Jack White interviewPosted: 23.10.2009
If the amount of hits on the thirty second video that we posted on YouTube are anything to go by, then there’s quite a few people who are interested in finding out what Jack White had to say in Trinity College on Sunday. Having spent two hours sitting in the Phil council room typing the transcript up, I felt it was only appropriate to share it with as many people as possible, especially since there were so many people who didn’t know that the talk was going to be on. Here you go:
Jack White speaking at Trinity College, Dublin. 18/10/09.
Upon receiving the honorary patrons medal:
Well I’ve been patronized in a lot of different ways, but this is the nicest.
Did you have literary heroes?
I had a lot: Shakespeare was probably the first one that was out of childhood years that spoke to me in a different sort of way and opened up a new life. Everything else was sort of children’s stories until then. It’s funny what you said [about Oscar Wilde], because there’s a quote from Oscar Wilde in the airport when we walked in this morning, saying that the only thing he had to declare was his genius at Customs.
And who did you have on your wall poster-wise as a kid?
Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare.
What was it like filming It Might Get Loud with Jimmy Page and The Edge?
It was a pretty incredible experience to work with those two guys. I liked that there was no real idea what the movie was about: it was two sentences that said ‘this is about guitars and guitar players, let’s talk to each other and see what happens.’ Some people have a huge five page summary of what they think something is going to be about: a movie, or a video, or a project or an album or whatever, and it seems to get less and less interesting as you read. And when the door is open to be creative and let things happen in the moment, that interests me, so that was incredible and of course they’re just incredible musicians.
Was Jimmy Page the first to launch into a song?
He was the first to pick up a guitar and start playing. At the time it was striking because we were caught off guard thinking ‘I didn’t expect that to happen so soon, so it was a pretty funny moment.
Did you get performance anxiety in front of Page?
I was reading in the last couple of days about the philosophy of anxiety, and it’s such an interesting notion to me, because the word seems to mean about 16 different things to me. Sometimes I think it means nervousness – I don’t really have much nervousness, I’ve always wondered why I don’t have more and maybe it’s to do with anxiety being synonymous with the word dread – I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately too, because the definition which I have of anxiety in my brain is energy which can be turned to something good, sort of like kinetic energy.
Nerves can be a good thing too..
I guess so, I’m so curious about that, because maybe I have it and I don’t know it.
What was the first song you played in front of the other two?
I can’t remember. I think we listened to records, actually, we did listen to ‘Rumble’ by Link Wray together, and I think Jimmy and I played ‘Rumble ‘together, just the three chords.
Do you think that there is wisdom you can get from your elders?
Oh definitely, so much. You can turn into a small child, just pulling at their shirt and annoying them, really. It’s tougher to find your moment to talk to them about certain things. But it’s so obvious if someone is in the room and everybody knows what they’ve done, it’s a white elephant in the room for sure. Especially when you both do the same job. You think that maybe you have an easier way to talk to someone if you’re both artists, both poets, you’re both musicians or whatever it is, you think you’d have an easier way talking about it. But sometimes it’s more difficult.
Who have been the people you’ve met that you’ve got the most from?
Probably craftsmen – carpenters, plumbers and things like that really turn me on, really get me interested. I really get inspired, I can sit and talk to somebody in a hardware store for hours about some sort of cross-cut saw or something like that and I get so much inspiration from the love of the idea and the beauty that they’re striving for, which is almost perfectionism to finish their job. It’s compelling to take that and work it into the craft of songwriting too, and apply those techniques to them.
It’s a strange town, it’s sort of a town that time forgot in a way, but it’s also so current, so mega-commercial, mega-capitalist and about the business side of music. It’s such an interesting place for me to be in. You can look at things from all angles, which I think you’re sort of forced to do once your art is accepted in the popular sense.
Is the raw country music still in Nashville?
It’s there, it’s on the outskirts, and actually I have a record label now which is looking for those people. I’m trying to find collections of one-hit wonders from the Fifties and Sixties and what they’re doing now, because I assume that a lot of them still live in Tennessee, so I’m trying to find a lot of them now to see if there’s some spark still left in them.
Is the name of you record label – Third Man records – a nod to Orson Wells?
The name came from my upholstery shop when I was in my twenties. It was called Third Man upholstery. My business card was an upholstery tack that I had painted blood on and the slogan was ‘Your furniture’s not dead’. A lot of people that I handed this card to didn’t really know what to do with it.
Was working with Loretta Lynn the first time you engaged with Nashville royalty?
It was. Meg and I had recorded our third album in Memphis and we loved country music, but we had no notion how to get in any way close to that world. But Loretta called us, because we had dedicated that album to her, because we had passed Loretta‘s house on the way home from Memphis – we saw a sign for her house, her famous Hurricane Mills ranch – so Meg and I drove over there to take a look. Meg was smoking a cigarette and threw it out of the window onto her driveway and we had an argument about it. I was like ‘don’t put a cigarette out in front of Loretta’s house, that’s not very nice’. She didn’t care, whatever, but it turned into a funny argument, so we decided to dedicate the album to her, in honour of that cigarette. That turned into Loretta inviting us for dinner at her house – she made us chicken and dumplings – she’s a good cook.
