Jack White has always been a bifurcated kind of guy. That was evident right from the name of his very famous first band: Announcing you’re a stripe may be one strong indicator of a two-tone sensibility. His yin and yang are there not just in a serious design ethos — which could be red, yellow or blue set against solid black or white, depending on the era — but in his musical extremes, which range from “We’re Going to Be Friends”-style finger-picking and folky gentility to the million-watt rock exorcisms of a “Get Behind Me Satan.” Consider his Michigan and Tennessee hometowns, even, where he maintains twin business bases: He’s still part Detroit punk, part Southern gentleman.
To be sure, White has always favored a myriad of styles. “I love eclectic left turns,” he says, professing that the multifaceted White Album is his favorite Beatles collection. “It was the first album on vinyl I bought as a teenager. And even in the White Stripes, when there were only two people” in the lineup, “our records would take a left turn into some ragtime ’20s thing and then go back into some heavy blues thing and then come out with this ’70s-punk-sounding vibe the next song.”
More from Variety
Still, when he was working toward putting out what was supposed to be a single release in 2022, it was too split-personality even for his variegated tastes. “No matter how much I tried to make a sequence out of the songs, it just seemed like you were taking a Miles Davis record and putting it in the middle of an Iron Maiden record. It had an ‘Oh, that’s interestingly jarring thing’ to it,” he explains, “but it wasn’t breathing or flowing.”
The solution: two completely distinct albums, released in quick succession, in the kind of twofer gambit that hasn’t been done much since the days when Bruce Springsteen or Guns N’ Roses would experimentally drop a pair of records simultaneously. “Fear of the Dawn,” which came out April 8, is the “electric” album of the two, a record full of deeply heavy riffs but also constant sonic experimentation that comes on like a 49-nation army. Arriving July 22 as its not-so-evil twin is “Entering Heaven Alive,” an album of mostly acoustic love songs — which White insists is only coincidental to his recent nuptials, since he swears he’s no confessional songwriter.
After his Solomonic splitting of the albums, he’d been planning to at least release them the same day, as Bruce and Axl had many years before him. The thing that really convinced him otherwise was (can this come as any surprise, if you know Jack White?) vinyl supply-chain issues. “This was our compromise: Let’s put three months between the albums. And the pressing plant immediately said, ‘Oh, thank God.’”
That would be White’s own pressing plant, Third Man in Detroit — the only such facility owned by a musician, and still just one of all too few in the nation, even as White publicly urges the major labels to start building their own to enable the current vinyl boom, which can be traced right back to the White Stripes’ LP boomlet 20-25 years ago. He admits it can be a little tricky when every other artist in the world wants to use your plant and you’re suddenly churning out enough new product that you need to cut in your own line.
“Entering Heaven Alive” recalls nothing so much as a beautiful 1970s singer-songwriter record, albeit with some excursions into string-band sounds, jazzy piano solos and classic shuffles. It’s easily digestible for just about any ear, which stands it in contrast to his “electric” records of late. On 2018’s “Boarding House Reach,” White got notably gonzo in some of the tracks, delighting some fans and putting off others. This spring’s “Fear of the Dawn” had that same sense of the experimental but has been more universally beloved, maybe because it embeds what feels like a hundred of those “Seven Nation Army”-style riffs within its eclecticism.
“As a guitar player, ‘Fear of the Dawn’ is my proudest guitar playing I’ve ever done. And I think it bridges a gap between simplicity and the complex,” he says. But some of the parts you think are guitars aren’t.
“Something that I hope the new generation of teenagers embraces,” White says, “is caring and being curious about what is making the sound on the records they love. It’s a little bit like how, once CGI became a thing in movies, we just stopped caring about how a special effect was made. It just became, ‘Oh, it’s computers.’ And I think a lot of music is that way too. You could be loving a hip-hop track on Kendrick Lamar’s new album, and some interesting instrument is playing in the background, and most people don’t care if it’s a clarinet or a violin or a synthesizer — they just say ‘I love that sound.’ That’s all well and good, but I think there’s more beauty to be found, and you can be more inspired, if you’re curious about: Well, what made that actual sound?
