After making 2018’s wild Boarding House Reach, Jack White decided it was time to take a little pressure off himself. So he re-formed the Raconteurs — the band he put together in 2006, just before the dissolution of the White Stripes, with fellow Detroit musicians including co-frontman Brendan Benson. Their first two albums have become fan favorites; their third, Help Us Stranger, is a welcome return to their garage-y looseness and the blend of White’s aggressive vocals with Benson’s “sweet-sounding voice,” as White, calling from Nashville, puts it. “He’s an actual singer,” White adds. “I’m not.”
This time, White branched out by taking on some of the more sentimental songs while letting Benson sing some of the rockers. “What’s cool is it’s not competitive,” White says. “It’s more like trying to inspire one another to leave their comfort zone, over and over again.” White’s experiment worked — the album debuted at Number One on the Rolling Stone Top 200 Albums chart last week.
What’s changed the most in your life since the last Raconteurs album, in 2008?
It’s funny. I was married with kids, and now I’m not married and everyone else in the band is. We’re 10 years older, and we’ve been doing music for 25 years. I remember when I had my upholstery shop and I would play once in a while with a band and I loved music and I and I would’ve done anything to only play music, but I thought, “There’s no way. Forget about it.” It’s astonishing to think that you can go one day — let alone another decade — being an artist and getting away with it. It’s almost like you’re pulling a fast one.
What’s your day-to-day life like in Nashville?
Well, now that touring has started, you have to maximize your time home. So mostly I spend it with my children. I’m [always] trying to find different projects that we can do together that I think are interesting. I have an upholstery project that I’ve been setting up that’s waiting for me when I come home every trip. And I always have Third Man projects, you know. We have a pressing plant now in Detroit. We’ve been doing all the work on the vinyl records that are coming out for the Raconteurs this year – the seven-inch, the vault subscription records and limited editions for mom-and-pop retail stores. Really, there is so much creativity going on at any given moment. I could walk into the art department at Third Men, any day of the week, and spend 18 hours there, if I really just let myself. We we have settled into a really nice place that has a lot of pistons firing. It feels really good.
You just received an honorary doctorate from Wayne State University, which you attended before the White Stripes. What was it like?
If I could have picked a place for that to have happened, for any university in the world to give me an honor, I would have picked Wayne State. It was an honor. That they even noticed I exist to begin with was quite a compliment. And to be given that honor in a building where I used to bus tables, it gives you a lot of perspective.
I could only afford to go there for one semester. I took film classes and ate lunch at the student union. The White Stripes got to play that same room a couple of years later. I remember the A/V club put six microphones all in a row, all pointing toward our equipment — someone who had never done it before. It pops in my head all the time. It’s just so fucking funny. It’s so bizarre to assume, “Yeah, that’s a great way to mic all the stuff. You just put the mics all in a row and point them toward the equipment.” It’s just so funny. I should record like that one day and see what happens.
When you listen to the White Stripes for Third Man vault releases, do you feel nostalgic?
It’s a catharsis every time. I have been very lucky. If I had been in a scenario where someone made me play keyboards and I didn’t want to, or dress a certain way, I’d look back and say “I’m not really proud of that.” I didn’t grow up in that time period. Almost anything that we recorded, it was something that we wanted to happen. There are times where we would be a listen to live recordings and say, “Oh my God, we played that song way too fast because we were just on fire in the middle of a set and pushing it as hard as we could.” Sometimes, I hear that on Jimi Hendrix recordings too, where his live stuff is so fast and out of tune, and it’s great because it just doesn’t matter. It’s about the attitude.
What advice do you give younger musicians who come to Third Man?
I just know that if I were to hear artists complain, it doesn’t impress me. Being an artist means you have to work harder than everybody else. It’s a responsibility, 24 hours a day. I think about it all day long. If you don’t already have that inside you, like it’s uncontrollable, I don’t know what to tell you.
What new music gives you hope?
All the rock & roll albums coming out this year. The Hives, the Black Keys . . . It’s also great that people still appreciate a band that writes songs like Vampire Weekend and Twenty One Pilots. It’s just really great songwriting.
It’s interesting you mentioned Twenty One Pilots.
I love what they’re doing. First time I saw them was on Saturday Night Live. And I thought “Oh, that’s really great. Another really cool two piece band that can do something really powerful.” I liked what they were doing, playing piano and bass, that guy, the lead singer. And it was strong. And then you’ve got Royal Blood, another really good two-piece band that’s just bad ass.
