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Cover Story

The sweet twist of success

Jack and Meg White earn national stripes.

Photo / Pat Pantano
Photo / Doug Coombe
Photo / Pat Pantano
Jack and Meg chose a small record label to keep artistic freedom.
Photos / Pat Pantano
Images from the White Stripes latest recording.
Photo / Doug Coombe
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Published 5/30/2001

Well you’re in your little room/And you’re working on something good/But if it’s really good/You’re gonna need a bigger room/And when you’re in the bigger room/You might not know what to do/You might have to think of how you got started/Sitting in your little room/Da da da.

—From “Little Room”
off White Blood Cells

Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes know this conundrum all too well. The two have tripped back and forth between the comfort of humble beginnings and the excitement of a newfound fame since last year’s De Stijl, followed by some high-profile tours, one with Sleater-Kinney and one that featured an opening gig for Pavement.

And sitting on a couch inside Jack’s cozy southwest Detroit living room, talking to the counterpoint of a friend’s parakeet flittering about a hanging cage and an ice cream truck circling to squeals of neighborhood children, it’s easy to forget just how much nationwide anticipation surrounds the June 25 release of White Blood Cells, the duo’s third full-length on Sympathy for the Record Industry.

It comes in threes

The band has filled top-notch venues across the country over the course of two years. Two shows had to be booked at New York’s Bowery Ballroom on one headlining tour. And just two weeks ago, they “practically sold out” the Fillmore East. “That was a pretty big deal for us,” Jack enthuses. “They decorated the whole place with red-and-white decorations. It was just like, ‘Man, that’s a really big way away from where we first started.’ To play a place that big and that historic.”

At home, White Stripes are content to stay where they’re comfortable, even though the band may have outgrown its usual stomping grounds. The last three Magic Stick shows have sold out, so instead of one big show, the duo decided to book three shows in a row in some of its favorite area venues to celebrate the release of White Blood Cells. The first show with The Rockateens and Ko and the Knockouts is on June 7 at Gold Dollar. The second, with Greg Oblivion and Blanche, takes place June 8 at Magic Bag. And the third, with the Go and the Insomniacs is June 9 at Magic Stick.

“Since it’s the third album, we’re going to have three shows in Detroit,” Jack explains. “It was actually our booking agent’s idea. He called the places up. They thought it was a great idea. I thought they weren’t gonna go for it, but they did. It seems like a pretty ballsy move for a local band to do that. No one’s ever done that before, I don’t think, a local band. I don’t even think any national bands played here three days in a row. Or at least it’s been a while. That used to happen in the old days, like at Bookies and stuff. I just thought it was a cool idea. We’ll see if it works.”

Jack has always been fond of the number three.

“I think it’s just perfection. Like the Holy Trinity, or anything you look at. A wheel on a car, with the bolts holding it on; three is the minimum number you can have on there to hold something down. Or legs on a table. Anything. Or song structure. It’s like a three-act play in writing a song, I think, with the intro and the main thing, I don’t know. It has that feel to it, everything we do. It just seems like the perfect connection. There’s vocals, drums and guitar.”

Just two people grace the stage, yes, but the White Stripes manage to fill up a room with minimalist bluesy rock, creating a crammed atmosphere of war between danger and innocence. Together, Jack and Meg conjure a sort of third presence, possessed and intuitive, somewhere in the mix when the drums play the melody and the guitar keeps the beat. Meg alternates banging and not banging on her simple drum kit, like a perceptive and focused young girl seated cross-legged on linoleum discovering the primitive power of percussion between a wooden spoon and a stainless-steel stew pot. Yet, it’s also a mature sound, thought out and assembled so as not to muddle things with traditional rock drummer excesses. Meanwhile, Jack’s choking his guitar’s neck with the frustration of a child sent to his room for pulling the neighbor girl’s pigtails. And again, the sound created is fully developed; Jack grasps the grittiest of blues and rock tradition and emerges with something wholly new and pure, often placed under the umbrella known as garage rock.

Jack and Meg have gone over some ideas of how to make the specific shows new and pure as well.

“We were going to make the entrance fee something red-and-white for the Gold Dollar,” Meg says. Jack adds: “Yeah, just bring us a red-and-white present, but we haven’t talked yet how we would actually work that out. Because there are other bands on the bill that need to get paid money.”

It comes in waves

The “bigger room” idea resurfaces when you hear about the larger labels all over the United States and England that fought to put out White Blood Cells. Being featured in Rolling Stone as one of 10 bands to watch in 2001 and a story in Mojo this month didn’t hurt either. But the band decided to stick with what has worked so far.

It’s all about freedom on the California-based Sympathy label run by a guy who goes by the name of Long Gone John. Says Meg: “We could do whatever we wanted as opposed to having the limitations of a bigger label.”

