May 27th, 2007
Why has the world's edgiest rock band moved to Nashville? Have they rejected rock'n'roll? D.G. Strong asks frontman (and new dad) Jack White if he's crossing over from hip to hicksville.
Jack and Meg White might the coolest rock stars in the world. But ensconced in what has to be the stodgiest, old-lady-est hotel room in Nashville, Tennessee, it's hard to see it. I'm sure this is someone's idea of elegant, but if ever a hotel suite needed a good rock'n'roll trashing, this one is it. Bilious pea-green carpet, poppy-strewn curtains, a chintz bedspread. There's a little bit of everything in this room, which is perhaps by design - the White Stripes are finishing up a week of nothing but interviews promoting their new Icky Thump CD which is itself a little bit of everything. Seriously: if you've been waiting for a rock record that features both a Patti Page cover and a bagpipe interlude (no, not on the same song), well, here it is.
Would you perhaps also like a trumpet solo performed by a Mexican trumpeter discovered at a Nashville restaurant? No problem! Icky Thump has it. It's an interesting record to listen to with other people because everyone seems to have an opinion regarding exactly what other songs these new songs seem to remind them of. Heart! Eh, no. The Eagles! Huh-uh. Rush! Uh, no. It sounds like ... well, it sounds like a White Stripes record and nothing else.
Jack, crisply put together in his requisite red and black, does most of the talking - indeed, Meg is a bit of a sphinx, barefoot in a black baby doll dress, smoking cigarettes in a gold brocade-covered armchair with her legs folded under her. Even when asked a direct question about her participation in songwriting duties ("It would be weird for me to throw my words in there; it's his art, his voice"), she defers to Jack, who takes up where Meg's answers trail off.
It's a role that suits him - he seems confident about the record. Icky Thump is the first album the White Stripes have recorded in a state-of-the-art recording studio, Nashville's Blackbird Studio. "We've never been to a major studio before," Jack mentions. "I think it's the largest record we've made, sonically. It scared us a little. Was it going to be hard to get the raw sound we like? We've always been afraid the studio would iron out the rawness. But we thought if we can make a White Stripes record in this environment, we can make one anywhere."
He was right to be worried - it's easily the Stripes' most polished recording and some of the trademark raw edges have been smoothed out, but the record doesn't suffer for it. Jack has never sounded better as a singer or a guitarist and Meg drums away like she has a fire in her lap and she's trying to put it out with those drumsticks.
They both seem to be waiting for the Nashville question. "Every journalist who's come in here has asked it," Jack says. I quickly and quietly mark out about half of my prepared questions. In recent years, Nashville has successfully shed its hillbilly reputation and emerged with a lively indie rock scene - Jack himself produced, recorded and played on Loretta Lynn's magisterial Van Lear Rose in a small bungalow in East Nashville a few years ago, melding his distinct hipster sensibility with her homespun openness. There's a general feeling among up-and-coming bands in the city that now that Jack's moved here with his wife Karen Elson and their baby daughter, Nashville's international image has been altered. It's no longer a city defined by the Grand Ol' Opry; all sorts of people are moving to Tennessee, from Nicole Kidman to Ben Folds.
But for all the buzz, it hasn't gone unnoticed that Nashville has yet to produce a single big rock success, and there's a sense in the city that White's presence means something - they're just not sure what, although it's certainly unnerving to see him pushing a stroller into the neighbourhood coffee shop.
Meanwhile, White Stripes fans around the globe and across the web have been gnashing their teeth and wringing their hands, worrying that there'll be some sort of inevitable country conversion of the band. They can relax - Icky Thump is still a rock record, though there is one future country classic on it ( You Don't Know What Love Is ) just begging to be covered by an ageing country diva, which Jack says before I can. "I'd love that to happen, for someone great to get a hold of it." The name Loretta Lynn looms large in the room all of a sudden but he doesn't name her specifically.
Quizzed about how the White Stripes were able to avoid - or consciously resist - too much Nashville influence, Jack says it was simple: the songs just didn't want to be country songs. "We attack an album song by song, without preconceptions. Don't tell the song what you want it to be; let it tell you. I always try to obey the song and let it tell me what it wants to be, to let the song be in control, to let it breathe freely. It's not good to manipulate the song too much sometimes. Not to sound pretentious." Which it totally does but since he's totally sincere, you don't hold it against him. The songs on Icky Thump do have an organic, unpredictable hairpin quality to them, as if they had lives of their own. In the aforementioned You Don't Know What Love Is , the song builds and builds and then suddenly there's a Hammond organ pulsing away in the background and you dread - seriously, seriously dread - the inevitable church choir. "But instead you get a rocking guitar solo," Meg chirps.
