Jack White’s energy plant is humming
Jack White resembles one of those improbable characters from a Coen brothers movie as he leans against his late-’50s Ford Thunderbird, dressed in red and black and holding a hard-shell camera case.
Like a mysterious, gaudy courier, he walks across the steakhouse parking lot in the bright autumn sun. He leaves his thin cigar on a low wall and steps into the restaurant’s bar, at ease among the midafternoon regulars even though he stands out like a toucan in a chicken coop.
In a corner booth, the White Stripes’ singer and guitarist orders a Glenfiddich on the rocks and opens the case.
“You seen this? . . . This is my camera. . . .” He extracts accessories one after another and lays them on the table -- boxes of peppermint-pattern filters, a fisheye lens, a roll of 120 film, a manual with a camera-headed monkey on the cover. And the centerpiece, a customized White Stripes model of the cheap plastic ‘80s-vintage Holga camera, in red and white with “JACK . . . The White Stripes” printed on the top.
There’s a Meg camera too, for Stripes drummer Meg White. Both models are packaged in boxes designed by the Stripes’ visual collaborator Rob Jones and sold through their website and at photo retailers, in a limited edition of 3,000 each. They’re part of the Austria-based photo subculture known as lomography, which encourages members to document their worlds by shooting fast and furiously.
It’s kind of the garage rock of the photography world, with a “cheaper-simpler” philosophy that appeals strongly to White, 32. A card-carrying member of the National Geographic Society, he intensely monitors the world’s vanishing traditions, from indigenous tribal languages to plastic film cameras.
The White Stripes, of course, led the charge of so-called garage rock into rock prominence during the past decade, but right now the band’s future is cloudy following an abrupt cancellation of its tour amid concerns over Meg’s health.
The duo has found ways to fill the gap, most notably by recording some songs in collaboration with Beck. But today Jack seems more excited about the camera.
“On mine you can also change the flash to red,” he says as he inserts two AA batteries in the Holga, then attaches it to an instant camera back, which blocks the viewfinder. “They’re completely unpredictable things, that’s the whole beauty of them. It’s completely unpredictable what kind of light leakage you’ll get and what kind of results you’re going to get. . . .”
It’s not much of a stretch to connect White’s enthusiasm for his Holga with his approach to music, and to creativity in general.
“Yeah, for sure. Give me a broken tape machine, give me a guitar when it’s out of tune. This camera’s perfect.”
He holds up a picture of the waitress that he took a few minutes earlier. “You have no idea what that was going to turn out like. Was I even aiming it right? We cut off the top of her head here, but we got the drinks, so good things are coming out of that. If we had a brand-new digital camera, you instantly see it. It’s a different world. It’s got its pluses too, no doubt. But I like the idea of pushing yourself, not making it easier on yourself. This is not making it easier on yourself, this is making you work, and when you work, something good is going to happen.”
Quickly and eagerly
Even sitting with a Scotch on a quiet afternoon, White, who moved here from his hometown of Detroit a couple of years ago, doesn’t strike you as a man of leisure. Restless and animated, he answers questions quickly and eagerly, the way he fires off guitar flurries in response to Meg’s prodding, inquiring drum patterns on stage.
That’s where he expected to be these past few months, touring the world after the June release of “Icky Thump,” the White Stripes’ sixth album. While it wasn’t selling like their 2001 commercial breakthrough, “White Blood Cells,” or 2003’s “Elephant,” their pinnacle at 2 million, it was widely acclaimed as an assured return to the band’s raw basics (albeit with some bagpipes and mariachi horns thrown in).
But in September came the unusually forthright announcement that their monthlong U.S. concert tour was being called off because Meg, Jack’s former wife and his White Stripes comrade since the beginning in Detroit in 1997, was suffering from acute anxiety and could not travel.
That might have seemed like devastating news for a band that so values its live shows as a theater of cathartic spontaneity. The tour had also looked like a good opportunity for the duo to reassert its prominence in the rock world as it tested the major-label experience -- “Icky Thump” was released on their own Third Man imprint through Warner Bros. Records -- after a career on independents small and large. And though it’s all but impossible to measure the numerical impact of the tour in the changing music business climate, the album’s sales would certainly have been higher than its current figure of around 645,000.
But as a connoisseur of the unexpected, White was fairly unfazed. To say the least.
“If you sit down and say, ‘Well, this is how my year is going to be -- in March I’m going to do this, in April I’m going do this,’ you’ll definitely be disappointed. It’s not like a 9-to-5 job. You do it the best you can. The good thing is if something doesn’t happen, it wasn’t meant to be.
“Half of me was glad because I have three other records I’m working on and I didn’t have any time to work on them, and I was really getting worried that I might have to not do these things I wanted to do because of the touring.”
