Having never before spoken to the English press The White Stripes gave their first UK interview to Rowan Chernin.
How does a furniture repairer from Detroit get to appear in the same sentence as Jimi Hendrix? Twenty-five year old Jack White used write poems and stuff them under the cushions of the chairs he repaired at his 3rd Man Upholstery store. He wanted to specialize in vintage furniture but found the business of what pays the gasoline and bills rather than what gives your spirit some change came first. So while kept his mind off the dollars, a secondhand guitar he brought into repair soon became an obsession. With the 'Death Letter' lyrics of blues man Sun House taking priority over the polish the next seven years of his life put back on vinyl what the industry of music more often than not fails to see.
Now his band The White Stripes, a family duo with 26 year old sister Meg on the drums and Jack on guitar, has left the record companies on both sides of the Atlantic wrestling one another in a bid to sign them and the music press are printing kittens. So where does it go from here? According to Jack White in a recent interview he used the words of the late Motor City blues man John Lee Hooker to describe the blues influence of their sound. "Rock'n'roll, jazz, R'n'B
everything is based on the blues. It's a twentieth century music
it's just the truth." Is that what we're waiting to hear?
Nothing good on the telly? London, Thursday 26 July.
Summer 2001 and the legendary 100 Club on London's Oxford Street is even hotter inside than the unbearable heat wave outside. You walk in, soak through and breathe wet human heat. It is 99% unbearable but the one point which is keeping you front stage is smoking a contemplative cigarette at the quiet end of bar. Either Jack works out or compared to the press and music industry awaiting him, he's clearly got youth on his side. Meanwhile Meg is absorbed into adjusting the drum kit while the support band the Masonics unplug and leave the stage.
Two days ago this little known band The White Stripes played live and shocked the listeners of the John Peel Show. No adverts, email campaign, fly-posters or repetitive radio plugs. Word of mouth spread news of their performance nd outside tonight there's enough "blagging" people to fill another ten shows.
The Stripes have no UK press department courting their affairs. There's been all but one album and a single review this year and their UK booking agent, who put together a modest ten date tour of tiny venues, is getting earache from pleaseletmeinfanzine.com to the Daily Mirror. Is there really that much disinterest in who's playing guitar or fondling a pogo-stick on tonight's Big Brother?
Dressed in red and wiping the sweat from her brow, Meg has eased her way behind the drums. Five minutes later Jack in his just a bit too tight to be worn by fat old rockers in the crowd red trousers and white T-shirt steps up and lifts a red and white guitar. People haven't stopped chatting but it's the first chord, that a legendary rogue clap of thunder which brakes the crockery at that oh so pleasant summer tea party, which conducts the sweat into electric. "Lets Shake Hands
" appropriately enough is their introductory blast.
To everyone's surprise we're in the midst of a bluesy rock 'n' roll eclipse where big sister Meg connects the drums with the majestic force which usually floors old ladies in bad weather. Jack cuts with a sound somewhere between Led Zeppelin and the aural encyclopedia of the guitars greatest players. Detroit's's Eminem can keep his chainsaw. There's been some hype but the White Stripes deliver on stage and re-baptized rock'n'roll in their own uniquely raw transcendental fire'n'blues. Jack politely says "thank you" in a little voice at the end of the show. Maybe he's a little shocked by what the two can summon? Everybody else is.
How to find a band?
Spending the next day trying to hook-up an interview with Jack and Meg is near impossible. They do have a very helpful press officer, if you happen to live in New York, but over here they are unobtainable and on the road in a white van with their support band. No manager, no mobile and their booking agent rightfully points out that he's not a PR but will see what he can arrange with the tour manager who doesn't particularly want to deal with the press.
These enigmatic White Stripes have been a band since 1997 and have released three albums on an independent Sanfranscisco label, Sympathy For The Record Industry. The one man staff (even puts the records in the sleeves) and label boss Long Gone John started the label in 1988 in an attempt to put out, "cool rock'n'roll records and stay out of jail." He got the label name from, "The Stones, Sympathy For The Devil," and thought that it was, "a fairly accurate metaphor for the devil and the rampant evil in the record industry."
