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The White Stripes - by Lennart Persson (Published in Sonic Magazine)

translated into English by Cassie with minor changes by Johan Berglund.

Was it the devil that possessed them or was it all because of “the filth knob”? Although the White Stripes wanted their new album to be calm and reflective, it became the heavy mangling rock’n’roll beast “Elephant”. Lennart Persson chats with Jack White about the power of the blues.

One wonders what actually happened.

Jack and Meg White come to Toe Tag Studio to make a low-key, acoustic album. A mature, thoughtful follow-up to the success of “White Blood Cells.” That is the plan. That did not happen. That really did not happen.

Instead Jack and Meg made a messy, guitar-rumbling, drum-thumping and Led Zeppelin-esque album. Jack, who almost never had done a guitar solo on the earlier White Stripes’ albums, sends one after the other on its way on “Elephant”. The feedback whines its way through the grooves of my vinyl record.

Sometimes he sounds like a 14 year old let loose on a trip to the effects-pedals in the guitar shop. Sometimes, like Jeff Beck’s divine reincarnation in the modern world. Most often, he sounds just like a Jack White with a cable of English electric current crackling straight up the arse.

“I do not really know what happened”, he explained. “We were about to record “Ball and Biscuit”, which was written in the studio. All was peaceful and calm when, suddenly, it was as if the devil got into me and I could not hear anything except guitars. Fat, dirty, ear-destroying guitar sounds. It was as if some higher power said to me that now, Jack White, is the time to start playing guitar solos.”

It could entirely be the fault of studio owner Liam Watson, or more likely, it might be due to the mixing desk’s magical button, which makes all guitar sounds extra filthy, extra electrified, and extra penetrating. People who have recorded there have described it as “the filth knob”.

It might also be Jeff Beck’s fault.

When I meet Jack and an extremely quiet Meg at a hotel room in Stockholm, Jack is unabashedly proud of the fact that Beck, the legendary Yardbirds guitarist, called and invited both Jack and Meg to join him for two retrospective shows in London.

“We did the whole Yardbirds part of the show with him- “You’re a Better Man than I”, “Heart Full of Soul”, “Lost Woman”, an instrumental “Train kept a-rollin’, “I Ain’t Got You” … Can you imagine? It was unbelievable. It was the most fantastic thing I have done. I really love that he is still that guy who just doesn’t care about anything, who wants only to play guitar and nothing else. We would take cues from him and I stood and watched when he first plugged in his guitar. He played a chord and slashed his way with several overtones, and it was so awesome- no effects pedal, just from the fingers, straight through the amplifier- that effortless. I cannot quite grasp how it was done - I am a guitarist, but I don’t get it.”

During the recording session in Toe Rag Jack did his best to understand, with a fantastic, tinnitus-inducing result. And he cannot imagine a better place than that little studio at the end of a narrow alley-way in the dark and run-down area, 7 stations north of Camden Town.

“We have always tried to record as quickly and as cheaply as possible. The most it has taken us in a studio is one or two takes. I would hate to do the finishing touches over a month or so. I really believe that nothing is made better by doing that and I hate the thought of it (the studio) being “nice” to play in. I want to make it unpleasant to play in. I am comfortable with being under pressure as that is when things happen- that is the power which forces me to do my best.

“And by the way, Toe Tag is the absolute opposite of paradise. It is cramped, almost claustrophobically small and it is uncomfortable, it is cold and it is damp. And it does not help to go to that evil wicked little radiator which stands in the comer and glows threateningly without warming up more than just that little corner …”

In Toe Rag there isn’t any of the digital technology that Jack hates so intensely. Only an 8-track recorder, antique microphones and an old mixing desk from Abbey Road.

