Jack White Covers THR's 2nd Annual Music Issue
This story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Jack White is obsessed with the number three. The name of his Nashville-based indie record label and compound is Third Man, reflecting not only his love for all things Orson Welles -- who also had a penchant for image manipulation -- but also his numerological obsession. In the lounge just outside his private quarters, under the gold tin ceiling and amid the midcentury furniture, is a stuffed antelope with a tag around its neck that reads, "Lot 333." That's only the beginning of how far he can take his tendency for the triplicate.
Settling into a chair in his office under a giant framed portrait of blues legend Charley Patton, White points with his American Spirit cigarette at a record player that is not an antique -- like so many other machines throughout the complex -- but a new invention. "That's a record player we had built in Memphis that plays at 3 rpm," he says proudly, "a speed nobody can play a record on." Nobody else, that is.
In 2012, at a party to celebrate the third anniversary of Third Man in Music City, White gave all of the guests a 3-rpm record that compiled a voluminous number of the singles he has produced on one very lo-fi slab of vinyl. You can try to play this collectors' item by manually moving your turntable very slowly, but if you want to hear it properly, you'll have to score an invite to White's office.
And what contemporary rock fan wouldn't want one? If Charlie Bucket were real and alive in the 21st century, he wouldn't be waiting around for a call from chocolatier Willy Wonka. He'd be lobbying Twitter for a golden ticket to get inside the indie-rock factory that is Third Man, "a veritable world of imagination," as White's nephew and right-hand man Ben Blackwell calls it. The comparisons to pop culture's greatest confectioner of mad delicacies might come up even if White, with his pasty complexion and penchant for black, didn't bear the slightest resemblance to Johnny Depp's candy man. There might never have been a rocker with quite as pronounced a sense of wonder as White, who has one foot in the marvels of the past and the other in the possibilities of the future, reserving his disdain only for the dreary present.
He has been accused of being a retro guy, and it's easy to see why. Third Man -- which employs 13 people who all wear old-school suits and ties or skirts and sleek nylon stockings -- is fronted by a shop filled with ancient machinery like a vintage photo booth, and White recently started cutting live albums in the performance space out back with the type of direct-to-disc acetate lathe that hasn't been used since the early '50s. Most of Third Man's releases are vinyl-only, given White's dread of most things digital. His most recent album -- his solo debut Blunderbuss, which is up for three Grammys, including album of the year, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in 2012 and has moved nearly 470,000 units -- feels like it clawed its way out of yesteryear with its Americana-roots blues piano and righteous guitar stomp.
But he hates the word "retro" -- and even the prefix associated with it. "Words that begin with an 'RE' should be insulting to artists," he says, taking off his not-very-modern hat. "The reason I don't like 'retro' is because people don't know the definition of the word. It's like how people don't know the definition of the word 'literal.' They literally don't know! When someone says 'retro' to me, the words they're implying are cute, novel, without depth, nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia and image for the sake of image. And that is all stuff that is so not me that I can't even explain to you how not me it all is."
It's ironic that White's nearly exclusively analog operations should have ended up in Nashville, a city that was proud of making the conversion to nearly all-digital recordings long before Los Angeles and New York did. He's "not from around here," as the Southern saying goes. But more than any of its other immigrants, White is responsible for helping Music City live up to its nickname and not simply coast as Country Town. The city has embraced him since he left Detroit and set up shop in 2009. Says Mayor Karl Dean: "Whenever I talk about the diversity of music found in Nashville and how creative our city is, Jack White's name always comes up. Jack was the first recipient of the Music City Ambassador Award in 2011 because he best represented Nashville's unique creative climate and musical diversity, and he carried that message worldwide."
White, 37, grew up the 10th child (and "seventh son," as he likes to immortalize himself in song) of a maintenance man and Catholic archdiocese secretary in Detroit. Before Third Man was a record label or studio complex, it was the name of his upholstery business in mid-'90s Michigan, though his oddball tendencies -- he'd write poetry on the inside of the upholstery and make out receipts in crayon -- didn't go over as well as they have in show business.
He formed The White Stripes as a blues-redolent odd-couple duo with Meg White in 1997 and spent most of the years until they broke up in 2011 insisting she was his sister, even after dogged reporters revealed her to be his ex-wife. That's the type of art-project privacy guard he has put up that allows him to deflect a certain type of attention, and journalists who've trekked to visit him through the years remain split on whether he's the world's greatest self-mythologist or as honest and earthy a guy as rock gods and guitar heroes get.
(White certainly doesn't make it easy, dropping such well-honed nuggets of absurdity in the press as, "Rita Hayworth became an all-encompassing metaphor for everything I was thinking about while making the album," and, "I can't stand the fact that all the people are wearing flip-flops now. Like, why can't they have more respect?")