“As my kids were growing up, I loved to watch cartoons and guess what made the cartoon sounds. My favorites are the older ones, you know, ‘The Jetsons’ and Bugs Bunny, because you knew they were using real instruments and objects, and foley guys were back there trying to figure out how to make the sound of Wile E. Coyote blowing up or something shooting into a glass building. So I always get some inspiration from that — say, on the ‘Fear of the Dawn’ record, trying to figure out synthesizers that sound like guitars and guitars that sound like synthesizers. I’m not known as a synth player, but I forced myself to get involved in instruments that I don’t know much about and see if I can come up with something interesting and inspiring for myself, and maybe other people with it. A couple of times it worked, and it’s great when it does.
“Because I’ve got the curse of being from a well-known band, and the well-known band that I was from was based around doing things very simply.” He recalls a moment in time in the White Stripes, the band he had with drummer (and ex-wife) Meg White from 1997-2011. “I remember when we mixed ‘Elephant’ [in 2003] — we mixed 18 songs in one day, for the final mix of the album and the B-sides,” White remembers, chuckling, appreciating the memory of all that speed and simplicity and feeling no need to replicate that in the present day.
“When you get people who enjoy that, and then they want more of that, it’s like being Robert Plant making a solo record. People in the back of their heads are saying, ‘Wow, how come this doesn’t sound like Led Zeppelin?’ I will get some of that, too — or ‘You need Meg to reel you in.’ No, I’m good. Thanks. Sorry. I don’t need Meg to reel me in! Why would I want to make my new solo album sound anything like the band I was in? It would be like trying to live in this nostalgia scenario.”
• • •
White has been thought of, somewhat reasonably, as the last of the great American rock stars. He just hooked up, in a manner of speaking, with the first of those, Elvis Presley, for the “Elvis” soundtrack. It’s no great secret that he has a Presley fetish to go with his other dozens — probably hundreds — of midcentury loves: In 2015, he ‘fessed up to being the winning bidder when Elvis’ first acetate recording, a 1953 demo disc of “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” sold at auction for $300,000. (White subsequently lent the precious Presley acetate to a museum for display and released a replica on his own Third Man label.)
With the “Elvis” soundtrack, the means by which his participation happened somewhat belies his image as a control freak. He and director Baz Luhrmann had “chatted about different things, but then, because he had heard my cover of ‘Power of My Love,’ he had this idea of it being a duet, with my voice and Elvis’ put inside of it. My mind popped back to that Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole album, where they did those sort of from-the grave duets, or whatever is a polite way to put it,” he laughs. “I always loved that record. So I gave them the original tracks of my recording and said, ‘Remix it and make it into something new.’ I’m glad somebody else did it. I didn’t want to handle messing up Elvis’ voice with my own. That’s too scary; I would just end up burying my own voice, out of respect.”
Even though he doesn’t mind dueting across time and space, White is usually very much about the corporeal. His “let’s get physical” inclinations came to a head early in the pandemic. “When 2020 started, I had changed so much stuff about myself,” he says. “I had stopped eating sugar and carbohydrates, and begun getting into long-term fasting and intermittent fasting. I was on a whole new regimen of daily health. And then as February hit and March came and we started to really see ‘Nobody’s gonna be touring, and it might not happen for another year or two,’ that’s when I started to get very disinterested in writing.”
Which didn’t mean laziness. His interests just turned back toward furniture, or sculpture, or starting a website, Jack White Art & Design, devoted to the visual and/or physical work that happens outside of (or augments) his music. As fans know, before he was a guitar hero, he was an upholstery hero.
“It’s crazy to be 21 and have your own business,” he now sees, looking back on the upholstery business he ran in Detroit. “It was a job, to most people, but to me, it was trying to figure out how to make it artistically creative. And I took it to a spot where it was wildly artistic, and maybe even unappealing to the customers,” he admits. Eventually the White Stripes took off way more than the button-tufting was every going to. But you can hear his enduring love for these things in a couple of telling lines in one of the new “Entering Heaven Alive” songs, “Love is Selfish,” in which he equates physical work with romance itself: “Someone smarter than me and you might end up solving a clue or two, but could they make it happen with their hands? Could they build it up from nothing with their hands?”
