The Sweetheart Deal
Are they divorcees, or are they siblings? The White Stripes aren't telling.
Whatever, their new record is dedicated to the end of love and - rooted
in the blues, overlaid with punk, and cut to the bone - there is no more
exciting sound of the moment. Interview by Keith Cameron
Saturday March 29, 2003
Red, white and the blues: Meg and Jack White
"Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus" - the motto of the city
of Detroit translates as "We hope for better things; it will rise
from the ashes". Uttered, legend has it, by Father Gabriel Richard,
co-founder of the University of Michigan, as he surveyed the destruction
wreaked by a dreadful fire in 1805, these words have rung true for successive
Not least for the inhabitants of today's Detroit, still living with the
legacy of the 1967 race riots. In the aftermath, big business and the
white middle classes fled to the suburbs, rendering the city centre a
ghostly museum to the American way, its abandoned buildings home only
to the homeless.
But out of adversity comes a certain pride. The White Stripes, the most
exciting rock band in the world, come from Detroit, still live in Detroit,
and are keen to proclaim the fact. When they first toured the UK, little
more than 18 months ago, the duo's stage backdrop was the city of Detroit
flag, complete with Father Gabriel's Latin oath.
"The city has never come back from the riots," says Jack White,
one half of the White Stripes. "It's sort of grey and desolate, a
very unmodern American city. Really behind the times. A lot of people
in the richer suburbs will say, 'I've never been below 10 Mile Road';
8 Mile's the border between downtown and the suburbs, and it keeps going
all the way up to 30 Mile, but some of them won't come farther south than
10 Mile. Never come into the city. I used to work various jobs and people'd
go, 'Where do you live?' 'Oh, I live in south-west Detroit, the Mexican
neighbourhood', and they'd be like, 'You live down there?! Are you insane?!'
I'm like, 'Well, I've lived there my whole life.' The animosity between
the city and the suburbs is huge. It's like two different worlds."
Eminem grew up on the wrong side of the same tracks, as portrayed in Curtis
Hanson's film 8 Mile.
"The city still looks as it did 30 years ago," says Meg White,
the other half of the band. "Basically, there is no downtown. There's
nobody on the streets. Downtown Detroit has more vacant buildings over
10 storeys than any city in the world. Tons of skyscrapers with nothing
in them. [The flag] is the idea of rooting for the underdog, because Detroit
has such a bad reputation."
The White Stripes are behind the times, too. While their home town's
calamitous social problems have produced some of the most ground-breaking
and significant music of the modern era (most obviously the lavish production-line
pop of Motown and the futuristic sounds of techno pioneers such as Derrick
May and Jeff Mills - the Detroit Historical Museum recently opened an
exhibit entitled Techno: Detroit's Gift To The World), Jack and Meg White
have become the rock'n'roll phenomenon of the day by going back to basics:
two people, guitar, drums, voice.
They don't so much make a virtue of simplicity as treat it like a religion.
In a sleeve note to their second album, De Stijl (named after the post-first
world war modernist art movement which included among its followers Piet
Mondrian and Gerrit Rietveld), Jack wrote: "When it is hard to break
the rules of excess, then new rules need to be established." The
De Stijl credo favoured straight lines and primary colours. The White
Stripes are never seen dressed in anything other than red or white, with
black accessories, and apply a strict minimalist ethos to their art, which
in Jack's mind all revolves around the number three.
"The first time it hit me, I was working in an upholstery shop.
There was a piece of fabric over part of a couch. The guy I was working
for put in three staples. You couldn't have one or two, but three was
the minimum way to upholster something. And it seemed things kept revolving
around that. Like, you only need to have three legs on a table. After
two, three meant many, and that was it, you don't have to go any further
than that: the three components of songwriting, the three chords of rock'n'roll
or the blues - that always seemed to be the number."
Jack has never been tempted to introduce a third member to the band,
however; a keyboard player, say, or a bassist. "That would break
up the thing of vocals, guitar and drums. Somebody else there would bring
this fourth component." He looks bewildered. "If you're going
to have four components, you might as well have 20, y'know?"
The White Stripes' production values are deliberately rudimentary. Computers,
the tool with which almost every record of any description is created
today, are strictly forbidden. Jack is proud of the fact that the new
album, Elephant, features no equipment made after 1963. It makes things
sound more honest, he says.
"If we can't produce something that sounds good under those conditions,
then it's not real to begin with. Getting involved with computers is getting
involved with excess, especially when you start changing drumbeats to
make them perfect or make the vocal melody completely in tune with some
programme - it's so far away from honesty. How can you be proud of it
if it's not even you doing it?" Try telling that to S Club 7.
