GOT A BONE TO PICK with Mr Jack White, and no it’s not about what responsibility he takes for the - otherwise very fine - Seven Nation Army being the go-to song for every school band, football club and TV montage of the past 20 years. (Though now that you mention it …)
What’s got me agitated is that on one of the two albums White will release in the next four months there’s a track called The Twilight which samples from a song I knew I knew, though I couldn’t place it no matter how I tried. It drove me nuts for hours, I tell him, before I gave up and sacrificed my pride to Google to discover it was upmarket cabaret/jazz vocal quartet, Manhattan Transfer’s, 1979 quasi-electro pop song, Twilight Zone.
“Yes!,” White says gleefully, you might even say triumphantly, before some sympathy arrives. “That’s painful. There’s been times in my life when I’ve gone days, telling someone ‘don’t tell me, don’t tell me’, trying to remember, and finally giving up, so I know your pain. Rest assured that not one of my musician friends knew the sample, except one. Only one knew what it was, and that was [rapper and White collaborator] Q-Tip.”
To be fair, it’s unlikely anyone under 40 and maybe no one under 50 even, would know it or even have any idea who or what Manhattan Transfer were, even if they were to hear this album, Fear Of The Dawn.
“I remember that song, I think it must have been one of my three sisters had that album in the family living room,” says White. “I remember [as a kid] laying on the carpet listening to it. But I hadn’t heard it since then until right before I was working on this track.”
The Cab Calloway sample in another Fear Of Dawn song, Hi De Ho (which features Q-Tip), was easier at least to identify, and the king of rhythm & blues swing still has a fair bit of cool attached, unlike the group no one actually calls “The Transfer”.
But all of this is possibly missing the point that sampling in the first place is not a Jack White thing. Or at least hasn’t been for a man who made his name in The White Stripes with a kind of sonic/fashion/design simplicity that was almost fanatical in its approach to making music as if the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s had never happened.
“I don’t know what has changed. It just spoke to me as something that made sense,” says White. “In the past, I think it was a different wheelhouse, it wasn’t around me you know, that idea of constructing a song. It wasn’t an element I was used to and I never really paid much attention. I always liked it, I always liked it when someone used a clever sample.”
Excuse me? “Always liked it”? Sampling?
“I didn’t like it when I was young and my friends didn’t know where the sample came from, when it was something really obvious, like Led Zeppelin in a Beastie Boys song or something. None of my friends knew who Led Zeppelin was, and I was like, wow that seems really obvious, where is the beauty in the sample if nobody knows what it is or something.”
He laughs as he brings it back to me. “But you found beauty after finally figuring it out.”
The thing is, you could argue sampling, in its mash of the past and present, in its cross-referencing of genres, makes perfect sense for this former Detroit kid now long-term resident in Nashville. Take a look at these new records he made on his own, a pair of aligned but radically different beasts: Fear Of Dawn being a rock and electronic melange, while its sister album, Entering Heaven Alive, leans into acoustic folk, jazz and country.
It’s new, it’s old, it’s this and it’s that.
“In my mind anyway, I’ve always tried to write something brand new, and trying to synthesise new things when I put things together and it has some sort of progression to new ground, new territory. That’s what I’ve always attempted,” says White. “Sometimes you don’t succeed and you make something that people only think sounds like 1966 or 1991. But I’ve never been interested in trying to recreate something that’s already happened: that’s not interesting to me. Sampling, if it’s in addition to something, could be really interesting; if is the only thing happening in the song then it’s really, basically a cover song.”
While these are the first new songs from him in more than four years, White has spent much of that time establishing a portal for his design work, which has largely gone unpublicised as we all focused on his music and his Third Man label and stores. If there is a connection to be seen between the music he makes and his design it may be in the way both recognise the beauty and functionality of things already made, are not beholden to those forms but recognise the way all things flow through generations.
“Yeah, you are trying to join in, jump in the river that’s already moving. If you want to appeal and share with other people, it’s always interesting to use bizarre instrumentation, that can always be interesting and beautiful, but it speaks to a smaller segment of people, more of a niche department of people you are going to be sharing with,” he says.