White relates to Bob Dylan’s love of doing iron works sculptures as well as painting on the side. “I think (Dylan) comes from a place like I do, where there’s sort of these Midwestern, blue-collar environments where most of the people around you do something. They’re a carpenter or they’re an iron worker, and it’s not uncommon to be surrounded by people who are creative through more of a mechanical process, or a just paying-the-bills kind of process. That’s what I was with upholstery. … There’s guys out there who can build a car from scratch, who have no idea how to take a photo of it and present it and sell it to other people. And their talent is hidden and their love and their passion is hidden because of that inability to sell it, you know? And then there’s plenty of people out there who can sell it, but they have nothing to sell.” Needless to say, White isn’t much one for the influencer generation.
Ask him about his performance philosophy — he’s as close as we have to a modern-day Hendrix, in his combination of virtuosity and showmanship — and he cites the week he was called in to replace the canceled Morgan Wallen on “Saturday Night Live” as some kind of mental turning point, if he needed one. “The life-changing thing that happened to me, as far as relates to this touring and this band, is the ‘SNL’ performance that we were asked to do. We did it as a trio with almost no time to rehearse, and we didn’t have a single or an album to push, and Lorne (Michaels) said, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ It was this magical, perfect moment that I’m so happy and thankful for, because it really reinvigorated my inspiration for another decade of what was possible and what people could actually get something out of.”
Spontaneity is key. “If you look up the two different set lists from our two London shows these last few days, and how different they are from each other in the same venue… none of it was planned. I would’ve never picked those songs for those two nights, in that order, if I had tried to do it beforehand. But I’ve learned over the years how to feed off the crowd at certain moments and know, ‘OK, this is the time to hit ’em with the left hook, and this is the time to leave the stage.’ Those are the things I’m grateful for as I’ve gotten into my 40s; with my bad memory that I have, I’m glad I have sort of this showbiz retention of what not to do.” Which is lay out an actual blueprint — something he does neither in sculpture, upholstery or rock ‘n’ roll.
That extended to his engagement and wedding night — which just happened to coincide with his April 8 tour-opening gig in Detroit, where his unwitting bride-to-be, longtime paramour Olivia Jean, was the opening act. “Nobody knew except me that it might happen. I didn’t even know for sure it was gonna happen,” White reveals.
So it was just: Don’t tell anyone and see how the day goes? “Yeah — and the day kept going really well. Including her set. I thought, what if she has a bad set or her guitar breaks in the middle of it? Can you imagine what her set would’ve been like if she had known what was gonna happen next? Imagine what my band and my tour manager would’ve been doing, if I had told them this is gonna happen. They would’ve ignored everything else and the show would’ve been horrible and everyone would’ve been pulling their hair out. So it was the right move for nobody to know. This really is the trick I learned a long time ago, that the less you plan, actually the better the results can be.”
Funnily enough, he has a correlating White Stripes story to go with this. “Years ago, we did these B-shows, which were these unplanned ideas that I would come up with in the morning during this Canadian tour; it was actually part of this film ‘Under the Great White Northern Lights.’ In the morning, I’d say, ‘Look, let’s play at a bus stop today. Let’s play on a bus. Let’s play at a laundromat today. Let’s play in a bowling alley today.’ And every time we would call up the bowling alley and say, ‘We wanna come and play in one hour from now!,’ they would say, ‘Uh, OK. We can do it’ — and it would work. And I would always say, ‘If we had called them a month ago, it would’ve gotten ruined by now.’ Someone would have come and said, ‘Oh, the fire marshal says you can’t do it.’ Or, ‘the owner told all his friends and it’s not a secret anymore.’
“So the same thing with getting married that night,” White says, bringing it back home. “I learned again, once again, from this retention of showbiz (wisdom): Don’t pre-plan things like that, because they go so much better when you just do it spontaneously and spur of the moment. There’s just something about it. When you give things a lot of time, you’re almost giving it a lot of time for lots of things to get screwed up, and a lot of people to get too many cooks in the kitchen and overthink and over-produce. And maybe that’s the same with some of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll things, they went in and did it and walked right out of the studio into the day. They didn’t spend nine months constructing it and trying to make a perfect song. And I’m proud that that’s how we got married, because it felt real and romantic, and it wasn’t pre-planned or fake.”
