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Decade's Dirty Bluesman: Jack White on Stripes' Rise, Industry's Fall

Rock's busiest man talks Jay-Z, "Seven Nation Army," prospects of a solo record

January 6, 2010 12:25 PM ET

The Rolling Stone editors picked eight stars — from Bruce and Beyoncé to Radiohead and U2 — who not only made the best music but also led the way as Artists of the Decade in our decade-end issue. Here's more of our conversation with Jack White.

Jack White: the many guises of rock's multitasker.

At the beginning of this decade, you had just released the second White Stripes album — what were your goals and expectations for yourself as an artist at that point?
A hundred years had passed since people could sort of determine the beginning of the blues, and there was an illusion in my head that a new blues was emerging in the scene that we were from — that bands like the White Stripes and the Soledad Brothers and people like that that were bringing a new take on the blues. That was enough to compel me to keep going and going and going, but I had no illusions at all about the mainstream ever thinking it was interesting.

By the time you wrote "Little Room" the next year, it felt like there were some clues that you were starting to think the room might get bigger?
Yeah. People were starting to become disinterested in us in that underground garage-rock cool world. There's a photograph of Meg and I and people attacking us but then they turn out to have cameras... the idea of the name of the album was White Blood Cells with an "S" instead of a "C." I was trying to make the point to myself that there's an idea about authenticity and pureness in art that everyone has a different take on. And it takes a lot of time for people to really realize how much truth there is in that. That was what "Little Room" was about. It was about those ideas but it ended up having a whole new meaning before the year was out.

How tricky was walking the line between the mainstream and indie worlds?
I never cared about the whole, "I hate to be famous. I'm going to go brood somewhere because people bought my record." I've never subscribed to that. I've subscribed to the idea that fame just for the sake of fame is pretty disgusting and worthless so it became about being famous for the right reasons. And that was what the hardest part for a couple years there — determining if what we were doing was good or if it wasn't. People coming up to you like, "Yeah, the Backstreet Boys sell a lot of records, too. What does that mean?" So we were confused on that level. We didn't really know what we were doing, if it was going to stand the test of time or if people would look at the band as nothing but novelty.

Was there kind of a breakthrough moment when you said, "I'm completely not going to worry about the scene I came from"?
I never stopped thinking what I wanted to do for their sake. I always considered it and thought about it and at times felt guilty about it, but it wasn't until maybe about Get Behind Me Satan when I finally said, "I can't stand even thinking about anyone else's reaction to how this goes down. It doesn't matter to me anymore. I can't win either way." So I finally released myself from any of that... I don't know how to word it exactly. Some of the grunge bands used to say it was punk-rock guilt.

Do you remember anything about writing the riff to "Seven Nation Army?"
There's an employee here at Third Man named Ben Swank, and he was with us on tour in Australia when I wrote that song at soundcheck. I was playing it for Meg and he was walking by and I said, "Swank, check this riff out." And he said, "It's OK." [Laughs] The even funnier thing about that song is that the labels in America and in the U.K., neither of them wanted to put that out as the first single. It just shows you that you really never know.

Did that riff come out all in one piece as you were playing at soundcheck?
It did, yeah. I didn't have lyrics for it until later on and I was just calling it "Seven Nation Army" — that's what I called the Salvation Army when I was a kid. So that was just a way for me to remember which one I was talking about, but it took on a new meaning with the lyrics.

In 2005, you broke out with the Raconteurs and ever since it feels like your path has changed and expanded. How much of that was planned?
I have to say that, honest to God, it was 100 percent spontaneous. Neither of those bands [the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather] were planned and both of them came at times when they were completely in the way of other things I was doing. So it was antithetical to what I was already trying to accomplish to stop the train and start a whole new project and get involved with it. But I can't do that. I feel like I have no right to tell what's being created to halt.

There was a time this past decade when the idea of ""garage rock"" included bands that sounded nothing like the White Stripes. Do you feel like you have peers out there now that aren't necessarily doing the same kind of music, but work on the same level?
It's difficult to say. I feel like I'm a lot more to do with Jay-Z than I do with the Black Keys. And I don't know what that is, it's just a feeling. Like for example, when all the garage rock bands blew up at the beginning of the decade, the Hives and the Strokes... we visually had a lot in common with the Hives and the same sort of sense of humor, I thought. But for some reason, we did shows with the Strokes, and in a lot of ways we had absolutely nothing in common with them. We got along like gangbusters with the Strokes, though.

Do you like Jay-Z? People may think you don't like hip-hop.
I love hip-hop if it's done with a sense of the blues, even if the person who is creating it isn't thinking that at all. I think Jay-Z is just incredible. The Black Album is one of the best albums of the decade.

