Jack White must be the busiest man in music. He’s in three headlining super-groups – The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. He’s one of the most in-demand producers in the world. And, now, he’s transformed an old sweet factory in Nashville, Tennessee into the HQ for his own record label, Third Man Records.
White takes time out from the studio to star in Issue 10 of Another Man. Here, in an exclusive edit of unused material from that interview, he goes ‘on the record’ about how to make it big by mistake, where to find ‘the truth’ and why girls bring out the best in bands. For the full cover story, see Another Man ‘The Outlaws Issue’, out now...
I didn’t think I was ever going to be a musician.
That’s the sort of vibe where I came from in Detroit. I remember when I was working at some restaurant as a teenager a guy was saying he was in a band and they were going to go on tour and record an album, I was like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about man? There’s no way you’re going to be able to do that.’ And I think about that all the time. That’s where my head was back then.
If you don’t want it you’re going to get it, it’s Murphy’s Law.
With The White Stripes, Meg and my attitude was, ‘We don’t care. This is the music we love.’ We resigned ourselves to the idea that nobody was going to be interested in a two-piece band dressed in red, white and black, a peppermint painted on the bass drum and playing blues music. We didn’t think anybody would give a fuck about us so we just got on with it because we weren’t striving for that Britney Spears world. Of course what happened was the exact opposite.
What motivates me is a question that’s hard not to have a pretentious answer for.
The answer in my heart is ‘the truth’. That drives me on a daily basis whether it’s artistically, creatively or socially. To take the pretension out of it for a second, it’s like with the comedian Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm; the way he is looking for the truth and finds himself annoyed constantly all day long. That can be a turn off for the people around you. And I have to watch myself, I’m constantly like, ‘Why do people do it like this? Why do they set up a table like this? Why would you have two doors to a gas station and lock one of them? What the fuck does that mean?’
The Blues is the truth.
I think people have a funny notion about the truth and authenticity. People are very easily distracted. A lot of people looked at The White Stripes, the colours we wore and the way we presented ourselves and didn’t understand what we had to do with the blues. A lot of people thought we were taking the piss. They weren’t able to see through [our appearance]. And to me that is the ultimate test – if you can’t pass that then go away!
If a 15-year-old kid asks me, ‘What way do you like to listen to music?’ I say, ‘Listen to it on vinyl...
put the headphones on or sit in a room with your friends. Put the needle down.’ There is a tangible experience going on there, a romantic experience where it’s reverential to the music, the artist and, most of all, the song. iPods, iTunes and downloads aren’t reverential. They’re just easy. And I understand that – I own an iPod too, you know. But as far as reverence goes I can’t say in good faith, ‘Let’s abandon physical formats and move to the invisible age.’ It’s just not magic. How great that last year was the biggest vinyl-selling year in a decade.
I don't ever doubt myself while I’m working.
I do look back and think, ‘There might have been a better way of doing that,’ but never at the time. I think indecisiveness is really weak. And it has no place in art. A painter shouldn’t be sitting there debating whether he should use blue or green for weeks, fretting and having anxiety about it. There’s no place for that. You have to make a decision fast and move on. If it’s the wrong decision then at least your heart was in the right place.
I love collaborating with female artists.
All of a sudden one of the barriers is torn down. You immediately get closer to the song when you collaborate with a female. You put four or five guys in a room and something else is going on. There is some kind of hunter, competitive aspect in the air. Like with The Dead Weather, you bring Alison into the room and all of sudden everything is instantly balanced. Who knows? You could chalk that up to sexuality or sociological outlooks or something – and the rudeness comes down by like 90%. Guys will just start ripping and clawing at each other but you put a girl in the room and all of a sudden they’re on best behaviour. It’s interesting.
Everything is a performance.
Whether I’m standing still and wearing what I slept in last night, it’s still a performance. Art is the biggest fabrication. It’s about owning that fabrication and presenting it with your best abilities. If it takes acting or pushing yourself to do something you’ve never done before, then it’s worth it. I mean, I don’t want to see a regular guy walk out on stage. Fuck that! Imagine how disappointed you’d be if Michelangelo was just a normal guy. I don’t want to know that. Do you? I want to see something interesting, special and beautiful. Something I haven’t seen before. It’s like that in the modelling and fashion world as well – those girls don’t wear those clothes in the daytime.
I'm not a perfectionist.
Sort of controlled chaos would be a better description of my working method. Perfectionism turns into insulting people. Like, ‘Move over. I’m doing it. You’re doing it wrong.’ And yelling at people. I can’t do that. I don’t get shitty with people. I’m very polite when it comes to ideas. I want people to generate ideas. That’s what it’s about. Perfectionists would just tell everyone to be quiet and do what they’re told. That’s not how you collaborate with people.
I almost feel like a director more than a producer.
I’ve never been a producer who comes in and has some champagne and says, ‘Yeah change that, go ahead and mix it and I’ll see you next week.’ I’ve never been that way. I think if you’re doing it you’ve got to do it all the way. You can’t go half way. You have to be semi-obsessed with what you’re doing. You have to be in love with it. I can’t imagine leaving songs for someone else to mix and coming back later to listen to them. I wouldn’t be able to put my name on it.
I’m business minded because I’m forced to be.
I wasn’t ten years ago; back then, I was presentation minded, aesthetically minded. But now, in the last few years, all this Internet trickery has come up. Everything is about selling things. It feels like hustling a lot of the time especially because you’re never going to be able to sell the amount of records you did before 2005 because that’s peaked, and it’s going in an opposite direction now. I figured that if I have to do all this hustling and business I want to do it from a creative standpoint – that’s why I started Third Man Records.
I hate words like ‘retro’, ‘recreate’ and ‘relic’ – all the ‘re’ words –
I hope none of them are on my tombstone or in a paragraph about me. I have always been trying to find out what is romantic about music and art and the best way to record it and present it to people. And sometimes the new way of doing it is not the right way. It’s not about looking back and emulating something from the past but staying with the things that make the most sense and pushing forward with them.
Photography: Mark Segal
Styling: Robbie Spencer
Hair Styling: Cali DeVaney
Make up: Jami Harris
Photographic Assistant: Tony Blasko
Styling Assistant: Elizabeth Fraser-Bell
Digital Operator: Brendan Pattengale at Digital Fusion