At the Third Man Records SXSW showcase in Austin Texas last month, Jack White headlined the lineup, debuting material from his new solo album Blunderbuss and retooling songs from The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather with the muscle of two new bands - one all-female and one all-male. The day after the showcase, VOLUME had an audience with the newly solo renaissance man.
SAM WICKS: In the past, have you assigned genders to your songs - you've thought, 'This is a little more feminine, this is a little more masculine'?
JACK WHITE: Yeah, when I was younger and took Spanish class in high school and they started to tell you every object has a male or female pronoun in front of it, like 'el' or 'la' - 'la casa' or whatever it is - that you give masculine and feminine identities to everything, and that's a really interesting tack. I couldn't believe it at the time - it almost seems ridiculous or sexist - that's a language and that's talking about inanimate objects. This chair is either feminine or masculine, or this factory is feminine or masculine, or this car.
So I think that just shows you that, as humans, it doesn't matter what goes on socially or politically between the genders - as long as we're a species, we have preconceptions about the opposite sex all the time, and if I brought on stage six 80-year-old women instead of six 20-year-old men, there would be a total difference, or six 80-year-old men instead of six 20-year-old men.
So what I want to do is have a preconception immediately given to you when you are watching from the audience, and I hope that you'll forget it by the third song - that's when you know you're getting somewhere. I forget that they're all men up there or they're all women up there, and I think it goes a long way of what's possible.
How did you go about making that split yourself? When you look at a whole back catalogue that you have to now assign to two different bands, what defines that split?
Well, both bands learn all of the songs. This took weeks of rehearsal, man - this is not easy and it's not easy to do live either. I would travel and rehearse for a couple of hours with the boys, and then I would travel across town and rehearse a couple of hours with the girls, and I was just driving back and forth between two bands. And we would do the songs two different ways - and I have to remember all this stuff, man.
And, on top of it, when we go out on stage - the morning of the show I say, 'It's going to be the girls tonight' or 'it's going to be the guys tonight' and the other band has the day off, and that way I didn't know, the band didn't know, the press didn't know, the fans didn't know. That's one way for me to really shake it up and challenge myself. 'Cause the easiest thing to do is - big deal - find five guys who can play the songs like they are on the album, go out on stage and play it like it is on the record - 'goodnight, Cleveland' or whatever. That's no challenge to me - that's just taking the easy way out - and I really want to shake things up for myself.
I want to provoke myself and provoke the audience - and not in a shocking way, in a way we can get somewhere new. We're also not using any setlists either, which is just like how I played in The White Stripes, and that's a very challenging thing to walk out on stage with six people and nobody knows what we're going to play. There are no safety nets at all in this, man.
Not only do those bands have to get their heads around the Blunderbuss material, but they're got three bands' worth of material they also have to get their heads around. Some of those songs, are you able to add more flesh to their bones because you have bigger bands to pull it off with?
Yeah, and that's one of the benefits of it - I can really change these songs in a big dynamic way. You know, if you took a White Stripes song, sometimes certain songs Meg and I could only get them louder or quieter - there wasn't much else we could really do with them with only a guitar or a piano between me and Meg.
In a band like this, if you have a fiddle, steel guitar, synthesiser, whatever - we can do a lot of things we could never do before with some of these songs. And that's great because the last thing I want to do is go up onstage and try to perform, you know, Hardest Button to Button or Steady As She Goes exactly like those other bands did. It would be stupid to do that, so I really want to go out and give them a whole new life.
You've said that three bands are enough - if you can't say it with three bands, then it's solo for now. What can you say as a solo artist that you couldn't say with a band, and what can you do with a band that's maybe not achievable now going out under your own name?
Yeah, that was a question I had for myself - it's really a compelling question. I had to look at each one of the things that I had done and why I did them. You know, in Dead Weather I was the drummer but the four of us wrote songs together. In Raconteurs me and Brendon wrote the songs and the four of us performed them.
In The White Stripes I wrote all the songs and me and Meg made them electric and made them into White Stripes songs as sort of cover songs of these Jack songs I'd written by myself acoustically. So now, after the production styles I'd used on these Third Man records over the past couple of years, it led me to record this album and these songs that I could really orchestrate a large band - eight, nine musicians in a room playing together live. I could figure out how I want this clarinet and this piano to harmonise on this note, the backing vocals don't come into the bridge, and I was becoming an orchestrator in a larger way that I hadn't done before on any of the productions that I'd done. Wanda Jackson's album, producing that really led me to this style 'cause I had so many people in the room together. This is a whole new challenge for me - I'm not just someone like, 'Hey, get my manager to find me a producer, get the musicians in - I'm going to go in and they're going to play my songs, and then I'm going to go on vacation next week'.
Every single component of recording this song I'm directly involved with. And when we take it out on stage on tour, now I've got to really give it a brand new life. It's not time to take it easy and coast on these songs - 'I mixed it, this song's great, people like it, now just play it like it is on the record'. It's time for me to go out and expand on that song even more and give it a new life and have it be as energetic and powerful as possible on stage. That's not easy stuff to do, but those are all the challenges that I want from myself and I want to give myself.
* Jack White's album Blunderbuss is out now through Third Man Records/Sony Music.