Jack White Covers THR's 2nd Annual Music Issue
THR gets up close and personal with the quirky rock contrarian who won't rehearse for the Grammys, reneged on "The Lone Ranger" and "loves to f---" with his haters.
After the Stripes rose to mainstream stardom with 2003's "Seven Nation Army" (a song Baltimore Ravens fans were chanting the riff of at the Super Bowl on Feb. 3), White fell into a rift with the guardians of Detroit's indie scene. Feeling himself permanently tarnished as a sellout there, he eventually set his sights on Nashville. "That was a survivalistic move on my part. I was in a particular pickle of a situation," he explains, when the hometown divide deepened. "Where am I supposed to go? I don't like big cities. I don't like Paris, Tokyo, New York. … I can't exist in those towns; they make me feel claustrophobic and sort of worthless." Neither was he a big fan of the Tinseltown attention he attracted when he was dating Renee Zellweger circa 2004.
"My personality and the things that I want to accomplish on the day-to-day level just wouldn't sit well, I don't think, in the tiny towns of 3,000 people that I love in America. In Nashville, I could have my children here and could do what I need to do musically. And once Third Man existed, I knew that there was no other town that this could have existed in. When Karen and I moved here, we had no friends at all in this town, and nobody was here that I knew musically at all. So it was brand new. And now it feels like I've lived here for 50 years. I am always gonna live here."
He's referring to Karen Elson, the model-singer he married in 2005, only to issue a press release six years later stating they were throwing a joint divorce party. (It seems to have been amicable: Elson's records are prominently displayed in the Third Man store.) They have two children -- Scarlett, 6, and Henry, 5 -- whom White spends a good deal of time with despite his musical and entrepreneurial activity. "When you have kids, you think, 'Oh no, there's not gonna be any time for anything anymore.' And it's not true. When I go on tour and I come back, I still spend 10 times as much time with my children as I did with my family when I was growing up, and we were all living together with a 9-to-5 job. It's funny: There really is time for everything."
Conan O'Brien has been a pal since running into Jack and Meg in Detroit during the late '90s, before their first album came out. Their mutual admiration led to White producing a vinyl-only Third Man album for O'Brien. "He shares some of my fascination with Americana," says the talk-show host, who played with White on the premiere of his TBS show. "For example, not long ago he blasted me an email with an attachment -- Jack's the only guy I know who's going to send me a beautiful photograph of a crowd shot from Woodrow Wilson's inauguration in 1913. I can talk to him about a 1960s episode of the Batman TV series or where a really good Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles is, or if you have a bowler hat, where do you get it blocked these days? I'm with professional comedy people all the time, and Jack is as funny as anybody I've worked with. He's also the only guy I know who can occasionally drop in a story about Bob Dylan welding his gate. None of my comedy friends can do that!"
On a more personal level, says O'Brien, "I think what I respond to the most is he is very sweet as well as a genuine artist. There is an authenticity to his joy … there's so much of Jack in what he does. He believes it's really important to do things the right way even if no one else notices. From his obsession with vinyl and with old recording methods to what he's wearing, it is a God-is-in-the-details philosophy."
Too many details, for some cynics who think his strong sense of aesthetics represents a type of fussiness. " 'Control freak' actually comes up a lot, and I always want to ask people why," says White. "They see colors. Like 'Oh, everything in The White Stripes is all red, white and black, so you're a control freak' -- as if I'm behind the scenes screaming at everybody to get out red spray-paint cans or something." That doesn't seem like such a stretch, since even the yellow utility pipes outside the Third Man warehouse look art-directed to within an inch of their life. But musically, at least, he likes to share the raw power: "I rely on everybody else around me constantly to help something exist. It's not like I'm telling people what to do and fining people for making a mistake, like James Brown. Rehearsing would be a thing for a control freak to do."
Ah, there's that -- or isn't that, as the case might be. When you suggest that it's nice of White to take time out from rehearsing for his live spot on the Grammys to sit down and talk, he quickly debunks that presumption. "I don't rehearse too much," he admits, erupting into a half-bashful, half-cocky cackle. "Maybe I should. But if there's anything good about what I do, I think it rests in that unknown world where things could go wrong and fall apart, and it's a little bit scary. You don't really get rewarded for those kinds of things because people don't know that you're living that dangerously." A week and a half out from the Feb. 10 telecast, he doesn't know what song he'll be performing -- or even which of his two touring bands he'll be playing with, one of which is all-male, one of which is all-female. He can only confirm that, despite the Grammys' desire to pair everyone up into superstar duet teams, he'll be going it alone.