Didn’t you play a song with Bob Dylan live in the Ryman Auditorium that you’d never played together before?
We rehearsed some Hank Williams songs that day but he didn’t like the way we they were sung. We did a bunch of Hank Williams covers but it just didn’t feel right. He wanted to turn the PA off and let us sing acoustically. The Ryman Auditorium is a church, after all, and my first performance at the Ryman was with Bob Dylan.
It’s funny: I got married on the stage of that. I was looking for a place to live in Nashville, my wife and I. We’d already been married on the Amazon river a couple of months before. But we were in town looking for a place and on our lunch break we went to the courthouse and tried to get legally married. They said that we had to prearrange that with a judge and book a day, but we said we were only in town for that day. Next to where we bought the marriage license was a flyer for a guy named Pastor Red Michael, saying ‘I’ll marry anybody anywhere for $150’. I called him up and said we’d like to get married. He asked when, and I said ‘how about right now?’ and he said ‘that’s fine by me’. And he started asking where we’d like to get married and I said that I didn’t really know Nashville very well and we really didn’t know where we wanted to get married. So he said ‘how about the steps of the Ryman Auditorium?’ I thought that that would be great: it would be kind of perfect, so I said that we’d meet him there in fifteen minutes. So we drove there and got out of the car looking for him but we didn’t know where he was, and we were waiting on the stairs to get married.
Then this white Cadillac pulls up, Pastor Red Michaels get out and we’re signing the marriage license on the hood of the Cadillac and somebody comes out of the Ryman and recognizes me and asks if I’m getting married. I said ‘yes, we’re getting married, and he says ‘do you want to get married on stage? Come on in and get married on stage.’ So I said ‘okay, sure’ and we went in and got married right in front of the microphone. It was an incredible moment, I’d never even been in the building, so on top of the first time to be there to get up on the stage in front of the famous microphone and also to get married at the same time was kind of overwhelming. It was made even funnier when they asked us to leave because apparently George ((Elton??)) had died and they were coming to film a video.
How did that Coffee and Cigarettes piece with Meg come about?
That was stuck in a scene of a movie we made with Jim Jarmusch called Coffee and Cigarettes. Jim had come and seen Meg and I play in Union Square and he took us back to his office and we were just hanging out with him and he had a little pamphlet about Tesla coils. Five or six months later he called back and said ‘I’m making this film called Coffee and Cigarettes and would you and Meg make a short film with me?’ and I said ‘yeah that would be great’ He’d already done one with Tom Waits and Iggy Pop so I said yeah.
…We were also trying to get him to direct a video for the band where we filmed the pretend electrocution of a live elephant because Edison had actually done that to Tesla, to try to prove Tesla’s theory of alternating current wrong by going out and electrocuting animals and he actually electrocuted a real elephant and killed it and filmed it, to disprove Tesla’s theory. We wanted to recreate that scene but it was extremely expensive.
Has your own music taste changed as you’ve evolved as a musician?
I reevaluate my taste in music on a daily basis. I try to cleanse my palate and rethink about music and I try to open my eyes to something that I wouldn’t normally like. A couple of months ago I was trying to listen to La Roux and really trying to get into this song of hers. I was reading recently about the philosophy of authenticism, of something being authentic and what we really feel is authentic. I always feel that I’m looking for that in music and art, I’m looking for truth, I’m looking for something beautiful. In my own mind I imagine that as authentic. I don’t know sometimes if the artists that I love the most truly are authentic. I don’t know if Bob Dylan and Tom Waits are as authentic as I think they are. Perhaps they’re not. Perhaps they’re like a David Bowie creation that they’ve made themselves and perhaps we’re witnessing the art of that…. I’m a Polish-Scottish descendant in Detroit who grew up in the Seventies, what business do I have playing the blues? Dylan was a Jewish kid from Minnesota, what business does he have playing these Oklahoma based Woodie Guthrie songs when he started? And on and on and on.
Sometimes you start thinking that maybe Britney Spears or someone like that who’s doing exactly what they want to do in the way that they best know how is more authentic than any of those people you could mention. It’s a tough call. You listen to all that music through a filter all the time. I’m always listening to it through a filter. I assume that Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson are authentic and I love them for it and I think that the mystery surrounding the way that they recorded music is the way that I want music to be. The beauty of that coming off the needle is exactly what I’m hoping for. Then you read stories which say Robert Johnson also played Bing Crosby songs at supermarkets and that’s very inauthentic. I guess that’s the two sides of it.
