Jack White: ‘As an artist it is your job not to take the easy way out’

As the messiah of analogue and vinyl goes digital on his new solo album, Jack White talks about the need to be contrary, his love of objects – and his dislike of the press

Jack White is back in the UK for the first time since Seven Nation Army became the unofficial rallying cry for Jeremy Corbyn. But he doesn’t know much about Corbyn and anyway: “I feel like I have to be insanely careful these days because the press has had a lot of fun with me over the years.”

White is wearing black sports trousers with panels of green and yellow, and is rather athletic (he has shares in a company that produces quality baseball bats). His most famous song was also used, without warning, in a fan-made video for Donald Trump’s run for president. Via his record label Third Man, White and Meg, his partner in the White Stripes, issued the customary disavowal and Third Man started selling “Icky Trump” T-shirts, punning on the title of the final White Stripes album.

When one of your songs is an anthem used in stadiums and presidential campaigns, it is fair to say you have reached a certain standing. All the principles White upholds – that music should be held in the hand, and paid for – dissolve when a tune rolls airy, abstract and royalty-free, around a vast stadium. “The more people don’t know where it came from, the happier I am,” he says. When there’s a game on TV, his children, 10 and 11, say: “Dad, listen! It is never going to get old for us.” The song has also been assimilated into the repertoire of the high school marching band, “another strange world to crack into”.

White has long been part of the fabric of life but then, he made sure of that. When he ran his upholstery company after graduating from business school in Detroit, he sewed records into the sofas he finished. Those sofas are falling apart on landfill sites these days, offering up their musical time capsules: two were found in 2016. As part of the paraphernalia that accompanies his new album Boarding House Reach, fans can purchase a “Vault package” that includes a commemorative dollar coin, which doubles as a 45-inch vinyl adaptor, and gets you 10% off other stuff in his shops. One of Third Man’s co-founders, Ben Swank, wrote a piece in the Guardian saying that the company would continue to auction off its eccentric items on eBay because: “We are American, and Americans do all sorts of crazy things for capitalism. See you in hell.”

Trump has got White thinking about business. “He was always a joke,” he says. “People like Trump don’t use their own money. They use other people’s, and if they take a loss or go bankrupt, it doesn’t hurt them at all.” If White has a bad year, it comes out of his wallet, “just as if it were a corner store. In my neighbourhood you grew up thinking: ‘Maybe I’ll own a shop.’ But in his world, it’s like: ‘I’m going to grow up and have a corporation.’ Which is something no normal, everyday person can do.”

There is a song about this on the new record, his third solo album, an experimental storm of rock’n’roll and hip-hop sampling using live musicians who have worked with Kanye West and others. There is another track called Ezmerelda Steals the Show, a Learish interlude about a six-year-old at a rally, duping the crowd in a magical mist. White notes that Trump still goes to rallies after being elected, like no other president. “He needs the ego boost you get from a live crowd. He misses the glory, because at home, or at the White House, all he’s getting is negativity.”

The difference between a president and a rock star? A president doesn’t have to do anything once he gets on stage, White says. He, meanwhile, feels like a standup comedian. “If I do a joke and it doesn’t get a laugh, I know I have to win them back.”

With Meg in the White Stripes, 2010.
With Meg in the White Stripes, 2001. Photograph: Ewen Spencer/Ewen Spencer (commissioned)

The hardest thing for him to contend with, though, is technology. At a show, when White sees the “blue faces” (people with heads tilted at their phones), he assumes that people don’t like the song. He has gone into partnership with Yondr, the company that supplies cellphone-locking pouches at gigs and promises “to help you turn off your phone and tune into life”. At his estate in Nashville, White has had the gutters miked up and the sound piped into his bedroom: he likes to show his daughter how he can “turn on the rain”. He has collections of tangible objects – “a layman’s way of getting involved in the small and beautiful things of life” – including scissors, small alarm clocks and coin-operated machinery. Other collectors plague him via the internet: they know what he is looking for. He has an aluminium TWA Lockheed Constellation, he tells me – the plane designed by Howard Hughes. A model? “Uh-huh!” he nods, rapidly, looking innocent and dimpled. In his artisan “curation” of beautiful things and his expansion of the small business into a lucrative empire, he is the original hipster, even down to the hats.

His sheer commitment to his musical persona was impressive, or a little bit annoying, depending on your point of view. He had a messianic attitude towards analogue recording and vinyl in the age of digital. “If it was 1999 and I was asked: ‘What do you think about digital music?’, it was my job to say: ‘Is that what everyone else is doing? Then I don’t like it,’” he says. “If the world had been into analogue, I would’ve said I loved digital. As an artist it is your job not to take the easy way out. I want to be turned on when I listen to an artist speak: I want them to show something that no one else is doing.”

What was the broader purpose? “At that time, vinyl records were almost completely gone,” he says. “House music and DJs were keeping them alive. The Detroit garage rock scene – and the Hives, the Strokes, the Vines – were a little breath of fresh air for guitar rock and it was our duty to help save vinyl. A lot of that is due to an insane amount of effort from Third Man Records.”

His company helped to save vinyl? “Oh, there’s no doubt about it. People were thinking we were being old-timey, retro and cute. But our point was: this is a format that really makes sense for music lovers. It’s the only part of the music industry that’s rising in sales.” In 2016, long before Elon Musk and his Tesla, White sent a turntable into space. The vinyl, plated in gold to help it withstand temperature changes, played 28,000 metres above the earth, then descended back towards Idaho.

