24 Mar 2018

INTERVIEW: Jack White on ladybugs, taxidermy and his confounding new album

From RNZ Music, 1:10 pm on 24 March 2018

Jack White has always gone against the grain, drawing on the minimalism of early blues and analogue recording for The White Stripes when everyone else was going digital. His third solo record Boarding House Reach is packed to the rafters with new sounds and colourful characters. He speaks to Kirsten Johnstone.  

Jack White

Jack White Photo: David James Swanson

A plague of ladybugs has taken up residence in Jack White’s Nashville house. There’s something whimsical about red, white and black beetles choosing the former White Stripe’s walls to haunt.

“I don’t want to kill any of them, you know, they’re quite annoying, but they were here before this house was here.”

Jack White’s third album Boarding House Reach is a confounding listen. Opening the album with the gritty gospel sounds of ‘Connected By Love’, obviously a Pollyanna comment on the current American political climate (“let’s take the worst and turn it into the best”) he follows up with the bluesy ode to animal welfare ‘Why Walk A Dog’:

Are you their master/did you buy them at the store/did you think they were a cure/for you to stop being bored/so somebody mated them/And took their babies away from them/stuck a price tag on their nose/ and now you’re buying it clothes

White Stripes, 2003

White Stripes, 2003 Photo: Dean Chalkley

RELATED: Nick Bollinger reviews Boarding House Reach for The Sampler

“I really love this song, so much.” says Jack. “I know it’s something that a lot of people won’t care for, it doesn’t have a real hook, and a riff to it or anything like that, there’s nothing that attractive about it, and that’s why I put it as the second song on the record. It just felt like it needs to be right up front, because it’s such a misfit.”  

And no, he doesn’t own a dog.

“I’m not so sure I would be good having pets… I have a couple of fish and a peacock, outside, but they don’t feel like... something feels wrong about it to me, it feels like I’m enslaving another species.”

He does have a veritable Noah’s Ark of taxidermy though, including a baby giraffe, gazelles, goats, hyenas, a dead peacock and the elephant’s head he drove a hard bargain for.  

“Yeah. I think there’s a beauty to it, like you really are aware that they were here before you, or they’re always here whether you see them or not.” He’s never hunted, and doesn’t think he could.

Jack White sees himself as a curator, a caretaker of all these collections he has, including comic books, scissors, sewing machine needles, rare records and old recording booths.   

“I just love beautiful things.” There’s a Shakespearean pomp in his voice. “I’ve a lust for life through objects and through the history of man’s objects. Especially through the 19th and 20th century. I think when commerce meets art, and art meets the industrial age, the things that we create to sell to other human beings is so funny. I just love it.”

His house may resemble a museum, and Jack says that all these objects are very inspiring, but for the creation of this album he rented an empty room.

“No distractions, no internet, no telephone, just me in a room with recording equipment and a couple of instruments.”

He also took the four-track recorder he used when he was a teenager.  It’s unsurprising - he’s always recorded onto tape, from when he was an upholstery apprentice playing drums with master upholsterer and musician Brian Muldoon, who’d introduced Jack to punk music.

Jack White

Jack White Photo: David James Swanson

By the time he formed The White Stripes in 1997 with his wife Meg White, he was obsessed with early blues: Son House, Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson.

“I think at the time everything was going so digital - the obvious way to rebel for me as an artist was to go analogue, and rewind the tape back to the blues. I was in my early 20s and that meant everything to me, to make that statement.

"The most punk thing to do and the most rebellious thing to do is to not do what everybody else was doing. To not record digitally, to not record on computers, to record on tape and to record on the equipment that made everything happen to begin with. And then see if you had a new twist on it.

"By the time we were making something like Elephant (the White Stripes' 2001 breakthrough album), it was sorta like, ‘What would the 21st century blues sound like?’ and to me it was like ‘7 Nation Army’, and ‘Ball and Biscuit’ and ‘Hardest Button To Button’ and those tracks.”

Boarding House Reach still draws on analogue methodology and old styles of music, there’s blues and gospel in there, but also digital bleeps and burps, piano pomp, vocal overdrive and speed warping, and the most head-nodding drum patterns ever heard on a Jack White record. There’s an unmistakable swagger of hip-hop in his vocal delivery and the haphazard, maximalist way the production is thrown together.     

