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.”