“I’ve got enough time,” Jack says cheerfully of having two groups at once. I don’t have a day job anymore.” And Meg claims she is not worried about the effect on the White Stripes’ future. “Jack’s always done five things at once,” she says. “He was in two other bands when we started this one. This is not unusual.”
Get Behind Me Satan must be the most overdubbed album you’ve ever made. Did you worry about how you would perform those songs live? A duo can only make so much music without tapes and samples.
I’ve always centered the band around the number three. Everything was vocals, guitar and drums or vocals, piano and drums. So what’s the difference? I can only play one thing at a time. The minimalism is still there: vocals, marimba and drums or vocals, grand piano and drums. Or I play piano, Meg plays timpani and she sings. It’s all in threes.
The whole point of the White Stripes is the liberation of limiting yourself. In my opinion, too much opportunity kills creativity. I remember in high school, a friend of mine had a magazine with a story about some popular band of the time that was recording an album. The story said they had eighty guitars in the studio to choose from and that there were over 120 tracks of guitar on this one song. Good Lord! Listen to the Stooges’ Fun House. You know there can’t be more than one track of guitar on there [laughs]. Maybe two.
But when I first saw the White Stripes live, it took me a while to get used to the hole in your sound. I kept asking myself, “Where’s the bass? Where’s the bottom?”
I can see that. I was in high school when I first heard the Flat Duo Jets. They were a guitar/drums band, and I thought the same thing. Then, within months, they became my favorite band. Some kind of rawness hit me, and I saw there was no need for anything else.
A year ago, I listened to the first tape Meg and I made. It’s a recording of the first time we played together. It still sounds raw and cool. We did [David Bowie‘s] “Moon-age Daydream.” Then we wrote “Screwdriver,” our first song. There was a red screwdriver sitting on the table. We wrote the song that afternoon, and it hasn’t changed at all since that day.
When we play a song I wrote, it’s the White Stripes covering a Jack White song-that’s the best way to describe it. I write most of my songs on piano and acoustic guitar. Then I show it to Meg, and it’s like, “OK, how can we do this onstage?” That becomes the way we do it, from then on.
Are there times when Meg’s style of drumming is too limiting — that you can’t take a song as far as you’d like to go?
No. I never thought, “God, I wish Neil Peart was in this band.” It’s kind of funny: When people critique hip-hop, they’re scared to open up, for fear of being called racist. But they’re not scared to open up on female musicians, out of pure sexism.
Meg is the best part of this band. It never would have worked with anybody else, because it would have been too complicated. When she started to play drums with me, just on a lark, it felt liberating and refreshing. There was something in it that opened me up. It was my doorway to playing the blues, without anyone over my shoulder going, “Oh, white-boy blues, white-boy bar band.” I could really get down to something.
Do you think the brother-sister thing was a miscalculation — that you overdid the mythmaking?
I saw a review of our new album, and it said, “Every single component of the White Stripes is a gigantic lie.” What does that mean? Have I sat down and said I was born in Mississippi? No. Did I say I grew up on a plantation and learned how to play guitar from a blind man? I never said anything like that. It’s funny that people think me and Meg sit up late at night, in front of a gas lamp, and come up with these intricate lies to trick people.
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.