This goes for records, for collaborative design work, for marriages. “When I work on my interior and industrial design projects, I don’t make the blueprints beforehand and sit in an office and draw it out. I go to the location and talk to construction workers and carpenters and contractors every morning and say, ‘Okay, what are we doing next? Let’s talk about how we’re gonna do this.’ And that’s the way I like to design: inside of the room.”
• • •
As much as White adores spontaneity, that’s come into clash with another love of his: vinyl. The good news in his world is, LPs have recently surpassed CDs (which he has nothing against, by the way) as the physical format of choice. “It’ll be streaming and vinyl, streaming and vinyl, probably for at least the next 10 years,” White says, sounding not at all displeased. The bad news is, as most music lovers have learned in the last year, the combination of a lack of pressing plants and supply chain issues has meant that most groups have to wait at least eight months from the time they get in line to get a record pressed that, for certain acts, will constitute most of their merch-table income. White recently made public statements excoriating the major labels for not opening their own pressing plants and taking up space at the independent ones that should go to the bands that really need it.“I just talked to Martin Mills, who started the Beggars Banquet label in the U.K.,” White relays, “and he was talking about how, in the ‘70s, they would release a song on a Tuesday, get the chart numbers, see that something was in the top 10 or top 20 and know that they were gonna be on ‘Top of the Pops,’ so they’d press sometimes 25,000 copies of a 7-inch by Friday morning so it was in the stores for the weekend. That’s how amazing it was. And that’s something that we could get back to very easily right now, if there were enough plants. Right now, if you’re a band and go get T-shirts made, you expect to get those T-shirts in two weeks. If you wanna get your vinyl pressed because you’re gonna go on tour this year, you’re not getting your vinyl for 10 months. That’s kind of bullshit, you know?
“And I’m telling you, this is happening to me — I have to ask favors at my own plant: ‘Hey guys, can I press my new 7-inch?’ Because if I do, I’ve gotta push everybody out of the way to make room, and that causes a bunch of chain issues. So the good news is, there’s more companies opening independent pressing plants this year. The bad news is, it doesn’t look like the majors are going to make those plants. I hope they change their minds.”
He recalls sparking the new revolution in revolvers, as it were. “We were pushing vinyl in 1997, ’98, when it was the darkest days of the pressing plants all closing in the late ‘90s. I was part of the garage-rock scene that was promoting the hell out of that. The White Stripes got on television in 2000 and 2001., and we were holding up the vinyl records, and I remember (hosts) laughing and asking us, ‘You really want us to hold the vinyl up? Nobody has these things anymore.’ When we did ‘Elephant’ in 2003., we sent out the record on vinyl to journalists and said, ‘You can’t review the album unless you listen to it on vinyl.’ That was a bold move, but we had a moment there with enough clout and interest in us that it came across well and it worked.
“And then when Third Man (as a retail store in Nashville —now expanded to London and Detroit) opened, we were pushing all kinds of limited-edition and multicolored vinyl, and we got lines around the block and really started a movement with that location that really caught on. I knew that we could catch enough attention that we could get people interested in it for a year or two. But I didn’t foresee where now you see vinyl records on drug commercials in America, and record players are for sale at Staples or Office Depot, and Target has a vinyl section with colored, limited-edition vinyl. I mean, how cool is that? Everyone in our team is really proud to have been part of bringing that out into the music universe.
“When record stores started slowly closing… You know, I think people misunderstand this about me. It’s really not about ‘old-timey stuff’ or whatever misconception people are thinking about me being anti-technology. I am pro-digital. I’m listening to digital music all the time, and we put all of our music out on digital on Third Man. But it’s the idea that the record store itself and the actual object that you hold in your hand — this is what causes communication between people in a real room.