White says that he’s not at liberty to name his current projects, but he’s not talking about the long-rumored solo album (“I don’t know, I haven’t gotten there yet”), nor about the Raconteurs, his successful band with singer Brendan Benson, whose second album is half finished and should come out next year, with a tour to follow.
So while he might not have been playing to packed arenas this fall, he was able to help get the Jack camera into circulation, build things in his home workshop, help with his growing family (he and his wife, model Karen Elson, had their second child in August), appear as Elvis in the John C. Reilly comedy “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” and work on those music projects.
And the White Stripes were not forgotten. About a month ago he and Meg went to record a few songs in the living room of one of her Los Angeles neighbors, a fellow named Beck.
“We had some songs that were kind of lingering around,” said White. “Meg and I had never really played them, we just kind of learned them in Beck’s living room. His studio wasn’t ready to go, so he just set it up in his living room.”
Like his two guests, Beck is known as a sort of musical junk collector, forging scraps from different styles and eras into a new vision, so it was a no-brainer to have him co-produce the sessions as well as play and sing.
“He was probably just as happy to let us fly, but I’m not going to be so ignorant as to not take advantage of Beck’s input,” White says. “He’s inspiring to us because of the way he looks at folk music. It’s different from the way we look at folk music. . . .
“You’re looking for people to push you. Sometimes you’re in a situation where you just need people to get out of your way; sometimes you need a situation where you can push each other. So this was obviously to take advantage of the idea of pushing each other.”
‘I’m going to buy a saw today’
The room is getting noisier as more locals drift in and start talking loudly about SEC football. White, his expression alert and inquisitive under the brim of his black hat, glances at the bar as he begins disassembling the camera.
“I really like the idea of collaborating, you really get something out of it. . . . I’m sure our conversation would be different if we were the only people in this room. These people right here are inadvertently pushing us to react to one another differently and say things differently, and the volume we’re speaking at is determined by these people here and nobody even knows it.”
He smiles. “You have to read the room when you’re performing. It’s one of the most important things.”
The Stripes’ new songs will come out on three 7-inch vinyl discs Dec. 18, two of them paired with the “Icky Thump” track “Conquest” and the third with an acoustic version of that mariachi-flavored remake of the ‘50s-era Patti Page hit. A digital package with all five tracks will also be released.
“It’s My Fault for Being Famous,” “Cash Grab Complications on the Matter” and “Honey, We Can’t Afford to Look This Cheap” touch on the Stripes’ country/folk side rather than their aggressive garage-rock identity, but it will come as a reassuring sign of life for White Stripes fans unsure about the band’s future.
“Maybe working at Beck’s house was something we needed to do to remind ourselves that touring is only one component of what we do,” White says. “Taking a break from shows isn’t going to stop it.
“If it came to a point where Meg said, ‘I don’t want to be in this band anymore, it doesn’t fulfill me in any way,’ then it would be a different story. But she’s not saying that.”
At this point, White can’t predict how long the Stripes’ break will be or whether it will ever end. “I don’t know. It’s a good question,” he says. “I guess it’s up to her. . . . She seems to be lively. She was really invigorating working together on this ‘Conquest’ record. I was wondering if she was interested, and she was completely -- very, very involved. And it was nice of Beck to give us that forum, help us re-understand what it is we’re doing.”
What they’re doing doesn’t depend on playing to crowds, stresses White, who almost seems to be priming himself for the challenge of remaining a viable band while making records but staying away from the road.
“Well, the Beatles did it,” he says with a loud laugh. “I’m joking, but if we didn’t ever tour again it doesn’t matter to me. . . . There’s so many different aspects to being creative that it doesn’t matter if one component is changed. Because it’s been changing all the time since the band started. . . .
“And if something isn’t working for you and it’s detrimental to you, then you have to figure out a new way to attack it, a new way to look at it. I think that’s what Meg’s doing. . . . We’ll find our spots, we’ll find our moments. We already talked about other songs we’re working on.”
White’s glass is empty, the camera is back in its box. He’s sitting still but seems to be humming with energy, like a gyroscope that stays upright by perpetually spinning. The motion might be a little erratic, but it’s better than stopping and falling over.
“I’m not going to look back at the end of my life and see 50 years of sitting in front of a television set,” White says. “I don’t care if all the things I’m doing aren’t going anywhere, if they’re going totally in the ground, falling on deaf ears or whatever it is. It doesn’t matter. As long as I keep pushing myself really hard, then once in a while something will click and the things will align and something interesting will happen.
“I get myself involved in situations not to take it easy. . . . I get involved in situations to push myself harder. That goes across the board from my personal life to the creative world to whatever kind of tools I buy for my shop. . . . I’m going to buy a saw today, that’s why I got to go, because I’m meeting somebody. We’re going to buy a saw, and I have to get the right one that’s going to push me harder.”
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