Photo by David James Swanson

A Rare Interview with Jack White

It was the White Stripes’ catchy blues riffs and infectious hook-heavy hits that put Jack White on the international rock n’ roll radar.

But it would be his post-Stripes career that proved his songwriting prowess and allowed his sound to soar beyond the constraints of the garage-y two-piece. After spearheading two supergroups (The Raconteurs and Dead Weather) and releasing two lauded solo records, Jack took some time off to focus on his family, his record label and his vinyl pressing plant which opened last year in Detroit. Now, Jack is back, and nothing could have prepared us for the stylistic detour on his latest offering.

Boarding House Reach, released this week, is easily White’s most experimental and adventurous album to date. Comprised of recording sessions in Nashville, New York and LA, White is joined by more than two dozen musicians, many hand-picked from the backing bands of hip-hop royalty like Jay Z, Beyonce, Kanye, Nas, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli and Lil Wayne. While brief barroom piano progressions and the occasional fuzzed-out blues riff reminds us of the Jack of old, the rest of the album is a sonic shapeshifting adventure that combines funk, hip-hop, jazz, rock, blues and spoken word.

Gathered from studio jam sessions and tweaked with a post-production proficiency, White and company string together undulating synths, heavily distorted keys and a love for the low-end. Even Jack’s vocal delivery seems to explore new territory. Whether it’s a poetic skit or a rap-rock track that conjures up the aggressive cadence of Rage Against The Machine juxtaposed with a Greek chorus of soul singers, White is unapologetically distancing himself from everything you’ve come to expect from him.

We caught up with Jack White over the phone in a rare interview to talk about his new album. Ladies and Gents, Mr. Jack White…

This record seems to be the biggest departure from the sounds of your previous projects. What ideas did you bring into the studio? Did you have a sound in mind or a set of parameters?

What I usually do when I’m making a record is make a couple of restrictions for myself, just so that I know not to stray off too far. One of them was to just try writing melodies in my head to start and see what that would be like. I’ve never really done that before. I thought I would also like to play with strangers that are from that hip-hop live world—musicians that play behind Jay Z, Kanye or Kendrick, who can recreate live what’s on those records without samples and digital production.

I got lucky and a lot of them were up for the idea. I recorded the whole thing on tape and then edited the entire thing on computer with ProTools, which I have never done. I’ve edited a few songs here and there on ProTools, but I’ve never done a whole album like that. So that was a totally different way of finishing a song. And that’s the most important part really—the mixing and the editing.

So when you bring this on the road will you be bringing some of the players on the record or will you have to teach these songs to a different touring band?

I’m using Dominic Davis who plays bass for me. We’ve played together since we were 12-years-old. I’m bringing Carla Azar who is an amazing musician and played drums on the LA sessions for this album and Neal Evans and Quincy McCrary who played keys and synths on the NYC and LA sessions.

Did you go in with a blueprint and orchestrate how things happened or did the songs just work themselves out live?

I don’t like to plan too much about what a song is supposed to be. That’s not what I like to do. I like to set up a scenario where those types of songs can take place. The songs are whatever the songs want to be. If they want to be punk, or bluesy or funky or whatever, it’s not my job to tell them no, you don’t get to be on my record.

Are the layers of sound the result of crafty mixing or is that something that happened in the studio?

I think it happens wherever you want it to happen when you’re a songwriter and a producer. I’m lucky I get to be both. You can add them in whenever you feel like it or allow them to happen whenever you feel like it. There are different words you can use, like songwriter or producer, but maybe director is a better word for me. I’m basically saying, “Ok how about this now? Let’s try this type of bass sound,” or “What if we did a drum machine on this part of this chorus instead of acoustic drums?”

And you start throwing out ideas like that and hopefully the musicians you’re playing with will come up with their own spin on what you’re talking about. That’s what I’m always hoping for, that they’ll bring some of their own magic to it and something new will happen. I could play those instruments myself and record those instruments myself, but that’s not the point. You want to speak the language of music with other people and see if you can get to someplace new.

Was there anything thematically that ties these songs together or was it mainly the change in approach and concept that unites these songs?

There’s no real concept to what’s going on. That goes for any album I’ve ever made. I really just let the songs be in charge and tell me what to do and at the end, something comes out of it. I’ve never actually done a concept album, I’m kind of scared of that. That would be more like “I’m making a country album” or “I’m making a soul album.” Maybe I will one day, but that feels like the wrong kind of box for me.

You have a song called “Hypermisophoniac” [definition: a person with a rare disorder in which certain sounds provoke extreme reactions of dislike] which I’m assuming will be everyone’s word of the day when the record comes out. What sounds bother you?

