A conversation with Jack White about music, the universe and everything: Alan Cross

Jack White at the Cumberland Caverns on September 29, 2017 in McMinnville, Tenn. Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Tennessee Tourism

Jack White is in a good mood. He’s just played an intimate show at Third Man Records headquarters in Nashville to launch his new album, Boarding House Reach.

“The show went great!” he enthuses. “I’m really looking forward to these shows that we’re doing [LA, Brooklyn and London] before we head out on the road for real. It’s going to be fun to play this record for the people.”

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Let’s get right into it, then.

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Alan Cross: Let’s talk about the recording process a little bit. Did you use digital tools like Pro Tools?

Jack White: To edit I did, yeah. Brilliant editing tool. I’m not so sure I would like to record and live in that world too much. I really love the world of recording to tape, because there’s something about erasing what you did. … I like that technology. I think some people think I like this stuff just because it’s “old-fashioned.” There’s something about when you record a track on a tape and you don’t like it, you try again and you erase the old one. In computers, you don’t do that. You keep everything. I’m not into that, I like to throw away things I’m not using. It’s like getting photos developed, you know? I’ll take out the four good ones and throw away the rest.

AC: Do you have an archive of stuff that you’ve been working on? I talked to Eddie Kramer the other day, and he just finished the third of a trilogy of Jimi Hendrix releases from the vaults. There’s hours and days and weeks of tape to choose from. Do you do that?

JW: First off, I would love to sit down and have a coffee with Eddie Kramer one day. That would be great, you’re lucky you got to talk to him, that’s somebody I would love to meet.

I play in the studio all the time. But then, once in a while, I’ll say, “Hey, I like this. Can you record this thing before I forget it?” I’ll do that. And what happened with this album was a lot of those things, these little five-second pieces, 10-second pieces, especially from me on the drum set. Say, the beginning of “Corporation” or “Respect Commander,” [two songs from Boarding House Reach]. That’s me on drums playing for five or 10 seconds. And then I made a song out of that, because I really liked the tone of that drum beat.
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AC: Would I be correct in saying this record is more rhythmic than the last couple?

JW: I think so. Some of these songs have three or four drummers on a track, so that’s really cool to work with and edit, because of all these different styles and tones into the same song. It’s very interesting. It’s also great, too, because some people make solo records where they do all the instruments themselves. I’ve never really done that but maybe one day I’ll try. I actually would prefer working with other people and seeing what they bring to the table because that inspires me to do new things.

AC: To my ears, it sounds like some of these songs might have arisen out of jams. Is that true?

JW: Yeah, a lot of them were. They were coming out of 20-to-30 minute jams when we were in New York and LA. I’d say, “here’s this drum loop and here’s an idea for a melody,” and I’d play it to them and say, “Why don’t you guys try to play along with this?” And something cool would happen. And then I’d take that tape from New York to LA and ask a new group of five or six people to try to play along with this too, “What can you bring to the table to accompany this song?” I ended up coming back to Nashville with, like, 20 tracks. So it was a lot of editing.

AC: Corporation, for example. I mean there’s really such a cool groove in that song. I really didn’t want it to end.

JW: Well, there’s a 30-minute version there somewhere for you, one day.

AC: Let’s go through some of the songs. I love the titles. Connected by Love is the single. It’s a fairly straightforward, bluesy kind of alt-pop/alt-rock song.

AC: But then we have tracks like, Why Walk a Dog? I saw that title and I had to read it a couple of times. As a dog owner, I’m thinking “Well, there’s an obvious reason you walk a dog.” Where did that come from?

JW: It’s sort of like bringing up ideas of respect for animals and animal ownership and things like that. I’ve owned dogs in my past. I was exploring ideas of how it’s still a bit funny, you know? Like, we’d see in a science fiction movie, like Planet of the Apes, where they’d have a human as a pet or something like that. That we have another species on the planet as we’ve actually bred them to be domesticated and pets. So it’s kind of funny that you have to walk a dog, because you’re not letting him be in his natural state of where he’s supposed to be on planet earth, roaming around a field or something like that. So it was just the humour of that notion around a character asking lots of questions. “Why do you need to walk a dog?” Like, how a kid would ask innocent questions that maybe we don’t really have an answer for.