“Same thing with us using Yondr bags [in which attendees are required to lock up their smartphones] at concerts. It’s not to be Old Man Yelling at Clouds. It’s to be giving people an experience where they communicate with one another. And you’re finding people talking between bands, like, ‘Oh, hey, have you got this one record? Oh yeah, if you like that, you should check this other band out.’ Those are the kinds of conversations that only happen at record stores and at music performances, where you have these talks and you get turned on and inspired by other people. And yeah, a lot comes with that —there’s record store snobbery, and there’s audiophile (elitism). Whatever, whatever. But at the end of the day, this object causes a lot of people to inspire one another.
“When you have children, you start wondering, how do people get interested in certain things? What makes a person interested in painting or poetry? And it comes from inspiration from other people —maybe it’s other people older than you, like mentors; maybe it’s somebody you’re trying to impress because you have feelings for them. Whatever it is, if we’re all sitting in our caves and not speaking to one another, I don’t know, man. That’s a dark era to embrace, just for the sake of ease of use. And you know, seeing a record store go down is the same as seeing a movie theater go down. Can we watch movies in our living room, or on our phone? Of course. But do we really want to lose the romance of going to a movie theater and sitting in a darkened room? I don’t think anybody really wants that to go away. I mean, they thought it was gonna go away in the ‘50s when television came out. It’s still here for a reason — because it’s reverential, and it’s a communal experience, like going to church. I think that’s why so many people are attracted to religion, for the same reason people go to record stores and go to concerts. We need this.”
• • •
David James Swanson
He’s a preacher — we know that. But for as revealing as White can be about himself, there are aspects that can still be difficult for the public to reconcile. That even extends to his pal Conan O’Brien, who recently devoted a podcast to a conversation with White, where they talked about going to baseball games together — the rocker is a major devotee of America’s greatest sport — and then the comic started ribbing him about making all his employees in his shops, on his stage and even in his pressing plant wear aesthetically unique uniforms. So is White some kind of hardcore German expressionist, or a relatable blue-collar guy? Is there any inherent contradiction between being the king of extemporaneity, musically, and then also the king of designing things within a seemingly meticulous, if visually enrapturing, inch of their life?
White chews on these questions for a minute. “Different time periods have created the idealistic image of what artists or celebrities or famous actors are supposed to be like, and what people would like them to be,” he says, waxing historical. “There were times in the 1920s and ‘30s where they wanted people to be very high-class, champagne, art deco actors like Lionel Barrymore. Then you get into the wild ‘50s, and people wanted their rock ‘n’ rollers to be wild-abandon guys who were crazy, driving a hot rod 90 miles an hour into the side of a building before they come on stage.”
Truth be told, he’s got a little bit of both those things in him. But “in the last few decades,” White says, “a little bit of the boring part to me is that there’s an expectation in pop culture that rock ‘n’ roll stars — quote-unquote — are supposed to be these laid-back, ‘Hey, I’m just like you!’ kind of guys who are trying to constantly prove to people that they’re no different or better than anybody else, yet at the same time are receiving all the accolades that the 1970s rock star would.” For all of his humble Detroit roots, that’s more regular than he’s willing or able to be.
“I think the problem with me,” he says, “is that I have not catered to the idea that just because things are designed means you’re a control freak, or means you’re anal retentive, or means you’re doing something neurotically forcing other people to bend to your will. I think that people are just witnessing that I’m not someone who’s really from this time period, necessarily, in my brain. And when I include people in the idea, they’re not being ordered; they’re being involved, and I’m asking them to create. Like, for example, our roadies all wear suits. But I ask them to pick whatever hat that they want to wear, so that the hat is that person’s identity on stage — the exemplification of who they are as a person. And I’ve never told anybody, ‘Take that hat off and get a different hat,’ because that’s who they are.
“It doesn’t interest me too much to to try to prove this fake thing of ‘I’m just like everybody else — regular guy. Here’s what my bathroom looks like at my house.’ When I go to see a band or I go to an art opening or a gallery, I want to enter into that person’s universe, and see what it is and how they create. If I were to go to Paisley Park, where Prince created, I would be hoping to enter into his universe and witness how he did things. And hopefully,” he adds, laughing, “it’s not just a bunch of gray drywall.”
Best of Variety