“Pink is the enemy of the White Stripes.” Uncharacteristically upbeat encounter with The White Stripes in Nashville, after their move away from Detroit and ahead of the Icky Thump album. (Dazed, 2007)
Photography Roe Ethridge
On the eve of their tenth anniversary, The White Stripes have ripped up their rulebook again, ditching Detroit for the musical heartland of the Deep South. Rod Stanley travels to Nashville, into a strange world of twisted logic and role reversals, of bagpipes and mariachi trumpets, and of a little band with a global impact. “I just like to be part of it,” drawls Jack, as Meg lights another cigarette
Jack and Meg White sweep into the hotel lobby, somewhat bedraggled, and both a bit late from having had to avoid the freeway – Meg laughs at the fact that in Nashville, people can’t drive in the rain. In the winter, Jack adds, eyes widening with amazement, if there’s quarter of an inch of snow, the whole city grinds to a halt. While it’s reassuring that there are cities in America almost as ill-prepared as Britain when it comes to adverse weather conditions, it’s of little comfort to our photographer, who had been counting on an outdoor shoot. Jack is also adamant that they will not do the portraits against the background that has been set up. “Pink is the enemy of the White Stripes,” he drawls, memorably.
It’s been six years since Dazed first featured the White Stripes, one of just two magazines to get an interview during that long, hot summer when they were gigging their third and breakthrough album White Blood Cells across the UK. Since then, they have become one of the biggest rock acts on the planet; there have been two more albums, soon to be joined by another; bitter lawsuits, tabloid-delighting punch-ups; opinion-splitting side projects; near-riots in South America; a surprise marriage to a supermodel at the mouth of the Amazon; a weighty marimba and a variety of fetching headgear. This June also marks exactly ten years since the White Stripes came together in that once-mighty, now-neglected powerhouse of Detroit, wiring together primal blues rhythms, serrated garage-rock attitude and the sincerity of wide-eyed innocents. As such, this year’s Icky Thump stands – whether they like it or not – as a curiously titled milestone to this most constantly refreshing and, frankly, decidedly odd of groups, who, despite all their fame and success, remain what Jack insists is just “this little band”.
In the hotel suite, both Jack and Meg seem comfortable and relaxed. Jack is sprawled in an armchair in a tight red t-shirt and black trousers, tousled black hair piled up on either side of his still boyish face. Meg still smokes a lot, laughing off enquiries as to whether she has ever entertained quitting, looking pretty in a black-and-white patterned dress and bright red scarf. Rumours of the death of their tricolour colour scheme have clearly been greatly exaggerated. While speaking, Jack, predictably enough, grabs the lion’s share of airtime, although each occasionally leans over to finish the other’s sentence, if one looks briefly unsure of where they were going with something. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see echoes of their live dynamics in this.
Icky Thump is largely a back-to-basics, rollicking guitar album, which – like all their albums – is recognisably the Stripes, and also different to anything they’ve done before. It was even recorded in a modern studio in Nashville, beneath the devilish LED glow of digital witchcraft (fret not, they recorded on reel-to-reel) and over the – cough – wildly indulgent period of three weeks. “I was scared,” admits Jack. “But I remember thinking I might actually be okay in a modern studio, because I’m not the kind of kid who runs through a toystore grabbing everything. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to use it.”
Jack has often attributed themes to White Stripes albums. Has he got anything in mind for this one? “Probably just the title – it’s the first time we’ve had a title track. Or maybe it’s ‘Who’d’a thunk we’d be around for ten years?’ Maybe that’s what it is.’” Did he ever think they’d be around for ten years? “Maybe in the sense that we’d be making 45s every once in a while, but no way in this capacity.” Meg exhales a lungful of cigarette smoke, “I guess it isn’t as elaborate as the last one. We were ready to get back to a simple, basic form.”
At different points in the song “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues” from the new album, there are “three people in the mirror”, and three people in his head. Jack sings about being hard on himself, and sighs that there’s always going to be some people who will have a problem with anything you do. It sounds like there have been some trying times in the Stripes camp recently. Has he ever worried that people in his life could make him lose sight of who he is, what he is doing?
“Yes,” he answers, brow furrowing. “I think I was doing it for the people around me a lot of the time. I was trying to please the hipsters – the garage rockers around me. And it wasn’t until I started making Get Behind Me Satan that I thought I can’t do this any more – forget all these people. They don’t even know what they like; it’s all an identity crisis, and by proxy, it was tearing me apart. I’m there, jumping from one foot to the next, trying to please people who don’t even know what they like. So that album was a culmination of all of that… Look, you’re going to die one day, you can’t just live to please other people,” he says, looking confused for a moment. “But at the same time, that’s kind of my job – to create things for other people to share. You go up on stage and put yourself up for judgement on purpose. But you can’t let yourself get bogged down wondering what they’re going to think.”
