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?”