Jack agrees: “No one’s telling us what to do, the artwork, what songs go on the album, he will do any 7-inches we want to do, anything. It’s become one of the bigger bands Sympathy’s ever had. On the other hand, why should we leave this label as soon as there’s been bigger interest? He’s helped us along the way so long. Other labels like Sub Pop or whatever, have gotten success with things, gotten lucky. I don’t know if Sympathy’s ever had a band that’s been really huge or anything. So if it does happen, if it gets bigger, it would be nice to be on a label like that. . … When you get into all that money and people telling you what to do, it’s just harassment. Constant harassment I think.”

Entertainment Weekly did say that the Detroit garage scene bears resemblance to Seattle before grunge hit it big. Yes, they actually said that. Well, Sympathy does love its Detroit garage rock. The label just recently released a compilation Jack produced called Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit, which features everyone from the Come Ons to the Detroit Cobras, the Dirtbombs to the Clone Defects. Each band on the album, and plenty more from the area, have the potential to really kick-start a new raw energy in the world of rock, in Detroit and beyond. And the White Stripes, whether ready for it or not, lead the pack. The band just might be ready.

If you walk upstairs to the “office” in the same cozy home, you’ll see a pile of press photos on top of cardboard boxes, a desk with a computer chock-full of files and, gasp, even a fax machine. “They made us get that,” Jack says sheepishly. “Now they want us to get cell phones.” The “they” he’s referring to is the publicity company the band hired recently. Independence is freedom, Jack and Meg admit, but fielding hundreds of calls from labels, magazines, newspapers, etc., is not.

So what does the band think of all this attention?

Well, after playing together since 1997 they got to quit their day jobs — Meg used to bartend at Memphis Smoke, and Jack had an upholstery shop, Third Man Upholstery — but the constant ringing of the phone is a bit of an annoyance. (As are personal questions. They’re both in their mid-20s, formerly married to each other, and don’t want to dwell on their relationship in print.)

“Not like it’s bragging or anything, but it kind of takes away from the fact that it’s nice to not have a job and be a musician,” Jack says shyly of the nonstop calls. “People say, ‘Oh, God, why are you complaining about all that?’ But it does get annoying.”

Meg adds, “He’s on the phone, literally, the entire day. And we got two phone lines and one’s going off, and then the other one. It’s cool, though,” she says looking at her feet.

The good, the bad, the adorable

“People give us really nice presents,” Jack says about their growing fan base. “Somebody in San Francisco gave me a peppermint crash helmet. He does race cars and stuff. He gave me a crash helmet with peppermint stripes painted on it.”

Meg adds: “And that one girl with the jewelry, she made us silver pins, with peppermint. That was really nice.”

Up until this point, the build-up has been largely through word of mouth. The band didn’t send promotional material out to the press. White Stripes just put out records and toured constantly.

“I guess we started getting more attention once we got to open for Sleater-Kinney and go on a tour with them. We got into a bigger audience. People who worked for the press or record labels would go to those shows. We were putting on a pretty good show by that point, I guess, so it was good timing.”

Is it hard for them to not sell out?

Jack says it makes sense “if you handle things in a way where you’re getting something out of it, like if our song was in some commercial that we thought was so just over-the-top, that it actually had some humor or something about it. For the most part, it just seems like a bad idea all the way around, but who can turn it down if someone said, we’ll give you $100,000 if we use your song in a commercial that’s only gonna run for a couple months? At least you could give that money to charity or something. It seems kind of stupid to turn that down, but who knows? It’s never come up. I don’t think it will. I don’t think we’re good merchandise-selling songs.”

With the sincere attention, comes the not-so sincere. Jack says he realizes that many of the people talking haven’t actually heard the band, just heard about them. A few weeks ago during a trip to New York, I overheard a conversation on the subway, which made it apparent that how many White Stripes shows a scenester has attended determines his or her “coolness.”

“We played Hoboken before we played New York,” Jack says, “which is a lot of people from New York, I guess. That was a horrible show. It felt like it was a crowd of critics. People had their arms folded, ‘OK, we’re here, impress us.’ They weren’t moving. After I was done, I just told the bar, ‘Man this crowd is terrible.’ And it was sold out. But it felt horrible. I don’t play for that kind of crowd. That’s not enjoying music or experiencing it. It’s pure judgment, pure coolness, pure hipness.”

Jack fears that the same people who helped raise the band to where it is now, the critics who told readers to buy every White Stripes single they could find, are now starting to think the group is not “cool” anymore since it’s less obscure. Which must be upsetting, especially since it seems as though the music has become so popular because of its energy and emotion, not its coolness factor.

“That’s the nicest thing,” Meg says, “when somebody comes up to us and says they’d been discouraged with music and that we’ve made them feel a new energy for it. That’s the nicest thing, that you’ve made people feel good about music again.”

