Life

Sunday 31 August 2014

The great White way: Jack talks life on his huge estate

He is one of the all-time-great guitarists, but, latterly, Jack White is happy on his sprawling estate in Nashville, where he collects taxidermy and upholsters furniture, and where he recorded his new solo album. Now divorced from model Karen Elson, he tells Jonah Weiner how he has no contact with his White Stripes ex-wife, Meg, and about his feud with the White wannabes

Jonah Weiner

Published 15/06/2014 | 02:30

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The American musician, record producer, multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Jack White is here seen at Orange Stage at Roskilde Festival 2012
Musician Jack White and model Karen Elson attend The Library of Congress' Third Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, celebrating the music of Paul McCartney, at The Library of Congress on June 1, 2010 in Washington, DC

Toward the shady western edge of Jack White's seven-acre Nashville estate, between his tennis court and his grand white-and-red brick house, lies a row of outbuildings where he spends much of his time. At the far end is White's recording studio, which has only two rooms: one for the musicians, one for the engineer.

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"I wanted it small," White says. "When we're working, I want everyone close, focused, feeling like we're in it together – you can't wander off somewhere and surf the internet." Everything inside has an unlikely story attached. The 16-track Neve mixing console, the controls of which are labelled entirely in Afrikaans? "That came from a TV studio in South Africa," White says. "Sixteen tracks is small, but we like to keep things simple." The enormous beast mounted to one wall? "That's a white elk," he says.

White has long been a taxidermy enthusiast, but says, "I could never go hunting and kill something. I look at it kind of like I'm rescuing these animals, giving them some place dignified to go."

A disco ball twinkles above the elk's antlers like a glam halo. It was a rescue, too. "That belonged to Johnny Cash – it was just sitting crammed into a storage unit down here, gathering dust," White says.

In 2012, during gaps in touring, White holed up here with members of his two backing bands – the all-male Buzzards and the all-female Peacocks – and bashed out songs for his bracing new solo album, Lazaretto. Over the subsequent year and a half, he refined the songs: adding new elements, overdubbing, stitching together takes. It felt like an eternity for the guy who, as one half of the White Stripes – the epochal blues-rock band he formed with his ex-wife, Meg White – made the raucous White Blood Cells in a week and its blockbuster successor, Elephant, in two.

"I thought, 'How about the challenge of working on something for a long time?'" White, 38, says. "'Can you make it hard?' instead of, 'I'll come in for 20 minutes, then go on vacation.'"

Ideas for new melodies occurred to him so frequently that, rather than recording them, he started sitting with a guitar, or at a piano, trying to commit the notes to memory. "That helps filter out the garbage," White says, "because, if I can't remember it, it wasn't that good in the first place."

White's chosen hue as a solo performer is blue, but, right now, he's wearing brown Levi's, brown suede motorcycle boots and a black Henley shirt buttoned all the way up. At an imposing 6ft 2in, he could almost headbutt the elk. He's waiting for an engineer named Josh to show up and help mix a Lazaretto outtake that will land on some future release. The album itself is done, touring to promote it won't start for a few weeks, and White's other bands – the power-poppy Raconteurs and the moody, scabrous Dead Weather – are on hiatus. But he gets antsy if he's not occupied. Whether it's tugging at his twisty, chin-length hair, lighting up the Al Capone cigarillos he keeps close by, or noodling on his guitar, White likes having something to occupy his hands, and his brain works the same way.

"The other day," he says, "I saw photography of radios being played in prisons in the 1930s, and I started digging online, trying to figure out what the wattage was that could carry that kind of volume throughout a prison system." Six hours later, he was still chasing links: "That's what a photograph does to me!"

It's a gorgeous spring day in Nashville. Red and white flowers bob in the breeze along White's driveway, and a red-tailed hawk circles overhead. "We'll get a pileated woodpecker here about once a year," he says. This is White's Xanadu: a sprawling sanctuary within whose fenced perimeter he can optimise, tweak and colour-coordinate nearly every last square inch of space.

Having spearheaded the garage-rock renaissance of the early 2000s, established himself as one of the all-time-great guitarists, and packed arenas across the globe without so much as a bassist, White is content, at this point in his career, to burrow deep into his own obsessive world and let the faithful follow, or not.

