The White Stripes
Meg White’s reticence is downplayed by her irresistibly innocent smile, reminiscent of a 1950s debutante, an image accentuated by an ever-present cigarette and red-and-white polka dot dress. She’s content not to say much, but when she’s prodded to finally share some thoughts on the White Stripes’ new album, Icky Thump, Jack White takes the opportunity to slam the window shut behind him, cutting off the draft that’s been disrupting his concentration. It’s an uncommonly chilly April breeze that invades the suite in Nashville’s finest hotel, the Hermitage, and the eerie whistling that accompanies it was an ever-present reminder that the hotel houses one of the city’s most famous ghosts. Apparently, there are a lot of ghosts in Nashville — at least as many as in Jack’s songs — and most of them are the result of shattered dreams of fame and fortune, judging by the wide variety of tawdry late-night attractions that remain at the heart of Hillbilly Heaven’s odd appeal.
These ghost stories may not be as interesting as those from, say, New Orleans, but Nashville is where Jack White’s enigmatic journey has led him, and where Icky Thump was made. Recording in different locations each time out has never been set in stone, but for a band that operates within strict parameters, it’s fair to say that after six albums it’s become another of the self-imposed rules the White Stripes live by. "We always record in the winter when it’s a little more uncomfortable,” Jack says, his inky hair and matching ensemble unintentionally evoking the spirit of Johnny Cash. "It pushes you to finish, kind of like when you’re shovelling the walk. You want to get it over with so you can go back inside and get warm again. Things like the weather and the environment seem to influence our records a lot.” But when asked about Nashville’s influence on him personally, Jack can’t help but hint at the well-known love-hate relationship he still has for his hometown Detroit. "I feel a lot more positive and happy in Nashville. I rest easy at night.”
Jack’s openness is a logical extension of Icky Thump’s energy. The songs are a marked return to the bluesy fire of the first few White Stripes albums, after the unexpectedly subdued, keyboard-laden Get Behind Me Satan. The new album is also a reaffirmation for fans that the White Stripes remain a priority in Jack’s life now that his "other” band, the Raconteurs, is a going concern as well. It’s good to be Jack White at this point in time, and Icky Thump is proof that he’s at the top of his game. "The differences with this one were that I was coming off touring for a year with another band, and it was the first time we’d worked in a modern studio,” he says. "The studio was our big worry — could we pull off the sound we wanted? I think we succeeded. We made it through unscathed. We used the same equipment that we like to use, and I don’t think it made anything sound plastic.”
Both Jack and Meg credit much of the album’s positive vibes to veteran engineer Joe Chiccarelli, fresh off working with the Shins, a band with whom the White Stripes share management. But overall, Icky Thump displays a clear vision that was partially lacking on Satan, a glorified home recording that Jack even admitted at the time didn’t begin to congeal until he picked up his guitar again and wrote "Blue Orchid” near the end of the sessions. Still, Jack maintains that there was never an intention for the new album to lack in the spontaneity department. "I think there are a lot of things about us that are premeditated, so people naturally assume that we go in saying ‘This is what the album’s going to be called, this is the type of songs it’s going to have.’ We don’t really do that. It wasn’t until we started mixing down Satan that I said, ‘Hey, there’s not much guitar on this album.’ It honestly didn’t occur to me. This album’s got the most guitar solos I’ve ever done on a White Stripes record, and that wasn’t pre-planned. On most of them I haven’t played any solos because I wanted to be anti that. But with these songs I felt like I wanted to get deeper into it.”
The return to balls-out guitar rock begs the question of what, if any, competition now exists between the White Stripes and the Raconteurs, Jack’s collaboration with Brendan Benson, Jack Lawrence, and Patrick Keeler, whose debut album, Broken Boy Soldiers, rated high on many best-of lists last year. As we spoke, the second Raconteurs album was in production with an aim to be completed before the start of the White Stripes tour, and Jack has so far been able to deftly manage both his time and ego.
Perhaps as a result of Jack’s recent musical shape shifting, the notion of role reversal has found its way into a lot of the lyrics on Icky Thump. One track, "I’m Slowly Turning Into You,” was even written with the intent of seeing what their frequent video director, Michel Gondry, could do with it. However, the most obvious of these role reversals happens to be the album’s only cover, a song called "Conquest” that Jack learned from an old Patti Page record. It’s now easily one of the White Stripes’ most over-the-top creations, aided in large part by a trumpet player Jack discovered in a Nashville Mexican restaurant.
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