By configuring the band so singularly and adhering to such an austere
musical aesthetic, the White Stripes were bound to stand out even among
their own peers in Detroit's garage rock scene. In a mainstream context,
however, at a time when hit records are mediated and contrived as never
before, Jack and Meg are a breed apart. The impact of that first UK tour
in July 2001, followed by further shows towards the end of the same year,
suggested there was a massive, disaffected constituency, waiting to hear
something it could relate to.
Initially feted by the music press and John Peel, who said they were
the most exciting band he'd heard since Jimi Hendrix, the White Stripes
became the subject of a media frenzy unlike anything since the first fulminations
There are silly seasons, and then there is Radio 4's Today programme
regaling its listeners with the feedback squalls and impassioned screaming
of a band whose music was at that point available only via imported copies
from the US.
Within the space of a week, and without a record contract, lawyer, manager
or publicist, the White Stripes became the world's most sought-after musical
commodity. Record companies were all but folding blank cheques into paper
planes and throwing them on stage. After existing all but unnoticed since
1997, releasing a series of singles and three albums on the fiercely anti-establishment
Californian label Sympathy For The Record Industry, no one was more perplexed
"We'd been doing what we wanted to do for so long," Jack says.
"Because we'd heard that the English press would blow people up to
'saviours of rock'n'roll' level, then throw them away three months later,
we thought this is what would happen to us. So we had to decide, are we
going to let this destroy us or are we going to jump in head on and manipulate
it so it works for us - and not let people push us around and destroy
what we've been doing? We were forced to do that."
These days, the White Stripes don't give many interviews. Not that they
did that many before they became rock's present, past and future all rolled
into one, but that was more a function of being an underground, as opposed
to mainstream, concern. The difference now is that the White Stripes are
in demand. Sales of their third album, 2001's White Blood Cells, have
reached a respectable 1m, which is also the figure in dollars they were
alleged to have received in return for signing to London-based label XL
two months after the insanity of that first visit.
White Stripes fever is no less fervent now. On the internet auction site
eBay, advance promotional copies of their new album are changing hands
for £150. A ticket for the forthcoming UK tour (sold out within
hours of its announcement) could set you back £80. Meanwhile, a
vintage AirLine guitar, the same model and colour as that played by Jack,
has been on offer for more than $1,000 (£638). It purports to have
been autographed by Jack. In fact, according to the band's spokesperson,
Jack signed only a detachable generic scratch board presented to him after
a gig. The scratch board was then fixed to the guitar. As a result, the
White Stripes now refuse to autograph anything that isn't a piece of paper.
Such mania becomes comprehensible, however, once you've heard their music
and witnessed the startling chemistry that flows between the pair when
they play. Elephant, the new album, isn't fundamentally different from
its three predecessors, it's just better and more consistently realised:
the performances are more powerful, the collection of songs more varied,
while Jack's voice has matured from the callow, sub-Robert Plant shriek
of 1999's eponymously titled debut into something warmer and more vulnerable.
Plus Meg takes a break from her primal drumming to sing lead vocals for
the first time.
In essence, the White Stripes make pop music that is rooted in a love
of blues and delivered with the passion of people for whom every note
has a profound emotional resonance. They deliver melody, rhythm, storytelling
- Jack's three elements of songwriting - and the sense that it means something
The on-stage interaction is so intuitive that they don't use set-lists,
don't rehearse, and can switch from one song to another and then back
again without even an exchange of looks. When they do look at each other,
it's invariably for dramatic amplification, as on the nursery school romance
of We're Going To Be Friends or their tormented version of Bob Dylan's
Love Sick. No wonder, then, that such telepathy should lend spice to the
puzzle over the precise nature of the relationship between Jack and the
woman he calls "my big sister Meg".
Officially, the pair are the youngest two of 10 children. Alternatively,
one John Anthony Gillis and Megan Martha White were married in 1996, then
divorced four years later. Once this rumour seeped from the Detroit grapevine
- fuelled by a story in the Detroit Free Press that casually mentioned
the "fact" of the pair's marital status, along with documents
that appeared on the internet, purporting to be the Whites' marriage and
divorce papers - it was all anyone wanted to ask them about.
Jack and Meg initially responded with obfuscation, claiming it was they
who had started the marriage/divorce story to ridicule a journalist they
didn't like. But this merely fanned the flames, and today, wearied of
hearing the same gossip about their personal life for two years, Jack
obliquely states that it's no one's business but theirs.
"There was a lack of information coming from us, but a lot of need
for copy," he says. "The one thing the fucking media hates is
not being able to dissect someone, so that every little part of their
existence can be written as a soundbite in a paragraph. What they want
is, 'Jack White, 26 years old, likes race cars and soccer, grew up in
the inner city of Detroit and is now top of the world. Can't stand chocolate
ice cream.' Everyone wants the inside scoop. No, that's not what you need
to know about, that's got nothing to do with the music we make. What we
create, you can talk about. What the songs are, how we present them live,
and what the aesthetic is, art-wise, to what we're creating. It's the
same thing as asking Michelangelo, 'What kind of shoes do you wear?' It
doesn't really have anything to do with his painting."
