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Sister? Lover? An Interview with The White Stripes

By Jennifer Maerz

Sometimes you get lucky with a band. I'm not talking about sneaking backstage to give Nikki Sixx a "backrub." I'm talking about something that jumps out from the pile of tired indie rock and weak punk albums, an album made by a band that grinds into rock 'n' roll all hot and sweaty and full of crazy-eyed lust for the cause -- whoa, uh, sorry. Anyway, I'm talking about the White Stripes.

You can't blink without seeing media spots on this Detroit duo-from Mojo to Entertainment Weekly to, um, Spin.com. You can feel the backlash right around the corner, but screw that. They deserve every piece of punctuation printed in their honor, because no one whips bluesy garage-rock into a Kinks/Stones frenzy quite like the Stripes.

The brother/sister team (or ex-husband and wife, depending on who you believe) of Jack and Meg White will release their third album, White Blood Cells on Sympathy for the Record Industry on June 26. The album builds on the fuzz-toned rock 'n' roll of their second album, De Stijl, picking up the pace with tracks like "Fell in Love With a Girl" and "I Can't Wait"- ultra catchy singalongs with thick-ribbed riffs that'll bounce in your head for days. Speaking from his Motor City home, Jack White says the new album was recorded quickly to capture the band's high energy. "We tried to keep it as unorganized as possible," White says. "We rehearsed for a week and then went to a Memphis studio we'd heard about and recorded for three days. We tried to rush this as much as possible to make [the sound] really tense. And it seemed to work." White added that White Blood Cells differs from the previous Stripes' LPs because it contains "a lot of 'no's": "There's no blues on the new record. We're taking a break from that. There's no slide work, bass, guitar solos, or cover songs. It's just me and Meg, guitar, drums and piano."

The switch to all original material is a new move for the White Stripes, who have covered everyone from Bob Dylan and bluesmen Blind Willie McTell to Robert Johnson on their first two albums. But the only lyrics on White Blood Cells that didn't come from Jack White's imagination came from the mind of Orson Welles. Welles' classic Citizen Kane is White's favorite film, and he finally put his three-dozen viewings of the movie to use, in lyrics for the song "The Union Forever." "I was thinking about different things people said in the film," says White. "I wrote them down and some of them started to rhyme, so it worked out." "Hotel Yorba" is a poppy romp through a very different cultural "landmark," situated a couple blocks from White's house. "The Hotel Yorba is a really disgusting hotel," he says, "and there was a great rumor when I was a kid that the Beatles had stayed there. They never did, but I loved that rumor. It was funny."


But Detroit dives aren't the only things White finds funny. He's both amused and annoyed by the entertainment industry he and Meg are becoming more and more entrenched in. The cover of White Blood Cells depicts the duo getting both attacked and enamored by a clan of people wielding TV and video cameras. The images poke fun at the music industry and the media, both of which White says expect a lot from him. "When does music become a business and why do we have to be suckered into it?" he says. "Why do we have to buy a cell phone, you know what I mean? A lot of that stuff upsets me. It gets annoying. There's this air that things are supposed to be handled a little more professionally and we don't want to [laughs]. We don't want to start a company. I wouldn't say I get mad when I'm sitting here waiting for a check to come in the mail, but it would be a lot nicer if I could just sing and play the guitar and that was my job, instead of being in this business."

Just in case you were starting to feel sorry for the guy, though, don't worry. White's not that upset about the attention. If he was, he'd be back to running a furniture upholstery shop instead of taking his show on a cross-country summer tour. He's been a busy guy, writing new songs, playing shows and driving an Entertainment Weekly reporter around Detroit for a recent article comparing the garage rock scene to the grunge explosion of the early '90s. And White admits that working in the spotlight can sometimes be a good thing. "At some point it would be nice if [garage rock] got a little bit of attention, because you get sick of playing in front of the same 50 people your whole life," he says. "It would be nice for some bands to experience playing in front of 500 people. It'll get bigger, though--it'll probably really blow up, and then people will totally dog it and forget about it, like every type of music. We'll see what happens. The media always has the power to ruin stuff. If they get bored they can ruin it."

Until a Michigan militia takes out the whole city of Detroit, though, it doesn't sound like rock 'n' roll will need protection from the media mob anytime soon. White says his hometown is still the spot for the best music community in the country. "We've gone on tour so many times and I've never seen bands in other cities like the bands that are here," he says. "It's really just amazing. I thought it was just because I'm used to the sound of certain things at home, but no, people in other cities say the same thing, that they like Detroit bands the best. It's a good time for music here."