Music Article

Changing Their Stripes

The White Stripes are back -- The duo talks about their album, ''Icky Thump,'' and Jack’s move to the suburbs

Jack White is no longer a smoker, but he's still a twitcher. It is 9 a.m. on a sunny, cold April day, and the frontman, songwriter, and spokesperson for the White Stripes is perched next to his ''sister,'' Meg, in a suite at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville. Both are seated in red armchairs, and, ignoring the coffee table in front of him, Jack grinds a glass of Perrier into the upholstery with verve. I'm here to interview the band about their upcoming sixth album, Icky Thump, and the sweeping life changes that have taken place since their last record two years ago. The wind is whistling ominously outside the hotel's drafty old windows. My armchair is, naturally, white.

For a decade now, the Detroit natives have played childlike rock music amid a strict set of ''constrictions'' that Jack laid out at the start. They wear three colors: black, white, red. They primarily use three instruments: guitar, vocals, drums. They refer to one another as siblings, despite being ex-husband and -wife. They prefer not to be interviewed separately. For an hour, I lean forward in my seat, trying to observe the constrictions set out by their publicist: no ''silly'' questions, no ''personal'' questions. Jack bobs and weaves, digging in on some topics and derisively brushing off others. Meg speaks only when spoken to. It's like we're playing a chess game, and the White Stripes have all the pieces. This, of course, is Jack's intention. ''I think I spend a lot of my time deciding whether I want to be honest or not,'' he admits a week later during a follow-up phone call. ''Because it seems that most of the time I give my opinions, they ''— the press —''just punish me with them.''

I ask Jack why he picked such a strangely formal environment for our interview. ''I don't know,'' he says, considering his options. ''A lot of journalists want to name-drop what's happening. 'I'm standing on the top of a cliff with Jennifer Aniston' or something, you know what I mean? It's all about what's happening with these people right now, and for us it's an album. So I guess it doesn't really matter.''

Dammit. There goes my rook.

I didn't go to Nashville to punish the White Stripes. In fact, if it wasn't totally unprofessional, I could have spent the hour praising Icky Thump (due June 19), an extraordinary 43-minute throwback to the band's beginnings. ''There's songs on this record that could have occurred on our first 45s,'' Jack reports. ''We're always trying to get down to this really raw, emotional rock & roll, and this album is even more to the core of that.'' Gone, therefore, is the marimba/keyboard affliction that haunted the last two records; in its place are aggressive guitar solos and distorted riffs. But if their initial albums were designed to be played in scuzzy, low-ceilinged rock clubs, this one sounds like it just sold out two weeks at Madison Square Garden. It also relies heavily on the stomp of Meg's kick drum, but when I ask her if she helped structure the songs, she replies quietly, ''They're still his songs. I'm just trying to come up with something that'll work.'' Come on: Don't you ever accidentally throw in a John Bonham-type fill and then realize, Oh, s -- -, I'm not supposed to do that? ''Um, no,'' she demurs. ''That never really happens.''

Ever since the band's breakthrough in 2002 — with Michel Gondry's LEGO-happy video for ''Fell in Love With a Girl'' — Jack White has used his songs to establish himself as indie rock's eccentric historian. Transformed from a onetime upholsterer into a restorer of sounds, he reclaimed Delta blues, Appalachian folk, and pure rock & roll for a generation thirsty for inspiration. Today, the White Stripes are movie stars, Simpsons characters, and Grammy winners. Jack found further success in 2006 with his side project, the Raconteurs; Meg has modeled for Marc Jacobs. And like all sane celebrities, they are serious about maintaining control of their lives. In recent years — since right about the time he dated his Cold Mountain costar Renée Zellweger, come to think of it — Jack has resisted media corruption, in many ways attempting to apply the same constrictions to the outside world that he's already imposed upon himself.

Thus our interviews have their rough patches, particularly when he feels criticized or misunderstood. It's as though our chessboard is surrounded by lava. Take our discussion of the band's exotic sartorial choices over the years: Have they ever looked back and wondered what on earth they were thinking? ''We can't really do that,'' Jack says with a smirk, ''because we actually knew what we were thinking. We never just did something for the hell of it. I want to be able to answer when some 14-year-old kid says, 'Why do you have that on top of your piano?' I'm not going to tell him, 'I dunno, it looks cool.''' That's a great answer, but it makes for an interview that always feels one question away from incineration — as does Jack's repeated use of the phrase ''I don't think it's that easy.'' Apparently, in the world of the White Stripes, it never is.

A year and a half ago, Jack White left inner-city Detroit for the serene southland of Nashville. ''I don't want to be part of a music community anymore,'' he says. ''I know how that story ends. Badly.'' He's not kidding: The events that drove him from his hometown included a lawsuit over royalties brought by a former sound mixer (ultimately won by the band) and a fistfight with Von Bondies lead singer Jason Stollsteimer that ended with Jack pleading guilty to a misdemeanor assault-and-battery charge. It could be said that Jack fled the one place where he could no longer count on his finely tuned ability to control the situation.