A lazaretto is a place for lepers, and it's clear that, for all of his success, White still regards himself as an outcast. "I was never trying to get approval," he says. "I was doing the things I needed to do. Sometimes, you get approval, sometimes not, and you keep on trucking." White frowns. Josh still hasn't arrived. "Change of plans," he says, leading me to another building, this one painted black and yellow. "I'm gonna teach you how to reupholster a stool."

He throws open his workshop door and crosses the sawdust-covered floor. The centrepiece of the room is a work table he built in 1996, in his native Detroit, a year before starting the White Stripes. White, then 21, thought he might carve out a career as an upholsterer. An Orson Welles devotee, and, he says, the third upholsterer to come from his block, he called his furniture-repair shop Third Man and decided that every last element – uniform, delivery van, invoices – would be black and yellow, just like his power tools.

Upholstering never lost its fascination for White. "Each piece of furniture poses its own set of problems," he explains. "You'll get to what you think is the end of a job, and, suddenly, there's something you didn't expect that you've got to figure out." A red iPod sits on a shelf, shuffling between some of White's gods: the Stooges, the Beatles, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan. The last, having befriended White, is among the dignitaries who've visited this place. "Bob likes workshops," White says, picking up a mallet.

On tour and online, White hunts for vintage pieces: "I'll go on eBay, use a fake name," he says. He gestures toward six bar stools he recently bought from a Kentucky antique shop. He thinks the red vinyl cushion covers are an eyesore, so he's replacing them with pool-table felt. He hands me the mallet and a tack puller, and sets me to work dislodging the vinyl from one cushion, staple by staple. "See that cover underneath the vinyl?" he says, like a giddy archaeologist. "And beneath that, where they used tacks? That's probably from the Sixties, and that's probably from the Forties."

A guy with a cut-off T-shirt, deep suntan and thick Southern accent steps into the workshop. "Hey, Art!" White says. Art is a house painter and craftsman, finishing a job somewhere else. He's mislaid a drill. "You can borrow mine," White says. Art says the job has been tricky: "It's hard to know with that eucalyptus wood when it's ready for a third coat." "Yeah," White replies, happy to talk shop. "The paint just kind of sits on there, huh?" Art heads off with the drill, and White returns to the lesson, showing me how to: slice a new foam-rubber cushion with an electric saw; pin, measure and cut a square of felt with scissors the size of a broadsword; tug the felt tight to the cushion and shape it with my palm, like a potter – "no pleats, no puckering" – and then staple the fabric, patiently and precisely. "OK, we left a little dimple there," White says. "Let's redo that last one." He inspects the finished product. "Looking slick!" he declares. He scrawls "Jack White III" in pencil on the wooden underside and hands it over: "Sign it."

White's walking back toward his recording studio when a cry sails out from behind some shrubbery – "Daddeeeeee!" White's kids, Scarlett, 8, and Hank, 6, come charging from the house, trailed by a nanny. Scarlett, carrying two plush animals, wears a T-shirt with a cartoon monkey on it. Peering out from a curtain of reddish-brown hair, she gives me a sweetly shy, sidelong hello. Hank, whose head is topped with a righteous pile of curls, is more immediately gregarious, giving me a high five.

"Where are you guys going?" White asks, scooping Scarlett up. "We were coming to see you!" she says. Yesterday was her birthday, which they celebrated with a "small, just-the-family kind of thing," White says. When White's touring, he does two weeks on, two weeks off. "It's a bad business move – two weeks in, you're just paying for the trucks," he says. "But I want to spend as much time with the kids as possible while they're young."

White is wary about getting back on the road for Lazaretto. Touring for Blunderbuss, his 2012 solo debut, he switched backing bands at whim, toggling with scant warning between Buzzards and Peacocks – the musicians themselves didn't know whether or not they were playing until the morning of a given performance. This time, he'll just play with "a combo of the two bands," in part because of scheduling conflicts, and, in part, because he's unsure his elaborate effort was appreciated. "I was getting a little bit disgruntled, or worried, about the state of live shows by the end of that tour," he says.

He cut short one New York show, and talks now about crowds' "cold" reactions: "By the time we hit Scotland and people there weren't clapping, I was, like, 'Scotland is like this now?' They used to be the rowdiest! I was thinking about it after the tour, and I think I hit on the answer: people can't clap any more because they've got a fucking texting thing in their fucking hand, and probably a drink, too! Some musicians don't care about this stuff, but I let the crowd tell me what to do. There's no set list. I'm not just saying the same things I said in Cleveland last night. This is a unique experience. If they can't give me that energy back? Maybe I'm wasting my time."