How long did it take to make the new Raconteurs album?
No one said, “Hey, we’re making a new album, we’re going on tour.” We just thought, “Let’s just get together and we’ll work out a song, maybe a couple, and see what happens.” And everyone was just so energetic, it was really inspiring. I mean, we had like 30 songs we were working on intensely and we ended up having to say, “Look, we got to settle on a dozen songs here. Because we’ll just keep writing, it’s going so well.” I don’t know how long it all took to get. I can’t really say. Probably weeks, at the end of the day. I can’t really remember.
One of your best lines is in “Don’t Bother Me”: “You fake punk jacket-liar.”
That’s a funny one. It’s almost like turning a noun into a verb or something like that.
What is that song [with lyrics like ‘The way you look in the mirror / You’re your biggest admirer”] about?
It was just all aggression. It was trying to take out aggression and find a character that can weed that out for you. Some people are very blatant and want to write completely about themselves. I like to work with characters, and you take something from your life at times and then see how it makes any sense.
I remember I wrote a really aggressive song with the White Stripes, what the hell is the name of it. [Pause] “There’s No Home for You Here.” And I was really aggressive, and it was about a boy I knew at the time in the Detroit scene, and I changed the pronouns to female just to shake it all up.
When you do that kind of thing, you almost want to make sure that the rest of your life, you’re not constantly thinking about something that happened to yourself. And when you put it through another character’s eyes, it’s almost like you’re doing a cover song.
How about Greta Van Fleet? They’re often criticized for copying older blues and rock acts, just like you once were.
They’re three Polish brothers from Frankenmuth, Michigan — I thought that was a joke! But it’s exciting to see young people play rock & roll, no doubt about it. That guy has a very cool voice. The more he makes it his own, the better. People used to say, when I first came out, “He sounds like Robert Plant.” If you keep pushing forward, that shit goes away.
You mentioned the Black Keys earlier. Your label’s Twitter recently congratulated them on a new single, which was surprising given your history of tension. How did you get there?
I respect all rock & rollers. I think [the beef] was some lawyers trying to screw me over and trying to take something out of context. Patrick Carney stopped by while we were recording this Raconteurs album and let me borrow a microphone. That was cool of him.
What’s it like to have a friendship with him? What do you two talk about?
He comes from a zone that me and the Greenhornes and a lot of garage rockers come from. We like similar records. We’d probably sit there and talk about Captain Beefheart for a while. He’s a good guy. The musicians [I] hang out with, I usually see at festivals. I really miss going to shows four or five nights a week. I used to do that constantly, and I still would if it wasn’t for people patting me on the shoulder every five seconds. I don’t do it as often anymore, but I do love conversations. That’s why I put so much importance on a physical record stores, the mom-and-pop, brick-and-mortar record stores. That’s where all those conversations need to go down. That’s where all those friendships are made and that’s where all the bonding takes place. How many bands have been formed in a record store? You have a mutual respect for the same kind of music, you end up jamming together. What a shame that would be if those stores didn’t exist someday.
The biggest song in the U.S. is Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” What do you think of it?
It’s beautiful. The song is only a minute and 47 seconds long or something — that’s how long “Fell in Love With a Girl” was. People said, “They’re not going to play that on radio.” But it worked, and it’s great that it’s happening again.
The Raconteurs are supposed to play Woodstock 50. Are you still planning on that?
I don’t really understand it myself. Someone told me they didn’t have the right size permit or something. I didn’t really understand it. All I know is whenever I hear about things like that, all I can think is, “I’m so glad I’m not a producer for a festival because it sounds like a nightmare.” Every time you pull into one, you’re like, “Wow, I don’t want any part in organizing this thing, man. Jeez oh mighty.” Just the bathrooms alone could just be complicated enough.
You know Bob Dylan, who’s about to open a new distillery and venue in Nashville. Has he ever said anything to you that’s stuck with you?
All the time. He’s been an incredible mentor to me, and a good friend, too. I’m lucky to even have one conversation with him. Everything else has been icing on the cake.
Is there a side to him people don’t see?
He’s very complicated. A lot of people who go through fame, even a small taste of it, are going through experiences that probably no human being should ever go through. I’ve walked into a room and felt like I’m intimidating people. You don’t know what you’re supposed to do. I think people like Dylan end up trying to avoid that stuff.
Have you two written a song together?
I cannot tell you that. I wish I could tell you, but I cannot.