Wild Mercury Sound
The Same Boy You've Always Known: A Jack White Interview
Since Jack White is back playing in London this week, it seems like a good time to post the full exhaustive interview that I did with him in New York a few months ago...
The way Jack White tells it – though historically, his relationship with the truth can be a little capricious – his solo career started by accident. For the past three years, White has been inviting musicians down to his Nashville studio to record 45s for his Third Man label; recent visitors have included Tom Jones, The Alabama Shakes, and the Insane Clown Posse.
Sometime last July, White thinks, he was waiting at Third Man to produce a couple of tracks for the RZA. Not entirely out of character, the Wu Tang rapper cancelled at the last moment, which left White and a bunch of musicians hanging around with nothing else to do except work up a couple of ideas he’d been toying with for a while. That day, White says, he recorded three songs, including a shit-kicking homage to James Booker called “Trash Tongue Talker”, and embarked on a trajectory that culminates this month with the release of his first solo album, the rich, nuanced and thoroughly entertaining Blunderbuss.
“With The White Stripes, I wanted to have a new blues,” he says. “‘Seven Nation Army’ has become a soccer chant to some people, but to me it’s a blues song, a struggle of one person against the world. The sound, the rhythm, is not what someone would label blues, and I think that happens with a lot of songs on this album as well. I consider all of it to be the blues, but I’m trying to present it in a way that shakes it up for me and the listener.”
It would be easy to envisage Blunderbuss - the 11th album of White’s mature career, after six with Meg White in The White Stripes, two fronting The Raconteurs alongside Brendan Benson, and two playing mostly drums in The Dead Weather – as the point where much of the subterfuge stops, and something akin to a real Jack White emerges. This is not, though, how he works. The enigmatic strategies and outlandish concepts remain just as critical to his appeal as the songs and virtuosity. The charming game of hide-and-seek is, it seems, still on.
“We can talk about the intensity of Jimi Hendrix’s playing, and how unbelievable it is,” he says. “But make no mistake, the man was full of gimmicks. He was setting his guitar on fire, playing with his teeth, dressing in marching band outfits, with amazing giant hair. And all of that stuff was no different from Charley Patton playing between his legs at juke joints, or Tommy Johnson playing behind his head. What some people call a gimmick, others will call art.”
It is March 2, and Jack White is in a Manhattan hotel chosen, perhaps, because its pale blue colour scheme matches the palette of Blunderbuss. The hotel is also conveniently close to the NBC television studios at Rockefeller Plaza, where White will make his first appearance as a solo artist the following night. The occasion is a guest spot on Saturday Night Live, an edition hosted by Lindsay Lohan, making a tentative comeback of her own at the age of 25.
As White and his band arrive onstage for their first number, his gimmick this time seems obvious. Around the blue amplifiers (mono tube amps, originally used in schools), the band consists of six women dressed in powder blue gowns and elaborate hairstyles that have been created by the touring party’s resident wigmaker. The song they are playing is “Love Interruption”, an unusually gory take on relationships, played out as a duet between White and a sultry Nashville singer called Ruby Amanfu.
“Love Interruption” is brief and understated on Blunderbuss, a little like an Everly Brothers song, but live it becomes something fuller and looser, peaking with a duel of sorts between Lillie May Rische, a fiddler from Nashville, and Maggie Bjorklund, a pedal steel player from Denmark (“I’m telling you the truth, man,” says White, “she’s one of four or five female pedal steel players in the world. There are none in the States. We went on forums and typed in ‘female pedal steel player’ and it was bone dry.”). White, meanwhile, contents himself with keeping the rhythm on his new Gibson acoustic, which turns out to be nearly a century old.
An hour or so later, however, White returns with a light blue Telecaster and an entirely different group. This time he is dressed in a black t-shirt and tight black jeans rather than a blue western suit, looking uncannily as he did around 2003. The image shift turns out to be serendipitous, since “Sixteen Saltines” is a priapic rocker reminiscent of “The Hardest Button To Button” from that year’s Elephant album. Notably, a second band have turned up: an all-male ensemble featuring a hip hop drummer (Daru Jones), a mandolin player from The Old Crow Medicine Show (Cory Younts) and the fervid organist Ikey Owens, plucked from the unlikely environment of The Mars Volta.
