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White's new hue

Detouring from his White Stripes success, Jack White tries to be just one of the guys in a pop-rock band. Meet the Raconteurs.
By Robert Hilburn
Special to The Times
March 19, 2006

There's a lot that's new in Jack White's life as he walks into the den of his new house on a street that has served as home for such rebels as Hank Williams and George Jones. The White Stripes leader has a new wife, a new band and, in May, he's due to become a new father.

The house makes sense. White was starting to feel a bit claustrophobic back home in Detroit, where he had lived all his 30 years. It was hard to go anywhere without someone coming up with a few words (or more) of advice or criticism.

Besides, he fell in love with Nashville and the South when he recorded an album here in 2003 with honky-tonk belle Loretta Lynn. He even chose the city's historic Ryman Auditorium, longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry, as the place to make his marriage to English model Karen Elson official. (The couple were first "wed" last June by a shaman priest on a canoe at the confluence of three rivers in Brazil.)

But there has been a lot of head scratching in the rock world over the matter of the new band.

Why, quite simply, would the most absorbing figure in American rock shelve his old duo — which has sold 9 million albums around the world and twice won Grammys for best alternative album — to spend this year hitting the road with a four-piece group called the Raconteurs?

It's a big commercial and creative gamble but, White says without hesitation, "You've always got to let the music dictate where you go. You die as a musician when you stop exploring. When this band started, we never sat down and said, 'This is what we want to do.' The music could have gone any way. This could have been a country band for all we knew. I love leaping into the unknown."

White already confused radio programmers and part of his fan base when he stepped away from the Stripes to produce the Lynn album and laid down his trademark guitar for most of the Stripes' "Get Behind Me Satan" album. Each of his renegade steps has sharpened his musical command — so far.

The verdict on the Raconteurs' "Broken Boy Soldiers" won't be in until it hits the streets May 16 on Third Man/V2 Records. Rolling Stone has already given a thumbs up for the single, which is available on www.theraconteurs.com. In describing the sweet, melodic feel of the single, "Steady, as She Goes," the magazine declared the single "sounds like the Stripes with a little more peppermint." England's NME calls the record "gleeful and unabashed fun."

One thing is immediately clear about the album: It is not just a Jack White exercise. You also feel the presence on the album of White's new co-vocalist and songwriting partner, Brendan Benson, and the rhythm section of bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler.

On the CD, the quartet applies some distinctly modern rock sensibilities to classic '60s and '70s influences. There should be enough blues-power guitar tunes to keep Stripes fans happy, but there are also harmony-rich updates of Lennon-McCartney-style ballads. The songs are also wrapped frequently in striking psychedelic textures that make them a headphone delight and allow the textures to comment on the lyrics in sometimes wry, sometimes poignant ways.

"This experience has been great," says White, in his first U.S. interview with the new band. In the Stripes, his insistence on doing things his own way, whether it's photo shoots or recording in two weeks on a $10,000 budget, led some detractors to call him a dictator or egomaniac.

"A lot of time people mistake ego for passion," he says. "You just want to get a job done and you don't want anything to stand in your way. But it's also inspiring to feed off each other and create something beautiful. In this band, it's four people feeding off each other, and that's a joy."

*

Allure of local color

YOU are quickly reminded that White is new to town as he slips behind the wheel of the black pickup truck he brought with him from Detroit and heads for a local cafe for a late lunch.

It takes him a good 30 minutes to find the cafe, which is probably no more than 12 minutes from his house. One clue that he is lost: He passes the same Vanderbilt University campus signpost three times.

White could have settled for a closer restaurant, but he loves to seek out private haunts — usually funky places, the more out-of-the-way, the better.

Back in his native Detroit, he once drove me nearly 45 minutes to a favorite Dearborn bar for two double cheeseburgers. Blender magazine recently made fun of that craving in its irreverent monthly feature, "When Will Your Favorite Pop Star Croak?" The idea of the goofy column is to predict a star's life expectancy, adding and taking off years based on the subject's lifestyle. In White's case, the bar burgers cost him four years.

"Actually, I don't eat that many cheeseburgers," says White, standing in the order line at the cafe counter. He passes on the high-cholesterol items, including the temptation of his Detroit favorite, and orders a more health-conscious chicken-fettuccini salad.

"This should give me back a couple of years," he says with a smile as he heads for a corner table.

In fact, it may be time for Blender to redo its take on White's longevity, which was docked 11 more years for anxiety, monopolizing interviews, being a chain smoker and living in air-polluted Detroit.

Of course, there's a lot of the old Jack White in the new setting. He's furnished the new house with many of the items from his Detroit place, including all the religious statuettes, stuffed animal heads and various thrift shop oddities that have caught his eye while traveling.

