When Jack White, 27, was a teenager, he wrote a poem called “Image Can Kill Love.” “It was anti things that had no meaning behind them,” the White Stripes singer-guitarist says, “things that were done simply because they looked or sounded cool.” His goal on the Stripes’ stunning new album, Elephant, is to keep things simple, honest and direct – from the record’s stark packaging to its stripped-down sound. “I like looking at things from a child’s point of view,” he says, “trying to get as honest as possible. Children who are really young don’t lie. When they get older, they start being untruthful, start dressing how everyone else dresses, start worrying about what everyone else thinks. I like those periods of life before it gets to the point where other people are corrupting your viewpoint.”
When did you start playing music?
As a little kid. I was in a Montessori school. There was a drum circle with all the kids passing around a little bongo drum. I was the last person in the circle, and when it got to me I played “Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits” – in front of all the parents. Blew the crowd away at five years old [laughs].
And when did you discover the blues?
I didn’t get into it deep until around eighteen. I dabbled in things like Howlin’ Wolf, Cream and Led Zeppelin, but when I heard Son House and Robert Johnson, it blew my mind. It was something I’d been missing my whole life. That music made me discard everything else and just get down to the soul and honesty of the blues.
Were you ostracized at school because of your taste in music?
It would have been easy for me to give up and listen to house music and techno. At least then I would have had friends. But it just seemed odd to me for white kids to pretend to have a black accent, to pretend to be from the ghetto when they are from the suburbs.
Growing up, did you listen to Motown?
No. I know that’s blasphemous when you are from Detroit, but I was never a fan of Motown stuff. I don’t care for the production much.
And you’re not a hip-hop fan.
Not particularly. I find Outkast and Wu-Tang Clan interesting. But I consider music to be storytelling, melody and rhythm. A lot of hip-hop has broken music down. There are no instruments and no songwriting. So you’re left with just storytelling and rhythm. And the storytelling can be so braggadocious, you’re just left with rhythm. I don’t find much emotion in that.
Have you always felt outside of what’s going on in popular music?
I’ve always paid attention to what’s going on. and a lot of the time I am disappointed by it. But I don’t mind. I like to watch MTV and be disgusted and say, “I would never do something like that.” It eliminates so many things from your mind about what you don’t want to do. But I think the attitude that the twelve-year-olds buy the records so we need to come up with stuff they are going to buy – that’s really destructive. It keeps a lot of good music from getting noticed.
So what do you dig right now?
There are some great rock & roll bands that are starting to get attention here and in England: the Kills, the Detroit Cobras and the Dirt Bombs. I think the Soledad Brothers – a blues combo from Toledo – are really interesting.
Do you remember the first White Stripes gig?
It was at this place called the Gold Dollar [in Detroit]. They had an open-mike night, and there was only, like, ten or fifteen people there. We played three songs, one of which was “Love Potion Number Nine.” We were shocked that people dug what we were doing.
What’s the best live show you’ve ever seen?
I saw Dylan play in St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit two or three years ago. There was only 1,000 people in that place. And we warmed up the Rolling Stones recently – I can’t believe that we’ve tricked people into letting this two-piece band get to this point! I’d never seen them before. I was impressed.
What impressed you?
That they were still playing well! Watching them sound-check, they were all discussing how to play “Satisfaction.” I was like, “They must have played this a million times, why are they even talking about it?” But they still care.
Who do you think you’d like to hang with?
I think me and Johnny Cash would get along.
Because I don’t think we have anything in common.
This story is from the May 1st, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.