John, a former caretaker of laboratory mice by day and sandwich maker by night, has spent the last thirteen years working with over 500 artists. He goes through stages of releasing a single a week but doesn't have an answer phone or even bother to pick the bit which rings. We can only assume he's on-line speed-writing endless returns to all his emails. He can't arrange an interview with the band but fully understands the buzz surrounding their UK tour.
"This will inflame a lot of egos but out of the 500 plus bands I've worked with The White Stripes are the most talented and unique," types John. "There is every reason in the world why they have garnered so much attention and praise. I've seen over fifty of their shows and every single one brings an exciting new revelation. I am truly blessed to be associated with them. The White Stripes ARE the great white hope."
"Great white" boxing metaphors join a new batch of Chinese media whispers: "Is it true that Jack and Meg were once married?" The growing typing pool of fan websites, following the success of the bands tour of America, are more concerened with feedback from the UK: "I know it's a slim chance but any of ya been to the recent uk gigs," writes one fan. "Been hearin good things 'bout the tour so far, what with Jack diggin' out some original blues and givin' 'em the red trooser pitch and John Peel givin' 'em sooper listen on his diamond in a field of muck programme
he's still talkin' 'bout it, playin' b-sides now as well.......ach, anyway, I'm go 'n' dig out all ma candy coloured threads."
The White Stripes recent East coast tour sold out two shows in New York and one in Boston. Plus the inches of praise they received in the American press is a good book on just how excited journalists can get. The Village Voice website review of the last single Hello Operator/Jolene shows just how scary White fever can be: '"You could have your choice of men, but I could never love again, he's the only one for me Jolene." The drum gets knocked every 20 seconds or so, then enters a half-minute Zepp thump-and-thud midway through; the voice is a high lonesome squeal, the guitar an intense Tom Verlaine/Richard Thompson tapestry. The overall genre, though, is leaden elephant-stomp punk blues, making this male-sung Dolly Parton remake a de facto answer to their Midwestern predecessors Killdozer's cloddish take on Jessi Colter's "I'm Not Lisa." Except it's more sincere, and the gender switcheroo means more, since "Jolene" has always been a rip-her-to-shreds catfight.' Genius.
If its true that when America sneezes the UK catches a cold, White Stripe fever will be all over our press like Posh and Becks. But right now the only plausible link I've got with th band is in the small print listings of NME, 'The White Stripes perform this Sunday night at The Point, Oxford.'
Big Mac Jack in Oxford
In a borrowed car with a tape of the John Peel show for company, I drive up and spend Sunday afternoon waiting at the venue. It is officially hotter today than it was when they played the 100 Club. To make the world a better place I note one of the bar staff has put up a sign near the stage; "Extreme Temperature Warning".
It's the support band The Masonics who enter the bar first thirsty for their rider. Jack and Meg are busy sweating their gear up the stairs and get straight on with the sound check. The Masonics have renamed Jack and Meg, Jeff'n'Madge and tell me of Jack's secret prize for the first journalist to ask them, "how long have you two been brother and sister?"
The sound from upstairs has stopped and John the tour manager is shaking his head at my requests for an interview and explains that they are not around anyway because, "they've gone to McDonalds."
Running down the hallowed of old Oxford streets past American tourists with bum-bags packed full of mugger-fodder, there's Meg in red and white looking down from Magdalene bridge. Below, three white swans, one black and together with Meg the perfect album cover which will never be made. "Hi," she says casually, "you looking for Jack?" Either Meg is being genuinely helpful or just passing the buck. "He's over in McDonalds. You know where it is?" I realize in an instant that this is the great Meg White interview I'll be taking back to the office.