White’s extravagant concept is to take both bands out with him on the road. At each gig, the audience will not know whether it is the all-male or the all-female band backing White until they come onstage. “It’ll be completely random,” he says gleefully. “It’s something to make me work harder. For weeks now I’ve been travelling between two different locations, playing music with this band, driving over to the other side of town, playing different versions of the exact same songs that I just played.”
White claims he doesn’t really know why he came up with such an audacious and demanding new gimmick, even though Blunderbuss’ lyric sheet often reads like a theatrically heightened battle of the sexes, where cruel Delilahs face off against vainglorious Samsons.
“I want something to happen, I want to shake it up,” he finally decides. “I also have a strong interest in messing with people’s preconceptions. To me it’s art, and very funny, and a very big slap in the face of anyone who is easily made cynical by their own preconceived notions of male and female, of authenticity, of who can play and who can’t play.”
You don’t make thing easy for yourself, do you?
He laughs hysterically. “Have you noticed?”
In a suite on the hotel’s 54th floor, Jack White settles down in a swivel chair. An Americano coffee has been ordered from room service, and he has also requested five bottles of Dr Pepper’s and five bottles of Coke Zero. To begin, he pours a Coke and grabs a fistful of ice from the bucket. “I just washed my hands,” he says, diligently.
We are talking about how many of the musicians featured on Blunderbuss come from his adopted hometown of Nashville, and how becoming embedded in the local scene could result in a messy fall-out further down the line. Something similar has, after all, happened to White before, when the sudden fame of The White Stripes alienated the Detroit garage rock scene that had nurtured them.
“It’s possible, but I don’t step into clubs here, and I would go to shows four or five times a week in Detroit. I’ve only been to maybe two rock’n’roll shows in Nashville in seven years [apart from shows promoted by him at the Third Man Recordings shop]. I saw The Black Belles [a girl group signed to Third Man] a few weeks ago, and then a couple of years ago I went and saw Dex Romweber, who also put out a record with us. I just get harassed; people think I’m not being very nice when I’m trying to be polite to the artist. I don’t want to have a photo taken while they’re playing or any of that crap.”
Nashville always seems like a town that is quite respectful of musicians.
“It is, but it’s all country, so half of them don’t care about me, which is great. The entire South is so polite. But I’m talking about going into a rock’n’roll club and watching a rock’n’roll show – I’ll go see country and bluegrass shows all the time. Last year at South By Southwest in Texas, I thought I could walk out of the hotel and go and see Queens Of The Stone Age a few blocks away. That was a big mistake. You can’t get anything done. You might as well set up a table and chairs.
“I’m not whining. I can’t go to shows anymore, but I think it’s a good thing for me because I’m not embedded with those people in the way I was in Detroit. I feel really comfortable in Nashville – I wouldn’t have built Third Man or my studio had I not felt comfortable there. I made a decision that I’m going to stay there for the rest of my life.
Maybe a lot of the Nashville musicians come from a different tradition to the ones you associated with in Detroit, the zero tolerance punks?
“Yeah, just as Los Angeles has a million actors, Nashville is the same with musicians. You have songwriters coming to town, and everyone you talk to, their brother wrote a song for Alan Jackson, Clint Black, someone like that. I’d like to get a new series going at Third Man where I find these new songwriters and pair their new songs up with artists coming through town.”
One of the crutches of indie authenticity is that you can’t be real unless you’re singing and writing your own songs.
“Yeah, it has been for a long time. The country world never cared about that from Day One. Robert Johnson didn’t write his own songs, and people forget about that. Have you read this book Faking It [by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor]? It’s about the history of authenticity in music, and it’s brilliantly written. It really lays out the law of how ridiculous we’ve all been for so long, and how we buy the hype that’s fed to us, about Alan Lomax trying to sell Leadbelly like he was a struggling guy sitting by himself in prison, who only had his own songs. Leadbelly would just play songs that he liked, he would play a brand new pop song or ‘Camptown Races’; anything that people wanted to hear at parties.
