‘I thought I’d end up running an upholstery shop’: Jack White on the White Stripes, bar brawls and fame

As one half of the White Stripes, the Detroit musician conquered the world. He has since played in other bands, opened record shops and worked with country legend Loretta Lynn. After a busy lockdown, he is back with two new solo albums

When Jack White was 14, he was all set to become a priest. “I’d been accepted at the seminary and everything,” he grins, and it’s not too hard to imagine Father Jack White preaching with missionary zeal, even with his hair dyed blue, as it is today. “But something happened to me in that summer. The priests seemed really old and I thought, ‘Who’s gonna speak for my generation?’”

White was raised a Catholic, and his conversation is still peppered with words such as “sinner” and “judgment” – but that didn’t stop him changing his mind about holy orders. “To be fair, they don’t turn anyone into a priest unless they really want to be one,” he says. “I never got the calling.”

Instead, of course, he found music.

Born Jack Gillis in downtown Detroit, to a Polish mother and Scottish Canadian father who both worked for the church, he was the youngest of 10 siblings. They would subject him to the usual indignities, such as knocking down the card houses he liked to build, “because that’s how brothers and sisters are”. But his brothers had a drum kit, which he played from the age of five, before graduating to other instruments in his mid-teens when most of the siblings had left home and his father unexpectedly brought home a piano. “That piano, which I have in front of me now, changed my life.” He never thought he could make a living out of music, though. Even when he joined bands and was on “so many bills people were sick of me”, he would hear musicians talk about going in the studio and think: “Is your dad a millionaire or something?” His expected career was furniture. “When I was 16 I would have bet $1,000 that I’d only ever have an upholstery shop.”

Within a decade, however, his supercharged garage rock duo the White Stripes was a global phenomenon, and he’s barely paused since. He fronted the Raconteurs and played drums in the Dead Weather, and has been a producer and video-maker, while his eclectic Third Man operation takes in everything from a record label and record shops to a publishing imprint. His three solo albums have all been US No 1s. A fourth, Fear of the Dawn, arrives this month with another, Entering Heaven Alive, following in July. He has 12 Grammys. “I also made a good cup of coffee once,” he chuckles.

The White Stripes performing in Madison Square Garden in New York in 2007.
The White Stripes performing in Madison Square Garden in New York in 2007. Photograph: Stephen Lovekin/WireImage

He is the first to admit that he isn’t always in control of what he calls a “compulsion” to create. “It’s more in control of me,” he says, “but it’s always been like this. When I was 19, I was a drummer in two different bands. I had the upholstery apprenticeship and a business in the basement. I was recording music in my bedroom, but nobody ever came up and said to my parents, ‘Wow, this kid’s interesting.’ Nobody patted me on the back for any of it.” But that didn’t stop him, or slow him down.

Today, wearing a Batman T-shirt, White, 46, is video-calling from another project, the bowling alley on his Nashville estate, which he designed himself. It’s decked out in dazzling orange stripes, which make for quite a combination with his blue hair. He puts much thought into minor details. Where the White Stripes presented in red and white (inspired by peppermint candy), orange and blue is a homage to the multitude of movie posters, notably Star Wars, that used “supposedly the most attractive colours to boost ticket sales, hyuk, hyuk”.

He was still at school when he met Meg White, the woman who would become the other half of the White Stripes. They married in 1996 and he took her surname. One day, he recalls, “to help me out while I was setting up a microphone or something”, Meg got behind the drums. “And what she was playing was so cool. I thought, ‘Oh wow, please keep doing that,’ never thinking, ‘Oh we’re going to write songs or form a band or play on stage or anything.’” But they did all that, and after two under-the-radar albums they suddenly exploded during a 2001 visit to the UK, when DJ John Peel said they were the most exciting thing he had heard since Jimi Hendrix.

“We were staying on the drummer from [Billy Childish’s band] Thee Headcoats’ floor that whole trip,” White remembers. “We thought we’d just play with a couple of garage rock bands and go home. That’s not what happened.” White Blood Cells, released in July 2001 and featuring the breakthrough single Hotel Yorba and the riotous Fell in Love With a Girl, saw them become one of the hottest bands in the world. The follow up, Elephant, released in 2003, was a UK No 1, and reached No 6 in the US, triggering an imperial period lasting almost a decade. Having divorced before the breakthrough, the couple pretended to be brother and sister to deflect intrusive questions (continuing the misdirection even after some sleuth produced their marriage certificate). “To get famous, especially in duos, whether it’s Sonny and Cher or whoever, everything is up for grabs to be exploited,” White says. “You have to explain your relationship to everybody. We were never interested in that.”

Similarly, no reason was given when the Stripes ceased performing in 2009 and in 2011 announced a split that was subsequently attributed to Meg’s stage fright. “She’s so delicate and such a sweet person that you’d never think she’d go up on stage,” White says, warmly. “But she did and conquered it in her own way. Eventually, it just got too much.”

Never one to dawdle, White had already formed the Raconteurs and diversified into producing the country singer Loretta Lynn. But he still professes amazement at his career and insists he follows instincts, rather than business acumen. “The smartest thing I ever did was having a lawyer as manager.” That is Ian Montone, who met the Stripes in 2001 and asked to manage them six months later. “People said, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t do that – this guy will rip you off.’ But I’m very grateful that he’s never tried to change me or stop me doing things.”