There are times when you can be at a supermarket and hear a song on the radio and it doesn’t have to speak volumes or be beautiful in the sense that you can get some kind of depth out of it or some kind of life changing notion form it, but it’s enjoyable on a different level. I really love Charlie Patton and his songs speak from a completely different generation to me, but I also hear Ace of Base come on and I think they’re doing something really good. I don’t know how to differentiate at times. I think it really is a philosophical paradox if you really think about it, if you really decide what side of beauty that you want to be on. I need for it to be authentic, especially the music that I make myself. But I think that sometimes, people who are appreciators of art and music and listeners especially, either don’t know the difference or don’t care. That’s evident in a lot of digital technology and the way that we record music nowadays: the more plastic that it’s made, the bigger a hit it is.
There’s a responsibility when you start recording a song, as a producer or a songwriter or a performer, you’re dedicated to it and you want people to hear it the way that you hear it and respond to it the way that you would hope they’d respond to it when you’re creating it. That’s really, really difficult to do, to put on the tape. All I can do is say that I know what I don’t want it to sound like. A good way to avoid that is to avoid digital technology and things like Auto-Tune and effects that create a false sense of authenticism. So it’s very tough because nowadays because if you’re in a young band and want to record analogue on tape you can afford it because tapes are expensive and it’s hard to do. It’s a shame because there’s a romanticism about all that, that’s apart from all the Luddite notions of technological geekery or something like that, that you’re trying to be an obscurist, just to record that way.
Well, I’ve got two kids, they couldn’t be here today.
What music do they like?
They like a song right now called Ole Buttermilk Sky by Hoagy Carmichael. Scarlett, my daughter really likes this Edith Piaf song that I don’t know how to pronounce – I have it on a record but I really don’t know how to pronounce it.
Advice to upcoming musicians
The easiest way of saying it is to be true to what they’re doing instead of what other people want from them. That’s the easy answer. It can get more complicated and say things like stay away from the tshirts and the myspace pages that really are a distraction rather than keeping things true. You should start off with something that makes sense to you. If you don’t love it, how can other people love it? If you’re doing it for them to love, then it’s probably not going to succeed.
When a record comes out it’s like you sort of have to throw it to the lions in the end. And that’s the hard thing. It’s like you’re giving a child away to strangers but the whole reason you did it to begin with was to share it with other human beings anyway. It’s a sort of a minefield at that point. It’s not while you’re creating it, it feels like progression every second of the way.
Your work on Bob Dylan’s tribute to Hank Williams, is it still ongoing?
I don’t know what’s going on with that either, I recorded my record two years ago. I don’t exactly know where that album is going. It was really fulfilling and it was probably one of the most special things I’ve been involved with. I live on the street that Hank Williams used to live on in Nashville and I sort of leafed through his lyrics, one of which was one of his last songs, that was found on the floor of the backseat of the car that he died in. I don’t know who’s tackling that one, I don’t know if anyone did, but one of the song spoke to me, it’s called you know that I know and it sort of screamed out at me, it leaped out, and that was mine. I felt some sort of antennae connection to it. I sort of asked Hank to help me finish it, and I did. In five minutes it was done. I played it for Dylan a few weeks later and he said something good about it.
There was a lot of things combining back when I had my upholstery shop. I was doing sculpture and I was in a warehouse full of artists that I had my upholstery shop in. I had my cutting table and sewing machines etc, but I was also working on sculpture. I also brought a guitar which ended up being a big mistake too because it drew me away from a lot of that work. But I got so obsessed with the design and the cartooniness of the business. I didn’t care if somebody handed me a cheque for $500, it just went to some electrical bill or something, I didn’t care, I had a yellow van – everything was yellow black and white at the shop. I was writing the receipts in crayon and the customers didn’t really understand it, they just wanted their antique reupholstered. To me I was in Japan or something, doing a business in some cartoon somewhere. I started to write messages to other upholsterers, because I realized that we were the only ones who saw the insides of the chairs, so I thought I’d start writing messages to them, jokes that I thought that maybe thought that only they’d get. Then I started writing poetry. I had another band called The Upholsterers at the time when the guy I apprenticed from had the 25th anniversary of his upholstery shop. So we recorded a three song 45 which we put on clear vinyl and transparency covers that were also see-through. We made 100 copies of that vinyl and placed it in 100 pieces he upholstered that year, so you couldn’t even x-ray it to see if it was in there because of the transparent nature of it too, so they could be records that will never be found, ever.
More on authenticity:
Why can I tell you that I went to Arnold’s Meat and Three in Tennessee, but I’m not going to tell you that I went to Denny’s nationwide chain diner on the side of the freeway in Pittsburgh or something like that? I would never tell you about that because there’s no romance to that. That experience wouldn’t have been beautiful to begin with. But the America you’re talking about is all around.
I feel like I’m a bad storyteller in real life when I talk to people but I feel like when I’m writing a song I have a chance to do it right, I have a chance to say it the right way in the words I would like to use. That’s what happens. I end up dwelling on all the characters in the song and forgetting about myself. It almost feels boring to talk about myself: I know that story already. But these characters who come from an example of other people that I’m seeing, that story seems a lot more interesting for me and the people listening to it and I can get some life out of it down the road, playing it a hundred times.