Interview: Jack White


As Jack White visits UCD, Evan O’Quigley discovers his influences, experiences and eccentricities

Jack White is a prolific musician. As well as having played in three bands, The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, he has just released his first solo album entitled Blunderbuss in April and has been touring ever since. On October 30th 2012 he stopped by UCD’s Astra Hall for a talk and questions and answers session with a group of eager fan boys and fan girls alike. The hall was packed to the brim, with students still scrounging for seats right up until White was due to arrive.

In walks Jack White, fashionably ten-minutes or so late, strolling down the steps, not paying any heed to the people around him. Many fans cheekily tried grabbing him or getting a high-five from the rock star as he walked through the aisle but White is too cool for any of that.

The first question asked was one he must get often. “What happened to Meg?” Meg White, Jacks ex-wife and ex-band mate, has been the subject of some amount of controversy and speculation since last year when The White Stripes decided to part ways after 13 years together. It was originally speculated that this may have been due to Meg White’s health issues. When the band cancelled several big shows in 2007 much of the media speculated it was due to Meg White’s anxiety and severe stage-fright which had impeded her confidence in performing. She still has not played on stage since the tours cancellation that year. Upon the bands break up Jack White announced however that the break up was due to a “myriad of reasons,” and would not divulge this information regarding his ex-wife, and who he has described as like a sister.

White seemed surprisingly put-off by the question regarding his ex-band mate, but instead of showing dismay or anger, replied instead simply with a bemused: “I don’t know”. White is known for refusing to indulge fans and the media with personal information and prefers to stick to questions about his music, rather than his life outside of art. It is for this reason that White must get somewhat tired of answering questions regarding his ex-band mate.

When asked how he began his career as a musician, and how he got into the ‘music business’, his reply was much less brief than when talking about his ex-wife. “I was just interested in playing the drums. I didn’t really think I was going to be in the music business or do anything other than playing small bars and things like that. That’s all I really cared about that back then.”

So did White make a conscious decision to try to make it in the music business? “I did not at all. I honestly had no thought in my head that I could possibly play music professionally or whatever that means, to go out and make albums in studios, I never thought could happen. Where I was from, in Detroit, me owning my own shop and maybe playing in bars on a weekend, and recording in my attic was all I ever thought of. Up till the point that the White Stripes were recording our first album I still thought that way. I thought, I play blues music, there’s no way people are going to like this in other towns, maybe ten people in every town or something. So it’s strange.”

Since starting the music business, he has left his home town of Detroit and travelled the world, but he has not forgotten where he came from, and still considers his home town to be an important part of his music. “The first album I made was the White Stripes’ first album, and when it was finished I said to Meg this sounds very Detroit to me. It sounds like Detroit to me, and it still does. I don’t really know what that is, or what the ingredients, tones or frequencies are on that. I don’t think it’s a great album, but it’s an old one that seems like something The Stooges or something would do, and the same thing is that it came from that we’re all drinking the same water. That led onto something else, but that was the first step to recording something very much Detroit. I was very much proud of that, because all I ever wanted to be was in that zone, it just took a different life later on.”

It was blues music that turned White onto the guitar, and onto the idea of being a musician. “When I was a teenager I thought I liked blues music … not just American music, it was mostly English bands like the Yard Birds and Cream, who were sort of re-educating Americans about their roots. So I got that through these rock ‘n’ roll bands and thought ‘yeah I like blues,’ like Muddy Waters. It wasn’t till I was a later teenager that I discovered and listened to people like Slum House and Charlie Patton, which really made me re-think everything, that I could maybe write music myself. Not just record something, but actually write something for myself. Even though it was a different time period and a different culture those people spoke to me later on.” His music today might not be roots-blues, but traces of the genre can be felt on both his works in bands, and on his solo effort Blunderbuss.

White has been in three bands before, but found working on his first solo record to be a major change. “When you work a band, and write and record, you don’t really tell other people what to do. You have your little platoon, you’re army, and you work together as brothers and sisters. I wouldn’t walk over and say this is what you play, this is your part. It’s a collaborative effort. To work on songs on my own for the first time I had hired guns coming in. A fiddle player and everything. I had them asking ‘what would you like me to do?’ That’s what makes it extremely different. To produce your own music, and to tell musicians what to play is a strange place. You can’t get egotistical, or get a buzz from it; you have to just think of the music.”

White has his own independent style of performance. On stage White does not use a set-list, believing shows work better when they are unplanned. “We don’t have a set-list, the crowd tells me what to do. I listen to what the crowd’s asking for. It could be subconscious or out loud but I think a show has more electricity to it if you let the crowd tell you what to do.” He also uses two bands, one all-male and one all-female. When asked for the reason behind this Jack smiled and joked simply that: “It was just a way for me to meet girls.”

In reality, he has a much more thought-out reason for this decision that began in the studio before his tour. “When you’re writing an album, recording and producing you are putting on a lot of different hats. You get into a rut if you start to do the same thing the same way. Once in a while you need to shake things around, and messing up the whole jigsaw puzzle and starting over again. So I thought one day, why don’t we record whatever we can get today with all female musicians, and then do the exact same thing tomorrow with the other band. In the end we ended up mixing both the bands together, and it was a technique to record songs differently.”

White believes strongly in the idea that small changes in his surroundings can affect the vibe of his songs. “The vibe in the room changes. If I invited my mother in the room and sat her down the song would sound differently, just having her sitting there would make things sound differently. It’s the same if you brought three Vietnam vet soldiers in the room, it would be totally different. So if you have all of the same gender in one room, the vibe is going to be extremely different. People think it might not make much difference. Especially recording live music, the environment is different if you record outside, or in a warehouse, or wherever you play.”

White has recorded with a variety of different musicians over the years including Insane Clown Posse (he says the experience of working with them is “Everything you think it was”), Alicia Keys, and Wanda Sykes. On working with Sykes, a musician who has been playing before Rock ‘n’ Roll began and was encouraged to start singing in the genre by her then boyfriend Elvis Presley, White said: “It’s very much a challenge to work with people in their ‘70s and ‘80s because they have such a different outlook on life. It’s very much difficult for me to turn around and say ‘let’s try it like this, because you were doing Rock ‘n’ Roll before I was even born. But something good comes out of that one. People of different age groups, different genders and different cultures coming together to try something.”

Other collaborations he was not as happy to divulge, such as his appearance in Electric Six’s ‘Danger! High Voltage’, something which has remained a mystery for years. White is credited on the song under the pseudonym John S. O’Leary, and has never spoken about appearing on the track officially.

White is known for his many eccentricities. He wears certain colours to match certain tours, based on the imagery of the record he’s promoting. He has been known to have an obsession with the number three, briefly changing his name on a UK tour to ‘Three Quid’. Explaining where he became interested in the number three White said: “It’s always come to me subconsciously. When I was younger, when I was an apprentice at an upholstery shop in Detroit, there was some fabric I was upholstering and I had three staples, and temporarily attached it”.

It is this kind of imagery that drives White as an artist. “It sort of hypnotised me I thought, this is the minimum amount of staples that I can put into the fabric to keep this in place. Left, right and centre. This is the easiest way to do it, three staples. You couldn’t do any less. I became hypnotised by the idea, of three being the minimum amount of everything. Three chords in a song, three lines in a verse. I do that with everything I’ve worked on. Sculpture, furniture, poetry, upholstery. I’ve based it around the number three. It’s encompassed my whole life. Then I realised you couldn’t have three wives at the same time, so I’m still working on that.”

Whether or not White figures out how to get away legally with polygamy, it seems that the number three and his eccentricities will stay with him for the time being.