“Digital recording devices are the devil’s handiwork. They hollow out the talent of people and make them sound like mumbling robots. Kills their creativity. It makes the recordings totally lifeless, without soul. Jennifer Lopez’s latest hit single was written by 12 people and recorded by 5 producers and it consists of only Pro Tools and machines and those things have nothing to do with making music. That is not music, that is a fuckin’ computer program. It’s a bunch of scientists trying to create something to make us feel good, they could just as well be making drugs or a computer game or…

His response makes me think about a part in Cold Mountain which I underlined when I read the book. A musician tells about having a sudden insight – “One thing he discovered with a great deal of astonishment was that music held more for him than just pleasure. There was meat to it.” I wrote “Jack White” in the margin and it did not surprise me one bit when I later heard that Jack had been offered a role in the screen adaptation.

“I play Georgia, a deserter who escapes the civil war. He plays mandolin and sings. He is one of three guys who are a ragged band of musicians. But the role does not strictly follow the character in the book. It has actually been enlarged for the film: in case someone tries to find “me” in the book.”

Cold Mountain is warmly recommended in other respects, not least because it contains a number of razor-sharp insights about the meaning of music and the highest integrity. The author, Charles Frazier, put it out about 5 years ago. The film is made by Anthony Minghella, who earlier directed, among other things, “The English Patient” and “The Talented Mr Ripley”. Given my recollection as to what those films did for, respectively, my longing for passion in the desert and my regret at not having lived in Italy in the 1950s, I feel certain that this film will position me in the middle of the hellish blood-stained battlefield of the American Civil War, with its screaming famine and tearing apart of families.

While Jack White is proud of his presence in the film, he is genuinely unassuming about his own involvement.

“I have a lot of lines. But, mainly, I do some songs – The three pieces, to be more precise. And better still, they will be on the forthcoming soundtrack, which is fantastic. I sing traditional songs, such as “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Sitting on Top of the World”, and those I could do before. “Sitting on Top of the World” was actually the first blues song I learnt to play, after I had heard Howlin’ Wolf’s version. I played “Wayfaring Stranger” with Two-Star Tabernacle, a band which I had before the White Stripes.”

The recordings for the soundtrack album were done in Nashville, with well-known bluegrass musicians such as Nancy and Norman Blake, Dick Powell and Mike Compton. “It was amazing fun and a little frightening. There were so many amazing string musicians there, people who built their own instruments. I did not once dare to touch my guitar - I only sang.”

T-Bone Burnett, who chose the music for the film, was the one who recommended Jack for a role in the film.“I had no idea that he even knew of the White Stripes or our love for old American folk music. And it felt like a huge compliment that he actually knew. The invitation completely shook me up and if my role had not been firmly rooted in the music, I would certainly not have taken it. It nevertheless felt completely unreal, completely unbelievable when I was standing in the middle of filming and suddenly realized that I was actually standing there and acting with Jude Law. Then I got a bit weak in the knees.”

A large part of the film was made in Transylvania, the vampires’ own little Grand Ole Opry in the north-west corner of Romania. For a few months the Carpathian Mountains came to represent the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. It was cheaper to do it that way. Jack was in Transylvania for 6 weeks, but “most of that time we were only sitting around in the snow and waiting. Plus it was as cold as hell the whole time. So, when it was time to act, it was very intense. Maybe the circumstances had something to do with it as well, but we all got to know each other really well. I was totally of the mind-set that it would be tremendously difficult to deal with the stuck up Hollywood egos, but actually I became good friends with them all.”

In the other roles, besides the aforementioned Jude Law, one finds both Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger. They were all present when Jack and the in-flown Meg played at a wrap party at the end of the Transylvanian adventure. They pulled out a complete White Stripes’ set in front of the film production’s 400 actors, technicians and other staff.

“It was at a stylish old hotel in Brasov, outside Bucharest, just before Christmas. And when we stood up there and played Isis and One more cup of coffee with T-Bone, who had played both of them with Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, that was definitely the high point of the film project for me.”

“Otherwise, the most bizarre thing to occur during the whole production was that someone had given our record to a Romanian folk dancing group, so when we came out and did some extra songs, they practiced their dance routine to “Fell in love with a girl” and “I think I smell a Rat” – performed in full, traditional costumes!!”