“Throughout history we’ve been sold authenticity over and over. The English press are the kings of it. You’ve got to ask yourself about the White Stripes’ appeal to England had we been from Los Angeles instead of Detroit. The story of the city of Detroit became our authenticity, that dirty, crumbling town. I don’t see a lot of other artists getting asked about where they live, but I get asked about where I live constantly. A lot of people think Nashville is about really fake, plastic, country music - all business, no authenticity - and I don’t really think that’s the case. There’s a lot of garbage, but there’s a lot of garbage in every music scene.”
There aren’t many artists in the last ten years who’ve been assailed by so many questions about their authenticity.
“Well, I kinda asked for it. It had been ten years since grunge, and every ten years rock’n’roll gets wilder and more real-sounding, quote-unquote “authentic” - whatever. A lot of bands were emulating ‘60s garage rock, but at least it was an attempt at something dirty and real. And for me, too.
“But make no mistake, right from the get-go, The White Stripes were not really part of the same scenario as everybody else. We did a Marlene Dietrich cover [“Look Me Over Closely”] on the b-side of our first single, and I was very much into songwriting. I was a huge fan of Brendan Benson’s songwriting craftsmanship, and he was on the outskirts of the scene; it was a far cry from The Detroit Cobras covering old soul songs.”
You presented a crafted and playful myth that was undoubtedly very seductive. But at the same time, surely it’s human nature to be curious about hidden truths?
“I’ve discovered over the years that there needs be an element of something naughty going on, for Britain to really give a damn. The British press is all about fucking gossip. The newspapers are glorified tabloids, they just write in a better-looking font.”
Come on, you told a story and established yourself based on something that wasn’t true.
“When we played our first shows, a lot of people were really mad at the colours we wore. To me, how we presented ourselves was to show people how stupid it is for them to think that, to play authentic blues, I’d have to dress like I’m from fucking Mississippi. Eric Clapton, for example, said he didn’t like The White Stripes. He thought we were having a laugh about Son House, playing ‘Death Letter’ on the Grammys. People in that Stratocaster white blues scene didn’t understand that we could dress in red and white and black, play in the simplistic way we did, and still be the blues.
“I always said that if you can’t handle how The White Stripes looked, then we can’t be in this room together sharing this same music. Don’t bother with us, go find a different band. It was about the people who can see past that. Gimmicks to get people’s attention are amazing, because they’re an art in themselves.”
When you mentioned Hendrix and Charley Patton earlier, were you saying that it’s perversely more authentic to be inauthentic?
“That was my sense of humour, it still is. It’s lucky for us that we had some songwriting behind all that.”
Do you have any regrets about the stories you told about yourself and Meg?
“No, I have no regrets. Nothing that is said in an interview or onstage into a microphone – just like nothing in the Bible – should be taken literally. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Looking back, do you think it was worth prolonging the brother and sister story, given the trouble and questioning that it brought you?
“I don’t see any trouble that it brought me.”
You got pretty pissed off in interviews.
“I don’t think so.”
So you enjoyed lying?
“[Laughs] No, it’s absolutely true. If I say to someone who comes in here, ‘This is my friend John,’ are you gonna say to them we’re not friends?
I’m not sure you can talk about sibling relationships in the same way as friendships.
“If two people are boyfriend and girlfriend and they direct films together, they’re going to start selling themselves, they’re going to start exploiting their relationship to sell their work. Now I would never do that. I would never exploit my own relationship to sell myself. If you choose to go down the red carpet with whoever you’re with – husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend – you are selling your relationship to the world, and that’s a tough decision to make. Some people wanna do it, they love it, they think it’s great.
“I’ve never thought that about anyone I’ve ever worked with, and because of that people have become more and more interested. They assume that any time I’m standing next to a girl, something else is going on. That’s up to them to make that decision, and I really don’t care.”
So you’re saying the brother and sister story worked as an effective protection to guard your private life and what was really going on between you and Meg?
“I don’t know. If Meg and I had said anything about what we are to each other in any way, it could be used as an exploitation of why we were onstage together. If me and Alicia Keys do a song, or me and Ruby Amanfu are singing something together, or me and Alison Mosshart, or me and fucking Loretta Lynn [White produced Lynn’s 2004 album, Van Lear Rose] – people immediately have to make a decision about how I relate to that person. And if I don’t tell them something, or if I tell them something, or if I lie to them, every one is a minefield.