AC: How about Abulia and Akrasia?

JW: This is a strange one, because there’s this vocalist named C.W. Stoneking, who was the vocalist on that song. I just love his voice so much. He was in New York, and I asked if he could come down, and he said he could, so I wrote this poem for him to recite. It was basically me trying to find as many words as I could that I wanted to hear him say, because I love his speaking voice. How can I make the most complicated poem about wanting a couple of tea? That became my goal.

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AC: And that’s how he ends the song: he wants another cup of tea. I always seem to learn new words from your albums. I had no idea what a “lazaretto” was. Now “hyper-”… help me with this.

JW: There’s a condition called “misophonia.” It’s the hatred of sound. People are brought to tears by other people’s sounds, like someone scratching their leg or plinking their coffee with a spoon. You can go on YouTube and watch how this is a really terrifying condition. It would be very hard to exist with this condition. I was sort of thinking about that, and wondering, well, what if I were to make very, very annoying sounds with music and then try to make something beautiful, try to make rhythms come out of it, try to have a story come out of it? That was the goal. I don’t know if I succeeded, but that was what I was trying to do.

AC: A song I zoomed in on right away was Ice Station Zebra. I was a fan of the movie from 1968. I know the story with Rock Hudson and Jim Brown and the Howard Hugues connections. Are we thinking about the same thing?

JW: Yeah, it’s just a lot of ideas about prison and things like that; Howard Hughes’ favourite movie. I mention Cool Hand Luke and also a lot of ideas about musicians and artists all being in a family together. Kind of ranting about a couple of those things.

AC: Let’s skip down to Ezmerelda Steals the Show. Who or what is Ezmerelda?

JW: I’ve been to my children’s recitals at school, and whenever I’m seeing them I always start to fantasize, when I’m sitting in the crowd, about these kids just doing wild things, like some kid standing up and doing a clarinet solo without being asked. Or some other kid just doing a cartwheel, trying to steal the show. Just trying to imagine, wouldn’t it be amazing if this kid did a tuba solo right now? … What if this angelic girl said the most amazing thing?

AC: It’s a dad rock song, isn’t it?

JW: (Laughs.) I don’t know.

AC: How about Get in the Mind Shaft? I had to read that several times before I realized that it wasn’t Mine.

JW: It’s a strange song, y’know? There’s that other Jerry Reed song, “She Got the Gold Mine, I Got the Shaft.” There’s the movie Shaft. … I was just trying to play with words until I came up with some kind of metaphor that made sense for how I was singing in that song because I’m singing through a vocoder, which I never did before. Just a little bit more psychedelic I guess.

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AC: Speaking of people like Jerry Reed, how has living in Nashville and working in Nashville changed your outlook on things?

JW: Oh, it’s been wonderful. You get to see all sides of music and the music business. Owning Third Man Records is a very bizarre thing, because we’re sort of mating art with commerce. A lot of the ideas we have, like the Paramount box set and things like that, they’re not moneymaking ideas. They’re just something that we wanted to see exist, something that we think is beautiful and we wanted to happen.

AC: There is a lot of stuff in that store that I can’t see ever being profitable or having any good margins. The Paramount box set is a great example.

JW: The Paramount box set is, I think, like $350-$400. It costs a lot of money to make those, and you have to make a lot of them at once. I found out that even when you make a record of a very obscure band, you’re taking a risk. But it’s something that we really believe in. At some point, at the end of the day, it all makes sense. The record you invest in, be in a 45 or a 12 inch of a band that’s very obscure, it may take three years before you get your money back. In the long run, it all makes sense … the entire Third Man experience somehow makes sense. Pop pays for itself.

AC: You’ve got the mobile record store. Would you ever think about opening another branch, anywhere?

JW: I would love to, but it’s really tough because we only sell the things we produce, and that have a Third Man logo on it. We don’t want to become just another record store. I think that would take our passions away from what we’re trying to do. I think there’s definitely people out there who are doing it well, like Amoeba [Records on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and also in San Francisco] and things like that. There’s no reason for us to enter that world. But yeah, I would love to have other locations, especially around the world like in London and in Los Angeles and places like that. It would be nice, maybe someday.
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AC: You once said you would like to work with Beyoncé. Is that true?