Dear, oh dear, oh dear! - Success is able to take you to very strange places and place you in very strange situations. And it’s kind of a miracle that Jack and Meg not yet have got thrown off the merry go round of success, or been crushed by the media turbulence, they without begging for have ended up in. The last year has been as mad as it has been intense, bordering on the absurd. But they work hard not to become divas and at continuing to be down to earth.

“A part of what we have experienced has, naturally, been terrifying, but most of it has been great. I think that we were able to manage the whole circus only because we never had any expectations about becoming famous or wealthy or as to what our future should be. Who, in their wildest fantasies, would have thought that a two-man band from Detroit would rise up the English music charts, that we would win some MTV awards, that we would end up on hundreds of magazine covers, that we would get a multi-million dollar contract or that we would be invited to open for the Stones? If we had said that to our friends two years ago, they would just have laughed at us.”

“But we know who we are. And what we want. We have made three albums exactly as we wanted to make them and overall have managed to do things on our own terms. And we are just continuing to do what we have always done. Should that success come to an end, which, with all certainty, it eventually will do, then that is also OK. As we have had our 15 minutes, we can look back on them with a smile.”

“Meeting the Stones was one of the year’s absolute highlights. And to be suddenly standing in a room, chatting with the Stones, was another bizarre moment. We were invited to support them for two of their World Tour concerts – in Toronto and Columbus, Ohio. Bearing in mind that it was not our usual public, especially not when a seat in the 50th row cost almost $500. The only people sitting there were rich people who wanted to be friends with Mick Jagger. They were probably wondering how two idiots dared to stand on their own on a stage in front of 20,000 people. But we ignored that crap and wouldn’t even have mind getting booed at, the only thing that meant something to us was that we got to be support act for the Stones!”

All the members of the Stones also stood at the stage and watched the White Stripes while they played. The thought that Keith Richards tapped his foot to the beat of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” seems only to make Jack White even more like a happy little kid. “They even thanked us for supporting during their own shows. And we later understood from their roadies that they never watch the support band and that they never thank anyone for anything, especially not from the stage. So we must have done something to impress.”

However, neither Jack nor Meg asked for some autographs. “I have never in my whole life asked for an autograph. It seems a little … unnecessary. A few friends asked me to get them some, but I didn’t. If you have principles, then you should stick to them yourself.”

Maybe it is these same strong principles which manage to keep Jack White down to earth. “All that has happened in this last year could have made us egocentric, stuck-up and massively spoilt. But the worst possible thing would have been if it had affected our creativity because we would have lost our focus on the music which is always the most important thing for us.”

“A main factor in the discussion is that we have entered into a record contract which actually gives us total control over the music: I produce all the music, we totally do the complete album. The American and European record companies who represent us releases exactly what we have given to them. We are involved in all decisions regarding how we are presented. We even give them ready made covers.”

That the boss of the American record company have said something along the lines of “I don’t know how this will sound on the radio, or if this even will get any airplay on the radio, but I don’t care because I love the music” is equally as surprising as it is gratifying.

“But it also is logical. We chose cooperative partners who understand us, who want to work with us on the basis of what we are, not what they want us to do. I would never even think of working with someone who did not understand what was happening.”

He genuinely has complete control over the work. Should he, contrary to expectations, falter, Jack will always have the blues, which is more than just another fad anchoring him.

When we met a year ago and I helped to make a TV program about the group, Jack rose to the occasion, right before the camera, ready for action like a revivalist preacher, and preached the following:

“The Blues is holy, a perfect creation; it is everything that music should be. It contains so much that I almost don’t dare to mess with it. But I must. I heard Son House singing “Grinning in your face” and it was as if someone, with a single blow of the axe, had opened up the world to me. After that, my life received meaning. I can lie in bed in the middle of the night and feel an ice-cold wind flowing through my body, which makes me start to shake uncontrollably. Then I have to get up and hear Charley Patton or Robert Johnson. The American South should be regarded as holy land by everyone. Everything which is worth anything comes from there.”

