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?”)
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.
Third Man could be more than the art installation-meets-Seussian factory it is if White wanted it to be. Blunderbuss — licensed to Columbia for release — will do fine, but White could fill his coffers by being a star producer. After helming Loretta Lynn‘s Van Lear Rose, he could’ve easily been the next T Bone Burnett, but he’d rather entertain himself by churning out one- off 45s for bands no one has ever heard of (and a few odd choices that everyone has, from Tom Jones to Stephen Hawking to Stephen Colbert).
“There’s super-big names and big dollar amounts that get offered to me to produce albums and things that no one will ever know that I’ve turned down and had no part of,” he says. “There are friends and even idols of mine who have said, ‘Will you please produce something for us?’ and I’ve said: ‘I’m sorry, man. I love what you do, I just don’t feel that I can help in any way.’ It’s a tough thing to say no to.” He laughs. “I heard a Nicki Minaj song the other day where she said, ‘They gave my 7UP commercial to Cee-Lo Green.’ I just thought, ‘What if everybody sang about all the things they turn down?’ I once got offered to ride elephants with David Bowie in Suriname. That’s not true, but maybe I should write that in a song on the next record.”
He hasn’t often said yes to film work, either, despite a few acting gigs ranging from a cameo as Elvis Presley in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story to Cold Mountain with Zellweger. He’d like to do more, but “if you act in a film, you may be looking at six months of working, and I could produce 15 45s by 15 bands and record my own music and go on tour around the world twice in that time.” He was announced to score Disney’s The Lone Ranger but exited in December because “their scheduling would not work out. Plus,” he concedes, “I record things in a very difficult way. I don’t use Pro Tools. I don’t have a bunch of other engineers doing all my mixing and edits, so I’d have to find a way of melding my style of production into their digital world.”
The things he says yes to mostly emerge out of his own head and satisfy no one’s whimsy more than his own. There’s that 3-rpm record player on his office shelf. The vintage ’60s Scopitone machine in the shop out front that plays scratchy 16mm transfers of his videos. “The rolling record store truck … releasing records by balloon … hiding records in couches … they’re all things that don’t really make any money; they’re just ways that I want things to exist and ways I want to present what I create. And I love, love, love to f— with people who think that’s fake or gimmicky because they are completely missing the point of art. The beauty of it is clouded by the presentation that they can’t get past.”
Which is just the way history’s first amalgam of Charley Patton and Willy Wonka likes it.