Sure enough, half way through a Big Mac is Jack. He looks startled but has heard of Dazed from their press officer in New YorK. We agree to meet back at the pub and I leave him to his fries. On the way back I get a little wave from Meg, now on the other side of the bridge with her back to the sun and I arrive at the pub ten minutes later just as Jack pulls up in a taxi. "You a stalker?" he asks.
Over a very English pot of tea in a genuine twee little tea shop, I start the interview with the special brother and sister question.
"Did The Masonics ask you to say that?" Replies Jack looking for a light. "Well I'm afraid you're not going to get the prize. That's cheating."
He looks relaxed, clean and healthy despite the back to back gigs, jet-lag and surviving the heat without the American staple of air conditioning. There's not even a trace of rock'n'rolls crows-foot carvings around his eyes. In fact judging by his pale but calm demeanor, you'd think he's over here on holiday.
Jack knows nothing of his red and white status to English football fans and laughs at the idea of be mistaken for a Liverpool supporter.
"For us these colours come from the peppermint candy," he explains. "Besides it's the most powerful colour combination. Babies are colour blind for a short while so they make toys red white and black for children. We get sent red and white presents all the time
candles, different kinds of peppermints, toys, little cars, even a peppermint style crash helmet. Maybe a tartan from up in Scotland would be good when we do the Glasgow show?"
Apart from a tartan has anything particularly surprised you about the UK?
"Ali G. The support band had him on in the van. I think it's hilarious the way he's taking that hip hop culture and reducing it to comedy 'cause to me it's already comedy. Hip hop culture is funny, redundant and commercial way of living yet it has all these connotations of keeping it real and it's totally not. Also it's hot over here and there's no air conditioning in the clubs."
Would you prefer to perform outside at a festival?
"I don't like playing outside very much and I don't like playing in the sunlight. I don't mind so much when its acoustic but the feel of electricity outside in the daytime is like artificial sunlight. The intimacy thing is gone at a festival, we're meant to be heard in a club where your locked into a room and forced into experiencing something even if your just there to be a hipster."
Have you considered working with a full band?
"No, that's never going to happen because there's too much structure and you'd have to be really well rehearsed. Songs end up sounding the same every time. Me and Meg have this communication between us which makes things different every time or we can stop in the middle of a song and change it. We never have a setlist. After we finish a song I just pick another one."
Their latest single, 'The Big Three Killed My Baby' (with the lyrics, 'don't let them tell you the future's electric cause gasoline ain't measured in metric') is a spirited dig at their hometown motor industry. "I really hate cars," says Jack pointing to the chassis number around his neck. "These (a jubilee clip around his right side wrist and last two fingers) are each from engines of the big 3 auto companies in America. GM, Chrysler and Ford. These are their shackles on me." He laughs dryly.
Have you ever worked in that industry?
"No. I'd rather live on the street than do that."
Apart from the inception of mass produced motors Detroit has a rich musical history. From the blues, Motown's pop production line to the politicized rock'n'roll of MC5, the 360 degree world of Iggy Pop And The Stooges, the minimalist machine soul of techno, Booty Bass and more recently the ego's of Kid Rock and Eminem. The White Stripes are from small a scene featuring around "10 to 15 bands," (Jack recently produced The Sympathetic Sounds Of Detroit compilation highlighting the main players) revolving around two venues, "The Gold Dollar and The Magic Stick."
"People have started to take notice (of Detroit's underground) pretty recently. A few years ago there was just like 50 people coming to the shows. Some call it garage rock, which is pretty much fine but none of the bands like to be labelled as anything, it defies that when people come and see what's happening."
One of Jack's fundamental hero's is the father of folk blues alias Sun House who once said, "The blues aint nothin' but a lowdown shakin'' chill. If you never had 'em children, I sure hope you never will." What is the Jack White definition?
"Its just the truth," he replies very seriously, "that's all it is. John Lee Hooker said that. It's just the most honest music there ever has been. Rock'n'roll, jazz, R'n'B
everything is based on the blues. It's a twentieth century music. It's what brought folk music into being a main stream thing every one can relate to on any level and any nationality. A way of melodic communication and story telling. It's perfect. That's the route, that's the first thing, it's always going to be the best."