Or some such thing. I think that I remember his words in detail, only because they felt so unrelenting and sincere. But today he confirmed this position.

“If I was only playing music for myself, then I would be playing the blues.” Music based on the delta-blues’ tough, miserly uncompromising attitude. And maybe it is his love of the straightforwardness in the blues which makes irony non-existent in the duo’s music; it is mostly straight, fairly clear-cut, without an underlying message.

“I hate irony, particularly when it is used because there isn’t any message or to hide that someone hasn’t any story to tell. Just like when someone only spews out a stack of cool words which don’t mean anything and then has the gall to call it art. I always want to create a bridge between us and the listener, and I want it to be so that kids want to create for themselves a story or a context of the words.”

Many of Jack’s best lyrics describe or deal with innocence and uncomplicated fair mindedness which feels like it belongs to childhood.

“I can certainly sometimes, or maybe quite often, be accused of writing my lyrics from a child’s perspective. But that is, for the most part, done on purpose. I think that we should, to a large extent, draw from the child in us. It is beautiful when adults are reminded of the happiness of their childhood experiences and see the world through the naïve eyes of a child.”

However, when it comes to his own childhood, he hates talking about it and describes it as neither particularly happy nor unhappy- just normal.

“I like to imagine that children come into the world all innocent and kind-hearted and then slowly realize how hard and tough the surrounding world is. I am saddened when I see bad and arrogant people who are “uptight” the whole time, when they were once completely different from that. The worst is that most people seem to think that there is no other way, that it is set in stone. That is as good as continuing that meaningless search for a lower ideal, like money and all that other material crap. But I believe that one can work to become better, to become kinder and more empathetic.”

While Jack is reluctant to discuss his own childhood, he is more forthcoming about what it was like to grow up in a city like Detroit.

“It is a city which is quite distinct from sunshiny Los Angeles and cultural New York. It is a city which is constantly grey and dirty, which is clapped out and poor. To which you can add that the weather is extreme, with the most freezing cold of all winters and then the most unbearably hot summers that I can imagine. It is a city which has the worst of everything. Which probably makes you go seeking beauty, wherever you can find it. At least that is what I have done.”

“There is also a music scene which has always desperately fought to be heard, possibly with the exception of the Motown thing. A music scene which has almost always experienced setbacks and letdowns for so long that it never expected it to be any other way. I used to joke to my friends about how I would take garage rock out of Detroit and to the world – and that is exactly what has happened! It happened so quickly that it could probably be called a “brilliant mistake”.”

Within the media hype of the Detroit music scene it is easy to get swayed into thinking that it is only a big happy White Stripes family. Jack laughs hard when I make this statement, but is also quick to change the topic. “There are so many good bands and we love to play gigs together and to tour together. This is how it has always been.”

But there must be other bands as well? Who don’t fit into your family? “Yes, but we don’t go on tour with them … ha ha ha!”

“The jokes aside, this very moment there are probably Detroit bands talking rubbish about us. We all used to be sitting in the same boat, but now Meg and I are sitting in our own little boat. It can be difficult to relate to others who are still in the same position we were in a year ago. Sometimes it almost gets to the point where I dread telling the people at home what we have been doing only because I am concerned that it would cause them to feel worse or think that they might be doing something wrong. Then you pull yourself together because it is all a result of this self-occupation which I hate so much. Instead I hope that our friends find inspiration in what we have done, to give them new hope. And we have worked hard.”

It’s clearly noticeable that he sometimes find it difficult to accept the fact that those “enemies” he attempts to stand up to and oppose in many ways were the ones to first embrace and push forward his music.

“I admit that it is difficult to understand how it happened, and to really know how we should handle the issue. The institutions we really oppose, which are MTV and commercial radio, embraced us. That confuses me and makes us unsure of what we are going to do. I don’t know … Only that it is a confused and confusing world in which we live.”