Scarlett shows me a purple animal, which was among her presents. White is strict about the kids' playthings. "I only allow mechanical games in my home," he says. He likes technology that flaunts the physical craft that went into its making: "I want them involved in things they can use with their hands." Their pop-cultural diet is broader: Scarlett is just getting into Monty Python, and both kids "listen to all kinds of music," White says, from the blues to the Ramones to Nicki Minaj. "They like Super Bass." But other modern-world incursions are off-limits: "There's no video games, no screens," says White. "That may become an issue when they're teenagers, and they're gonna have to realise it's not gonna happen."

White shares custody of the children with his ex-wife, Karen Elson, a model and musician. The couple met on the set of the 2005 White Stripes Blue Orchid video, which starred Elson, and married that same year in a small ceremony on the Amazon in Brazil. They "spent many beautiful and happy years together," as Elson puts it. In 2010, she released an Americana-inflected album that White produced. When I spoke with her then, she described White's working style as encouragingly no-nonsense.

"'Get in there, pick up your guitar and sing.' He's not going to waste time on me being overly insecure." In 2011, however, they announced the marriage's end, albeit with a whimsical flourish.

Promising "dancing, photos, memories and drinks with alcohol in them," they invited friends to "a positive swing-bang humdinger," celebrating the split.

White sets down Scarlett and replaces her on his hip with Hank, murmuring softly in his ear. White tells the kids he's got some quick work to get done, and they scurry off. Josh has arrived at the studio, where White grabs a walkie-talkie and heads back outside to where his Tesla Model S is parked in the drive. He settles into the driver's seat: "Hop in." Josh, operating a short-range FM transmitter from inside the studio, starts broadcasting a rough mix of the Lazaretto outtake. White tunes the dial to pick up Josh's signal and raises the volume. "This is how I mix my records now," he says. "I don't want to hear something on expensive studio speakers that no one has. I want to hear it where I actually listen to music."

I ask White if he remains in contact with Meg, the other half of the White Stripes. "I don't think anyone talks to Meg," he says. "She's always been a hermit. When we lived in Detroit, I'd have to drive over to her house if I wanted to talk to her, so now it's almost never." White describes Meg as emotionally reserved in the extreme, and, though he declines to discuss their marriage, this aspect of her frustrated him in the band.

"She's one of those people who won't high five me when I get the touchdown," he says. "She viewed me that way of, 'Oh, big deal, you did it, so what?' Almost every single moment of the White Stripes was like that. We'd be working in the studio and something amazing would happen.

"I'm like, 'Damn, we just broke into a new world right there!' And Meg's sitting in silence. I remember hearing Ringo Starr say, 'I always felt sorry for Elvis because, in The Beatles, we had each other to talk about what it felt like. Elvis was by himself.' I was, like, 'Shit, try being in a two-piece where the other person doesn't talk!'"

White thinks that, at bottom, he enjoyed being in the band more than Meg did. "I would often look at her onstage and say, 'I can't believe she's up here.' I don't think she understood how important she was to the band, and to me, and to music. She was the antithesis of a modern drummer. So childlike and incredible, and inspiring. All the not talking didn't matter because onstage? Nothing I do will top that." (Meg was married for a time to Patti Smith's son, Jackson, also a musician, whom she divorced last July. A request for an interview with her, submitted to her lawyer, was not answered.)

White concedes that it can be hard to be around him because he's so unrelentingly critical. He invokes one of his comedy heroes: "I'm very much like Larry David in my everyday," he says. "Complaining about, you know, why they make shoelaces so much longer than they need to be." White has trouble muting this voice. "I'll be with my family, friends, watching the Video Music Awards, or something, saying, 'Why are they doing it like that? When they open the show, they should have this happen, then this.' They're like, 'Dude, we're just having a drink and watching this!'"

When he's at a party and someone gives a toast, he'll head to the stereo, unprompted, to soften the music and turn it back up when the toast's done, to prevent "that awkward silence at the end." The impulse extends to more fraught social situations: "If somebody tells a super-offensive joke, I'll be the only one to laugh, just to ease the tension in the room," he says.

