The door opens at the top of the stairs in the Astra Hall in U.C.D. Photographers stream past me down the steps looking back towards the door all we can see are students dressed beyond their station. They filter through into the hall leaving in the doorway Jack White. Like his entourage he is dapper but sui generis – he wears a feathered grey felt hat from which his trademark scraggly hair flops out at the sides. His face is that distinctive pale that we know from the posters – but it is imbued with a freshness and vigour – he strides past me down the steps slapping outstretched hands as the crowds’ cheers grow louder. The private business of the Literary & Historical (L & H) society has quickly been forsaken; we’re on a rock & roll schedule now.
White is in Ireland to play the O2 for Halloween; that’s fitting for this macabre figure. He is nearing the end of his tour to promote his first solo album ‘Blunderbuss’. Tonight he is the guest of the L & H who have managed to entice him to the college to receive the prestigious James Joyce Award in recognition of his career in music; this is quite a coup for L & H auditor Daisy Onubogu. He is clearly on a tight schedule and the format is a quick questions and answers session.
White has been in various bands over his career most notably the White Stripes but also the Raconteurs and the Dead Weathers. He is asked about his first solo venture and how that has differed from working collaboratively. He bemoans the new role he has to adopt in the studio saying that in a band you don’t have to dictate, “In a band you’re like a little army. Each person has a valued role and input in the studio and they don’t have to be told whereas on your own projects you have hired musicians who come in to play instruments and need to be told how you want them to play. That makes it extremely difficult. Telling people what to do can put you in an egotistical place. You must beware of getting a buzz off that. It must remain about the music and getting the best out of the musicians at your disposal in order to let the song grow itself.”
Throughout the session White is hilarious juggling his responses so they’re perfectly in tune with a college audience. Each question is met first with humour then based on the question’s merit he excavates his musical knowledge to an appropriate level. Insightful answers are given when deserved and trivia from the crowd is batted away with a sharp witty put-down – the audience’s callow brashness is not going to rattle this superstar.
White is asked how he got into music and whether he made a conscious decision to be a musician. With music he never felt a vocational pull. He was doing an apprenticeship in an upholstery shop and beyond that his ambition stretched to one day owning his own shop, which he did. Music for him at the time was an aside. He played drums in a band and they got the odd gig around town. White is maybe not known for his drumming but he still played the drums as well as vocals in the Dead Weathers up until he went solo recently.
Blues has always been an integral thread in his music and he talks of how this genre opened up the music world for him at a young age. Ironically he was attracted to British Blues first. Bands such as British supergroup Cream shined a light on the American blues tradition and this interest prompted White to investigate it himself. He listened avidly to various acts such as Howlin’ Wolf, Blind Willy McTell and Muddy Waters. These guys gave him the idea that you could write music for yourself because that’s what they were doing. But this was in no way an epiphany for White. Even after The White Stripes’ eponymous first album in 1999 he was convinced that music would remain a second job. Maybe they’d sell a few records and be able to play spots around Detroit on the weekend but droves of people would never listen to this quirky couple/sibling act. Jack and Meg were always rumoured to be brother and sister but in fact they were married (they were said to have mischievously stoked some of these rumours themselves) and subsequently divorced. The confusion arose because Jack decided to adopt his wife’s second name as his own, dropping Gillis – this was unconventional but astute as White. Jack’s guitar riffs formed the foundation for the explosion of this garage-blues band. Tracks such as ‘Hardest Button to Button’ and ‘Seven Nation Army’ were radio station favourites throughout the noughties.
White was asked how he learnt to play the guitar. He said that he did so by fiddling around with his brother’s guitar which was lying about the house. He says that his method is ‘incorrect’ according to textbooks as he doesn’t use the second and third finger correctly on chords. Once White met Pete Townsend from The Who and Townsend asked him if he knew how to play one of The Who’s songs. He replied that he did but he played it incorrectly due to his finger positioning and he demonstrated this to him. Townsend corrected him saying that he played the song that way himself and that in fact the manuals had it wrong.
What led to Third Man Records and producing in his own studio? “Well I needed a place to store my gear in Nashville. I just had so much equipment. The building I got had an old studio wall. And it snowballed from there. I wanted to re-release my old vinyl’s that were out of print. I never thought any vinyls should be out of print no matter what genre. So I opened the shop and like I say it has just snowballed. Now it’s the only studio in the world where you can record a live show straight on to vinyl. It’s amazing. Things are happening daily there, so much so that I just don’t want to leave the place.”
On this tour White has used both an all male and an all female backing group. The rationale for this he quips, “Well the two bands thing was just a way for me to meet girls. (laughs) No, when making a record – or anything creative for that matter – you’re trying on different hats. Trying to see how things will react to a different environment or dynamic. What I’m trying to do is allow the song to have its own life and personality and in order to do that you must let it have some freedom. It’s difficult I admit but you can’t impose restrictions on a song by saying well we’re a folk band so that’s what the song has to be. I wait for the song to tell me what to do, to direct me. I did that on this record by playing the same song with the all-guy band one day and the all-girl band the next. The idea was to challenge the song with two different styles and see what would happen. The two different bands change the whole vibe in the studio. So I wanted to see where the songs would go and I ended up taking both bands on tour with me to play the stuff live.”
White is one of the best guitarists of his generation. His new album shows a lyrical development that threatens to match his already established legacy as a musician. He is also the head of his own record label Third Man Records and has produced music and collaborated with the newest, most established and brightest lights in his industry. He doesn’t seek them out they come to him in his Nashville studio. Only 36, White has the musical experience that whole genres couldn’t boast of. The callow crowd he faces tonight see a man wearing his extraordinary talent so lightly and wonders if he ever had the time to be young, unsure or an apprentice as he talked of in this flying visit? Merely forty minutes after he arrived he leaves out the door at the back of the hall. In his wake another crowd is left spell-bound. Jack White has done everything at lightening speed in his career to date but here’s to hoping that this maestro takes his sweet little time on some of those guitar riffs in the O2 on Halloween night.