Right now it feels as if the White Stripes are the most effective medium against all that is frightening in the modern media and entertainment industry. One could readily give their music a political dimension in that Jack White stands up for basic human decency and goes against the driving forces of technology and the mindless mass consumerism of the society in which we live. He only shakes his head when I bring up the subject.

“I certainly hate the fleeting and impoverished human relationships which the whole internet culture have brought us, and I often think strange things like digital technology is killing people’s souls, but I’m definitely not a political person. For example, I have never at anytime voted. Political stands, for me, are only a wasted possibility – and are achieved through corruption and dishonesty. I want to hold myself as far from that as anyone can at anytime.”

“I have never thought that rock music can have a direct influence on anything in relation to questions about war and peace or famine. Perhaps it doesn’t any longer make a difference what other things they are concerned with. If the Beatles could not get us all to love one another, then how would the White Stripes be able to do it?”

This should not however imply that Jack White thinks that music should deal with any old rubbish. He stresses, yet once again, that lyrics are important to him.

“It is about really knowing what you want to say, what message you want to convey. To have control over your words. At the very last moment I changed the words “I don’t have the patience to watch you battle every miniscule disease” in the song “Girl, You have no Faith in Medicine” on the new record. I did it because it was written about headaches, but I realized it may be interpreted as if I was putting down people who struggle with other serious illnesses. At the same time, it was important for me to inject a certain measure of mystery in what I was doing, for it not to be too obvious. Therefore, I am sometimes reluctant to discuss individual lyrics. An artist does not write down in the edge (of the painting) what he wanted to say with it, what it should mean.”

He finds that mystery, that combination of naked realism and deep symbolism, in the blues. But it is hardly the black music of today.

And Jack has very decided opinions as to why there is no trace of the latter in his music, going against all the current trends.

“The black culture has created fantastic music forms – blues, rock’n’roll, rhythm n’ blues, soul, gospel, jazz – and I love it that these are always changing and evolving. R’n’b became doowop became soul became Motown. But for the last 20 years it has only been hip hop and hip hop and then hip hop again. And just as every rap video consists of gold chains and cars and naked girls by swimming pools, such is the iron grip of the music industry today that all that type of music sounds exactly the same. And the lyrics just go on and on about how fantastic and how tough they are. It is stupidity, yet see how neatly it all rhymes.”

“It is incredibly difficult to hear a new idea, to feel that there is a place for change and surprises. There is nothing there which inspires me, which takes me forward. That is music for cocky white teenagers. It just bores me. And music which is boring is a mortal sin.”

Is it not just that you are a little old fashioned?

“Perhaps, but if that is the case, then I take it as a compliment. I stand for the values which I feel are right, not those which are in vogue at the moment. And 95% of all I listen to is old music. And not just the delta blues, which never loses its relevance. But it is so annoying to me. I am so tired of all the consumerism and instant society. As you can see with the hip hop scene, there are all these hit songs with extremely short lives. After only a few months they are looked on as “novelties”. And the “hip” people today would rather die than be caught listening to last year’s Puff Daddy song.”

What is the best music you have heard lately?

“That’s relatively new ... from 1968 or so! It’s a band called Public Nuisance, from Los Angeles. They dressed completely in black and on record they sound like a mix between the Pretty Things and early Kinks. Excellent songs. One of the songs we must do a cover of is called “Small Faces”.”

Which sounds almost too good to be true.

One last thing. You have certainly always wondered which Led Zeppelin album Jack and Meg like the most. Jack “definitely” favours the first,and his ex-wife prefers the second.

And don’t be surprised if it there is a skull appearing behind Meg’s head on the cover of Elephant. It is Jack’s way of showing that he thinks the latest internet rumour about the band: that Meg is dead and replaced by a robot is quite funny. Part of the evidence: Meg does not move in the video for “We’re going to be friends” – her batteries are flat. In the video for “Hotel Yorba”, she plays with a mouse and everyone knows that real girls are afraid of mice. It would not at all surprise me if it was Jack himself who started the rumour.