It's disorienting to hear White discuss his offstage life so directly, because he has long shrouded such details within a playfully impenetrable mystique. In 2013, however, his divorce, which, initially, seemed so charmed, took a bitter turn, and his most private affairs became public in ugly ways.

Last July, with a crucial custody hearing looming, lawyers for Elson took out a restraining order against White, releasing unflattering emails he sent her, alleging harassment and citing "fear for her and the children's safety." White filed a countermotion, rebutting the allegations.

Elson, discussing this episode over email, describes it as "in the past, and thank God for that." She calls White "a wonderful father" and attests to his "fierce" love for the kids. "I can't get specific as I will open a Pandora's box," she says, but distances herself from her divorce attorneys, implying that they pursued an aggressive strategy she regrets and disowns: "Those who gain off of a marriage ending helped to create a downward spiral at my most vulnerable. The vultures came out and pecked on our bones at our weakest, and it made matters so much worse. It was blown out of proportion." White is similarly careful to distinguish between his feelings toward Elson, which he keeps to himself, and his contempt for her attack dogs. "When shitty lawyers are in a situation like divorce, their goal is to villainise," he says. "I don't believe in hell, but they burn in their own hell, in everyday life, because they live on lies." His tone is one of aggrieved defiance. "Go ahead and villainise me, crucify me," White says. "You're not gonna get me."

White was born Jack Gillis, the youngest of 10 children, in 1975. (He took Meg's surname when they married.) Growing up, he said, his "hard-nosed Catholic" parents were already "senior citizens," both employed by the archdiocese of Detroit – his father, Gorman, as a maintenance man, his mother, Teresa, doing clerical work. White has described them as holding "like, Eisenhower, right-wing, [anti-communist] John Birch Society" values.

Teresa is still alive. "She'll be 83, but she's like 40," White says. "She has an insane amount of energy." In 2006, Gorman died, at 79, and White was at his bedside. "My family was all there, and I felt selfish for thinking it, but I said it out loud: 'When I die, none of you are gonna be here. I'm gonna be all by myself, and you'll already have gone.'"

A hard-rock-head, White liked Helmet, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin in high school. By the early Nineties, playing drums and guitar, he'd become a fixture of Detroit's underground rock circuit. The scene was marked, in large part, by its theatricality – one band White played with, a country-punk outfit called Goober and the Peas, performed amid bales of straw. White shaved one side of his head and dyed his hair, alternately, red and blond. In forming the White Stripes, initially claiming that he and Meg were siblings and restricting the band's palette to three colours, White wanted to upend notions of authenticity as it related to the blues. "The fact that we went onstage dressed in red, white and black, it was the biggest 'fuck you' to any purist," White says. "[Blues singer] Robert Johnson dressed up when he played! He played Bing Crosby songs for money. Where's your purity now?"

The local rock community was tight-knit and supportive at first, but, after the White Stripes broke big – their second album, De Stijl, became a college smash, and their 2001 song, Fell in Love With a Girl, was an MTV hit – things soured. "I couldn't go to a show any more," he says. "It felt like nobody liked me. I felt unfairly put into a place I hadn't asked for, just for doing what I do." In 2003, White got into a fistfight with Jason Stollsteimer, the frontman of The Von Bondies, a Detroit act with whom he'd collaborated and shared bills, ultimately pleading guilty to assault and battery charges. Around the same time, a local producer named Jim Diamond sued the White Stripes, unsuccessfully, in a production-credit dispute. In 2009, Diamond told an interviewer, "I think he alienated a lot of people." To White, Detroit represents both the provincial hometown he outgrew and the Eden from which he was exiled. "I've cried there, on tour, pulling in," he says. "I've missed it incredibly. And, at the same time, I've thanked God I don't live there."

White says he's "never leaving" Nashville, where the weather's nice and the people are sweet. But musical beefs aren't entirely behind him, even here. A feud has developed between White and the Black Keys, whose members, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, also live in town. There has been sniping back and forth, privately and in the press.

White says that the duo owe the White Stripes an existential debt. "There are kids at school who dress like everybody else, because they don't know what to do, and there are musicians like that, too," he says. "I'll hear TV commercials where the music's ripping off sounds of mine, to the point I think it's me.

"Half the time, it's the Black Keys. The other half, it's a soundalike song because they couldn't license one of mine. There's a whole world that's totally fine with the watered-down version of the original."

