Jack White on the Most Stubborn and Prophetic Music of His Career

“Staying in the danger zone is a lot more cathartic and a lot more inspiring than playing it safe.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Peter Pakvis/Redferns

Did he see all of the blue hair?

I’m talking with Jack White a few weeks after his show at the Barclays Center, where dozens — but it honestly could have been hundreds — of older gents descended upon the venue’s pit with azure locks to watch their high priest of guitar at work. If Detroit’s finest upgraded to a Cookie Monster hue, so did they out of solidarity — even if it was a one-night-only-dye basis. “Oh, that’s funny,” White offered. “I didn’t notice, but that’s great to hear.” (You heard it straight from him, fellas. Make the blue brighter!)

What White did observe during his rapturous set, however, was who exactly he was playing for: It’s been over two decades since he began performing with the White Stripes in Detroit’s garage-rock circuit, graduating from bars to arenas — and then newer and fresher bands — in about a decade’s time. “The crowds I play in front of for whatever project are probably going to start getting older, but it still feels so great that it’s so varied. I see 10-year-olds, teenagers, 20-somethings, and people in their 50s, 60s, whatever,” he explained. “I think it’s really a testament to modern pop culture that it’s a lot easier to have a varied audience. Things changed with the internet, when people could start liking all different kinds of music and not just be defined by one click.”

The idea of growth, whether being the audience he commands or the basic idea of creative fulfillment, might be the central pillar of White’s career. Actually, the better word is rebirth. This is exemplified by his newest solo album, Entering Heaven Alive (out July 22), which, when paired with his Fear of the Dawn release in April, forms an imaginatively strange double-album experience — shuffle any of the albums’ songs and the vibe you hear can range from “mosh-pit chaos” to “mellow afternoon ballad” to “2022’s version of A Wizard, A True Star.” (White says he prefers to stay in “the danger zone,” which … of course he does.) We discussed this ethos, as well as record-label lessons and guitar solos, in the newest Superlatives column.

Best song

Oh my God. Oh, man. I can’t, I’m so sorry. I can’t answer that question. I think it’s too dangerous for me to answer that question. I’ll be held to that forever. People will ask me that for the rest of my life. I just don’t think of these songs in that way, you know? That’s almost like I’d have to be a different kind of person. I don’t even know if I would like somebody who can quickly answer that question. It’s a little bit too patting-on-the-back kind of a thing. My songs are works in progress, if I’m lucky. The ones over the years where you play them live and there’s really only one way to play them, or that’s the only way you could actually do those songs, or you don’t even bother playing them in front of a crowd? Those are the ones that seem like a little bit of a disappointment. I want songs to live in a bigger universe and you can take them to different directions, and you can drag something out, and you can slow them down, and you can speed them up. Then they’ve got some life to them that they can live for a long time.

I’ve often felt sorry for people who have hit songs that they’re forced to play in that exact same way for their entire lives or entire careers. There’s definitely some goodness in there. But I always feel from the sidelines like, Oh, that’s too bad. You can’t play around with that or people get their hearts broken because you’re messing with a good thing. It’s like changing the National Anthem too much. It can upset people. So yeah, if you consider songs as always being a work in progress, then you know you’ve got something interesting.

Most prophetic song

“Icky Thump.” It talks about immigration and the idea that we’re all immigrants in America, in one way or another. I had this idea about having the great wall of Mexico in the music video. That ended up being a thing Donald Trump campaigned on and still preaches about. If you saw the video in 2007, you’d be like, “Oh that’s ridiculous, just taking the wall in Mexico so seriously.” But there was a sentiment that was happening out there at that time — I heard a lot of talk about anti-immigration, just talking to people in the area. So that ended up being a real, large, and gigantic thing that the entire world started to hear about because of the Trump years later.

Song that’s the most widely interpreted

It’s “Seven Nation Army,” no doubt about it. That’s got a whole life of its own. The funniest thing is YouTube is full of unauthorized samples of it. From major artists and dance-music artists — I’m not talking about people in their bedroom or whatever. I don’t care about that. But it’s been remixed and sampled in various forms without permission. And then there’s, of course, all of the marching bands playing it. There’s people learning the riffs when they first start playing guitar and all those great stories I hear. So that’s definitely connected with the most different types of people.

Lyrically, there’s a song I wrote called “Carolina Drama” that I’ve heard a lot of interesting versions about. The song is a story, and it doesn’t have full closure to the different aspects of it. People have different theories about who the characters are and what the ending means. People come up to me at shows and ask me, “Who was this character? What does it represent?” There’s a character called the Milkman in this story, and the last line of the song is, “If you want to know the truth about the tale, go and ask the milkman.” So people are always saying, “Well, who is the milkman? Why does he know the answer to the story?” That’s a question I get often. And I’ll never tell.

Tenderest song

“We’re Going to Be Friends” seems to connect with people. There’s a children’s book that’s been produced from the song. It gives a lot of people a tender moment about their own childhoods or their own children.