“If you are doing Mongolian throat singing and playing an oud from Turkey or a 10-string mandolin from Scotland, you are going to appeal to a certain amount of people. But the instrumentation that I’ve come along with, guitars, drums, piano, these instruments are the widely accepted instrumentation that more and more people respond to. Is that a good or a bad thing? I really don’t know, I just know that when you play guitar more people show up [he laughs].
“I wanted to be drummer my whole life, and I’ve played drums in The Dead Weather and other projects, but I don’t think people care that much about my drumming. Which is fine. I don’t think that if I played a drum solo by myself in a theatre that many people would show up to see it. But switch instruments to the guitar, all of a sudden it’s a packed house, and not from me thinking I’m any good at it. I don’t really think I’m that good at it; I would rather play drums.”
Have to admit that no matter how much I might like White’s work, I would definitely hesitate to come and see 90 minutes of solo drumming.
“Yeah, probably not a good idea,” he concedes.
The one thing you would get with White on drums or in front of them is a groove. While Fear Of The Dawn has some serious crunch, there is genuine swing in That Was Then This Is Now and Morning, Noon And Night, while Eosophobia (Reprise) is Living Colour-funky.
“I like that you said swing, because that’s something I always gravitate towards. You have to get in a room with a lot of people in order for that to be created, you have to be in a room with other musicians,” he says. “The songs that I did on the album that I played all the instruments myself they feel good but it’s hard to swing when you’re playing all the instruments on a recording. If you played bass just now or you played drums, you are bound to playing along with that so you can’t really make it swing. You can make something interesting, and I think I got a few moments in there that I am really proud of, but to get the swing you have to be in the room with other people.”
No doubt that’s true, but while a lot of guitarists and songwriters began as drummers – the ease and accessibility of hitting things as a learner, compared with having to learn the fingering etc make it an ideal starter pack – the real sense of whether someone understands what it means to be a drummer is if they understand the almost undefinable swing, and not just attack or timekeeping.
“I’ve been lucky to be with some of the best, most interesting drummers in the last 20 years – Daru Jones, Meg White, Patrick Keeler and Carla Azar – because they all have a swing to them, and all in different ways. That’s really what I play to onstage. It doesn’t matter if there are 16 people up there or three people, or one in the case of The White Stripes, I play to the drummer. That’s my basis, says White. “Keith Richards told me, when we opened up for the Rolling Stones, the same thing: ‘I play to the drummer’.”
On the other side of his 2022 double release, the song I’ve Got You Surrounded With My Love on July’s Entering Heaven Alive, builds a bridge between the swing underneath the grunt of Fear Of The Dawn and the rootsier second record, with its jazz funk feel.
“No one has mentioned that yet and I was starting to wonder maybe I shouldn’t have put it on the record,” White says. “It was on the edge of maybe being too electric to fit on that second record, but it was jazzy enough for the mood to still be sombre.”
How does he define the differences between the two albums?
“I’ve been giving the easy soundbite answer of Fear Of The Dawn is the Saturday night record and Entering Heaven Alive is the Sunday morning record. Maybe that’s just an easy soundbite answer to give, but I do believe in it.”
The only direct relationship is the appearance of one song in two radically different versions, Taking Me Back, which opens Fear Of The Dawn and closes Entering Heaven Alive, as Taking Me Back (Gently).
“I like the statement of it doesn’t matter what the song is, it’s just how you perform it, and what attitude you have when you play that song. It was so cool to do a very computerised, recorded to ProTools, highly electric, bombastic version and this very gentle, recorded through 1930s’ mic pre-amp, with a live band of incredible musicians playing together in the same room, Django Reinhardt version of the same track, and bookend the albums with that,” says White. “I really like that a lot because you could almost play the two albums on a loop. Maybe the fans will connect those together, because the first sound you hear on the first album is also the last sound you hear on the second album.”
READ MORE: In part two of this interview, Jack White talks Prince, vinyl, teenage record collections, and why major record companies need to pull their weight and not just fill their pockets.
Fear Of The Dawn is released on April 8. Entering Heaven Alive is released on July 22.