In one of your first British interviews in 2001, you told me, “I like things to be as honest as possible, even if sometimes they can only be an imitation of honesty. A good impression is interesting if you can’t get the real thing.” That seems to be the key to understanding a lot of what you’ve done.
“If I turn on the television and I see your band, I see an interview with you and you make me think I love you… how often does that happen, how often do we read interviews or watch TV and are really made to think? Maybe that’s the thing that The White Stripes showcased – my attempt to make people think.”
According to Jack White, his critical preparation for going solo came by producing The Party Ain’t Over for Wanda Jackson in 2010. While The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather had featured co-songwriters and autonomous musicians, White was faced with the prospect of arranging and commanding a 12-piece band, then taking them out as Jackson’s backing band on a few tour dates. Previously he had been, he realised, worried about “about having an ego, expressing my ideas. I would wish this drumbeat had an extra snare hit in it, but it would look like I was bossing people around, so I’d just keep my mouth shut. Hopefully that stupid hang-up has gone.”
Isn’t it slightly dishonest to suggest you don’t have that kind of ego?
“It’s naïve of me at times to think that my name doesn’t mean more. I know when I go onstage with The Dead Weather, and I’m sitting behind the drums, that the majority of people there would like to see me play guitar. I know that, but I don’t want to do that. You guys might not know that what I am in my head is a drummer.”
How do you think this record fits in with what you’ve done before?
“For a long time I always thought the rule is: be in a famous band like The White Stripes; when the famous band is done, make solo records for the rest of your life, and die. That’s the showbiz rule. People say, ‘Alright Jack, I like The Dead Weather, but can you please make the solo record?’ You look back now at the Cream albums; someone at the time might have called Cream a side project, but to me that’s the best thing Clapton ever did. In 20 years, someone will think that about The Dead Weather. Time changes people’s perception of that sort of stuff.”
So are you going to play old songs on tour?
“Yeah I’m gonna do everything from my career. The Raconteurs never played any White Stripes songs, The Dead Weather never played any Raconteurs songs. But if I saw Lou Reed perform and he didn’t play any Velvet Underground songs, I’d be a little disappointed. Now the ticket says ‘Jack White’ on it, I think I can finally do the songs I feel are mine.
A lot of the songs on Blunderbuss seem to deal with sexual politics.
“We all think that we don’t have prejudices about males and females, that it’s a level playing field. But I think that is completely untrue and will never be the case. There’ll always be preconceptions in people’s minds about what they see, whether it’s a beautiful girl or a girl that’s homely, a person who’s an amazingly technical musician compared with one who can barely string two notes together.
“We go onstage and present things for you to judge, that’s what we do. I can pretend that I’m just going onstage and playing my song and it’s totally pure. Bullshit! I’m selling myself, I’m selling the way I look, I’m selling the way the song sounds, I’m selling the story that I’m telling in the song.”
One of the main responses that Blunderbuss is going to attract is that it’s the Jack White confession record, the divorce record [White and Karen Elson, singer and model, announced their divorce with a party in June 2011]. He’s come clean! There’s no brother and sister routine, this is the real him…
“If me and Alison [Mosshart] had been caught in some motel somewhere, we’d be on the cover of every magazine in Britain and The Dead Weather would have sold a million records [hysterical laughter]. We have to acknowledge that the outside story influences everything. If I’d called it Jack White instead of The Dead Weather… I mean come on, I could call this album The White Stripes. Maybe I should’ve done that…”
But let’s be straight about this, you’ve written a bunch of songs about the inconstancy of women and the problems of machismo, you’ve written a song about adultery, and it’s public knowledge that you got divorced last year. It’s not a great leap of faith on the part of listeners to think, aha, here’s the Soul Stripped Bare.
“But the funny thing is they’ll see the credits and see that Karen [Elson] sings on three of these songs. Now what are you gonna do?”
You have a track record in this...
He cracks his knuckles. There is a rare pause. “Write my press release for the record. Is it smart to say who’s played on the record? Is it smart to say Patrick Keeler [Raconteurs drummer] and Jack Lawrence [Raconteurs and Dead Weather bassist] played on one song, or is it smart to say that Karen Elson sang on three songs? That’s where we are all the time, and I don’t mind that. I don’t mind whatever gets thought about this record this month, because a year from now any reviewer would write a different review of this same record.”
When did you write these songs?
