The sweet twist of success
Jack and Meg White earn national stripes.
by Melissa Giannini
Well youre in your little room/And youre working on something
good/But if its really good/Youre gonna need a bigger room/And
when youre in the bigger room/You might not know what to do/You
might have to think of how you got started/Sitting in your little room/Da
From Little Room
off White Blood Cells
Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes know this conundrum all too well.
The two have tripped back and forth between the comfort of humble beginnings
and the excitement of a newfound fame since last years De Stijl,
followed by some high-profile tours, one with Sleater-Kinney and one that
featured an opening gig for Pavement.
And sitting on a couch inside Jacks cozy southwest Detroit living
room, talking to the counterpoint of a friends parakeet flittering
about a hanging cage and an ice cream truck circling to squeals of neighborhood
children, its easy to forget just how much nationwide anticipation
surrounds the June 25 release of White Blood Cells, the duos third
full-length on Sympathy for the Record Industry.
It comes in threes
The band has filled top-notch venues across the country over the course
of two years. Two shows had to be booked at New Yorks Bowery Ballroom
on one headlining tour. And just two weeks ago, they practically
sold out the Fillmore East. That was a pretty big deal for
us, Jack enthuses. They decorated the whole place with red-and-white
decorations. It was just like, Man, thats a really big way
away from where we first started. To play a place that big and that
At home, White Stripes are content to stay where theyre comfortable,
even though the band may have outgrown its usual stomping grounds. The
last three Magic Stick shows have sold out, so instead of one big show,
the duo decided to book three shows in a row in some of its favorite area
venues to celebrate the release of White Blood Cells. The first show with
The Rockateens and Ko and the Knockouts is on June 7 at Gold Dollar. The
second, with Greg Oblivion and Blanche, takes place June 8 at Magic Bag.
And the third, with the Go and the Insomniacs is June 9 at Magic Stick.
Since its the third album, were going to have three
shows in Detroit, Jack explains. It was actually our booking
agents idea. He called the places up. They thought it was a great
idea. I thought they werent gonna go for it, but they did. It seems
like a pretty ballsy move for a local band to do that. No ones ever
done that before, I dont think, a local band. I dont even
think any national bands played here three days in a row. Or at least
its been a while. That used to happen in the old days, like at Bookies
and stuff. I just thought it was a cool idea. Well see if it works.
Jack has always been fond of the number three.
I think its just perfection. Like the Holy Trinity, or anything
you look at. A wheel on a car, with the bolts holding it on; three is
the minimum number you can have on there to hold something down. Or legs
on a table. Anything. Or song structure. Its like a three-act play
in writing a song, I think, with the intro and the main thing, I dont
know. It has that feel to it, everything we do. It just seems like the
perfect connection. Theres vocals, drums and guitar.
Just two people grace the stage, yes, but the White Stripes manage to
fill up a room with minimalist bluesy rock, creating a crammed atmosphere
of war between danger and innocence. Together, Jack and Meg conjure a
sort of third presence, possessed and intuitive, somewhere in the mix
when the drums play the melody and the guitar keeps the beat. Meg alternates
banging and not banging on her simple drum kit, like a perceptive and
focused young girl seated cross-legged on linoleum discovering the primitive
power of percussion between a wooden spoon and a stainless-steel stew
pot. Yet, its also a mature sound, thought out and assembled so
as not to muddle things with traditional rock drummer excesses. Meanwhile,
Jacks choking his guitars neck with the frustration of a child
sent to his room for pulling the neighbor girls pigtails. And again,
the sound created is fully developed; Jack grasps the grittiest of blues
and rock tradition and emerges with something wholly new and pure, often
placed under the umbrella known as garage rock.
Jack and Meg have gone over some ideas of how to make the specific shows
new and pure as well.
We were going to make the entrance fee something red-and-white
for the Gold Dollar, Meg says. Jack adds: Yeah, just bring
us a red-and-white present, but we havent talked yet how we would
actually work that out. Because there are other bands on the bill that
need to get paid money.
It comes in waves
The bigger room idea resurfaces when you hear about the larger
labels all over the United States and England that fought to put out White
Blood Cells. Being featured in Rolling Stone as one of 10 bands to watch
in 2001 and a story in Mojo this month didnt hurt either. But the
band decided to stick with what has worked so far.
Its all about freedom on the California-based Sympathy label run
by a guy who goes by the name of Long Gone John. Says Meg: We could
do whatever we wanted as opposed to having the limitations of a bigger
Jack agrees: No ones telling us what to do, the artwork,
what songs go on the album, he will do any 7-inches we want to do, anything.