In 2009, with Dean Fertita, Alison Mosshart and Jack Lawrence in The Dead Weather.
In 2009, with Dean Fertita, Alison Mosshart and Jack Lawrence in The Dead Weather. Photograph: Andy Willsher/Redferns

White doesn’t like people taking liberties. In 2003, a row over production credits with fellow Detroit band The Von Bondies exploded in a bar brawl with singer Jason Stollsteimer. White was fined and sent on an anger management course. “I was raised with consequences, and that if someone says something in a bar it’s fighting talk,” he says with a shrug. “But everybody gets older and wiser, right?” Since then, his spats have all been verbal. In 2015, he was accused of “gentrification” after opening a record shop in Cass Corridor, Detroit. “I said, ‘Motherfucker. I went to school right there. I played my first show in that club. This is my neighbourhood!’”

White’s second marriage, to the model and musician Karen Elson, lasted from 2005 to 2013 and produced two children, but he guards his privacy and shuns the way modern celebrities live their lives on social media. He did, however, surprise fans at his Detroit homecoming show on Saturday by marrying his partner, Olivia Jean, also a musician from Detroit, on stage. He cackles with laughter at the mention of Madonna’s recent picture of herself on the loo, because it reminds him of something his father said when he got mad at the TV. “He yelled, ‘It’s only a matter of time before we’ll see a celebrity on the toilet,’” he says. “And that’s sort of ‘Old man yells at clouds’ but it’s true now that you can get on stage or a magazine cover and not be any good what you’re doing, just good at selling it. Some people are fearless, but that’s not necessarily a compliment. They’re just stupid enough to think they deserve to be in front of a mic.”

White wasn’t involved in his own marketing miracle – how the riff from the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army has become a global football and political chant (most famously “Oh, Jer-emy Corb-yn”). “It might be the biggest multicultural hit of all time,” he laughs. “Because nobody is singing any words, they’re just chanting a melody. Who would have thought it? Certainly not Meg or I. We recorded the song quickly and moved on.”

He says he doesn’t understand British politics or what Corbyn represents, but – despite being “neither a Republican or Democrat” – enthusiastically backed Corbyn’s US equivalent-of-sorts, Bernie Sanders, at the last election. “He tells the truth and he’s never said anything I disagree with. Same with AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], whereas Nancy Pelosi, for example, said congressmen should be able to buy stocks and I’m like, uh-oh.”

White angrily called out Donald Trump for adopting Seven Nation Army and produced “Icky Trump” T-shirts (a pun on the White Stripes song and album Icky Thump) criticising the then president’s policies on Mexican immigration. Did he lose fans for speaking against Trump?

“God, I hope so. I see a Trump rally and think, ‘Do I want people like that at my shows?’ It’s so different to being a Republican in the 1980s. This is racist, derogatory, divisive and hateful.”

He has called time on another of his crusades – analogue sound – admitting that digital isn’t as “plastic and fake” as it was 20 years ago and that, anyway, he had made his point – “to make people think about where their sound is coming from”. The music industry has changed massively, but, he says, not always for the worse, pointing out that young artists can generate a profile online, whereas he remembers “having to go to a town several times and put flyers on telephone poles”.

The flipside is the collapse of recording income, which White fears devalues music. When he got involved with the artist-owned streaming company Tidal, he was told that paying artists just one cent per stream would bankrupt it. “I still don’t understand that conversation, but I do know that there’s humungous payouts to the major labels to stream their entire catalogue. When you sign up to Netflix nobody expects to see every fucking movie, but on Spotify we expect every song in the history of humankind.”

White calls himself an “interdisciplinary artist” and he shows the same flexibility in his social life. After 20 years of stardom, his friendships stretch from 90s furniture partner Brian Muldoon (with whom he quietly revived Third Man Upholstery in 2008) to, at least reportedly, Bob Dylan. “I can’t claim to be friends with Bob, and maybe that’s an impossibility,” he shrugs. “Or maybe that is the case but it’s hard to define. He has the holy spirit around him. He’s sort of not from here, but if people would just talk about music with him he’d be a lot more receptive because he is an encyclopaedia. He knows exactly what’s going on in music at any given time.”

Jack White … ‘I can’t claim to be friends with Bob Dylan … maybe that’s an impossibility.’
Jack White … ‘I can’t claim to be friends with Bob Dylan … maybe that’s an impossibility.’ Photograph: David James Swanson

So, it seems, does White. The two new albums are the result of what he calls “incredibly inspiring” lockdowns, during which time he initially played and recorded all the instruments himself for the first time in his career, bringing other musicians in later for the “swing” of playing live. “Although it was – and is – a shame that so many people got hurt by the pandemic, the seclusion helped me re-evaluate artistically and refocus on things I hadn’t had time for in years,” he says. “So many different tunes came out that the two albums started to emerge on their own. I pushed myself to new areas which I’m really proud of.”

Thus, Fear of the Dawn hurls together raucous guitars, dub, hip-hop, synths and a Q-Tip collaboration featuring a sample of Cab Calloway’s Hi De Ho Man, from 1934. Entering Heaven Alive is gentler, more country rock. The 2021 smash Taking Me Back appears on both albums, as a digital metal stomper and “Django Reinhardt-type jazz version” respectively.

“I grew up with a Polish grandmother in my house,” White says. “My parents were in their 60s when I was in high school. I lived in a Mexican neighbourhood and went to an all-black high school. It would make just as much sense for me to play in a Polish polka band or a hip-hop act, or a Mexican mariachi band under a sombrero. It would be nice to know exactly who I am or what I’m doing – but I don’t.”

Perhaps this explains his compulsions. He reveals that the new song Shedding My Velvet was inspired by footage of stags, which “shed the mossy velvet on their antlers every year and just start again. I was really taken by that idea of rebirth.”

Fear of the Dawn is out now on Third Man. Entering Heaven Alive follows on 22 July. White plays the Eventim Apollo, London, on 27 and 28 June

• This article was amended on 11 April 2022 to correct the concert dates from July to June.

Contributor

Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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