THE WHITE STRIPES
Getting to know the most interesting band in music today.
By Jim Jarmusch. Photograph by Eric McNatt.
"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 a fan, film-maker Jim Jarmusch.
Jim Jarmusch: Hey, Jack and Meg.
Meg White: Hi.
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  -- for the third time in
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.
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."
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: Whitestnake, 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't 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 "Walk On" -- I don't know if you ever heard it. That was
the same thing. But that's one way to interpret it, right? As a sort of
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 weird versions 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
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 revolved 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 Wilson, 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]
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 Jack 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 Jack 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 out own little world. When you do that, nothing can get you."
[Jack 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.
JW: 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
lots 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: 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 . 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 the 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, De 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 any 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 de 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-oout 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 acheived something.
JJ: Oh, man, that's so refreshing, your attitude and approach. Jack,
you have said that 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."
JW: Of course.
JJ: OK, I should really 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 purely as a selfish music fanatic. [all
JW: Thank you, Jim. Bye-bye.