Its become one of the bigger bands Sympathys ever had. On
the other hand, why should we leave this label as soon as theres
been bigger interest? Hes helped us along the way so long. Other
labels like Sub Pop or whatever, have gotten success with things, gotten
lucky. I dont know if Sympathys ever had a band thats
been really huge or anything. So if it does happen, if it gets bigger,
it would be nice to be on a label like that. .
When you get into
all that money and people telling you what to do, its just harassment.
Constant harassment I think.
Entertainment Weekly did say that the Detroit garage scene bears resemblance
to Seattle before grunge hit it big. Yes, they actually said that. Well,
Sympathy does love its Detroit garage rock. The label just recently released
a compilation Jack produced called Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit, which
features everyone from the Come Ons to the Detroit Cobras, the Dirtbombs
to the Clone Defects. Each band on the album, and plenty more from the
area, have the potential to really kick-start a new raw energy in the
world of rock, in Detroit and beyond. And the White Stripes, whether ready
for it or not, lead the pack. The band just might be ready.
If you walk upstairs to the office in the same cozy home,
youll see a pile of press photos on top of cardboard boxes, a desk
with a computer chock-full of files and, gasp, even a fax machine. They
made us get that, Jack says sheepishly. Now they want us to
get cell phones. The they hes referring to is
the publicity company the band hired recently. Independence is freedom,
Jack and Meg admit, but fielding hundreds of calls from labels, magazines,
newspapers, etc., is not.
So what does the band think of all this attention?
Well, after playing together since 1997 they got to quit their day jobs
Meg used to bartend at Memphis Smoke, and Jack had an upholstery
shop, Third Man Upholstery but the constant ringing of the phone
is a bit of an annoyance. (As are personal questions. Theyre both
in their mid-20s, formerly married to each other, and dont want
to dwell on their relationship in print.)
Not like its bragging or anything, but it kind of takes away
from the fact that its nice to not have a job and be a musician,
Jack says shyly of the nonstop calls. People say, Oh, God,
why are you complaining about all that? But it does get annoying.
Meg adds, Hes on the phone, literally, the entire day. And
we got two phone lines and ones going off, and then the other one.
Its cool, though, she says looking at her feet.
The good, the bad, the adorable
People give us really nice presents, Jack says about their
growing fan base. Somebody in San Francisco gave me a peppermint
crash helmet. He does race cars and stuff. He gave me a crash helmet with
peppermint stripes painted on it.
Meg adds: And that one girl with the jewelry, she made us silver
pins, with peppermint. That was really nice.
Up until this point, the build-up has been largely through word of mouth.
The band didnt send promotional material out to the press. White
Stripes just put out records and toured constantly.
I guess we started getting more attention once we got to open for
Sleater-Kinney and go on a tour with them. We got into a bigger audience.
People who worked for the press or record labels would go to those shows.
We were putting on a pretty good show by that point, I guess, so it was
Is it hard for them to not sell out?
Jack says it makes sense if you handle things in a way where youre
getting something out of it, like if our song was in some commercial that
we thought was so just over-the-top, that it actually had some humor or
something about it. For the most part, it just seems like a bad idea all
the way around, but who can turn it down if someone said, well give
you $100,000 if we use your song in a commercial thats only gonna
run for a couple months? At least you could give that money to charity
or something. It seems kind of stupid to turn that down, but who knows?
Its never come up. I dont think it will. I dont think
were good merchandise-selling songs.
With the sincere attention, comes the not-so sincere. Jack says he realizes
that many of the people talking havent actually heard the band,
just heard about them. A few weeks ago during a trip to New York, I overheard
a conversation on the subway, which made it apparent that how many White
Stripes shows a scenester has attended determines his or her coolness.
We played Hoboken before we played New York, Jack says, which
is a lot of people from New York, I guess. That was a horrible show. It
felt like it was a crowd of critics. People had their arms folded, OK,
were here, impress us. They werent moving. After I was
done, I just told the bar, Man this crowd is terrible. And
it was sold out. But it felt horrible. I dont play for that kind
of crowd. Thats not enjoying music or experiencing it. Its
pure judgment, pure coolness, pure hipness.
Jack fears that the same people who helped raise the band to where it
is now, the critics who told readers to buy every White Stripes single
they could find, are now starting to think the group is not cool
anymore since its less obscure. Which must be upsetting, especially
since it seems as though the music has become so popular because of its
energy and emotion, not its coolness factor.
Thats the nicest thing, Meg says, when somebody
comes up to us and says theyd been discouraged with music and that
weve made them feel a new energy for it. Thats the nicest
thing, that youve made people feel good about music again.