Guitar solo that’s the most cathartic to perform

There’s two songs that come to mind. When performing live, I love to play “Lazaretto.” It possesses a quality where I can stay alive in it, in the guitar part, and it has different modes that can bring out powerful notions. Even in the moments where I play it just like it was recorded, it still feels brand new to me every time. The cool thing was the “Lazaretto” guitar solo was done live when we recorded the song. That was nice because it doesn’t always happen. But in that moment, something special came out in the room and the solo was done in the very first take. That’s always a nice memory to think back on. I’d also say “Ball and Biscuit.” It’s a blues song, so it doesn’t have the same structure. It’s completely different every time I play it. It’s very loose — it can go really quiet and really subtle and really explosive. Both those songs have a lot of life in them in a live setting.

Album that doubled as your biggest creative rebirth

It was probably the first Raconteurs album, Broken Boy Soldiers. It was writing with another songwriter for the first time in a real way. We went in, wrote and recorded together, in this brand-new band. It was not a good career move to start a brand-new band while I already had a band that was connecting with people, with the White Stripes. It was a dangerous thing to do, but it was also brand-new territory for me. It really changed my life in a lot of ways because I proved to myself that I could work well with others. Whereas people might have thought, Well, the White Stripes works because you’re the songwriter and all the melodies are coming from just yourself. This was a collaboration that you couldn’t doubt — it was another songwriter and two lead singers in the band! It was great for my learning over the years. It was a great lesson.

Staying in the danger zone is a lot more cathartic and a lot more inspiring than playing it safe. I mean, that album was a dangerous thing to do. It could have been a bad move, a bad left turn, or people’s interest in my creativity could’ve been lost. I was lucky that it actually worked and people accepted it. It made me think, Oh, great! There’s lots more options as I go through this life to be creative! The first thing we thought when the White Stripes broke into the mainstream was, Oh, well this will be over within three months or six months. We’re a strange band. We could’ve gone back to playing in bars soon enough. I bet we could’ve probably felt disappointment, like we’ve failed or something. So we had to evaluate all that stuff. We were put into a different arena in pop culture. It was a good thing for me to be confident enough to feel that the creativity was more important than the business at that moment to do the Raconteurs album.

Instantly, I had created a new moment. If I had come out with a record with a new band and it didn’t connect with people, people would have said, “Well, you made a mistake. You should have stayed in the White Stripes and done only that. That’s what works for you, so okay.” But that did work, so it gave me the idea that one day I could play by myself as a solo act. Or maybe be in a different band. And I ended up being in another band, the Dead Weather, a couple of years later. I started over again. The White Stripes I started from scratch, the Raconteurs I started from scratch, and the Dead Weather I started from scratch. Then I went solo. I’m always starting from scratch. And wow, I’m here again. I love that.

Most stubborn album to finish

I produced a record for Wanda Jackson a few years ago called The Party Ain’t Over. That was a little tough for me. There was a big age difference. I had already gone through that with Loretta Lynn and it worked to great effects. What was different about this one was that Wanda doesn’t write songs, really, or didn’t anymore. So we were picking her cover songs. It was difficult to know what she would like, what other people would like, and what I was trying to think would be good ideas — and then trying to marry all those together and make some sense out of that. It was almost like you were playing with somebody’s legacy, in a way. It’s a lot of responsibility because she was one of the first women to sing rock and roll. I took that responsibility pretty heavily, and it weighed on me.

I love having mentors and learning from them — anything I can, whenever I’m around people who’ve been there before me. She was outstanding. I mean, she dated Elvis Presley. Just that topic alone we could talk for weeks about. One funny thing that she mentioned was when she was on Capitol Records and they told her, “Sorry, we can’t press your record.” Why not? “Well, we have to press records for the Beatles, and it’s not worth our time to take the Beatles off of our presses.” That’s a pretty funny story, where mechanics actually influenced your career at times. It’s relevant to me right now! I wanted to put out Fear of the Dawn and Entering Heaven Alive on the same day, but we spaced them out because we couldn’t produce all the vinyl in time. There’s no room on the presses.

Favorite album you produced for someone else

Van Lear Rose for Loretta Lynn. For sure. It was such a beautiful moment. She was open-minded and hadn’t done a record of original songs in a long period of time. She invited me to her home and we looked through old notes and old songs she had written in old notebooks. I wish I could have run away with them. It was an amazing plethora of songs. The whole thing was just a dream. I couldn’t believe they were letting me do it. I thought someone, at any point, was going to come and say, “All right, get this punk kid out of here!” And then she won the Grammy for Best Country Album. How cool to help her achieve that.

