The White Stripes Manifest Destiny

The White Stripes Manifest Destiny
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.

However, on other songs, specifically "Effect And Cause” and the title track, Jack’s storytelling style seems to veer into previously unmapped political territory. "‘Icky Thump’ is about the ridiculous immigration problem in America that everyone’s using as kind of a scapegoat,” he says. "But when it comes to songs like that, I’m always worried about profiting off of someone else’s problem, or picking up on a cause in order to get attention for myself. I would never want to be known for courting more celebrity by trumpeting some big cause, so a lot of it I leave to people who do it better than me.” Indeed, the unglamorous atmosphere of Nashville appears perfectly suited to Jack’s current state of mind, since his brief dalliance with the tabloids through his former flame Renée Zellweger is well behind him. He’s now happily married to model Karen Elson (who starred in the "Blue Orchid” video) and the phrase "icky thump” comes from the slang commonly used in her northern British hometown. On the other hand, Meg now resides in Los Angeles, a place where she feels surprisingly comfortable. "I was getting settled there while the Raconteurs were working, so before we started rehearsing the new album I was living a normal life for a little while,” she says. "I think you have to be able to keep your musical life and your normal life separated, even though I’ve never really had a problem anywhere with being recognised or whatever. It’s easier to live in L.A. in that respect, I guess, but I don’t really go out much anyway.”

They both concur that the extended time away from each other had little effect on their working relationship, and that Icky Thump even harkens back to their early records in many ways. "The great thing about the White Stripes is there’s this grounded solidness to it,” Jack says. "There’s a part of you that wants to hear something new from your favourite band, but there’s a part of you that always wants to hear that stuff you first fell in love with about them too. I’ve never been scared about reinventing ourselves, that doesn’t matter to me. Those things just come on their own, you can’t force them. The good part is that there’s this foundation that we always come back to.”

A few blocks from the Hermitage Hotel, outside the Nashville city courthouse, sits the tomb of James Polk, the 11th American president. It was he who championed the policy of manifest destiny; that is, it was America’s God-given right to possess all the land along the Pacific shore from Mexico to Alaska. It was a big dream that fortunately for many future Canadians did not come true. But in some ways, the White Stripes are resurrecting his ghost as a premise for their upcoming tour. By playing every province in Canada — yes, even the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut — along with the 16 American states they have yet to play, the band will firmly unite North America under its red, white, and black banner. It’s a subject Jack seems able to discuss endlessly, being the stickler for detail that he is. "It just occurred to me that nobody’s probably done that since Nunavut became a province,” he says, displaying a remarkable grasp of Canadian geography. "Most bands wouldn’t do a tour like this because they don’t make any money from it. It’s like when we kicked off our last album in South America, not too many people were happy about that from the business side of things. But that’s what we needed to do. I mean, look how long it’s taken us to get a full tour of Canada, when we grew up across the street.”

On top of this, both Jack and Meg are eagerly anticipating the show in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on July 14, which will mark the tenth anniversary of the first White Stripes gig. For Jack, the location holds even greater significance since it’s now come to light that his family tree can be traced to Nova Scotia and his relatives include Cape Breton fiddlers Ashley MacIsaac and Natalie MacMaster. It was these staunch Catholic ancestors who eventually made their way to Detroit, where Jack was born John Gillis in 1975, the youngest of ten brothers and sisters.

Contrary to popular myth, one of them was not Meg. Jack met Meg White (a year his elder) after he began playing with various bands in the early ’90s Detroit garage rock scene. They were married in 1996 with Jack taking her name (they divorced in 2000), and it wasn’t until then that she tried playing drums, hatching the idea of the White Stripes in the process. By all accounts, that first show at the Gold Dollar in Detroit was rough, but it was the birth-wail of a sound that quickly re-invigorated blues-based rock for a new generation at a time when it was considered all but obsolete.

From the Black Keys to Wolfmother, many bands owe at least a small part of their success to the mainstream breakthrough that greeted the White Stripes’ third album, 2001’s White Blood Cells. Although at the time they were unjustly linked with the Strokes as the latest saviours of rock, their love of blues and country quickly catapulted them beyond the scope of any trends, and into the exalted circles of several of their idols. Jack would go on to mastermind Loretta Lynn’s brilliant Van Lear Rose, and when he was invited on stage by Bob Dylan during a 2004 Detroit show, Dylan insisted they play one of Jack’s songs, "Ball And Biscuit.” Before the end of this year, Jack will also be seen in Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones documentary, performing a duet on "Loving Cup.” Having rubbed shoulders with Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Jimmy Page as well, Jack remains as bemused about it as any fan.

