White Blood Cells, the album that blasted the White Stripes out of Detroit's garage-rock underground, cost $4,000 to record. Quite a bargain, considering the results: Since it came out in the summer of 2001, the disc has gone gold on both sides of the Atlantic, and the band has won three MTV Video Music Awards, played a couple of gigs opening for the Rolling Stones and helped make radio sound fresh and daring for the first time in maybe a decade. Singer Jack White and drummer Meg White will release their fourth album in April; we spoke to Jack while he was finishing work on Cold Mountain, his feature-film debut.
Did your standard of living improve in 2002?
Not really. I still live in the same house I was born in. But I had my chair reup-holstered by someone else; I don't do it myself anymore.
Do you feel you're getting your message across?
I think so. Rock & roll is back, in whatever form. It's great to see a band like the Hives on TV — that wouldn't have happened five years ago. The joke in our mind was always "We'll take Detroit garage rock to the world." We went to the mall a few months ago and they had "garage rock"-cut jeans on sale.
But doesn't it seem like now people are getting excited about bands that are only mediocre?
Yeah, but that always happened. After Nirvana, you had Candlebox. The whole last year, this is all I thought about. Like, "Are we just a watered-down version of something that was once really good, and that's why we're on MTV and on the radio?"
How do you deal with that concern?
We never said, "We're gonna do this for fifteen years, playing for fifty people in every town." Even the littlest bands who are playing at the local bar, they want it to be a good show and they want everyone to come. For us, it's still the same burning desire to move up to the next step. The part I need to figure out is when to say no. I've said no more times in the last year than in my whole life: commercials and soundtracks and tours "sponsored by blah blah blah."
Read any good books this year?
I read Deep Blues, by Robert Palmer, which is about the Mississippi Delta and all that.
Are you a music-history buff?
try not to over-know things. But I do have a chip on my shoulder that a lot of contemporary people don't know anything about music: They know about the Eighties, but they don't know anything about Johnny Cash. It gets me really upset when people call themselves musicians and they don't know the history that they're joining.