White Riot

By Jim DeRogatis

Guitar World July 2002


During a recent performance on ďThe Late Show with David Letterman,Ē the White Stripes tear it up like few bands before them. Twenty-six-year old Jack White assaults his cheap Airlines guitar, blasting it through a 100-watt Sears amp as he screams the lyrics of ďFell In Love With A Girl,Ē a gold hit in the U.K. recently added by MTV in the States. Whiteís face turns as crimson as the bandís stark red-and-white stage set, and the veins in his neck pop out.

Mid-song, he turns to his older sister, Meg (yes, theyíre siblings, and no, they were never married), who sits high on her drum stool while pounding out a primal beat. The song nearly falls apart as White rants into an old-fashioned, reverb-drenched mike, but he pulls it back together again for one more unforgettably catchy chorus. And the whole thing is over in under two minutes.

Less than 48 hours later, White is back home in downtown Detroit, watching The Grapes of Wrath on TV. Heís bemused by the attention generated by the Letterman gig, just as heís been pleasantly surprised by all the hype garnered by the bandís third album, White Blood Cells (V2). ďYou know, weíre not gonna be a band forever,Ē he says. ďMaybe another one or two albums and weíll probably be done!Ē


Q. People talk about a ďwillful primitivenessĒ in your playingólike youíre a really good player who just prefers to keep it raw and ragged.


A. When you play guitar, you have the opportunity to go in any direction you want, if you have some sort of ability. You have the choice of what particular things mean anything to you, and the only thing that means anything to me is folk music, blues, and rock íní rollóthose aspects of guitar playing. Itís just something for my hands to do while Iím telling the story. Itís really the story thatís the emphasis.

A song is just melody, rhythm, and story. Nothing can ever top that; music will always be those three components. You can translate it and call it punk or call it rock íní roll or call it country, but itís all the sameóitís all folk music, itís all blues, you know? Those things that relate to that, with that powerful emotion behind it, are really what I like about music.


Q. In punk or blues, taste is more important than technique. I mean, you can go to any Guitar Center and see guys with great techniqueóso what?


A. Going to guitar shops makes me want to vomit! Iíve never had an easy time thereóI always feel like Iím with a car salesman or something. People get really excited about the newest gadgets or the newest effects pedals or this amazing guitar that costs $800. They donít realize that all the opportunity and all the technology and gadgetry is the last thing that you want. All that opportunity is going to destroy any creativity!

If youíre got a young kid learning guitar, you could go out and buy him a Les Paul, and the thing would stay perfectly in tune and it would have great sustain, but heís not going to have any knowledge of what his instrument is doing. If you give him a Diddley Bow or a Japanese guitar from a pawn shop that only has four strings on it, heís going to come up with something because thatís all he has. If you donít have a lot to work with, youíre forced to do something with what you have.

I love when my guitar is out of tune; of course, I donít have other musicians that I have to stay in tune with, so itís easy for me to say that! I donít really use effects pedals, so I really try to get as much tone as possible out of the amplifier and the guitar itself, and figure out whatís the most powerful tone for that particular song. The thing that bothered me about other bands in Detroit when Iíd go out and see shows was that nobody was very particular about their guitar tone. If the guitar player did a solo, you couldnít hear it in the set. It didnít have anything to project it above the song for 30 seconds, and I think thatís what needed to happen. I joined a band called the Go and I played lead guitar and I wanted to do that, and I was kicked out about six months later.


Q. Youíre big on breaking the songs down onstage. Why?


A. Usually when we play live, I have another mike over by the drum set with reverb on it for when I want to break the song up and kind of destroy the song in the middle of it and then bring it back to what we started with. Thereís a lot of reasons, but to me the main one is that it feels too easy to just play a song the way we recorded it on the album. If we just did it like that, itís like, ďWhy donít we just come out and play the CD and stand there?Ē There should be a difference to it. The only way I can get in touch with a song every time we play it is to break it up as much as possible and destroy it and recover it. Itís like weíre doing a cover version of a song I wrote.


Q. Whenever a young white kid plays the blues, thereís this thorny question of authenticity. Like, ďWhat right do you have to play this music?Ē


A. I acknowledge that, too. Iím almost scared to play blues music onstage, and we donít really do it that often or that much during the set. I donít want it to be taken the wrong way or have people think that this music that is the most important thing to me, that Iím treating it as a novelty or a gimmick, because Iím not. Itís very meaningful to me; the only catharsis Iíve ever had in my life has been to play blues music and slide guitar. But itís like medicineóyou have to sneak it in the mashed potatoes. You give people what they want to start off with, but then you sneak that medicine in, which is the blues and the story-telling.

People can easily say, ďOh, the White Stripesóany time thereís blues-related rock, itís just Led Zeppelin.Ē Or, ďItís the Gun Club that theyíre ripping off.Ē I donít know what to say to that, because all I know is I really love Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson. These are people who really mean something to me, so Iím coming from them directly into what I have, which is a two-piece band with electric guitar and drums. Iím doing whatever I can to relate to that and tell my version of the story. Everyone tries to do their own version of it, but itís very easy with that to become a novelty thing and become comical, or become like a Stevie Ray Vaughan/Jonny Lang thing, where itís just doing tons of guitar stuff. You have to remember that blues music is the easiest music to do guitar solos to. Itís probably the first thing people learn to solo to, so for someone like Vaughan or Lang to go off and do all these guitar solos and be called guitar gods and virtuosos, it ainít no big thing, man! Itís not brain surgery to do solos to blues music. Iím not saying those guys arenít talented, but theyíre not Paganini or anything.


Q. When you talk about hiding the medicine, the sugar-coating in the White Stripes is the red-and-white imagery and the pop hooks, right?


A. Yeah. Anything involved in presenting yourself onstage is all a big trick. Youíre doing your best to trick those people into experiencing something good, something they havenít thought about before or havenít thought about in a long time. Iím doing my best to be that vaudeville trickster, to help that happen. But the image stuff all stemmed from the musicójust the childishness and how it relates to anger and innocence and these colors and what they mean to us, and us being children together. It all comes from that childishness, really.


Q. Detroit is a unique place with an odd combination of underdog mentality and egotism. Itís like, ďWeíre from Detroit. Weíre fucked! And fuck you, too!Ē


A. Yeah, thereís a lot of different components top Detroit. For some reason, itís just blessed, and good music has always come out of here and probably always will. Itís never been mainstream enough where it can get devoured and commercialized. Hopefully it wonít happen again to the rest of the bands. Maybe the White Stripes is going to have that happen to us, but itíll be without our consent. Itís kind of out of my hands. Entertainment Weekly just called before you did and wanted to talk about, ďWhat are the cool places to hang out in Detroit?Ē And I was like, ďI donít want to tell you because youíre going to ruin them!Ē [Laughs]


Q. One last question: What do you think of the New Garage movement?


A. Iím glad; Maybe it will produce something really good. At least people are listening to more realistic things. It happens every 10 years or so; Iím just glad we happen to be here at the right time. Itís been about 10 years since grunge, so the time is about right.