We're sitting in the downstairs restaurant of a wannabe-swanky hotel
in London, the sort of establishment where, if you happen to be drinking
cola from a McDonald's cup - as Meg was - the staff will politely insist
on decanting it into a glass, and this is the one time in our interview
that Jack's unfailingly courteous demeanour shifts even slightly.
The intrigue would be less if the two didn't look so alike: pale skin,
black hair (Jack's is dyed from a nondescript brown), very similar facial
bone structure. But the weight of anecdotal evidence, coupled with the
very real on-stage sexual frisson, makes the spouse theory extremely persuasive
- and even a seemingly innocuous inquiry as to what mealtimes were like
in such a large family brings a slight chill to proceedings.
Both seem naturally shy, Meg especially so, although she does volunteer
a comment on the subject of whether people really do care about the private
lives of public figures. "I don't want to know about my biggest idols.
I don't want to read their autobiographies, I don't want to find out what
they're really like."
"Last night, we went and saw [seminal psychedelic rock band] Arthur
Lee and Love," adds Jack. "And we were asked if we wanted to
go backstage afterwards. And I said no. I don't want to be disappointed
with my idols, because I like him, and I read an interview he did in the
NME and I was already kind of disappointed! In the end, it doesn't really
matter, because I always think, in 20 years' time, the only thing that's
going to be left is our records and photos. If we're doing something meaningful
with those, that's what will live for ever, so that's what's really important."
It's instructive that Jack should afford the White Stripes' visual representation
equal prominence with their music, a stance quite unusual for a band belonging
to the alternative milieu, where preoccupation with image is deemed frivolous.
However incongruous they might appear in the context of the hotel's upmarket
business clientele, Jack and Meg have the indisputable aura of stars.
Small wonder Jack was given a part as a deserting soldier turned wandering
minstrel in Cold Mountain, the forthcoming American civil war film directed
by Anthony Minghella, starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. The role came
about through country singer T-Bone Burnett, who was producing the soundtrack
and knew that Minghella wanted to introduce music more directly into the
film via one of the characters.
"I was flattered that T-Bone Burnett knew I had this love of American
folk music, enough to recommend me. And, of course, the songs in the film,
like Wayfaring Stranger and Sitting On Top Of The World, are songs I love.
Sitting On Top Of The World is the first blues song I learned how to play.
So I just felt this huge calling, that this part was for me. The funniest
part was, we were recording White Blood Cells in Memphis, long before
any mainstream success, and listening to the O Brother, Where Art Thou?
soundtrack, which T-Bone Burnett did. And I remember saying to Meg, 'It
would be so cool if we had gotten famous and this movie had come out a
year from now and maybe we could have gotten on the soundtrack somehow.'
And a year later, it happened! It was a lot of work. I don't think I could
ever be a full-time actor - I don't know how those people do it."
They might not do film-star "good-looking", but both Jack and
Meg never look less than good, dressed inevitably in the red, white and
black colour scheme that has been de rigueur ever since the band's inception.
Meg explains this as "like a uniform at school, you can just focus
on what you're doing because everybody's wearing the same thing".
More tellingly, given the sibling/spouse debate, Jack says: "When
we're doing something with the band, it's another way to keep us together,
to keep us solid as a unit."
The White Stripes' version of colour blindness is a facet of the war
on excess that Jack proclaimed on De Stijl. He talks incessantly about
"breaking things down", self-imposed limitations and codes.
This process could even be seen as a wilful defence mechanism against
potential criticism; as if the fact of making art in such an idiosyncratic
fashion were its own justification.
"Even when you have the ability to do something, let yourself not
do it," Jack says. "Like I've made the rule in my life that
I'm never going to learn how to play the harmonica. Even though I love
the sound of the harmonica. It's good, because it keeps me boxed in, it
gives yourself character and meaning. It keeps you centred on what's important,
instead of being distracted. All of this - the band, the aesthetic, revolving
around the number three, the limitations - revolves around the most important
thing about art to me, which is knowing when to stop. We set up this box
where we created an idea of this band, the White Stripes, we sort of forced
ourselves to live inside of it. It was getting in tune with ideals that
are heading towards truth and honesty, which in music, to me, is really
Dedicating their first two albums to blues legends Son House and Blind
Willie McTell, the White Stripes have relocated the mores of punk back
to their fundamental source. A fan of Nirvana in his teens - like Nirvana,
the White Stripes have covered songs by Leadbelly - Jack's musical epiphany
came at 18 when he heard Grinning In Your Face by Son House, the Delta
blues pioneer who died in Detroit in 1988. He subsequently became obsessed
with both the music and lives of Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, strange
voices from a distant past which to this impressionable and lonely young
man spoke with far more distinction than any contemporary sounds.