JW: Well, I did work with her on her last album. We did a song or two together, and it was really great. I love her voice. I would love to produce an album of hers, and have live musicians in a room together. She has such an amazing solo voice. It would be so interesting to hear what would it be like if you had the same sort of production styles of, say, a Dusty Springfield, a Betty Davis or an Aretha Franklin with someone like her. It’d be interesting to hear what that would sound like.

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AC: You’ve worked with Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson. Anybody else from that era you’d like to work with?

JW: I don’t think so. I’ve definitely done a lot of work with septuagenarians. Grandmas, senior citizens, icons — I’ve been very lucky to work with them. It’s definitely not as easy as working with someone your own age, because you have to communicate in different ways. It can be challenging. I’ve done a lot of that.

I actually would rather work more with hip-hop artists as a producer. And up-and-coming artists who are very, very now and modern in the future. That would be what I’d like to do more of.

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AC: There is much talk about how rock has taken a back seat to hip-hop in music culture these days. I don’t think there’s any argument about that — hip-hop is the driving force in popular culture. Does rock need saving?

JW: I really don’t know. I love so many different styles of music and genres, it’s hard to even label them. As far as what the modern teenager is really into nowadays, it’s hard to say. I’m always asking around. If I meet a teenager in a coffee shop, or if people have kids, I’m always asking, what are they listening to and what are they into. It’s always revealing. There’s so much competition now with Netflix, the Internet, video games and all that. It’s hard for any type of music to rear its head and really capture people’s attention now because there’s so much to compete with.

Like country music. There’s a fake kind of plastic pop country music, and there’s really gritty, organic-sounding stuff too. But you really have to like music and spend time to get into it. I hope that doesn’t ever go away. I hope the live shows never go away. People who experience live rock ’n’ roll really love it, and there’s a lot of amazing rock ’n’ roll underground bands right now. But I’d like to see more bands break out and become humongous.

I think we got spoiled so much over the last couple of decades with humongous bands, we didn’t even realize that. It’s very hard for a band to break into the mainstream.

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AC: If you could work with anybody from the old 78 RPM days, who might that be?

JW: Oh, it’d be any of the blues artists, y’know. Charly Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson. I mean, working with any of them would be … it wouldn’t be possible. They don’t even seem human, they’re so incredible.

AC: I’ve seen the American Epic series on PBS a couple of times. And I think I’ve bought all the recordings associated with that series, including a bunch in-person at Third Man. You were obviously a longtime fan of that sort of music, Paramount and Okeh and all those old labels. What did you learn from putting together that series?

JW: The way those old records that I love were recorded. We recorded in the exact same style, exact same lathe, same microphone, the first amplifier made by Western Electric. It was very strange to think, wow, you really had to sing very loud to get this on tape. And you had to sing in a certain way, and you had to position the instruments in a certain way to get it to make sense. It was a tricky craft. You couldn’t just set that up and press record and have it come out amazing. You had to do a lot of work to make it sound decent. But also, the romance of it is incredible, because you can take a modern pop singer right now and record them in that style and say, wow, there’s not that much difference between a singer back then than there is nowadays, it’s just production styles.

AC: You’ve managed to maintain something of an aura of mystery about you, kind of like Bob Dylan, y’know? There’s a certain “unknowableness” about Jack White. And I like that! I think we need more of that in the Internet era when we know everything about everyone instantly. Can I ask how you’ve managed to do that?

JW: I really don’t know. I agree with you that I think there should be more mystery with artists because there’s more romance that goes along with it. We definitely have been in an age in the last couple of decades where people invite cameras into their homes and tell them everything. Everybody’s dying to prove that I’m just like you, I’m a regular guy just like you. That’s good for some people, but at the same time, I don’t really know if I want to know that much about Salvador Dali’s personal life. I think I’m fine with what he wants to show me.

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(Thanks to Gilles LeBlanc for helping with the transcription. Follow him @ROCKthusiast. You can read Gilles full review of Boarding House Reach here.)

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

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