“Most of them in the last six months of last year, written and recorded. But this is the first album I didn’t do all at once. I mostly write when it’s time to write, and I didn’t think I was going to do a record like this for five or six years.”
What did you think you were going to do?
“Just produce 45s. That’s all I wanted to do. My kids are young [Scarlett Teresa, five, and Henry Lee, four] and I want to be with them at this age so that I don’t regret it later.”
Do you think you could’ve made this record if The White Stripes still existed?
“No. Absolutely not. I wouldn’t even have considered it, and that was a reason for me and Meg to have a discussion and finally say that the band was officially over. I said, ‘Look I’m doing other things now, and eventually I’m going to do a solo record and I don’t wanna tell them a week before I put out that record that, by the way, The White Stripes aren’t around anymore.’ Because then it looks like I’m exploiting that band to sell this record.”
Would you rather be sitting here, with Meg by your side, promoting a new White Stripes record?
“I think that I’m supposed to do this right now. If you’d asked me before I started I’d say probably not, and probably the best way to fulfil myself would have been to do the White Stripes. But now I feel this has happened exactly the way it should have.”
Can you be specific about the thing you’re most proud of with The White Stripes?
“I still can’t believe that anyone cares about that band. For a long time I thought, ‘We’re popular, wow, that means we’re not good. We’re doing something wrong, we fucked up.’”
If there’s an album in Jack White’s back catalogue that seems the most obvious precursor to Blunderbuss, it is the fifth White Stripes album, Get Behind Me Satan, with its pugnacious piano songs, its vigorous re-inventions of country melodrama and pre-rock R&B: “The truth is still hidden,” White pertinently observed on its outstanding track, “The Denial Twist”. There is much more on Blunderbuss, though: waltzes; hoedowns; a Little Willie John cover. A clutch of cascading piano ballads - in which White’s new female keyboard player, Brooke Waggoner, summons up the spirit of Mike Garson - point up the affinities between White and another conceptual chameleon, David Bowie (The White Stripes also covered Ron Davies’ “It Ain’t Easy”, and reputedly began as a duo by practising “Moonage Daydream”).
The title track, meanwhile, is a tale of adultery and deception in the vein of mid-‘70s Dylan (a natural successor to “Carolina Drama”, the finest song on the Raconteurs’ Consolers Of The Lonely). And while White lambasted hip hop a decade ago, its influence can now be spotted in the sliding beats and spat lyrics of “Freedom At 21”; a song he is especially keen for a long-rumoured collaborator, Jay-Z, to hear.
“I’m jealous of things that Jay-Z can say that I can’t say,” White says now. “I’ve played with that in the song ‘Weep Themselves To Sleep’, with the line, ‘No one can blow the shows or throw the bones that break your nose like I can.’ That became a new challenge to me when I was writing this record: Jay-Z can go on record and say what a great rapper he is. If I go on record and say what a great guitar player I am… come on!”
You appear to do the opposite on this album and indict yourself, or your character, on “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” (“You’ll be watching me, girl/Taking over the world/Let the stripes unfurl/Getting’ rich singin’ poor boy…”).
“Maybe a little bit, but that one deals a lot with hipster culture and explores the ways that people can sell themselves as authentic and make money off of it at the same time.”
You often play the victim, too. The first three songs are going to get you accused of misogyny pretty fast…
“The first three songs? [laughs]”
So are you prepared to be criticised for the way you talk about women?
“With any record I make, everything that’s gone on in my life, not just in the last year but in the last ten years, is up for grabs. All I can say is I think people know me pretty well, and I’m not that one-dimensional. Any song that people think is about divorce could just as easily be about me and Meg. If it’s about a girl, it could be about 12 diferent girls.
“But come on, man, I’m not so simple that I would write open letters and give them away to the public, about people that I know would suffer from them. That’s a little too easy to do, and also very unfair and ridiculous. None of the people that people know are in my life, none of them are gone - they’re all in my life right now. We’re all good friends and spend time together, I can sleep in a bed with them or go to lunch with them…”
Sleep in a bed with them?
“Well, it doesn’t matter to me. You can’t sell the intricacies of your relationships with anybody in your life.”
OK, why do you think you ended up writing 13 songs that deal with strong men, cruel and cunning women, slightly fractious emotional relationships and the pain of true love? Why did that happen at this point in your life?
