It's been a busy week at the Nashville offices of Jack White's label, Third Man Records. White has taken meetings with potential new artists and promoters pitching a local music festival, and he personally edited a Web video about a new mural in the Third Man offices. But his first order of business is his label's new Document series: Third Man teamed up with archival imprint Document Records to reissue the complete remastered works of three Depression-era musical pioneers: Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell and the Mississippi Sheiks. White spoke at length about the reissues and answered questions about recent recordings with the Dead Weather, more than 20 new solo tracks he recently recorded and why he walked offstage after less than an hour at a recent Radio City Music Hall show. "I shut up when the crowd tells me to shut up," he says. "The crowd's in complete control of me. I was just doing what they told me to do."
Thank you for doing this, Jack. We really appreciate it.
Sure. I like to help out up-and-coming magazines like Rolling Stone.
I loved listening to the reissues. It's fascinating what these guys did with such primitive equipment during tough times. Why did you want to team up with Document and reissue these records?
The first blues records that I bought myself were Document reissues. I was 17 or something. A record collector had died in Detroit, and they had brought their whole collection to this record store called Desirable Discs in Dearborn, Michigan. They had brought them all in, and each one had a number in the corner. There were a lot of interesting records in there – I was buying Roosevelt Sykes and Tommy Johnson and a lot of people I had never heard before. I was able to get maybe 20, 30 records. And when Third Man Records opened, the first thought I had was it would be so nice to put those records out on vinyl again, because they haven't been available in 20 or 30 years now.
I don't remember when the last ones had been done, because Document and Yazoo and all the archival labels stopped pressing vinyl records, so we could definitely do the vinyl part. That format is missing from this whole world. So we talked to Document and, luckily, Gary Atkinson was up for it. So we thought, "I want to present this in a whole new way. Let's make this something that always stays in print." And it has brand-new artwork by Rob Jones, so it's very enticing, because all those blues records just had the most boring, librarian-type artwork, which made it even more disinteresting to people who were just passers-by in that realm.
How did these records hit you compared to the people who reinterpreted the blues later on in the Sixties and Seventies?
Well, you started to see where it was all coming from. It didn't occur to me until even a couple years ago that this is the first moment in history where a single person with a guitar spoke about himself to the entire world. This is a gigantic leap forward in music, and that moment means a lot. I think they didn't even notice they were doing it, those record labels. They were just trying to sell records and record players to people down South, and they didn't realize this moment in history – what a leap forward they were making. That's pretty amazing. The first time something happens, it's usually the best, you know? The very first moment a new invention is created, usually the first stab at it ends up being the best. So this is sort of the first time we're hearing modern music is at this moment, if you trace it back.
Do you feel kind of a responsibility of teaching and preserving these traditions through Third Man? I know you record kids from local schools. You seem to have that educational element now.
Yeah. When you have the set-up to do anything you want in that musical world, without need for it to make a profit, ideas come all the time to me and to everyone who works there. It doesn't mean anything to me for us to get an old 1960s Scopitone machine and take all our modern videos and have them transferred to 16mm film, and we can't find the film stock, so we have to put an optical laser reader in to read the optical sound component to the film, and all of this for something that will make us absolutely no money. I just want that to exist, you know?
When you walk into the store and you can see something combining something beautiful that's timeless, like film, and something brand new, which is brand-new created videos for modern singles that our label puts out, and combine the two and see the mechanics of it and make something beautiful out of it . . . Or the rolling record store truck, taking the record store on wheels. Or [having] school bands come and record their own record and it get pressed in their school colors here, and they get to actually hold a song that they recorded in their hands on a record. Those are all things that don't really turn a profit in a lot of ways. They break even if we're lucky, but the point is that we just want this stuff to exist so it fuels everybody's creativity.
What's a typical day at the office like for you?
In the last week we took meetings with lots of different people – musicians and producers and different artists, just to go over different ideas. Someone wants to put on a festival in Nashville of different bands. We're asking if we can release their old third-party-manufactured records that are out of print that nobody has seen in decades – just like what we're doing with Document, but with different bands. We just signed Pokey LaFarge to Third Man. He signed his contract on a broken Jimmie Rodgers 78 in my office, you know? There's a lot of activity going on here.
But the thing we're most proud of right now is the new lathe-cutting studio that we have behind our live venue stage. The crowd can look through a glass window and see the live show being cut directly to acetate, and we have cameras on the needles, and there's a TV screen in the venue so you can actually see the needles cutting right into the vinyl while you're watching the live show. We did this with the Shins, the Kills and Seasick Steve so far. We are the only venue in the world that you can record direct to acetate in front of a crowd. That's a mind-blowing process. It's very difficult, tricky and dangerous, but it's so beautiful, when it all works out the way it's planned.
