(Photo by David James Swanson)
The look, the feel, the right angle, and the best design. For Jack White, these all matter, these are all part of the process, the thinking ... the art of the business of making art. In part three of this interview, he explains why doing the harder thing is just smarter in the long run.
JACK WHITE, A MAN APPROACHING 50, a musician who made his name in a band, The White Stripes, whose colour palette stretched no further than black, white and red, has taken rather well to blue hair. Like a cross between Burgess Meredith’s old school The Joker and a Smurf, or - for a reference people under 30 might recognise - a merger of Billie Eilish and any number of K Pop stars.
This … was a surprise.
On a scale of the unexpected then, the fact that White, after four years without a solo album (and three years since anything from any of his other bands), is about to release two records within three months of each other, feels almost normal. Until you realise, as he discussed in part one of this interview they’re two quite distinctly different albums: the first, Fear Of The Dawn, a mix of heavy guitar rock tweaked with electronics; the second, Entering Heaven Alive, a lighter turn of acoustic instruments threading folk and country.
Given he runs his label, the vinyl-favouring Third Man Records, why not put them out as a double album, reliving the days of gatefold covers, esoteric FM radio and eccentric hair?
“In my opinion, I don’t think anyone has ever really accepted the double album, in a bigger sense,” White says, on a sound-only, no-blue-to-see-here, Zoom call from Nashville, Tennessee. “Even the Beatles’ White Album, [Bob Dylan’s] Blonde On Blonde, and Frank Zappa and other famous double and triple albums, have usually been met – like 90 per cent of the reaction has been – with ‘it’s full of filler’. If they say that about the White Album, they are going to say it about anybody’s double album.”
In any case, even White’s fondness for albums full of “left turns” couldn’t make these 23 tracks work together. The upside to this though is that having come through the pandemic, when we gorged ourselves on anything we could lay our hands on to get us through, and then immediately demanded more even as filmmakers and artists were forced to shut down, it makes more sense to keep feeding the beast.
“I think it’s good because one of the reasons I didn’t write any music for the first year of the pandemic was because I was worried it has a high chance of sitting around for two-plus years before it came out and I toured it,” says White. “I thought, by that time I might not be excited about these anymore, I’d have to retrain myself to get excited about them to perform them.”
No music for a year? How does a man who has had multiple bands concurrently for much of the past 10 years, has run a label, studio and stores – and, as we saw in part two of this interview, a thriving record pressing plant he hopes is a spur or inspiration for other, bigger, labels - while operating his post-White Stripes solo career, and seemingly been writing and producing for others, such as Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, in his “spare” time, not work?
Was it returning to his first trade, upholstery, during the long lockdowns that cleared his mind and filled the time?
“The easier, general label of it would be design. Whether it was the interior of the new Third Man Records [store] in London or the Warstic [baseball] bat company I co-own in Dallas, Texas – we just opened our headquarters and I co-designed the interior of that – and the furniture that I worked on doing all that, and the artwork I worked on for certain releases with Third Man, all of it could come under the blanket of design,” he says.
“And within this whole of time period I released a design website to put all these things in one place. I’m glad I did because it’s an easy thing to point to.”
That site, Jack White Art & Design, is quite beautiful to look at even before getting to the sometimes amusing and always stylish material within it, from furniture and floor fans to carpentry and sculpture, guitars and film, and it suggests this is more than some rich man’s weekend craft hobby.
But then, according to White, as an apprentice upholsterer, it had always been about more than a pay cheque even as he worked along some who just wanted the simple jobs and the day over.
“I got into some of the most difficult pieces, the Arne Jacobsens and the George Nelson ‘coconut’ chairs and the Eames furniture, the mid-century modern stuff, which is the most difficult stuff to upholster and I got a lot out of helping my master, that I was apprenticed to, Brian Muldoon [who also drummed with White in the short-lived garage punk band The Upholsterers], to work on that,” he says.
“When you care enough about it that way, you kind of directly become influenced by the actual designers of the furniture and you explore more and more of what they put out in the world. It’s a matter of what you’re getting out of it and I could easily have been an upholsterer who worked on furniture just to pay the bills, but more and more I tried to find the beauty in what I was doing and I think it led me directly to loving design.”
Perhaps this is a truth: there’s something in the finer line, maybe even the harder line, that pays off in design and music.
Fear Of The Dawn is out now. Entering Heaven Alive is released on July 22.
A version of this story was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.