An in-depth Uncut interview with Jack White from the time of Blunderbuss
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.”