The best thing thats ever happened to the two of them as a band,
they both agree, can be found on a videocassette. A week or two ago, they
were sent a tape of a class of first- and second-graders in Kalamazoo
singing the words to Apple Blossom (from De Stijl) as their
teacher played along on guitar.
I started crying, Jack admits. This teacher, she played
songs for her kids and she taught them this song. Its really great,
I thought. You cant top that. If its gotten to that, how can
you top that?
Good & bad bacteria
The new album explores the ups and downs of unexpected and immediate
attention. The front shows Jack and Meg cornered by figures dressed in
black, reaching for them. The flip side has an image of the same black
figures holding cameras as Jack gives the thumbs-up sign and Meg
strikes a pose.
The group recorded the album in February in Memphis with the esteemed
producer Doug Easley.
There were probably only three real days of recording, Jack
says. We really rushed the whole album, to get that feel to it,
a real tense thing coming out of it. Then we got back, did one more day
of recording and remixed it. By that time, the engineer was really on
our side and everything. It came out a lot better. This is our first album
we ever got mastered. Its really loud.
The songs themselves are from all over the place time-wise some
Jack and Meg wrote for the first album, but never recorded, others Jack
had written for 2 Star Tabernacle (his previous band). It was cool
because a lot of things had been sitting around for a long time, stuff
I had written on piano that had been just sitting around not doing anything.
And it was good to put them all together at once, put them all in the
same box and see what happened.
De Stijl was thematically linked, musically evoking the Dutch art movement
based on vertical and horizontal lines and the primary colors contrasted
by black and white. The continuous thread throughout White Blood Cells,
perhaps, is that contrast of claustrophobia and sunshiny fun in the spotlight.
The name, White Blood Cells, for the album, is this idea of bacteria
coming at us, or just foreign things coming at us, or media, or attention
on the band, Jack says. It just seems to us that there are
so many bands from the same time or before we started that were playing
and are still playing that didnt get this kind of attention that
were getting. Is the attention good or bad? When you open the CD,
its a picture of us with these cameras. Wondering if its good
Compared to De Stijl, the main musical difference is the lack of blues
and slide work.
We keep getting put with this bringing-back-the-blues kind of statement
as a label for the band, Jack says. And I just wanted to break
away from that because its really hard to do that, being
where were from, even though thats the music that we really
love and that Im really inspired by. Most of the songs that had
been sitting around were these piano-written songs that were more songwriting
type songs. I wanted to make a whole album of that.
Red & the white
Do they ever get sick of this color scheme?
No, Jack says with a chuckle. I think its the
best color combination of all time. Its just more powerful. For
some reason, it just makes people think about stuff. Say someone says,
Wow, I really like your red pants. It just seems to me that
if I was wearing green pants, people wouldnt come up and say, Wow,
those are pants. Theres nothing special about them. Theyre
just old senior citizen pants. Theres just something about the color.
And how many white T-shirts does he own?
You know how you have a rider or whatever? We put down on there
white T-shirts and white socks because I go through them so fast, I just
throw them away, but they dont go to that trouble. We just put it
on there to see if theyd do it. I always have to stop somewhere
and buy T-shirts because they just get filthy so fast, says Jack.
Does the band fear the just a gimmick label?
The thought was, well, we never put gorilla masks on and ran around
and stuff, Jack explains. We wanted to present ourselves in
some way. Everybody wears street clothes all the time. Why should we just
I dont know. I mean, blues musicians that are my
idols, they wore their nicest suits and nicest hats when they played shows.
Its just being polite. Its like going to church. You wouldnt
wear your pajamas to church.
The visual aspect of the music should be represented well in a video
Jack and Meg are thinking about shooting for a song off of the new album
at the nearby Hotel Yorba.
Easing into the big room
Being on the road and in the spotlight over the past year has taught
Jack and Meg a few things. Probably to be a lot more easygoing,
Meg says. You have to be to be on the road. You have to take what
comes and kind of just go with it.
Jack agrees. I really dont like encores. People get upset
if theyre asking for one and you dont come back. Or if someone
asks you for an autograph and you dont give it to them. You say,
Come on, its just kind of superficial. But people get
really mad if you say no to things like that. Ive learned to just
be nicer about it. I used to think that stuff was lame, T-shirts were
lame and encores were lame and autographs or whatever.
I guess its just that whole line of, is the artist at mercy
of the fan? What is the show? Are people picking what were gonna
do or are we picking what were gonna do? Lately, weve just
played one song at the encore. People were upset by that. Well, we dont
have to do that. We dont have to come back at all. We dont
have to play for an hour. We could play for 35 minutes if thats
what we wanted to do.
What if, he asks, you were at a gallery, and you went up to the
painter and said, You know what? Im gonna buy this, but can
you put a couple more brush strokes on this part right here?