But because you present that relationship as fact, it obscures your real connection as a couple — the truth and value of what you play together.
I want you to imagine if we had presented ourselves in another fashion, that people might have thought was the truth. How would we have been perceived, right off the bat? When you see a band that is two pieces, husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, you think. "Oh, I see . . ." When they're brother and sister, you go, "Oh, that's interesting." You care more about the music, not the relationship — whether they're trying to save their relationship by being in a band.
You don't think about that with a brother and sister. They're mated for life. That's what family is like.
So when did you come up with the idea?
I'm not saying I came up with anything [laughs]. It's like people thinking we would be more real if we went onstage in jeans and T-shirts. How ignorant is that, to think that because they don't wear a suit onstage that someone is giving you the real deal? People do come and see us and think, "Look at all these gimmicks." Go ahead, man. Go ahead and think that.
How do you write songs? Do you sit down and pound something out every day?
Until a couple of months before Satan, I hadn't written anything in a year and a half. We'd been touring, and I don't write on tour.
Usually, I'll just be walking around the house. I'll go by the piano, sit down, and the first thing that comes out turns into something. It's always the first line. I had a conversation with someone, and I said to myself, "I blew it," after I got off the phone. Then I started goofing around: "I blew it/And if I knew what to do, then I'd do it" [from "Forever for Her (Is Over for Me)"]. You get three lines, and you know: "I better go write this down." Sometimes you find yourself going downstairs and writing a song, even though you want to go to bed. It's out of your control.
How much do you write about yourself? Seven Nation Army, on Elephant. sounds like it is full of autobiography: the experience of feeling surrounded, defensive, even paranoid, after the sudden success of White Blood Cells.
That song started out about two specific people I knew in Detroit. It was about gossip, the spreading of lies and the other person's reaction to it. It came from a frustration of watching my friends do this to each other. In the end, it started to become a metaphor for things I was going through.
But I never set out to write an exposé on myself. To me, the song was a blues at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The third verse ["I'm going to Wichita/Far from this opera forevermore"] could be something from a hundred years ago. It won a Grammy for Best Rock Song. [Laughs] Maybe it should have won for Best Paranoid Blues Song.
You wrote about the actress Rita Hayworth in two Satan songs; "White Moon" and "Take, Take, Take." But it's hard not to hear your own mixed feelings about celebrity, especially in the latter.
Rita Hayworth became an all-encompassing metaphor for everything I was thinking about while making the album. There was an autograph of hers — she had kissed a piece of paper, left a lip print on it, and underneath it said, "My heart is in my mouth." I loved that statement and wondered why she wrote that.
There was also the fact that she was Latino and had changed her name. She had become something different, morphed herself and was trying to put something behind her. And there was the shallowness of celebrity when it's thrown upon you. All of that was going around in these songs: what had been thrown on me, things I'd never asked for. Every song on that album is about truth.
What inspired the cover photos on White Blood Cells — the two of you hounded by black figures with cameras? Could you feel the big time just around the corner?
It was the way we were looked at in the garage-rock scene at the time: "Look at what's happened to them." The people in black were the bacteria. We were the white blood cells. "Is this attention good or bad? Who do you trust now?" But then it became more than a neighborhood-scene problem. It became a global problem.
What was the best thing about success when it first hit the White Stripes?
It was mind-blowing to think that people were even interested in this music. Every moment was shocking. We weren't high-fiving each other. It was more like, "What does this mean now that the weight is on our shoulders?"
By the time the big labels were offering us deals, we said, "If you think we're giving up our freedom now, you're crazy. We want this and this, and if you can't give it to us, we don't care. We'll make our own records."
What did you ask for?
I told'em I didn't want money. I didn't want big advances. I wanted complete artistic freedom. Nobody is going to tell me what songs are going to be on an album and what should or shouldn't be on the cover. Also. I never wanted to owe anybody any money. And we don't. Our albums are made so cheaply that we recoup the day they come out.
What was the worst part of the media attention? Was there an absolute-bottom moment in the years between White Blood Cells and Satan?
I remember being in a minefield, always trying to avoid something, never feeling comfortable — even knowing about the people who had come before me and been through the same things. A lot of it is evil, and it doesn't matter how much you know and how much you've experienced. You have to keep pushing until you find your niche, your little spot.
You never see me and Meg on a reality-TV show. We don't go on MTV's Cribs. We don't walk down red carpets with our dates, exploiting relationships. We don't look for any of it. We avoid it.
Meg is particularly good at that. How has she managed to stay out of the spotlight that is on you all the time?
Meg always says, "The more you talk, the less people listen." She's right. She doesn't open her mouth very much. Meg also reminds me of Rita Hayworth. Rita Hayworth never looked at any of the photos taken of her. She didn't care what she looked like or what people thought. That's really something-to be that strong. Meg's the same way. She doesn't care about the photos or any of that stuff.
What does she care about?
She's a very simple person. She loves music. Her record collection is twice as big as mine.
Can you imagine being in a band without her?
Not this band. All the beauty would be gone. There is something about the way I attack things and the way she attacks things. She has an innocent personality, but she's behind the big drum set, pounding away like a caveman. And at times, when I'm supposed to be the caveman, I'm singing something quiet and delicate. When you put those dynamics together, something interesting happens. I've played with other guys — and it doesn't work.
What kinds of music were around the house when you were growing up?
My dad was into the big bands: Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa. He never got into rock & roll. My older brothers were, but they weren't into Detroit music. I found the first Stooges album in a dumpster behind our house, in the garbage of my next-door neighbor Brian Muldoon. I ended up working at his upholstery shop.
What did your parents do?
They worked for the Catholic Church, in the same building in downtown Detroit. My dad was a maintenance man, and my mom was the cardinal's secretary.
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