The most interesting and surprising section of the record consists of the two songs right smack in the middle - a pair of songs that serve as a bit of a palate cleanser before the record relaxes back into familiar White Stripes thunder-making territory, the open-hearted P rickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn ("sweet but accusatory," Meg says) and St Andrew ( This Battle Is In The Air ), which features Icky Thump's sole Meg lead vocal. Both hark back to Scottish folk music and the first features a lovely, unexpected Highland bagpipe ("in the key of D rather than B flat!" Jack makes me write down) performed by Jim Drury. Jack likes the idea of surprising people with a song adorned with bagpipes. "It's great to take those giant leaps. But - and this is hard - being a modern band, there's always a battle against irony and pretentiousness. There's always a worry: what's going to be (the listener's) take on it? Will it come off as a joke? Will it remain pure?" Again, he worries that he's sounding pretentious. This seems to concern him quite a bit, as he brings it up at least three times. "Not to sound pretentious."
This Scottish interlude comes at just the right time, immediately following a classic rock rave-up, Bone Broke, that conjures up some early White Stripes singles and should silence any naysayers who might accuse the band of going soft. The whole CD twists and turns, offering one kind of song and then a totally different one and then again, a totally different one from that. Jack loves this part of the studio process and perks right up to talk about it. "Sequencing. I love the sequencing part. All that stuff. In some cases, like 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour, we recorded all these different blues riffs and then we chopped up the song a little and put it back together, editing with razor blades on a reel to reel."
He also lights up when talking about the Patti Page cover, Conquest . "I've loved Patti Page for a long time and we've wanted to cover that song for 10 years. It's a classic role-reversal song and now seemed the right time to cover it. We found this trumpeter, Regulo Aldama, playing at a Mexican restaurant here in town and we brought him into the studio. He didn't speak English, so we had an interpreter ... and before you knew it, we were recording a furious call-and-response battle between the guitar and the trumpet."
Furious is just the right word for it and you can't help but wonder exactly what Patti Page will make of it when she hears it - or what might happen if Jack White ever got his hands on her like he got them on Loretta Lynn. The mind reels. And waits. And hopes.
When our time is up, Jack shakes my hand and walks over to the window and looks out onto the Nashville street three storeys down. They have to do an on-camera interview after me, so Meg goes to another room to, I don't know, freshen up.
I notice that there are about a thousand small bottles of cola and soda all lined up on a table next to the window. Seriously, there are a lot of them. Who are they for? They didn't offer me one! And then in the elevator down to the lobby I start wondering: what kind of rock star has cola and soda in their hotel room? I can't decide if I'm disappointed or relieved that they've confounded my expectations. Not for the first time today, I feel my opinion of the White Stripes shifting. Modern and smart, with a point of view and something to say, they're absolutely serious about their music. With the release of Icky Thump, you sense that this is a big leap for them, that there's no turning back into a rough-edged lark of a band. But you still really really really want them to trash that awful hotel room.
Icky Thump is out on June 16.
When jack met meg a love story with a twist
1994 19-year-old upholsterer John "Jack" Gillis meets 20-year-old bartender Meg White while hanging around the Detroit rock'n'roll scene.
1996 Jack and Meg get married in September. He takes her surname.
1997 The White Stripes plays their first gig in July at the Gold Dollar in Detroit: Jack on guitar and vocals, Meg on drums. Jack White dumps his black-and-yellow look in favour of the Stripes' red-and-white colour scheme.
1999 The White Stripes eponymous debut is released, a swampy mix of punk blues that wins praise from the rock critics. Jack and Meg White start claiming to be brother and sister from a tribe of 10 kids.
2000 Jack and Meg White divorce, but maintain the band and the line that they're siblings. Second album De Stijl gets rave review in Rolling Stone . They tour Australia and New Zealand.
2001 White Blood Cells is the band's commercial breakthrough, propelled by Michel Gondry's fabulous Lego-animation video for the second single, Fell in Love with a Girl .
2002 The band headlines Big Day Out. Jack and Meg's marriage certificate posted on the internet (below). Jack takes small role in Anthony Minghella's film Cold Mountain , and starts dating Renee Zellweger.
2003 Elephant is released in several collectable editions, and debuts at No. 1 in Britain. Sofia Coppola films Kate Moss pole dancing for the video of the Bacharach cover I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself. Jack and Meg White star in one of the vignettes in Jim Jarmusch's movie Coffee and Cigarettes .
2004 Elephant wins two Grammy awards. Jack produces country diva Loretta Lynn's comeback CD Van Lear Rose . He breaks up with Zellweger.
2005 Get Behind Me Satan is released. On tour in Brazil, Jack marries model Karen Elson, who stars in the clip for single Blue Orchid . Meg is maid of honour. The newlyweds move to Nashville.
2006 The White Stripes tour Big Day Out again. In May, Jack's daughter Scarlett White is born. Jack tours with his side project, the Raconteurs. White Stripes' single Seven Nation Army becomes the unofficial anthem of Italy's World Cup soccer team. And fulfilling a long-term ambition, the White Stripes guest star in an episode of The Simpsons , titled "Jazzy and the Pussycats".
2007 Jack signs on to play Elvis in John C. Reilly's rock biopic spoof Walk Hard. Icky Thump is released.