There's even a pair of old-fashioned department store photo booths and the Rita Hayworth photos that inspired two songs on "Get Behind Me Satan."

White and Elson looked at Johnny Cash's old house in nearby Hendersonville and they loved it, but White is such a big Cash fan he felt he would be uncomfortable in the house.

"It would be like living in a museum or something," he says, standing in his den with his red-haired wife, who appeared in the White Stripes' "Blue Orchid" video and is part of a New York City-based musical troupe called the Citizens Band. She teamed with Cat Power on vocal for a Serge Gainsbourg tribute album.

White often used to seem as intense in interviews as he is on stage, where he exudes the aura of a caged panther as he attacks the guitar, trying to coax some added emotion out of it.

Yet something about Nashville or the marriage or the band — or perhaps all three — has helped calm him, which may be as surprising to Stripes fans as some of the music on "Broken Boy Soldiers."

*

On equal footing

THERE'S no way you would know White was the "star" in the band if you saw them fooling around during a photo shoot or sitting in White's recording studio, talking about the making of the album. There's a closeness you normally find only with musicians who have worked together for years.

When White steps inside one of the photo booths a couple of days later to take some photos for The Times, he brings a fish with him in salute to the cover of one of his favorite artist's albums: Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band's "Trout Mask Replica."

The playfulness continues when Benson, who tends to be stiff in photos, steps in. The other band members rustle his hair so much that he looks as if he's spent the night on a park bench.

Bassist Lawrence, who is normally as quiet during interviews as the Stripes' Meg White, adds to the mood by trying to make sure we don't see much of him at all in the photo, and the outgoing Keeler mocks them all by playing it absolutely straight when he gets his turn in the booth.

This closeness isn't accidental. The four Raconteurs, all from the Midwest, have known or worked with one another in various capacities for nearly a decade, talking much of that time about forming a band. While White went on to platinum albums and Grammys, the other three have won their share of critical attention — especially Benson.

The slender, thirtysomething Michigan native, whose range of styles has included punk and hook-filled pop-rock, has made three albums, the latest of which, "The Alternative to Love," has been described by Q magazine as "an album of great craft, emotion and warmth."

Keeler and Lawrence have won praise for their work in the Greenhornes, a trio with garage and roots-rock ties. White enlisted the two as the rhythm section on the Loretta Lynn album.

"I think it is helpful having a history other than playing music," Keeler says as he sits with his bandmates in the cafe. "We've toured a lot together, hung out a lot. So, we knew each other pretty well before we ever got together, which is important. You could probably call on the greatest studio musicians in the world and it doesn't mean they can work together."

Agrees White, "I always marvel when I hear about a band that got a new member by putting an ad in a newspaper. You need more than just someone who can play. You need a lot of trust to be in a band, and we had that going in."

Generally, White and Benson worked on the songs, then went into the studio and recorded them with Keeler and Lawrence, leaving lots of room for their input. For Benson, who tends to be a one-man band in the studio, the idea of working as part of a team when recording was as foreign as it was to White.

"You have to know when to lay off," Benson says. "If Jack was cooking on something, you step back and don't get in the way. I've worked with other people and I'd be excited about something and someone would try to get in on it, and mess things up. You go, 'Let me finish and then we can talk about it.' We didn't have that problem because everyone knew when to lay back and when to get in."

Keeler says he and Lawrence were also free to contribute to the arrangements.

"There were no restrictions," he notes. "You could play whatever you wanted. I like jazz and I like punk and lots of different styles of drumming. I was able to draw on everything this time, a lot of different time signatures and different changes in the songs."

Still, the songs carry the spirit of Benson and White.

There's a Beatles grace that runs through "Together," "Hands" and "Call It a Day" that is in keeping with Benson's solo work.

"I was pulling out of my driveway and breaking up with my girlfriend and the lyrics just came flooding out," Benson says, when asked about "Call It a Day." "I think I pulled over every two miles and jotted down some more lines. Once I had the words, Jack wrote the music."

White's stamp, by contrast, is all over the ferocious title track, whose howling, desperate lines represent the apex of punk and the blues as White works out some of his own frustrations about the way family and friends can try to put limits on you. Against the swirling, insistent beat, he shouts, "The boy never gets older!"

"Me and my mother are both youngest of 10 children, which is why we get along so well, I guess," he says. "One day she said, 'I'm 75 and I'm still the baby in the family,' and I thought about that when I was writing that song. It's the idea of people trying to break out of the restrictions put upon them by others. And it's not just the youngest in the family. If you are the oldest, you go through life with this responsibility to oversee the younger ones in a way."

White and Benson seem to like it best when it's not clear who's doing what on a song — or when there is more going on in the lyrics than you might first think.