"At that point I was like, what have I been doing? Why have I not
been paying attention to this music? It was that honesty, bare bones,
to the minimum, truth. The more I thought about it, it was the pinnacle
of songwriting. Easily accessible because of the repeating lines you could
sing along to, very easy to play for the performer, extremely emotional
at the same time. You could go to see a glam rock band and say, 'This
is really exciting', but that's far from honesty. If a musician listens
to Charley Patton and doesn't hear anything at all, I don't think they
should call themselves musicians, because they're obviously just looking
for fun and kicks and a good time out of it."
For someone raised a Catholic, Jack is quite the puritan. He disdains
drug-taking - a London-based record company owner was once shamed into
leaving a White Stripes dressing room for offering around a joint - while
his attitude towards women could be charitably termed "old-fashioned",
not to say condescending. The song I'm Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman
on White Blood Cells sees its protagonist expressing annoyance at having
constantly to reaffirm his love for his partner: "I feel comfortable
so baby why don't you feel the same?/Have a doctor come and visit us and
tell us which one is sane."
You sense that his immersion in the blues is in part a yearning for a
time when the division between the genders was a good deal more rigidly
demarcated. On one level, Jack is so obsessed with the fast lives of the
Deep South bluesmen - the 1930s equivalent of rock'n'roll stars - that
he imagines himself to be one, until he remembers he's actually far too
civilised to make anything other than a pathetic gesture towards that
"I was saying, 'These are my idols', yet I probably disagree with
their lifestyle a lot: wife-beating, drinking and carousing, sick behaviour
like that. I'm respecting the notions they're conveying in their music
but I'm not really respecting the people they are. But Michelangelo was
probably a complete egomaniac jerk, too, y'know? There wasn't equality
between sexes and races in the 1930s, but there were a lot of things involving
feminine and masculine ideals that were closer to one's own nature. This
kind of opinion can be taken as sexist, but it's the same as saying a
female can give birth but a male can't. Are we all heading towards this
androgynous society where everyone wears the same clothes and we all shop
at the same mall? Culture is dying because of mass communication, malls
are springing up in third world countries, and we're all striving for
the same sort of success, but we're missing out on a lot of things about
what a family is. What a male is, what a female is."
There's a song on the new album called Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine
that, by Jack's own admission, borders on misogyny. "It's about the
irritation I was constantly getting with females arguing about headache
medicine. Like, 'Oh, I can't take Tylenol, it doesn't work.' Whereas a
guy would just take anything, he doesn't even think about it. It seemed
like this tiny thing was a big, telling sign of feminine behaviour. In
my eyes. A guy can just put his coat on and run out the door, but a girl
has to take 25 minutes waddling around looking for her purse or whatever.
Not that one's better than the other, but they're different."
Not even Meg can remain mute in the face of this. "I don't know
about that song," she sighs. "Makes me wanna smack him. A lot."
"But is it true?!"
"I don't know, Jack. Maybe you're just hanging around with the wrong
Jack laughs. "You might be right about that, Meg."
Ultimately, the reason the White Stripes have touched such a nerve with
so many people is that their songs pick at the ineffable nature of human
relationships with real acuity. Elephant, an album mostly comprising songs
about the compulsion of love, is dedicated not to a musical icon, but
to the notion of "the death of the sweetheart".
The fact that, when Jack sings his lacerating version of the Burt Bacharach
classic I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself - as rendered by Dusty
Springfield, one of Meg's favourite songs - he could be thinking of his
(alleged) ex-wife, just a few feet away playing the song with him, makes
the well of emotion that much deeper. For all the dissembling and ambiguity
and mythos, it's at such moments that the White Stripes live up to the
grand ideals of truth and honesty they so vehemently declare.
"All music and art comes down to love," Jack says. "You
just find out how to tell that story. You know how it is when you lose
something, and you try your best to hold on to it, but no matter what
tricks you come up with, it's over? You wish it was the way it was before,
when you had someone completely in your grasp. And they can just walk
away any time because of this free will everybody has. It's depressing,
because it feels like if love is true, and two people at one point can
say how in love they are, and then one day one of them just decides, 'No,
I don't feel that way any more', and leaves, this person is left thinking,
'Well, I still feel that way, I thought we both did.' That's the oldest
story in the book."
The world outside should make the most of Jack and Meg White and the
contents of their box while it can, because the White Stripes are almost
over. They estimate that, with so many self-imposed rules and limitations,
they will eventually exhaust the possibilities available to two people
playing primitive rock'n'roll, and that day will come sooner rather than
later. "We like to take the pessimistic notion, it's easier to live
with," Jack says. "But it's good to feel there's an end to things."
And that, of course, is the key - knowing when to stop.