The White Stripes famously recorded in the all-analogue Toe Rag Studios in east London, and a wave of acts duly appeared in the late noughties soaked in the same vintage production. Studios would boast of having Elvis’s mixing desk, or Hank Williams’s mic stand, as though they were talismanic objects. In an episode of hipster-skewering sitcom Portlandia, someone builds such a place (“We had this lamp brought in from Detroit!”) and White appears, hovering on the veranda. When the Black Keys went to record in Muscle Shoals, they were upset to find that the original flocking on the walls had gone. White has fought a long war with the blues-rock two-piece (physically – he allegedly tried to fight one of them in a bar). He said he could hear his influence in everything they did.

White wrote Boarding House Reach much as you would expect him to, renting a flat in Nashville and hiding there with the same type of four-track recorder he had as a boy in Detroit. He did it with headphones on, in silence: “The most beautiful part was no one could get a hold of me.” As he descended into his childhood state, his own family life was put on hold. “They’re used to it. They know if I’m getting in the car, they’re not going to see me for a while.”

White with his former wife Karen Elson, 2010.
White with his former wife Karen Elson, 2010. Photograph: Paul Morigi/WireImage

But there will be no more guitars fashioned from bits of wood these days, or twanged renditions of Froggy Went A Courtin’. He will “not be sitting here talking to you about Son House today,” he tells me. The old-timey Jack White was a means to an end.

Today, with his mission accomplished, White loves CDs. “You can play them extremely loud, they’re portable and you can read the songwriting credits,” he notes. Downloads and streaming are also perfectly fine. And having once considered ProTools to be the devil’s work, he recorded the whole of his new album on tape and then “dumped” it into ProTools to edit. With all its sampling of live instruments, the album “behooved” (his word) complicated edits – and that required something niftier than his customary tape and razor blade.

“This was the hip-hop production style that I had stayed away from for years because I thought it was cheating,” says White. Always a bit of a rapper, he once produced the Insane Clown Posse. He has written some tracks with Jay-Z over the past few years, but they never came to fruition (he is vague about why). Instead, he got his hands on top hip-hop musicians: Q-Tip’s drummer, Kanye’s bassist, and many more, calling hip-hop production “the punk rock of right now”.

As a teenager, while other children would listen to songs without caring where the samples came from, the 14-year-old altar boy would yell at friends for not knowing that the EPMD’s Strictly Business stole from I Shot the Sheriff. His much older parents have something to do with this attitude – they were in their mid-40s when he was born, and like Ray and Dave Davies, he had siblings so much older that they felt like aunts and uncles. His reference points were different too, similar again to those of the musical generation above him – big band music, and Roger Miller. He likes to tell his mother she is older than sliced bread. “A kid at school would say: ‘Oh, that’s a cool airplane.’ And I would say: ‘Yeah, but it’s not like the P51 Mustang that they used in world war two.’”

Onstage at Glastonbury, 2014.
Onstage at Glastonbury, 2014. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

But more than smartphones, more than misheard samples, his biggest bugbear remains the press. When he introduces Boarding House Reach for journalists in King’s Cross in London the night after our interview, in the same trousers, he takes the mic with his head down, says a quick word about the title and walks out again, a standup comedian who hasn’t told a joke. The crowd nod their heads soberly to the new record. As it plays, you wonder whether White is still here somewhere, watching their faces from behind a curtain.

As he talks about journalism, his body drops further and further into the sofa, so that after an hour he is almost recumbent, elbow on a cushion, a hand caught in his hair. He stares into the distance looking faintly Byronic. Mojo magazine gave his new album three stars, he volunteers. “They did it to punish me for giving Q the cover story.”

For a while, the press saw him as a rather inspirational figure in the meat-and-two-veg world of guitar rock, partly because he worked with so many women: with Meg (he said she held the key to the White Stripes because she didn’t understand it); with Alison Mosshart in his band Dead Weather, then producing Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson. He even alternated his male touring band with an-all female rock band, dressed in white like the Virgin Suicides. He once recalled a dream he had had in which a 30ft lady rose in front of him and grew so large she couldn’t be contained by the room.

“Someone wrote something about ‘Jack White feminist’ once,” he says, looking a bit wistful. But times changed. People talked about his “woman problem” (including gossip about his divorce from Karen Elson), his control-freakery, and explored his stock rock’n’roll characters – devil women, little girls – with modern eyes.

On the new record there is a song called Respect Commander (“She commands my respect”). And a strange figure stares from the cover: the top half of the face is White’s, the bottom half a woman’s. “I don’t feel male or female,” he told Mojo, which became a headline. Has he ever wanted to give up press completely?

“Oh yes!” he cries. “Hell, yeah. The written word is just so powerful. It’s different when I’m on camera: people see your body language, your face. I could say to you right now: ‘I love your speaking voice.’ And that would be one thing. But if I wrote it on a piece of paper and slid it across the table towards you, that has a totally different connotation.”

That would be very strange. “It would be super-strange,” he says. “But it shows you how powerful it is.”

Boarding House Reach is out 23 March on Third Man Records.


Kate Mossman

The GuardianTramp

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