MOJO Magazine, 02.02
By Andrew Perry
With just a drum kit and a cheap guitar, blues-preaching brother-sister
duo The White Stripes are being hailed as the greatest live band on the
planet. Andrew Perry reports.
A young man in a black three-piece pinstripe suit strides through the
foyer of the BBC Television Centre. With a cheeky grin he tips his black
bowler hat at the gawping crowds and disappears to his dressing room.
It's a good minute or so before the rest of his entourage make it through
the revolving doors. Everyone is struggling to keep up with Mr. Jack White.
In the 12 months since he and the young lady he refers to as his "big
sister", Meg, recorded White Blood Cells, their third album together
as The White Stripes, Jack White has established himself as the most explosive
white rock performer in the world today. A singer/guitarist of staggering
energy, as well as a great and prolific songwriter, he has already succeeded
in dragging the blues, that's the blues, back to pop music's cutting edge.
When the Detroit-based duo first played here in July - two months after
their first ever UK interview, in MOJO 91 - an unusually breathless John
Peel heralded them as "the most exciting band since punk or Jimi
Hendrix". Commenting on the feverish UK reception in a recent interview
in Vanity Fair, Jack observed that "it was like they'd never heard
music before". Actually, precious few people had heard The White
Stripes - that brief tour mostly took in tiny 200-capacity clubs, while
their records were, until November, only available on import from California
garage label Sympathy For The Record Industry, run entirely by one man
known as Long Gone John - and it's this fact which generated the air of
myth and mystery around the duo. Without anything concrete to grab onto,
the media rumour-mill went into overdrive, suggesting that White and his
drumming sister were not siblings at all, but ex-husband and wife. Jack
was also "spotted" in London snogging Winona Ryder.
Now, barely four months later, Jack's back for another crack at Blighty,
including today's Top of the Pops performance of their breakthrough single,
"Hotel Yorba". And as he chuckles to himself mischievously about
our quaint fascination with his private business, Jack best recalls Dylan
circa Don't Look Back. In quintessential Bob fashion, he and Meg are clearly
having fun with both their own mystique and those who are out to deflate
it. They are, however, almost impossibly polite. Jack does all the talking,
patiently explaining his mission.
"I'm not black, I'm not form the South, and it's not 1930,"
he states earnestly. "I'm not interested in copying - at all. I'm
interested in re-telling the story. I just believe in singing [Delta bluesman
Son House's] "John the Revelator" one more time. It seems like
every other kind of music is fooling itself about being original or being
the future. Well, it's not. These electronic instruments, these toys
Music has been storytelling and melody for thousands of years, and it's
not going to change."
Iggy Pop, godfather of all things rocking from Detroit, recently observed
that today's big-time commercial music all sounds roughly the same, because,
from Britney Spears and N*SYNC through Limp Bizkit and Eminem, the same
hi-tech production values prevail. It's possibly the Stripes' rejection
of those values which makes them sound and feel like a turning point on
a par with, say, Nirvana circa Nevermind.
"This'll probably be the very first appearance of an Airline guitar
on Top of the Pops," Jack quips, as he stalks nervously, hoping to
shake hands with Paul McCartney, who is giving a brief interview in the
Star Bar. "He said hi to all the girls," he frowns after his
first failed attempt, "but not me."
He may have a point about the Airline. Sold by the Montgomery Ward department
store in the '60s, it was one of the cheapest electric guitars on the
market, the sort of thing a kid could buy on HP and knock about with in
their bedroom. You're meant to have graduated onto something better by
the time you start a proper band. Jack's armoury also includes a Fender
Rhodes piano and a 1960s Kay acoustic guitar with tattered brown paper
glued on the front.
"I got that for free," he says, "when I helped somebody
move their refrigerator. If I had a brand new Les Paul that stayed perfectly
in tune, and some solid state amp and all this digital equipment - that's
just too much opportunity. I wanna go in with one beat-up amplifier, one
drum set, a guitar that doesn't stay in tune and just work with that.
I love putting myself in a box, putting restrictions down, and taking
it from there."
Jack's default logic lies at the heart of everything the Stripes do.
Another 'box' was the stipulation that the pair would only wear red and
white clothes - "they're the colours of anger and innocence."
The toughest box of all was the task of making blues hip again, which
began to happen in 2000 among American alt rock circles with the arrival
of the second White Stripes album, De Stijl. Named after a Dutch periodical
co-founded in 1971 by Piet Mondrian to evangelise a new functionalism
where all surface decoration was to be eliminated, the record was similarly
all about returning rock 'n' roll to simple aesthetics.
Recorded at Jack's house in south-west Detroit in a week, its center-piece
was a thunderous cover of a song which originated from the same part of
the 20th century as De Stijl, Son House's "Death Letter". The
stark subject matter (a man is notified of his lover's demise and attends
her burial), Meg's Zeppelinesque thump-beat and White's furious delivery
constituted a meatier, more authentic take on Delta stylings than arch
US artists like Beck and Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion - or indeed, most
of the world's by-the-booook revivalists. Asked whether he feels comfortable
taking on the blues so directly, Jack refers to the band's cover of Blind
Willie McTell's "Lord, Send Me an Angel", released on 45 around
the same time as De Stijl.
"Yeah, it's hard for me to sing like that, about how great I am,"
he concedes. "One line goes, 'All these Georgia women won't let Willie
McTell rest', and I change it to, 'All these Detroit women won't let Mr.
Jack White rest.' To me, it's a joke, 'cos everybody who knows me knows
that women don't like me that much!" He laughs. "But I was toying
with the idea that girls are attracted to cockiness, and bad, bad qualities
in men. So I feel comfortable with that song, because it's true. Lying
is the artistic way of telling the truth. I'm lying, saying, Look ate
me, look at this (puts his arm around imaginary babe)
I'm just telling
you the truth - in reverse.