When you say you're working on the same world or the same level as Jay-Z, what does that mean exactly?
I think that what he's saying in his lyrics is honest. His ideas about metaphor are really reflective about what struggle is. He has a lot more room to work than I do. He can get away with a lot more than I can. And I'm envious of that because he can stretch into metaphors that I would love to do. You can get away with a lot of interesting stuff in hip-hop and he's really good at it.

What are some of the lessons you've learned this decade?
I thought for a while that maybe there was a level of craftsmanship that I wanted to explore with the Raconteurs. It hit me, working with Brendan [Benson], that you can maintain a sense of the blues and still work on the craftsmanship of songwriting and what pop music really entails. I was raised and brought up into my early 20s to think that most pop music was disgusting and had no artistic merit, but there's still a part of my heart that loves novelty songs and the idea of accidentally coming upon something that everyone wants to hear every day at that particular moment — in their cars, at work. Someone said something about that Crazy Frog song that came out a few years ago and how that was the death of all music, that it went Number One in England and that we should all be ashamed of ourselves. But I don't think that's true. I think that's almost become folk music, if you think about it. People are liking it instinctually. That means that's who we are at that particular time.

So what do you draw from that, then?
That there's times when you can't sit down and accomplish that. It just has to happen instinctually. And there's times when you could take a song, like "My Doorbell," and you could record it in a way that a pop singer would record it and probably have a hit with it or record it like I did and it has a different kind of life.

You're in constant decision, even as the song is already released and coming out. How are you going to perform it live? Look what Dylan does with his songs 30 years on. He's not resting on his laurels and becoming a nostalgia act. He's injecting new life into it every time he goes out. There's something to be said for constantly looking at it from a different angle. It's never finished. You're only getting a taste of it.

Does it frustrate you that a lot of rock doesn't necessarily reach out like rock music used to?
It's a difficult question. I mean, the garage bands, when they blew up, they never really massively blew up like the grunge rock bands had done a decade before. The Strokes weren't selling 5 million records. People still know that rock & roll can, at its best, still really penetrate and get into people's hearts. But the media was in control of the past decade. MTV and whoever owns all the radio stations now, Clear Channel, LiveNation, I don't know — someone else is in charge. It doesn't matter how good it is, it won't be exposed in the way that other music being perpetuated onto people. It's tough to compete.

You've had a successful decade, and yet we've also watched the record industry decline in the past 10 years. How, if at all, has that affected the way you go about your work?
It's compelled me to open up my own record label this year. I thought, If I'm going to have to do this to stay afloat like everybody else, I want it to come from a creative place. And if I'm going to teach you about the tangible nature of music and how digital is disposable and invisible, I want to have a place that we put out vinyl records and you can buy them right from us and take them on tour with us and sell them everywhere we go and sell them to the mom and pop record stores. So, I really wanted to put my money where my mouth was with all of that. And it's just been so inspiring. We're on our 25th record since March. And that's 25 records didn't exist before this building was created. That's a whole new world for me that I'm going to explore for the rest of my life, especially as a producer.

But getting back to the state of music, it's very depressing. It's the worst time to be a musician or an artist in the industry in the history or music. Look at any chart. It's really sad. Sometimes I worry I'm going to be telling my grandkids, "I caught the last wave of people buying records. And actually playing them."

You're finishing this decade as a drummer. What does that say about your journey over the past 10 years?
It feels good because I know the music is in first position within my decision-making. That isn't really the best business move, but it's what I need to do in order to stand by the music and get involved in creativity in the ditch.

What will the next decade look like for you?
I want to see what can happen out of this record label, and working from singles, producing singles. If people are even thinking that the idea of an album is dying, that people can come to Nashville, I'll produce a song with them and have it on vinyl within two or three weeks — and on MP3 as well.

Are you planning to spend more time producing than writing and performing?
I couldn't say. It would be a mistake for me to premeditate anything, even in the next six months, to say what I'm going to do. I honestly could be working on a White Stripes in the next two weeks. I have no idea if that is going to happen. And the same with Dead Weather. I'd rather live like this without a calendar in front of me.

Are you still looking at a solo album or albums?
Eventually, yeah, for sure. I mean, for example, in the beginning of 2009, my manager says, "What are you going to do this year?" as if there was nothing on my plate at all. And I said, "Don't worry. It's going to be OK."

What would actually constitute a Jack White solo album? How would that be different than the other stuff you've done? Would you have to play all the instruments?
Maybe so. I've never done that. I thought about that. That might be the challenge — to differentiate from anything else that I've done. I've been so involved in the other projects, and I've produced them. I'd rather call it directing, you know. It seems like I've directed those albums rather than produced them. That would be the thing for me to do... think about a solo record. I wouldn't know until I get there.

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