Why more musicians should adapt to no-phone shows

I thought it was something that we would be able to do for about two weeks. It would be almost like an art project and then people would quickly be upset. You’ve taken their favorite thing out of their hands. That’s not a diss or anything — this is what life has become. Or their most reliable thing in their hands. Let’s put it that way. So I thought, for sure, this would be two weeks tops and we’d be back to whatever. But still to this day, it’s been years now, and it’s just universal positivity from people. The only negative stuff I’ve heard is from people who haven’t experienced it yet. I love the stories that people tell me like, “Between the warm-up band and you guys, I started talking to a stranger next to me about music!” It was like before phones, but it was along the lines of, “Do you have this record?” “Yeah, I’ve got that record. I saw those guys are coming to town next week. I’m going to go check them out.” Those conversations were happening, and how great to hear that we’re actually still inspiring that.

Wisest industry lesson you learned running Third Man Records

I really learned that the major labels aren’t so bad or the people that we’ve pinned them out to be. When you’re sitting on the other side of it, you see so many other things that are involved in the decision-making process. It used to be easy to be a hipster or be in a punk band and talk about, oh, how major labels don’t “get” it. Or how they don’t understand good music. But they absolutely do. When art and business collide, I try to sit there and make it make sense. It’s very difficult, and at times it can be heartbreaking because you can’t do what you want to do exactly the way you want to do it — even if you have complete control over it or the money to fund it. It’s not easy, but it’s a great perspective to have. It’s also great because I never planned on having a record label. I don’t know how the hell this happened. I baby-stepped into this thing! It wasn’t something that I thought was ever going to happen and be profitable. I’m shocked that the doors are still open and the machine is running. It’s doing so many things that are completely out of my hands at this point. There’s such a big family of people at Third Man Records. They’re making poetry readings happen; a punk show here, a live recording there, or a rerelease of an old blues record. We’re developing film in the back from our photo studio now.

White, striking a pose at Third Man’s pressing plant. Photo: OfficialTMR/YouTube

I’m glad that Third Man was able to inspire a lot of people. When we opened in 2009, we started trying to do these limited-edition records — split colors, glow-in-the-dark records, and some gimmicky pressings. Just trying to turn people on to that sort of thing. But then lines were starting to form around the block for these vinyl drops. I’m glad that blossomed over the years into a bigger movement and a bigger cause. Now pop stars are turning their fans onto this idea of record ownership, collecting, and trading. That’s so cool. This even goes back to the White Stripes in 2003, with Elephant. We only gave the record out on vinyl to journalists to review. Everyone was like, Whoa, what a gigantic, dangerous thing you just pulled! You should not have done that! I was like, No, shut up. It was the perfect moment. We had everybody’s attention for a second. It was so great to have been able to pull that trick at that moment to keep vinyl alive. And I think it did.

Most ambitious thing you want to do with a record, now that you’ve conquered space

I don’t even know what’s left anymore. God, we tried so hard with Third Man to think of anything we could do. The Ultra LP for Lazaretto was a great accomplishment for us. We did the world’s fastest record — we recorded and pressed and sold it at a store within four hours, a seven-inch vinyl record. We’ve pushed the boundaries so many times; I’m not sure what’s left. But you got me, you’re going to have me thinking now. I’ll be up, I won’t be able to sleep tonight, trying to think of maybe what’s the next thing we can do. The good thing is to keep figuring out ways to inspire people and not feel like it’s too gimmicky. That’s the tricky and narrow corridor you have to work in. It’s great when I go to Target and see indie record editions being sold, which were created specifically for the store. That’s connecting with a whole new generation.

How you kept a straight face playing Elvis Presley in Walk Hard

It was incredible that John C. Reilly asked me to do that. I’m so thankful to him. He called me the day before the scene was supposed to film; it was very quick. When I showed up on the set, I thought, Oh my God, I think I’m making a big mistake. I hope not, though. Do I need to write a letter to Lisa Marie and Priscilla Presley, just so they know that I love Elvis? I’m not really insulting him, am I? It was so scary to me, but maybe that’s what kept me able to keep a straight face.

John pitched the movie to me over the phone and said it was sort of a parody of rock biographies and music biographies. And this was going to be a scene where his character is sitting on the bill with Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. I thought I’d just be standing there and say one line or one word to him as he was passing by. But we did a lot of improvisation. It was great they let me do that, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m no actor! So they let me improvise and we got to some really, really funny places. I’d love to see the outtakes of that movie. I’ve never seen all the outtake scenes of other jokes and paths we went down, because it got weird.

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The book, We’re Going to Be Friends, was illustrated for children by Elinor Blake (aka singer-songwriter April March). Brendan Benson, who also played the guitar, organ, piano, and keyboards in the band. 37 years. Since his January 2018 tour to support Boarding House Reach, White has required all concert-goers to put their phones in a locked pouch for the entirety of the shows. Back in 2016, Third Man Records launched the first record player into space. Carl Sagan’s “A Glorious Dawn” played on a loop at 94,413 feet. It also featured hidden songs, secret grooves, and holograms when played. Yes, indeed, holograms.
Jack White on His Most Stubborn and Prophetic Music