While the recordings started in that isolated room in Nashville, Jack set up studio sessions in New York and Los Angeles for the supporting cast of musicians. Jack’s funky drummer is Daru Jones, who’s played with hip-hop stars Nas and Talib Kweli, but there’s also drum contributions from Carla Azar (Depeche Mode) and Louis Cato (Beyoncé /John Legend).

Bass squelches come from multi-instrumentalist NeonPhoenix who has worked with Herbie Hancock, and Kanye West. That’s gospel singing trio The McCrary Sisters on ‘Connected By Love’ and Jack wrote a monologue especially for Australian blues-man-out-of-time CW Stoneking just so he could hear his timeless, placeless, drawling speaking voice.

He took all the recordings: hours and hours of strangers jamming in a room together, and the kinetic energy that produces, dumped it all into a computer, and stitched it all together. He took his time - at this point in his career, releasing on his own Third Man Records, there’s no-one to push him to put out a record until he’s really happy with it. How did he know when to stop?

“That’s the hardest part! If you’re a painter, you start painting on a canvas, and you can keep painting and painting - there’s no one there to tap you on the shoulder and say ‘uh, uh, uh, it’s over, man, put the paintbrush down.’ You have to tell yourself, and I’ve definitely seen artists who don’t know when to stop, and I’ve been around artists who stop too soon. The beautiful ones, they know when it’s done and when to move on, and that’s a very hard thing to do. Nobody can teach you that, you have to teach yourself.”

Jack himself has written music in the past few years with Beyoncé, Jay Z and Tribe Called Quest, and you can hear it. On one track, the truly bizarre ‘Ice Station Zebra’ he raps over a mish-mash of g-funk synths, Queen-esque piano chords, and more laid back jazz licks.

“Everyone creating is a member of the family/ Passing down genes and ideas in harmony/ The players and the cynics might be thinking it's odd / But if you rewind the tape, we're all copying god.”

Another song ‘Over And Over And Over’ he once recorded with Jay Z, who rapped over the refrain "under my Ray Bans". That version of it hasn’t been released, and Jack doesn’t know if it ever will be - it only exists on Jay’s computer. Jack says the song started way back during the 2005 sessions for White Stripes album Get Behind Me Satan and that he’s also tried to record the song with his other bands, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, but it never felt right.

“Yeah, I’ve never worked on a song this long before, I don’t know what the deal is with this song”.

“But I always believed in it for some reason and came back to it, and it finally clicked. I think it was the guitar tone that did it. I think that was the defining thing that made me think wow, now I write the vocals for it - I had never written the vocals in all those years.”

The Sisyphean dreamer / My fibula and femur / Hold the weight of the world / (Over and over) I think, therefore I die / Anxiety and I, rolling down a mountain (Over and over)

Sisyphus, a sinning Greek King famous for being condemned to an eternity pushing a boulder uphill, only for it to roll down again, seems like a good spirit guide for the song that Jack carried around in his head for so long.

He recently told the New Yorker ‘What I do is vocalise characters’ as opposed to being a singer. There is a whole village of eccentric characters on Boarding House Reach. ‘Ezmerelda Steals The Show’ comes from Jack sitting through his kid’s school recitals and imagining the unexpected:  “Like, well wouldn't’ it be great if that kid just stood up and did a Tuba solo right now without being asked to?”

‘Everything You’ve Ever Known’ is introduced by a futuristic motivational speaker stuck in an eternal loop. His rework of Dvořák’s 'Humoresque' brings images of the 19th-century parlour piano singer. ‘Get In The Mind Shaft’ has a Lynchian poem about learning piano in a haunted house, which introduces a squelchy vocoder funk number. And there’s evidence here that Jack would have made a good preacher, had he gone through with training at the Seminary school he enrolled for when he was 17.

“It’s funny, I read to my children from the Bible the other day for the first time ever, I read the story of Adam and Eve, 'cause they were asking me about it, and I hadn’t read it since I was a teenager I guess. So much of it I disagreed with! It was so funny I had to stop every couple of sentences and explain it, my own thoughts on why I’m not so sure about that.”

Jack White was raised Catholic, the last of ten children, and though he’s done with church, he says “Getting in touch with God is important to me, there should be some sort of acknowledgement of that, but I think religion gets in the way of that”.

Given his unwillingness to call the exterminator on his ladybugs, maybe he’s more suited to Buddhism.

Jack White

Jack White Photo: Jo McCaughey