"I’ve been very lucky,” he says. "But I think the common language among all those people is the blues. That’s why we can carry on a conversation for more than 30 seconds. But I tried to shelter us from any of that ‘white boy’ criticism. The way we presented ourselves aesthetically was sort of a shield to get away with playing the blues as white kids born in the ’70s. I’m so fortunate that I have this band where I can play this music that’s so close to my heart.”

As for Jack’s early obsessions with ancient blues artists like Son House and Blind Willie McTell passing on to other young musicians, he’s genuinely humble about any influence that has come in the White Stripes’ wake. And that influence is bound to continue with standout new songs like "300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues,” and "Catch Hell Blues.” "I’m glad that more bands are picking up on [the blues]. But for us, that music was part of our environment being from Detroit, and sort of ingrained in our blood. It’s not a very modern town; it’s a little off-kilter to exist in. It’s like going to prison — once you get out of it, you always know what it’s like. You can put yourself right back in that environment in a second.”

Jack adds after some thought, "Basically, it comes down to a struggle. I think some people have the misconception of, well if I just had the right guitar, if I just had the right amp, if I just had a label that would give me a bunch of money to record an album, then I could make a great record. If I could just make it easier on myself. But the struggle has to come from somewhere. If that’s not there, then the results are probably not going to be the kind of art that other people will want to share.”

That endless struggle has led to both blues and country creating many martyrs over the past century. In keeping with that notion, Nashville’s most hallowed ground is the Ryman Auditorium, the old church that was the original home of the Grand Ole Opry radio program that launched the careers of virtually every country music star. And, evidently, the ghost of Hank Williams still haunts it. His short, painful life is still one of the most powerful examples of the price that is too often paid in order to produce transcendent works of art, and Jack White knows this all too well. His body of work has been marked by his deep love of a wide range of American cultural iconoclasts, and it’s something that he’s now prepared to admit has given him to a broader perspective on his own success.

"You look at a guy like Orson Welles, who was given complete control to make a film at the age of 24. How did that actually happen? It must have been some sort of fluke, but look what happened, it was the greatest film ever made. Or when somebody decided to invite Robert Johnson into a room and record him. How did that actually happen? What were the circumstances? You can’t help but look at those things with the hope that there are these beautiful diamonds in the rough that exist in the world, and at times they rise to the surface. Sometimes it’s by accident, but you always sort of get the feeling that there was divine intervention behind it all the time. It’s too good to be true.”

It comes as no surprise, then, when Jack says that he has spent the past two years doing extensive reading on the lives of the saints. With this in mind, two more songs on Icky Thump suddenly come into sharper focus: the droning "St. Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air),” featuring a vocal from Meg; and "A Martyr For My Love For You,” powered by some heavy Hammond organ, the album’s sonic secret weapon. "The saints are interesting characters to me, but not in any super-religious way,” Jack says. "It’s just been a way for me to meditate. It’s interesting that a lot of them may have never even existed. Even still, there’s a lot to learn from them. They all had a different way to get to heaven. It kind of says a lot about humanity.”

Could there be a connection between the saints and the early blues musicians? "Of course,” Jack says. "It’s about being torn between two things, and that’s what we are every day, whether it’s between wanting to please yourself or please other people, or just having a hamburger instead of a salad. You go through these little tiny battles to the huge battles between right and wrong. The bluesmen were just relating that division. Each one probably had different reasons for doing it, but it all comes back to being torn and expressing it.”

While it may not be obvious on the surface, given Jack and Meg’s finely honed image, the struggles and battles that Jack keeps talking about are still there every time the White Stripes play a show. Especially in older, well-tested songs like "Screwdriver,” there will be moments when the pair are staring each other down, consumed by an argument in which their instruments are doing the shouting. Dancing along that edge together is the core of the White Stripes’ brilliance, and something that almost no other band can touch. To their critics, Icky Thump might sound like a return to the often-baffling dichotomies that Jack and Meg White have set up for themselves, but in the end what it actually reveals is how far they have moved beyond them, much further than anyone could have expected. "Sometimes people will ask us, ‘So how is the band evolving?’ or ‘Where is the band going to be one day?’” Jack says, almost wearily. "I never believed that it’s been our job to become the Beatles. This band is the opposite of that — we’re an anti-evolving band. When we walk out on stage, we have no idea what we’re going to do. We don’t even know what the first song is going to be. If we ever became the kind of band that played along to a backing track, with a huge light show, and a set list that we’ve practised for three months, we couldn’t take any pride in that. It doesn’t really become a dangerous proposition at that point.”