The best thing that’s ever happened to the two of them as a band, they both agree, can be found on a videocassette. A week or two ago, they were sent a tape of a class of first- and second-graders in Kalamazoo singing the words to “Apple Blossom” (from De Stijl) as their teacher played along on guitar.

“I started crying,” Jack admits. “This teacher, she played songs for her kids and she taught them this song. It’s really great, I thought. You can’t top that. If it’s gotten to that, how can you top that?”

Good & bad bacteria

The new album explores the ups and downs of unexpected and immediate attention. The front shows Jack and Meg cornered by figures dressed in black, reaching for them. The flip side has an image of the same black figures holding cameras as Jack gives the thumb’s-up sign and Meg strikes a pose.

The group recorded the album in February in Memphis with the esteemed producer Doug Easley.

“There were probably only three real days of recording,” Jack says. “We really rushed the whole album, to get that feel to it, a real tense thing coming out of it. Then we got back, did one more day of recording and remixed it. By that time, the engineer was really on our side and everything. It came out a lot better. This is our first album we ever got mastered. It’s really loud.”

The songs themselves are from all over the place time-wise — some Jack and Meg wrote for the first album, but never recorded, others Jack had written for 2 Star Tabernacle (his previous band). “It was cool because a lot of things had been sitting around for a long time, stuff I had written on piano that had been just sitting around not doing anything. And it was good to put them all together at once, put them all in the same box and see what happened.”

De Stijl was thematically linked, musically evoking the Dutch art movement based on vertical and horizontal lines and the primary colors contrasted by black and white. The continuous thread throughout White Blood Cells, perhaps, is that contrast of claustrophobia and sunshiny fun in the spotlight.

“The name, White Blood Cells, for the album, is this idea of bacteria coming at us, or just foreign things coming at us, or media, or attention on the band,” Jack says. “It just seems to us that there are so many bands from the same time or before we started that were playing and are still playing that didn’t get this kind of attention that we’re getting. Is the attention good or bad? When you open the CD, it’s a picture of us with these cameras. Wondering if it’s good or bad.”

Compared to De Stijl, the main musical difference is the lack of blues and slide work.

“We keep getting put with this bringing-back-the-blues kind of statement as a label for the band,” Jack says. “And I just wanted to break away from that because it’s really hard to do that, being … where we’re from, even though that’s the music that we really love and that I’m really inspired by. Most of the songs that had been sitting around were these piano-written songs that were more ‘songwriting’ type songs. I wanted to make a whole album of that.”

Red & the white

Do they ever get sick of this color scheme?

“No,” Jack says with a chuckle. “I think it’s the best color combination of all time. It’s just more powerful. For some reason, it just makes people think about stuff. Say someone says, ‘Wow, I really like your red pants.’ It just seems to me that if I was wearing green pants, people wouldn’t come up and say, ‘Wow, those are pants.’ There’s nothing special about them. They’re just old senior citizen pants. There’s just something about the color.”

And how many white T-shirts does he own?

“You know how you have a rider or whatever? We put down on there white T-shirts and white socks because I go through them so fast, I just throw them away, but they don’t go to that trouble. We just put it on there to see if they’d do it. I always have to stop somewhere and buy T-shirts because they just get filthy so fast,” says Jack.

Does the band fear the “just a gimmick” label?

“The thought was, well, we never put gorilla masks on and ran around and stuff,” Jack explains. “We wanted to present ourselves in some way. Everybody wears street clothes all the time. Why should we just do that? … I don’t know. I mean, blues musicians that are my idols, they wore their nicest suits and nicest hats when they played shows. It’s just being polite. It’s like going to church. You wouldn’t wear your pajamas to church.”

The visual aspect of the music should be represented well in a video Jack and Meg are thinking about shooting for a song off of the new album at the nearby Hotel Yorba.

Easing into the big room

Being on the road and in the spotlight over the past year has taught Jack and Meg a few things. “Probably to be a lot more easygoing,” Meg says. “You have to be to be on the road. You have to take what comes and kind of just go with it.”

Jack agrees. “I really don’t like encores. People get upset if they’re asking for one and you don’t come back. Or if someone asks you for an autograph and you don’t give it to them. You say, ‘Come on, it’s just kind of superficial.’ But people get really mad if you say no to things like that. I’ve learned to just be nicer about it. I used to think that stuff was lame, T-shirts were lame and encores were lame and autographs or whatever.

“I guess it’s just that whole line of, is the artist at mercy of the fan? What is the show? Are people picking what we’re gonna do or are we picking what we’re gonna do? Lately, we’ve just played one song at the encore. People were upset by that. Well, we don’t have to do that. We don’t have to come back at all. We don’t have to play for an hour. We could play for 35 minutes if that’s what we wanted to do.”

What if, he asks, “you were at a gallery, and you went up to the painter and said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna buy this, but can you put a couple more brush strokes on this part right here?’”

Melissa Giannini is the Metro Times music writer. E-mail her at mgiannini@metrotimes.com.

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