Giant lightbulb-era Dylan, anyone? Although plundering the past forms
an irresistible part of their appeal - they have a handwritten list of
some 45 songs they've paid their respects to at some time - there is far
more to The White Stripes than that. 2001's White Blood Cells came about,
predictably, through their restless creation of another box for themselves.
Jack: "We said, NO blues, no slide, no guitar solos, no covers
We figured out all the no's, and everything else was fine."
Here, and on parts of De Stijl, Jack was a side to his songwriting that
cut right against the grain of all the bottleneck bombast, a pop side
that signaled a huge commercial potential. Hence the scramble to sign
them from Sympathy - V2 got the gig for America, XL for Europe - their
arrival at Number 26 in the charts with "Hotel Yorba", and tonight's
appearance on the Pops.
Waiting to perform, they look edgy and out of place. Where everyone
else on the show - Jamiroquai, J-Lo, Ryan Adams - goes through countless
takes, the Stripes rip through "Hotel Yorba" in one glorious
spurt of energy. Its tale of starry-eyed, low-rent romance connects even
with the teenies at the front of the stage. "I hadn't heard of them
before," says one afterwards, "but ooh, I want to put him in
my pocket and take him home."
Eight days later, The White Stripes are far from London, in a bizarre
maritime-themed club called Marins D'Eau Douce near Toulouse, but our
inclement winter weather appears to be with them still. Cold cures are
the order of the day.
There again, as little as 18 months ago, Meg (who is now 26) was working
in bars and kitchens, while her younger brother (25) was struggling to
get his upholstery business off the ground. The last two of 10 children,
they were brought up, he says, in a predominantly Mexican area of Detroit
by Catholic parents who weren't into music.
Attending a high school that was "90 per cent black kids",
White had few friends and missed the grounding in '80s US punk that most
kids his age enjoyed. When he went into apprenticeship with local upholsterer
Brian Muldoon he began hearing garage rock like The Cramps and the MC5.
Brian, a drummer, taught Jack to clatter along to rockabilly records and
the duo cut a 45 of rockabilly covers as The Upholsterers. When they fell
out Jack started his own upholstering workshop, Third Man. Instead of
hustling work, he spent most of his time playing that acoustic guitar
his friend with fridge had given him. By now, he was au fait with Nirvana
and Fugazi (his first major gig). Then another friend played him Son House.
"He played me 'Death Letter', and then this a cappella song, 'Grinnin'
In Your Face'. I heard the song I'd been waiting to hear my whole life.
It said, 'Don't care what people think. Your mother will talk about you,
your sister and your brothers too. No matter how you try to live, they're
gonna talk about you still.' We had a big family, I didn't have that many
friends, and I was paranoid. I thought everybody was talking about me
all the time. It released my life."
Jack had his drum kit set up on the top floor of the White residence,
and one day in about 1996, Meg, who'd never really played an instrument
before, picked up the sticks and started thumping along to Jack's guitar.
"She was playing so childishly," he remembers. "Everyone
I'd ever played with was, like, male drummers. I'd been writing all these
childish songs, like 'Jimmy the Exploder' from our first album - this
story I made up about this monkey who exploded things that weren't the
colour red. So when Meg started playing that way, I was like, Man, don't
even practise! This is perfect."
Their early gigs through '97 were rough affairs. Jason Sollsteimer,
frontman from The Von Bondies, the Detroit quartet who support the Stripes
on a regular basis, remembers Jack's performances as "way wilder
then. He'd be screaming at the audience between songs, kind of preaching
Jack and Meg made two singles for local label Italy, "Let's Shake
Hands" and "Lafayette Blues". Steve Shaw from local garage
act The Detroit Cobras recommended these to his boss, Sympathy's Long
Jack:: "Steve told him, 'There's this two-piece band in Detroit,
it's a boy and a girl, and they're brother and sister.' And John said,
'Who sings, and who plays drums
?' Steve told him, and John goes,
'Aw, it would've been better if it was the other way round!' When he heard
my voice, he said, 'Fine!'"
The one-man garage guru, who from his HQ in Long Beach has released
a record a week for 13 years by some 550 different bands, invited them
to do an album without even seeing them live, and the Stripes effectively
recorded their live set at Ghetto Recordings, the studio owned by Jim
Diamond from Detroit's The Dirtbombs. "It was pretty rough,"
says Diamond. "We were certainly going for a stinky kind of sound."
Long Gone John: "The whole thing cost less than two grand to make.
It's a fantastic record, and it's still probably my favourite, but it
wasn't until I finally saw them around the time of De Stijl that I thought,
Jesus Christ, what have I got here
Onstage at Marins D'Eau Douce, The White Stripes play with hair-raising
intensity. Jack plucks out their cover of Dylan's "Isis". He
bashes out a fiendish powerchord momentum between verses, and delivers
the bit about "the world's biggest necklace" a cappella, just
as he learned from Son House's "Grinnin' In Your Face', weaving Dylan's
idiosyncratic vernacular and structure into the fabric of his own. For
the encore, he brutally segues five or six of the harshest Stripes tunes,
and finishes up atop Meg's bass drum. The two pound out a single beat/chord
in unison. You're left exhilarated, but utterly exhausted. They seem unstoppable.
Before the show Jack had this to say: "It's not like we're gonna
be doing this for 20 years. It's better to be inside of that box for just
a couple more albums maybe, and then be done with it. There's only two
people in the band, there's only so much we can do. It'll come [to] a
point in the next couple of years where that'll be it."
Maybe it was the lurgy talking. Maybe not. Either way, it really can't
be stressed enough: catch them while you can.