Look, you’re going to die one day, you can’t just live to please other people… But at the same time, that’s kind of my job – to create things for other people to share
Of course, Jack has had some well-documented bust-ups with figures from his past. “My attitude is that if somebody does something unfair to me, I think it’s only fair to be as unfair to them,” he says, with typical flair for disregarding conventional logic. “I take pride in myself that I never draw first blood, I never stab them first. But I’ve been quick to stab back. I was raised in that environment. I walked home from school every day with a scowl on my face and everybody was like, ‘What are you so mad about?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not mad, that’s so I can go home without getting beat up.’”
If Get Behind Me Satan was a banishment of the past, then Icky Thump is a defiant stomp into the future. Both Jack and Meg have now left the sprawling metropolis of Detroit behind and seem all the better for it – Jack for Nashville, and Meg for LA, which she describes simply as “good”. Nashville is a homely city in the Deep South, the kind of place where the country bands start hollerin’ in the honky-tonk bars at 10am, with customers propping up the bar from about the same time. Churches loom on street corners. There are stetsons and oversized belt buckles, people who call you “boy”, and signs outside bars promising such delights as the “meanest mechanical bull in Tennessee”. It is a straight-talking, no-bullshit kind of place. It’s easy to see why it appeals to Jack.
“I just wanted to move down South,” he says. “I was always comfortable whenever I was here, I felt at home and peaceful, and positive. It’s the best thing I ever did. It’s closer to the romantic side of America – the last bastion of that sort of culture…”
Meg: “…having some culture…”
Jack: “No really, the country culture – all of the greatest music in the world comes from down here and you still feel that.”
Is he treated differently? “Very politely and nicely. I don’t really go to shows. I don’t have any goals to be part of a scene either – people were like, ‘Oh, Be Your Own Pet should go on tour with The Raconteurs,’ and you’re like, I’ve already been through all that, and I don’t really want to go down that road again. It would be nice to have a community,” he sighs, “but we know how that story ends.”
Is there anything about Detroit they miss? “To me, it was the people that were around us that were the negative part,” answers Jack. “I’m not trying to blame the city – it just didn’t feel supportive, whatever the reasons were. Maybe they were our own fault. Whatever it is, it just didn’t work.”
Meg finishes, “I mean, everything has its own season, its own time, and things pass, you know?”
Later that day, we all cram into the lift – the 6’4” security guard in the corner looks at Jack with a squint, pauses, then smiles, “Hey yeah, I recognise you!” Straight away, Jack replies levelly, “I say that to the mirror in the morning sometimes…”
Jack rarely addresses politics directly in his songs, but there’s a verse on first single “Icky Thump” that runs “White Americans, what? Nothing better to do? Why don’t you kick yourself out, you’re an immigrant too.” “When some kind of political notion comes into my head, I often think of people who are stroking their own egos and using other people’s problems to do it,” says Jack. “So, a lot of the time I push that stuff out of my system, cos it’s a double-edged sword. But this character in this song, it’s about who’s using who – and this rich, white person going down to Mexico using a prostitute, who ends up turning the tables on him, much like in ‘Conquest’…”
“Conquest” is a witty song about gender role reversal, in which the hunted becomes the huntress; it’s a cover of an old 50s big band tune sung by Patti Page, and features a call-and-response guitar and mariachi trumpet solo. (The story from the label is that Jack “found” the trumpet player in a Mexican restaurant in Nashville, which is a nice story but which Jack reveals as a bit too good to be true.) “I used to love that back when I was doing upholstery in Detroit… The story’s so interesting – it’s such a little play, it’s so simple. I like to see any character who’s being used to turn the tables,” he smiles knowingly.
Role reversals seem to be emerging as a theme of the album. Where does he think that has come from? “I don’t know,” his face darkens, “I’ve lately got really obsessed with the idea of manipulation – this last year or two, one or two characters I’ve come across, and old friends… people who are really nice, you think, what a nice guy! And then you think, ‘Why is he being so nice? Is he trying to get something?’ And, let’s be honest here, I guess I had an epiphany… I guess I kind of got a thing in my head about manipulation – people being nice but only because they’re getting something out of it. That’s the funny thing, and I suppose that’s where political nature comes into it – people using other people until they’re done with them…”
So, how hard is it to tell whether someone he meets these days is genuine? He ums and ahs, “Well, Marlon Brando once said, ‘Once you become famous, you never meet anyone ever again for the rest of your life.’ That’s an interesting statement. Of course, there’s different levels of fame – in Marlon Brando’s case, that’s probably pretty true… soooo,” and then he checks himself with a burst of sarcastic laughter. “Well, well, everyone has their cross to bear.”
Well, Marlon Brando once said, ‘Once you become famous, you never meet anyone ever again for the rest of your life.’
