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Friday, July 27, 2012
Jack White goes solo and reveals his stripes
By SHAUN CURRAN
Special to The Japan Times
LONDON — Jack White cuts an imposing figure. And not just figuratively. The 21st-century alternative-rock scene has been stalked by his presence: as a member of The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather; as leader of Third Man Records; and, as of this year, as a solo artist thanks to the release of his debut album, "Blunderbuss." In the process, White has won admirers as diverse and aristocratic as Bob Dylan and Jay-Z.
This Sunday, White will take the stage at the Fuji Rock Festival in Naeba, Niigata Prefecture, and while the Japanese music press has been giddy over a Stone Roses performance at the same event, this is arguably White's year to shine. "Blunderbuss" scored him the first U.S. No. 1 album of his career.
As he strides into a first-floor suite in London's upmarket Dorchester hotel, though, it's White's physicality that is overwhelming. With pale skin and a stocky build, he is clad in the sort of attire that makes a man of 190 cm even more intimidating — a dark suit, top hat, garish cream crocodile shoes — yet as he shakes my hand with a strong grip, he wears a mischievous smile.
"Hey, I'm Jack, pleased to meet you," he says in his excitable Detroit brogue, as he fetches a can of Diet Coke and broadens his entire frame on the adjacent settee. "Let's go."
This warmth is appreciated because White has not always been so cordial. Upon The White Stripes' sharp ascent from underground garage-rock cult to the bosom of the mainstream (the blues-rock duo that made his name would eventually sell over 5 million albums worldwide), an eccentric White often gave the impression he would rather be undergoing a root canal than engage with the press. If it wasn't prissy retorts ("You wouldn't ask Michelangelo what type of shoes he wears"), he would deliberately seek to make journalists look silly — even forgiving the ridiculous were-they/weren't-they situation with drummer Meg White (the pair continued to insist they were siblings long after their marriage and subsequent divorce), White seemed to get a perverse kick out of deliberately feeding the press lies and then pouring scorn on them for having the temerity to report what they had been told.
But times have changed for White, and not just because he is now "more open than I was, for sure." The White Stripes split in February 2011, an onset of acute anxiety rendering Meg unable to perform, leaving White a creative nomad, in two other bands and willing to collaborate but without an artistic fixed abode. Philosophical about the split — "I can have someone die who is close to me but still smile while they are dying; there is romance to it" — White decided ending the ambiguity was the first step to moving on.
"It really was time," he says categorically. "Time had been lingering on and it had become more evident to me and Meg that it wasn't going to happen anymore. So it was important for us to move on and know that it was over. I'm not the guy to retire and come out of retirement. I wanted to get rid of that idea, clean things up."
Lingering doubt extinguished, White then proceeded to do as White does, and throw himself into an unyielding workload. Since The White Stripes' swan song, 2007's "Icky Thump," albums with both The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather were squeezed between collaborations with an eclectic array of artists (Danger Mouse, Tom Jones, Alicia Keys) before the arrival of "Blunderbuss," a record that incorporates all the musical signposts (blues, country, rock) for which White is famed. If that wasn't enough, to accompany him on tour White has rehearsed different sets with two backing bands — one all male, one all female — and alternates between the two every night.
"I don't make it easy for myself," he says with his characteristic hoot of a laugh. "But that's important as an artist. With the two bands, everyone is involved in a new way — me, the band the audience. People are like, 'Why don't we make a map and do it like this?' — Why?"
White's reputation is such that anything he is involved with is inevitably big news, so was he apprehensive about stepping out under his own name?
"Only in the sense that I've got the rest of my life to do something like that," he replies. "That's an easy choice to make. It's a very popular, showbiz choice. You are in The Beatles and The Beatles break up, now you make solo records for the rest of your life. That is what you are supposed to do. I was in The White Stripes, The White Stripes are done so I am meant to be making Jack White records. And I was like, 'Screw that, I don't need to do that'. If it hadn't have been an accident I wouldn't have done it."
"Blunderbuss," like nearly all of White's output, has been rapturously received, yet listening to it suggests all is not well in White's world. Many tracks seem to rail against the perceived injustices of relationships and appear, especially on a track like "Freedom at 21," to be scathing attacks on ex-partners. Viewed in the light of his recent divorce from supermodel Karen Elson, is "Blunderbuss" documenting a year in the life of Jack White?
"I think they're characters," he retorts. "I think any artist, whatever you do, if you're painting or writing poetry or whatever, your experiences in life make you think these certain things are interesting and worth saying. That's because something in my life told me that is interesting, or that was a struggle. So you're definitely involved in everything you do, but I would never air my dirty laundry of my personal life in public for attention or whine about my own life."
He must be able to understand how people join those dots, I say.
"Oh, totally. But what you have to understand too is that Karen and I, we're not stupid. We only told people we were divorced because we felt like saying it. We could have not told anybody anything.
"I would never do that anyway. I've always said my whole life, because it's the truth, that it is too boring to write about myself. There are definitely people that have hurt me in the past and I have written songs about that scenario, but nobody knows who they are. It would be interesting to tell you, but who am I going to tell you about? Someone you have never heard of and that you'll never know? If you're talking about famous people that are related to me in some way, would I write about them in the way Eminem writes about his mom? Come on. I'm not going to do that."
White was born John Gillis in Detroit on July 9, 1975, the youngest of 10 children. "It was wild, good and bad," he says. "But there's even good and bad to growing up in an orphanage. It was just my life." With "instruments everywhere, my brothers were always playing," White taught himself piano and guitar but for years his "obsession" was nothing but a hobby, as a career in upholstery paid the bills. "You don't go into music in Detroit. You can be in an amazing band in Detroit and no one is going to f-cking care. I thought there was just no chance, like being the carpenter on the set and then someone puts you in the movie."
Insisting "if I had never gotten out, I would have been fine," White nevertheless took inspiration from his Third Man upholstery shop, its yellow and black interior that "came from my tools, my van, the clothes I wore" an early template for The White Stripes' red, white and black uniform.
Somehow, from these humble beginnings — The White Stripes' first show was at a local open-mic night — came a multimillion selling act that in "Seven Nation Army" wrote a song that transcended its origin to the point it is chanted at sports stadia around the world. I tell White it seems implausible, even now.
"Yes, it's ridiculous!" he exclaims, jumping out of his seat. "It defies logic, it doesn't make any sense! I remember someone said to me, 'You guys are like "The Simpsons." It shouldn't be as popular as it is, but it just is, people get it'. I thought that was really funny, a funny comparison. I guess I agree, because I have no other explanation."
The White Stripes may be consigned to history, but the band seems to continue to dominate White's thoughts, and when I mention his forthcoming performance at Fuji Rock, he again begins by recalling his first visit to Japan.
"Everybody said to us, 'Japan are going to love The White Stripes, they are going to eat you up.' Japan didn't care about The White Stripes! They didn't care at all, man! We were 10 times more popular in Germany. So funny, man.
"So Japan is a mystery and it always will be a mystery and I love going there because nothing makes any sense. As soon as you think you've got something figured out, the next day you'll see the exact opposite of what you thought you had figured out. It's just beautiful, like it's not real. They should be proud that they have the most enduring and compelling culture."