Oh my god. That’s a really good question. What sounds bother me, um… you know, vents…air vents… bathroom air vents. They drive me nuts. I can’t stand them. I wish I could remove them. When my contractor was building my studio he came up with the idea to put the vent fan on the other side of the pipe near the top so you wouldn’t hear it in the studio. I was like “Holy shit, I want to do that everywhere.” I didn’t know you could do that. But, yeah, that’s my most hated sound.

Did this record pose some obstacles to your love of analogue recording? Was it a necessary evil to go digital or was it something you were ready to experiment with?

I know what you mean. I’ve always edited on tape with Razor Blade, which practically nobody left on earth does anymore. So it’s kind of funny when you think about the type of songs that were emerging from this. To record something in Nashville, and then record it in New York with six musicians and then take that tape to LA and record it again with six more musicians, I would have needed a lot more tracks, and to be able to edit that it would have been absolutely impossible to do it all on tape. There was absolutely no way to do that, it would have taken over a year. It just wasn’t necessary.

The sounds and the vibes all came from tape already, you’re just cutting them up and putting them into different places. I didn’t use plug-ins or emulations or anything in the computer, I generally don’t care for them anyway. Like “digital reverb”—it sounds like a contradiction of terms to begin with. I just used it as an editing tool and I think that really helped because I don’t think I would have gotten the sounds I wanted otherwise. I told myself on this album, if I imagine a sound, I want to make that sound happen. I don’t care what makes that sound whether it’s a machine or a real drum or a loop that we digitally altered, but I have to make it exactly like that sound that I imagined. I used to have to be able to defend where a sound came from and what made it and why and how it was done. This time I decided I didn’t care about that.

Is it true that one of the tracks on the new record was originally supposed to be part of a collaboration with Jay Z that never came to fruition?

Yeah, there’s a song called “Over and Over and Over”, which at this point is the perfect title because I have recorded it for every album I’ve done since White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan—it might even go further back than that. This is the ONLY song I’ve ever done where I kept trying and I kept believing in it. There was just something about it. I just couldn’t find that moment, I kept trying. I tried it with Jay Z. I tried with the Raconteurs, Dead Weather and none of those things worked out. But this time it finally worked. I hit this guitar tone from a Bumble Buzz pedal that we sell down at Third Man. It actually shocked me when I realized that we needed that buzz to it the whole time.

Does the song retain any of Jay-Z’s input or was that scrapped?

No, the version that we did is totally different and I’ve actually never even heard it. He has it. But he rapped on it and it was called “Ray Bans” when he did it.

Is that collaboration something you have hope for in the future or has it run its course?

I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. I think if things were interesting enough to both people it would have happened by now. Who knows, I don’t really know the reasons why.

So you’re doing a bunch of festival shows. Do you enjoy playing outdoor venues or do you wish you could stick to smaller club and theatre shows?

It’s tough for me. Those are the tougher shows for me to play—especially if they’re in the daytime. It’s a little bit more like a beach band playing at a surf party. Everyone’s there to have a really good time and have fun and do whatever it is that they do out there, but I think the music is almost secondary. I think there are certain things that really work in those environments. I remember when we did Big Day Out; we did our thing and then later that night we went to see Prodigy and everyone was just going apeshit. And it was like “See. That’s the kind of music that is perfect for this venue.” I mean, I don’t know, I’ve never gone to a festival so I’m a bad person to ask, you know. I don’t think I could stand out in the sun that long myself. But if people enjoy it, good for them. I hope they love whatever it is their experience is.

Are you surprised at the success of Third Man Records?

Third Man is an incredible creative paradise for me and everyone else involved. Over the years we’ve added every single thing I can think of that I would want to do if I was visiting this building from out of town. Now that we have a Detroit location with a pressing plant in it, it is just unbelievable. It’s too much really. What’s amazing is this first single that we released, “Connected by Love.” I started it in this empty room in Nashville and wrote it and recorded it on this reel-to-reel that I’ve owned since I was a teenager.

I saw the whole thing through, from writing it all the way to performing it, recording it, producing it, mixing it, and I own the label and it’s a 45 record so I have the tiny little label from the pressing plant and I pressed the record too. It’s DIY to the max! I don’t think there’s ever been a more DIY record than that because I don’t think any artist has ever owned their own pressing plant. From writing and recording, to mixing, all the way to pressing the record itself, it’s do-it-yourself in every aspect and I am very, very proud of that. I didn’t even realize it until I held the record in my hand, all of those components have been laid into place over the years.

You’ve recorded and released records for bands and musicians from a wide variety of genres. Are there bands out there you’ve denied recording because you don’t respect their music?

[Laughs] There aren’t any people I don’t want to work with off the top of my head. I also think that people are naturally attracted to each other and I feel that there’s always some common ground.

Boarding House Reach will be released Friday, 23rd of March.

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