White talks to Uncut about being half Scottish and making songs with just a box of matches and a screwdriver
UNCUT: How did “Icky Thump” come to be?
JW: The Raconteurs tour was ending, and I called Meg up and said, ‘I’ve got some time coming up here in December and January – maybe we should get together,’ I had some things cooking, and we had a couple of songs which we didn’t get to put on “Satan”, so she moved to Nashville for a couple of months, and we started hammering it out. You just start doing it. This is the first album where I had a chalkboard on the wall, to write down the names of things. We recorded in January, but in December, that chalkboard was empty. We had a couple of riffs, but not one finished song. A lot was written in the studio, and this happens a lot with us – only for the first album did we actually have songs written.
U: So how did the Nashville sessions work?
JW: It’s almost like going to work. You just get in there, you clock in, and it’s like someone says, “Well, you’ve got to box up these dirty boxes and ship them to Switzerland” And you go, “Oh, OK.” Because things are so constricted in the White Stripes, like we’re only going to wear white, red and black, and it’s only going to have these three components, I think people’s biggest misconception about us is that we also premeditate all these songs, which we don’t at all. There was so much piano on the last album, because there was a piano in the room and a marimba in the next room. If there had been a sitar in the room and a zither, they would probably have been on there too. That’s how it goes.
U: The recording took three weeks. That’s longer than usual, but it’s still not a long time…
JW: I hearken back to the days when bands didn’t have any overdubs. There are songs on here which are one take, which are just me and Meg playing live, like “Catch Hell Blues” – we’re proud of that, because we know the conditions it was made under. If people say “I love your song”, and I think “I spent $600,000 dollars and recorded it on computer and it took six months….” I mean, what’s the big deal? Anybody can do that! But if they love the song, and you look back and think all you had was a book of matches and a screwdriver, then you can be proud…
U: This is a very heavy rock record. Did you want to cut loose again?
JW: I had just come off tour with the Raconteurs, so I probably had a lot of guitars in my head. I was doing a lot of guitar improvisation with those guys every night, and that’s something I hadn’t done since I was in The Go, maybe. It was new for me – I was playing solos I never had time to play in the White Stripes. I learned a lot from Brendan (Benson) and Little Jack (Lawrence). I got a chance to learn a lot more about my instrument – I’m from a different department. Brendan knows how to lay an A minor augmented nnth chord. I don’t even know what that is.
U: There are some great noises on the record…
JW:I try to set up this wall and break through it. I like to see if the guitar can break through this barrage and you can access a new tone or melody through all that stuff that’s in the way. That’s how I like to see it, as attacking something and conquering. You break through all that opposition, and if you can, maybe something beautiful will happen.
U: How far is the White Stripes an experiment in what you can do with the duo format?
JW: In every aspect the White Stripes is a band that has no safety nets. There’s no set lists. Meg and I hardly ever rehearse for a tour or a live show. My guitars aren’t very well made, like kids first guitars, and maybe people don’t know that it’s harder to play – it’s important to me that there’s a struggle happening. I went to see Broadway shows recently and I thought “Why do they have a script?” I got so jealous. That’s so easy! In the White Stripes, there has to be some kind of struggle., if things are falling apart how can I keep them together?
U:The Scottish element to the record is very interesting…
JW: Well, Meg and I are half-Scottish…I wrote the song on mandolin. When I started to play pipe organ along with it, I thought this has to be bagpipes, because I didn’t want it to sound like American folk music or Irish music. I wanted it to have a Scottish feel, so luckily we found a bagpiper in Nashville.
U: And there’s other British stuff on the record, too: the pearly king outfits, Rag And Bone, Icky Thump as a title… Has your wife been influencing you?
JW: My wife is completely inspiring to me. She’s always throwing this stuff out, half the time to make me laugh, like this rag and bone thing – when she was a little girl she wanted to run away with the rag and bone men, because she thought they were going to an exotic land. She tells me these things, pretty soon you’re playing a riff and yelling “Rag and bone…!”
U: So have you seen the Goodies?
JW:“No! People keep asking me about it. I want to see it. I feel bad, because I thought I had a pretty good grasp of British comedy shows…”
INTERVIEW: JOHN ROBINSON