He acknowledges that "some people will hear that and say, 'Oh, Jack White thinks he's the first person to play the blues,'" he says. "But certain acts open up a market for a certain style. Amy Winehouse: did she invent white soul? Wearing a beehive? No. But she did something brand new and fresh, altogether as a package, and you see who's in her wake, from the Duffys to the Lana Del Reys. Adele selling 20m records? That would not have happened if Amy Winehouse was alive. The White Stripes did the same thing, and, in our absence, you're gonna find someone to fill that. And you get a band like the Black Keys, who said they never heard of the White Stripes?" White smirks. "Sure."

White pays close attention to pop music, and many unlikely acts excite him. He calls Daft Punk "amazing" and adores Jay Z, with whom he worked on several unfinished tracks: "I'm not sure he liked them." He says that Kanye West asked him to collaborate, too, on Yeezus, but never followed up. This disappoints White, because his interest in hip hop has deepened since he was younger, when he felt put off by the genre's lack of traditional musicianship.

White saw West perform at a Nashville arena last year and was floored. "That might have been the greatest show I've seen in my life," he says. "It was more punk, more in-your-face than anything I've seen.

"The ego is just so massive that there's no doubt in my mind you're getting 100 per cent honesty from him. How many artists can you say that about?"

In an industrial section of Nashville, between a homeless shelter and some freight-train tracks, sits a primary-coloured shoebox of a building with a red-door garage specially reserved for Jack White's Tesla.

This is the headquarters of Third Man Records, White's label, record store, photo studio, concert venue and bottomless curiosity cabinet. One sunny morning, he pulls into the dock, blasting the Notorious BIG, and steps out. He hopes electric cars catch on widely. "Did you hear they just drove one from New York to Los Angeles for free? People were, like, 'Huh, that's cool,' and moved on. I was, like, 'Hold up – that's incredible!'" When White isn't at home, he's most likely at Third Man, which he has designed just as scrupulously. White bought the place to store his musical equipment, but has expanded it into a one-stop shop for nearly all of his creative endeavours that don't involve mallets and tack pullers.

Each wall is painted one of four colours – red, black, yellow, blue – depending on which direction it faces. Employees wear black-yellow-and-white uniforms. There is a 300-capacity performance space, where concerts can be cut directly to vinyl via an antique lathe that once cut James Brown's singles. There is a tiny vocal booth where visitors can record their own vinyl 33s for $15 (€11) apiece, and in which Neil Young, another friend, recorded his new album. If the Wonka vibes weren't thick enough, White says he heard the building was once a chocolate-candy factory.

White passes through a smoked-glass door that reads, "John A White III, DDS, Family Dentistry", and enters his office, lighting up a cigarillo. To his right is a taxidermied giraffe head and about seven feet of its neck. Third Man's bread and butter is its vinyl releases – "We put out 300 records in five years," White says – which attract hardcore fetishists and casual fans alike. White sees records as strange, beautiful objects, and Third Man works on making them even stranger: hiding songs in grooves under the labels, embedding holograms and coloured liquid within the vinyl, making limited-edition releases that play at 3 rpm.

The business may seem like a vanity-driven money pit, but White says it's actually "incredibly profitable, and the reason is because I don't care about that. If I'd done it to make money, it would have failed."

Third Man regularly invites high school bands and choruses to come visit and cut records – a mode of community service, not to mention good propaganda for vinyl.

Today, a high school choir from New Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is here. It consists mostly of girls in cowboy boots and denim skirts, but a handful of boys are clustered in the centre. The kids eye White with furtive excitement as he steps into the recording room. They giggle and grin nervously when he says hello. "I'd guess that one per cent of these kids actually know who I am before they come," he says later.

As part of the visit, students receive a vinyl copy of what they record. "They can order more copies, too," White says. "They only cost about five bucks [€3.70]. But no one ever does. What's funny is, if they did, they could sell them for $100 [€73.50] online, because there are collectors who want everything Third Man puts out."

The kids do a practice run through an inspirational ballad about changing the world for the better. White, ever the tinkerer, cocks his head and walks up a ramp to the mixing room to talk to the engineer about the optimal setup for recording them. White listens to the kids and purses his lips.

"Stop them," he says. "We gotta bring the tenors closer to the microphone." The engineer breaks in over an intercom, relays this message, and the rehearsal continues. White nods: "That'll do it."

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