With the White Stripes officially retired, Jack White could spend his days having cocktails on his tropical lanai if he wanted to. But he is, famously, not that kind of guy.
Instead, he’s running a musical empire in his adopted hometown of Nashville, keeping his hands in two well-established bands (Raconteurs and the Dead Weather), and taking his Rolling Record Store, which he debuted at this year’s SXSW, on the road — while also raising a family and proselytizing for vinyl nearly full-time. EW catches up with him below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Now that the White Stripes are done, you actually seem more busy than before.
JACK WHITE: Younger musicians might look at someone who’s quote-unquote “made it,” and think well, that’s it, they won the lottery now they can do whatever they want, and that means go to the Bahamas and just party all the time. But my opinion has always been if you call yourself an artist, you have a responsibility to that liberty that you’ve given yourself. You don’t have a day job where you work 9 to 5 at a factory because you’re an artist? Well, okay, well then you better make some art. That doesn’t mean you can sit around all day and do nothing. That’s the way I treat myself, and those are the artists I respect who do that. And it doesn’t have anything to do with being a workaholic or anything like that; it’s about creating all the time, because that’s what you can’t help but do.
You have built up sort of a sovereign Third Man nation down in Nashville…
We have a live venue, which is the only live venue in the world where you can record on analog tape in front of an audience and it comes out on vinyl four weeks later. There’s gonna be a lot of special shows on Record Store Day I can’t tell you about yet — I did one with [rockabilly legend] Wanda Jackson. Everyone’s playing there, it’s great for up-and-coming punk bands and all that.
If you’re a producer and a label-runner, does that mean there will there be less music-making for you?
No, the Dead Weather and Raconteurs are alive and well. I just wanted to get this thing going, I’ve been building the foundation of Third Man over the last couple of years so I can walk away from it and go back to writing music and not have to worry about being so hands-on. I just want to get all these ideas going and motoring so I can step away. Also, I’ve never stopped recording, we’re on our 95th record that we’ve produced in two years — those are all 45s of bands that I’ve produced in our studio. And we’re pretty proud of that, that’s a lot of records.
[Laughs] No, I can’t look at it that way — it would just be doing it just to do it, to fulfill my own little… I only do things like that if it makes sense, if I’m gonna be able to contribute to what they can do, not just to make myself happy. If it was, then I’d just work with those legends all the time. I have to be able to make something new, and that’s what I did with Wanda.
The Foo Fighters just put out an analog record, but that’s something you’ve been doing for a pretty long time.
It’s not just to be retro or cute or cool — when you A-B the two, there’s no denying analog sounds better.
When it comes down to producing or writing or performing, every moment is a matter of taste. How you choose to sing a note, what kind of guitar tone do you have, how much reverb is on your amp — every single second is a hundred decisions that are tasted related. And you end up liking bands that have the same taste as you because they know you’re on the same wavelength, that they would make the same decisions.
How long are you going to live in your little Rolling Store banana?
We’re setting up a kitchen in here, gonna start cooking soup [laughs]. We’d at least like to get a hot plate in here, set up a hot plate next to the turntable.
And where will you go?
We want to take it to all kinds of festivals, hot rod shows, carnivals, state fairs, go everywhere with it. I want to put tangible records in front of kids; that’s it. Like all these teenagers right here [in Austin]: Say they live in this neighborhood, they’ve got a record store, but a lot of kids don’t have a record store in their neighborhood, they have a Best Buy, they have a Wal-Mart, that’s it. In a lot of those places you can’t even buy vinyl records, so they’re not exposed to it.
Figures in the music industry were uniformly down last year, but vinyl sales actually rose. Why do you think that is?
Vinyl is the only thing that’s rising because I think it’s the only thing that the real music lovers are attaching themselves to — because it’s a tangible format that has lasted this long for a reason, because it still sounds the best, it still feels the best. There’s an inherent romance to it. When you see the disc moving around, you feel connected. You got up and put the needle down, you feel connected.
Just like in a movie theater when they turn the lights down and the movie comes up, you feel reverential toward it. When it’s digital and you can fast-forward and skip it with a mouse and click it off, you’re not reverential toward the music. You’re the one in control and you’re pushing it around. You can imagine if you’re in a movie theater and you could fast forward the movie, it would be a disaster. That’s what vinyl is to music.
No less a man than Jon Bon Jovi recently came out against digital music, and mourned the passing of the physical album.
Someone told me something about that. I’ve been saying that for years. All the music lovers know it, all the musicians know it, we’ve all been saying that no one wants it to be invisible and digital. It’s great to have a portable song that you can listen to in your car, that’s great, but when it comes down to it, we want to be reverential toward the art form, and the music business is in a giant mess right now, because of technology. And that’s the only reason. If the technology hadn’t changed, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.
It also feels sometimes like kids don’t think they owe anybody for music; that it should be free.
If you tell someone about a band, if they can’t go on YouTube and listen to the band, they get disinterested and they’ll move onto something else. You used to go travel around. I used to go really far, to another record store like 45 minutes away, because they had the record that the other store didn’t. You’d get up out of your seat and do something for real.
That’s what this truck is about: it’s about people coming here and experiencing something for real. There’s a novelty aspect to it, but the best part of it is that people are coming here with their physical bodies and they’re talking about music together and what bands they like and what records Third Man is putting out that they’ve got, and we have Third Man playing onstage. There’s nothing going on here in the virtual world, this is all real. That’s the thing about coming to a festival, people really want to experience music.
Do you think of yourself as a mogul?
I don’t think so. All I know is that we have our own little world going on and there’s a lot of things we get to do that we’re lucky to be able to do. To have a live venue, to be able to put out underground records of bands that nobody’s heard of, to work with great artists like Wanda and all that, that if we were a major label we wouldn’t be doing a lot of this stuff, we wouldn’t be wasting our time with it because of the dollar factory.
Is the economy of scale good for you guys?
Yeah, it’s excellent. The vinyl sells incredibly well. When I was in White Stripes the first year or two, if we put out 45s, if we sold 500 45s, that was a big deal. Most of these records are selling 5,000 copies of 45s in the first three months and that’s a 45 vinyl. That shows you how popular it still is.
Are you limiting the number, so there’s a built-in scarcity?
No, we have a new slogan here called TCD, Tangible Collectible and Digital, and those are the three formats we release things in. So every release has a collectible version of it, but the black vinyl version of that record is going to be in print forever, as long as the company is in business. But the special edition, the tri-color red, white, and black version, only a 150 copies or only 300 copies, we pick different amounts every time to shake it up.
Let’s say you just like the music right now, maybe ten years from now you might get into the idea of the rare version of those records you love. A lot of record collectors are into that, and we wanted to be able to do that for them. We have so many custom and unique things we’re doing that no label has ever done before. The Dead Weather record, there’s music underneath the label, if you put the needle on the label you can hear music through the label, it’s called “under label groove.”
We designed it; we were the first to that. And there’s a triple-decker record, a 7 inch inside of a 12 inch, no one had ever done that before. Anything to get people to use their imagination about the format and the tangible-ness of it. You can’t do that in the digital world. You can’t have a relic that you hold in your hands and you smell. That’s what we’re trying to impress on people.
Wow; it’s like you’re building custom cars. I didn’t even know you could do that. I guess the only other question is how you manage to actually spend time with your family. You still get to see your kids somehow, right?
I’ve met them, yes. They’re very nice. [Laughs]
More from EW.com:
The White Stripes: A farewell playlist
Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins on new Foos documentary : ‘I wish we wouldn’t put that f–ing movie out’