned the de Stijl movement, but are there other artists who really strike you?

JW: The only other person I’ve always thought about was Michelangelo. The perfection of what he did … I just love his sculptures. He chiseled everything down but left just enough to show a vein. That’s so insane! [laughs] That’s a far cry from do Stijl; he’s going to the extremes of human beauty and perfection …

JJ: Well, I could relate your work to Michelangelo or da Vinci, in that they weren’t afraid of any form. They never said, “I’m a painter, not a sculptor or an inventor.” You seem the same, like you could do a show tune or a rural blues tune and not be afraid of it. You wouldn’t say, “Oh, I’m supposed to be a neo-garage rocker.” And that openness is, in a way, contrary to stripping everything down, but somehow that contradiction is really valuable.

JW: That’s a relief. When you’re onstage at a sold-out venue, you kind of feel that there are a couple of different attitudes coming at you. One is that people don’t know much about what’s happening; they want to witness something. And the other is that people think they know everything about you, and they want to experience it in a different way. So the goal is to share with people, but you can sort of manipulate what they experience. If we can trick 15-year-old girls into singing the lyrics to a Son House song, we’ve really achieved something.

JJ: Oh, man, that’s so refreshing, your attitude and approach. Jack, you have said you thought maybe the greatest rock ‘n’ roll record ever was Fun House, by Iggy and the Stooges.

JW: Fun House, yeah.

JJ: I’ve been asked that question a few times and have always responded: “Hands down: Fun House.”

MW: Of course.

JJ: OK, I should let you go, but I hope I’ll see you soon. And I just want to tell you to take good care of yourselves, because you’re very valuable–and I mean that partly as a selfish music fanatic. [all laugh]

JW: Thank you, Jim. Bye-bye.

MW: Bye.

RELATED ARTICLE: Meg White and Jack White of the White Stripes. Cosmetic colors by M*A*C. Hair and makeup: TRACEE MILLER. Photo assistant: CY KARRAT. Special thanks: FOX THEATER, Detroit; C-LAB.

Jim Jarmusch is currently working on a series of short films under the title Coffee and Cigarettes and a new feature film project.

JIM JARMUSCH “Music is the most beautiful form of expression,” says filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who interviews Jack and Meg White for this issue. A fan of his subjects since hearing their album De Stiji, he recently directed the two in a short film called Coffee and Cigarettes (Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil), part of an ongoing series. Jarmusch is currently working on an as-yet-untitled feature project, as well as other shorts for his series.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Brant Publications, Inc.

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