On first listening, the single, "Steady, as She Goes," sounds all sweetness and light as suggested by NME— almost a toast to his wedding:

Find myself a girl and settle down

Live a simple life in a quiet town.

Underneath the comforting pop-rock strains, however, White's really talking about a young man's anxiety about marriage: Is it really fulfillment or a sort of surrender?

The song was written before he even met his wife — it's the first song that Benson and White wrote together. White, who sings lead on the track, wrote the words, Benson the music. All 10 songs are credited Benson-White.

"The great thing about this experience is that it has been liberating for us all," says White. "With the Stripes, I felt people weighing my every move. Now, there's breathing room. I love it that people will hear a song and assume, 'Oh, that's Brendan's song or that's Jack's song,' and they'll probably have it wrong. I was sometimes writing lyrics for Brendan and he was writing stuff for me to play on guitar."

*

Tour change-up

THE recording studio on White's property doubles as a rehearsal space, and the band has been working there, getting ready for a tour that begins Monday with warm-up dates in England before a U.S. summer tour. Guitars and other instruments are strewn around the floor.

Unlike in the Stripes, where White makes up the song order as the show progresses, the Raconteurs will have a set list. They won't do any of the Stripes-Benson-Greenhornes songs, but they may include some covers. White likes the idea of doing the Flamin' Groovies' rowdy, rootsy old "Headin' for the Texas Border."

Though the Raconteurs songs run only around three minutes each on the album, the band plans to extend them on stage.

"I think some of the songs were a lot longer, but we cut them down," White says. "It's always good to leave someone wanting more. I'm not sure you should exhaust people on an album. But I do like to exhaust them live. See if we can blow them away, see how much they can take."

With the Raconteurs' journey just starting, it's early to think about White's next move — and he doesn't seem worried about it.

"The songs really tell you where they want to be, I think," he says late in the day. "I think of myself primarily as a songwriter and I've always had lots of songs and they tell you whether they are a White Stripes song or not. Some songs just didn't fit and a few of them got put on this record."

Some future songs will find their way onto another Stripes album; others may lead him back into the studio with the Raconteurs or even surface on a solo album. (During the current break, Meg White, who was maid of honor at the wedding in Brazil, is contributing to the soundtrack of a movie titled "You Are Going to Prison." Her unaccompanied drumming will serve as the theme music for one of the characters in the comedy.)

Is there anything else on Jack White's agenda that might cause more confusion among Stripes fans?

"Well, there's the Coca-Cola commercial," he says. I assume he's joking — just trying to stir those die-hards who frown over rock music in commercials.

There was something in the British press last year about a Coke commercial — a singalong in the style of "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke." But there's been no follow-up and I figured it was just a rumor.

"No, it's true," he responds, when asked about the commercial, which is expected to be shown only outside the U.S. "We've turned down commercials before, but they showed me the video for the ad and it was amazing. I really wanted to write something for it. You can look at things in all kinds of ways: Does it make sense for your career? What are people going to think? Or you can just do what seems interesting and hope you keep finding other things to do that are interesting."

*

Turning back time -- the makings of a dream gig

When each Raconteur was asked which three bands in history he would have liked to have been in, the answers ranged from the predictable (the Beatles and the Who) to the obscure (the Mississippi Sheiks).

Brendan Benson

Led Zeppelin. I'd love to have been a fly on the wall when they were rehearsing or recording, just to get a glimpse into what goes on in their minds.

The Kinks. As much as the music, these are people I'd like to meet or be around … to pick their brains and have a real conversation or just be there when they were putting a song together. It'd be fascinating to watch.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions. I'd also say the Beatles, but let me mention the Attractions in the late '70s. The antics, the pace, the music. It was insane in a way.

*

Jack Lawrence

The Beatles. And it's not because of Beatlemania or the money, nothing like that. I would just like to have been in a band with such talented songwriters and musicians. I would have loved to have just watched the creative process.

The Yardbirds. Just imagine playing bass with so many great guitar players.

Howlin' Wolf or some blues band. It would have just been fun.

*

Patrick Keeler

The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It would be a blast. They were so innovative, that whole psychedelic rock thing.

The Who. Just because it was all so wild and they dressed cool. I loved their persona. "My Generation" is probably my favorite Who song.

The Beatles. Partly because Jack would be playing bass (smile).

*

Jack White

The Stooges. To me, that band is still rock 'n' roll personified. Their attitude was so powerful.

The Mississippi Sheiks. I know this one is obscure, but it really is a dream of mine. They played juke joints, ice cream socials, storefronts, county fairs in the '30s, wherever they could set up.

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. Some people call him the only avant-garde genius of this music, and they may be right. He out-weirded the hippies, out-weirded all psychedelic music. And he didn't do it just to be weird, but to be meaningful.


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