In the green hills of Tennessee, Jack has found ''almost the antithesis of indie cool,'' a place where he can work in complete solitude. He also appears ready to let his membership in what he calls the ''club'' of garage rock expire. I ask him if he's proud of the work he did in shepherding the Detroit music scene — the Von Bondies, Brendan Benson, the Soledad Brothers — into the mainstream, and he doesn't pause. ''No. I shouldn't have done that,'' he says. ''I should have been a little more concerned with myself.'' But here he is fearful of that punishing honesty, and shuts the topic down. ''You're asking all these questions,'' he says. ''This stuff is ancient history to me. I don't dwell on it anymore.'' Now, he says, ''I'm just so happy all the time, and everyone I'm in contact with is a happy person.'' Meg agrees: ''He just seems more grounded.'' She currently lives in L.A., where she enjoys the weather.

One thing the Stripes didn't leave behind in the Motor City is their familiar red-and-white palette, which, despite highbrow claims of aesthetics and art, has always seemed primarily like a marketing tool. A magazine recently asked the band to pose for photos in front of a yellow wall, which, to Jack, was as inconceivable as making a flippant artistic choice. After 10 years and countless worldwide appearances, is an easy-reference color scheme still necessary? ''Hell, yeah,'' Jack says, agitated again. ''Why would we be so bourgeois as to all of a sudden wear blue and green?'' he asks. ''It would look like a publicity stunt, more than anything we could ever dream up in our own realm. You won't see it happen.'' I try to refocus the conversation, but he cuts me off. ''People were saying that to us in 1998: 'Why don't you guys just wear blue, one time? It would be so great!' Know what I mean? It's so easy. It's just so easy. It took you two seconds to think that up.'' He pauses, grinds the Perrier glass again, relaxes himself, then looks up. ''I'm not talking about you.''

For a slightly less fiery view on the matter, I turned to video director and intrepid Frenchman Michel Gondry. Why, I asked him, is it so important for the White Stripes to be candy-cane children forever? ''You pay less attention to the background,'' he explains. ''You listen to Jack's guitar, and Meg's drumming, and both of them giving space to each other. Their image was just a little help, maybe for the beginning — but the music is really what makes them who they are.''

I'm not supposed to ask questions about Jack White's personal life, but there are a few facts on record: Jack wed British model Karen Elson two years ago in what was billed, stubbornly, as his first marriage. (Meg, ever steadfast, served as maid of honor.) In fact, it was Elson who provided the only influence I could wring out of Jack regarding Icky Thump: The distorted British slang of the album's title was something he picked up from her, and the button-covered outfits the band wears on the cover are those of a ''pearly king and queen,'' traditional garb stemming from London's junk collectors. It's a metaphor that plays handily into Jack's role as rock's salvage artist.

Another influence on Jack's music, presumably, is fatherhood: He and Karen are the parents of a year-old daughter named Scarlett. Though the subject is verboten, I bring it up anyway, since it seems ridiculous not to ask a creator of childlike rock if the experience of actually having a child is everything it's cracked up to be. ''Oh, it's been even better,'' Jack says. ''I think certain chemicals in your brain are released that tell you this is a gigantic part of being alive.'' As it happens, on the morning of my last day in Nashville, I'm sitting in the lobby of the Loveless Cafe, waiting to meet a friend for lunch. While staring at walls covered in glossy photos of Opry singers, I hear a British accent and turn to see a tall redhead pushing a red stroller, wherein sits a baby wearing a red-and-white dress. In the exact same moment I realize that I'm staring at a visibly pregnant Elson, and that the baby in the stroller is Scarlett, a young girl approaches the woman at the register. ''Is there anybody famous here today?'' she asks. '''Fraid not, sweetie,'' the woman chirps. Even if I wanted to explain the magnitude of this coincidence to someone, there isn't a soul in the Loveless who would care.

It suddenly seems obvious: As mysterious and contrived and obsessive-compulsive as his art may still be, Jack White got burned-out on the scene, moved to the suburbs, married a nice girl, and bred. This is the kind of stuff that totally normal people do. In our phone conversation the following week, I brace myself and sacrifice my queen: I tell Jack about my Loveless run-in. Your wife and daughter seemed very comfortable in their environment, I say. That must be a nice feeling for you — you know, as a father. ''Oh, well,'' he murmurs, unmoved except for the crafty smile in his voice. ''I'd love to meet them one day.''

Dammit. Checkmate.

Originally posted May 18, 2007 Published in issue #935 May 25, 2007 Order article reprints
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