“If I say the words ‘boy and girl’, it’s an easy way to tell a story and get people involved. The record deals far more with death; death and the romance of death. That’s why I have a vulture on my shoulder on the cover. I’m making friends with the vulture. He’s not waiting for me to die to pick at me, we’re friends, and we’re in this together.
“But if that’s the way you’re looking at it, look at the character at the end of the record [in the song “Take Me With You When You Go”]: the character, who started out at the beginning as sounding misogynistic, is on his knees begging to be taken with the girl at the end.”
As your first solo album, Blunderbuss feels like something of a bridgehead in your career. How do you think it’s gone so far? Are there things you regret?
“I think it’s gone swimmingly. To be completely honest with you, I don’t have any regrets. I can’t even muster up two or three things to tell you that I wish hadn’t happened. It’s easy to call yourself an artist and do whatever you want, to be in your house and make sculptures, paintings, whatever. But for people to also give a damn is a blessing. When I look back – and it’s not an ego thing, as if I don’t make mistakes – I’ve been very fortunate.”
There must be an expectation from XL and Columbia, who’ll be releasing Blunderbuss in the UK and US, that it’s going to sell a hell of a lot more than a Dead Weather album.
“Of course, there’s no doubt about that, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I didn’t take the easy way out, I didn’t do this record five years ago when it would have been the right business move. I’ve never done the right business move, I’ve always done what I have to do. If it happens to coincide with what looks like good business, then that’s nice. But it’s like Get Behind Me Satan; we started that tour in South America and Mexico - nobody goes to shows down there, we lost money on those tours. The Raconteurs’ second album; we released it without telling anyone it existed – that’s a horrible business move. Are these regrets? Absolutely not! I love all of these moments.”
The morning after Saturday Night Live, Jack White arrives in the hotel restaurant in his coat and hat, wheeling a suitcase behind him. In an hour or so, he will be returning to Nashville with his two bands for more rehearsals, a video shoot, and a debut gig at Third Man. Many of his band members had not appeared on television before, and he is consequently thrilled with how the show went – though one suspects White is not a man to admit any doubts he may have to a journalist. “I think,” he says, “it was perfect for me.”
He has, too, vague plans for another solo album. In between cutting various other Third Man 45s, the Blunderbuss sessions resulted in something like 25 songs being recorded, of which only 13 made the final tracklisting. “When I get back in town in a few weeks, I’m going to finish them off for the next album, whenever that’s going to be, while they’re still fresh in my head. The bands are going to be amped up. When you go out on the road with this many people, you can go home and go straight into the studio with them, and get some stuff on tape.”
Given how much the interview has hinged around questions of truth and authenticity, it seems a good idea to finish with a couple of straight questions that people have been wanting to know the answers to for years.
White laughs. “Why do you keep wanting me to make it so easy for you? Alright, but I want you to know that I think you have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder about me and Meg, and brother and sister and all that stuff, and you should let it roll off your back.”
Well, this is such a fascinating point in your career, where the past takes on a different perspective and is put into a different context. I know these questions seem to be annoying and tabloid-ish and kind of personal, but I’m interested in the way that you use an idea of truth, and an idea of authenticity in how you present yourself and your music, and the way that all these things interact. Does that make sense to you? After all, you’re the guy who mentioned a book called Faking It, about the myth of authenticity in popular music?
“It’s always made sense to me, and anything that’s confusing to people is their own concern, not mine. I could have always played it really simple for everyone.”
Look at the gimmick you pulled last night with the two bands. Maybe I’m getting it wrong, but if people are coming to this project thinking the curtains have been opened, the real Jack White is going to appear and there aren’t going to be any more ambiguities, then they’re going to be disappointed.
“Well, you’re getting to the point, for sure, because I’ve always been there. The quote-unquote ‘Real Jack White’ has always been there, only if the viewer, the listener, can get past all the stuff that shouldn’t bother them to begin with.”
But we have to bother with that stuff, because it seems to be such an integral part of what you do.
“That’s my test for them. That’s my ultimate test. Alright, let’s do it…”
What’s your real name? Is your real name John Gillis?
“Jack White is my real name.” He laughs.
Is Meg White your sister?
“Yes. In more ways than one…”
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