If Jack seems suspicious of the world at large these days, then he has made himself a comfortable refuge here in Nashville. His wife, the British model Karen Elson, who he married in a surprise shamanic ceremony on the Amazon during their South American tour, is currently at home looking after their daughter, and they are expecting their second child. But fatherhood must surely have implications for the future of the White Stripes; after all, he’s often said that all things are finite. “Yes, it’s not easy. But I feel sorry for people who are bus drivers or who work in studios. At least I can go home when I want to – but at the same time, I can’t stop what I’m doing, even if I wanted to. I can say I’ll take six months off, but I’m sure pretty soon there’ll be a guitar in my hand. But you look at life differently when you have a family, you look at the big picture and the small picture in a different way.”
“I don’t know, it’s scary for me, all I can think of is having kids and I do feel a little scared for them, that they’re missing out on the romantic nature of music, and I don’t want them to grow up in a generation where it’s disposable, just throwaway and it’s all novelty.”
“We’re living in an age where people click and just want stuff now-now-now,” says Meg. “We’ve even disappointed our own fans with stuff you can only buy at our shows, and they’re like, ‘Why can’t we get this on the internet?’”
“We were trying to make a special experience,” sighs Jack. “You know, iTunes should let bands just put albums on if they want, instead of chopping them up. It’s like forcing you to sell your painting in parts.”
We talk about turning 30, something that both Jack and Meg did within the last couple of years, and whether it gets harder to get back to that childish and innocent view of the world they have always said is an integral part of the White Stripes. “I guess it gets more difficult,” says Jack. “A friend of ours told me when I turned 30, ‘You’ll like your 30s, things don’t bother you as much’. And I keep thinking about this phrase all the time, and it’s true – so far, things haven’t bothered me that much. I feel really positive now, so I’m questioning whether I’m getting closer to those childhood thoughts and desires, or getting further away from them. I feel happier now, so I would assume that happiness means that I’m closer to childhood.”
“I mean, the last album Get Behind Me Satan, that title was pretty heavy duty,” he cackles. “Some people don’t like titles like that, because they don’t want to think about things like that. But you don’t have to think too much about Icky Thump – hahaha… We were gonna call it Thermal Cracking Counter-Thrusts, too, til that song came up!”
“And we’ll have these suits… It’s this idea of the pearly kings and queens, the first ones found these buttons washed up on the shore from a ship and sewed them onto a suit. I love these notions of these creative people who collect other people’s junk and make something out of it.”
They also hope to work again with long-time collaborator, film director Michel Gondry, even basing new song “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” on a video treatment he gave them. “I told him during ‘Satan’ that I’d started writing the song for it. And he said ‘Oh good, it’s backwards – first the video treatment, and then the song gets written!’ The tough part was recording it – it was like, wow, it has to be so good that we release it as a single – cos if we don’t, there’ll be no video made for it… That’s almost impossible, to record a single on purpose. I can’t wait to play it to him. Yeah, I think if it’s not a single, we’ll still do the video – it’s worth it. Haha, it would be a shame if we didn’t!”
Later today, Jack will head off to rehearse the new Raconteurs album, and says that the plan is to release and tour both albums, then take a long break to enjoy “being a father”, although you get the impression that it won’t be that long – “I’m a lucky guy to have that opportunity to play with all these people so I don’t want to blow it. I want to strike while the iron’s hot.”
In Nashville, there are a lot of big houses out there in the woods, with legends living and deceased, from Johnny Cash to Willie Nelson. Now, these two garage rockers from Detroit find themselves out here with a decade’s worth of music, becoming an integral thread in that rich tapestry. Jack laughingly tells how someone from country legend Loretta Lynn’s museum (whose last album he produced, and who lives near Nashville) even wanted them to send some of their outfits to exhibit at her museum.
“It does feel like there’s a niche, you know, for a two-piece act,” he says. “And that feels more and more comfortable and poignant to us. When we started the band, we thought this is a chance to do what we liked – people aren’t gonna like this brother-and-sister act that always wears red, white and black, and has this peppermint on the bass drum, and plays this childish music and plays the blues. But we thought okay, who cares – if ten people like us, it doesn’t matter… But now, where it has a little more global scope to it, it’s a little less interesting, and you can’t pay that much attention to it. Because you can’t live for that – and we never have – and I’m proud of us for that… We’ve never gone down that egotistical route. But it is nice to know that it exists in people’s heads out there, and that it’s part of a bigger picture.”
“I just like to be part of it… You know, Muddy Waters once said, you don’t have to be the best, you just have to be a good ‘un.”
The next day, before leaving Nashville (and spending a couple of hours in Detroit airport, sampling the local delicacy of a Coney Burger, which would seem reason enough on its own to leave), there is just enough time to look round the Country Music Hall of Fame. One of the last things a visitor sees is a quote by country singer Emmylou Harris, and it seems kind of fitting: “We can’t know where we’re going until we know where we’ve been. And the music of the past is not just to study and put in a museum. The way to study it is to put it on the stereo and turn it up as loud as you can.”
Originally published in Dazed & Confused, June 2007.