This was originally a storage space for you, right?
Yeah. It started as just a place to store my gear. But when I first bought it – because I had had, like, 15 different storage units around, like, different bands I'm in and different projects. So I wanted to get them all in one building so I knew where everything was. When you're trying to record and someone says, "Oh, let's put a Clavinet on this song," you say, "It's over in the storage unit, and it's too much trouble to go get it. Let's just use something else." You know, I wanted to have all those instruments available to me. I could just pull them off a shelf and use them.
When did you decide to turn this into an office and hire a staff?
It was all baby steps. Within six months, the place had just turned into a giant conglomerate of so many different ideas. It first started with me calling Ben Swank, who was in London, and Ben Blackwell, from Detroit, to see if they would come. I asked them if they would come here and re-release all the old White Stripes seven-inches, because they had just come into my possession. They were out of print for, like, a decade. So I said, "Why don't we re-release all those records, and we'll have a little record shop up front and maybe you guys, once in a while, someone will ring the door, you can go up and sell the record to them?" Five people a week would maybe come. But quickly they can't get any work done, because people just keep coming to this record shop all day long. So the third person we hired was someone to work in the shop up front. Then I built the photo studio in the back and then a darkroom inside it and then a live venue, stage. It just all kept going and going, and now it's three buildings wide and turned into a massive operation, which is very inspiring to everybody.
Where do you want Third Man to be in 10 years?
Well, this year is a definitive year for us. To partner with people like Document and become a place where we can release archival music that it hasn't existed in decades – that's a big, important thing for us. That almost feels like Library of Congress-type material, in a way. In a librarian aspect, to be able to bring that stuff to life again, and not just talk about it or hear about it in only one format, digital. It's nice to be able to make that live and breathe again, you know. So that's important to us, and there's a lot of projects that I can't tell you about that are coming out this year. Really big ones for us that are super exciting that we're involved with now that will be coming out in the coming months.
You're sure you can't tell us?
[Laughs] I'll tell you when we can, but I don't want to jinx it.
I discovered Blind Willie McTell when the White Stripes covered "Your Southern Can Is Mine" on De Stijl. I have always noticed similarities between your singing styles – the way you hold notes, your phrasing.
I love Blind Willie McTell. He was a huge influence on me. His style was not suave and cool, like Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson is very mysterious and would have no trouble with women – an up-all-night, jukejoint kind of person, you know? Blind Willie McTell comes off to me as more nerdish, by himself, very interested in the intricacies of how things work and the knowledge of things around him. He can navigate himself around New York City by himself, no problem. When you hear him speak to Alan Lomax, you really can see the depth of his intelligence, and he knows exactly what he's doing. He gets asked about racial questions and he's very careful in how he words it, but he gets his point across really well – in a defiant way, in my opinion, which is beautiful. Blind Willie McTell is a very layered person, you know.
The Mississippi Sheiks were very versatile. Their melodies are incredible, and it was all done during the Depression, when people probably couldn't really even think about recording music.
The Mississippi Sheiks – is that the first rock & roll band? The first punk band? One of the first bands as we know it? When you rewind the tape, when you go back to that era, it gets blurry, but that's a band. It doesn't matter if they're plugged into an amp. They're singing about the same kinds of things. They're very irreverent. Blues musicians are telling the same stories that, you know, Lil Jon and Jay-Z are telling today. They're just telling it in a different style.
Have you met rappers who listen to blues?
I think it's subconscious, because the times I've talked to rappers, I don't know how much they know about that era. It's not just them, either. A lot of modern rock & roll musicians don't know a lot about that era, either. I talked to Pee Wee Herman one time and he said, "I wasn't that big of a fan of Charlie Chaplin." I assumed he would be. But I do think that Lil Wayne is telling very much a similar story as someone like Tommy Johnson, you know? "I asked her for water, she gave me gasoline" – that's not much different than talking about purple drank, you know?
What do you think of acoustic bands like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, who play acoustic music and are making a huge mark on the charts today?
I think it's brilliant that that music is catching people's attention. It's beautiful. That's a surprise, because even at the moment – when the White Stripes came out and we were performing that type of music and we were getting to do it on television across the world, which we kind of felt was an amazing opportunity – even when the White Stripes did the Grammys, we were going to play "Seven Nation Army," but I said, "I really want to play 'Death Letter' by Son House, as long as I have the opportunity." And we did. That was a triumph for me – a Son House song was once again played for the American people. And I think these acts nowadays are keeping people's ears open to the idea of the soulfulness of folk-style music and acoustic music, and you get a little bit closer to the musician, to the writer, at times. It doesn't have to be about them. I don't think it's about authenticity at all. It's just about the idea that style can sometimes bring you in and bring you closer, like someone sitting at a piano can.
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