Jack is very guarded about about the future of The White Stripes, shrugs off questions he doesn't want to answer about the industry scrum to sign them over here. "I don't think it (the band) is something that's going to carry on for twenty years. We'll just feel it when the White Stripes is over." He predicts that after he's stopped playing, recording and producing bands is far more likely than a return to the upholstery store.
Half an hour after the interview and back in the insane heat of the air conditionless Point, Jack and Meg deliver the 100 Club mark 2. Around the venue walls are plastered posters of bands who've tried hard but never made it down the A40 to London. Back in the States, LA's Entertainment Weekly compares what is happening to the small Detroit scene to Seattle in the pre-grunge era. A handfull of bands who have so far sustained themselves without MTV and the media and The Stripes are already three classic albums down. Where next?
Opium for the media. The Boston Arms, Tufnell Park, London
Reaching the last date of their tour, The Stripes live appearance on The John Peel show is still filtering through a media used to being spoon-fed an organised press campaign. Then it all becomes clear. Printed on The BBC Today website John Peel spells it out: "We talked about Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and I mentioned that blues guitarist Sun House had done a live session for the programme. Half an hour later we recorded them live and they'd changed their set to include Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. It was very impressive stuff. I can't imagine Travis doing that."
Even The Times get onboard and print Peel's, "The most exciting thing since Hendrix." Imagine being able to tell that to your grandchildren? For most of us the best we'll have to offer is seeing The White Stripes live in a proverbial old pub shit-hole in North London. For the support one of Jack's favourite living artists Billy Childish is chosen. A poet, painter and musician of equally noteriety Childish, from the band The Buff Medways, has put in over 20 years good reading of the blues and sets the mood in his old rimmed hat, post war amp' and guitar, vest and pint.
Some of the crowd look a little surprised by this performance. "There was celebrities and people who didn't really know what music is who turned up," explained Billy in a later interview. "People who didn't quite know how to behave at a live concert. They weren't sure if you clap or show your enjoyment, so they were just very polite. There's a certain desperation at the moment for the music industry to find something. They're piling expectation on this little combo which do a bit of blues music some people think is highly unique and unusual and of course it's not at all. I don't know who's going to benift from this little infactuation, I'd imagine it wouldnt be them. (laughs) They're being courted by the music business but they're intellignet young people not to be taking in too much of the bullshit."
Tonight Jack pogos out power through a guitar which, unlike his young face is bearing the full wrath of his rock'n'roll. You can feel why the press are getting overexcited even though the duo are not the fame hunting media whores from the PR sausage factory processed like Dane Bowers to be Chat Show fodder. We can only pray The Great White Stripes never have to suffer the obligatory crass commentary from blonde media voice Kate Thornton. According to Crime Watch, she wasn't there. But the only crime commited today is set against the authentic knackered wooden panelled walls where the classy decorative plates on a shelf remain brightly lit until halfway through the gig until the irony police find the switch. Even Jimi Hendrix rolled over and laughed at that one.
"Even better than the 100 Club," people were saying. If anything the press should unite and hate The Whites for not being Posh and Jacks. Yet two days later in a full-page report in the world's best music paper, The Sun joyfully describe the band as being, "light years ahead of their peers."
Hmmmmmmm? Back in that final show with the special plates surviving the third and final encore, "thank you" says Jack. "I wouldn't have thought this possible when I was upholstering chairs in Detroit," he says through a smile. His eyes cranked wide and staring into a horse crowd of screaming dry tonsils. Meg reaches for a towel and casually removes another nights sweat oblivious to the hysteria below. "Thank you, this really is it this time," shouts Jack stepping down into the crowd.
If that is the case, you've got three albums to catch up on before anyone on TV says, "The White Stripes are my favourite band." And when they do, at least you'll know why they were lying.