Jack White on his new album, Jeopardy! and what he's learned from Michael Jackson
If music superlatives are passed down like royal titles, James Brown may well have bequeathed his Hardest Working Man in Show Business mantle to Jack White. The 42-year-old Detroit native’s resumé reads like the combined C.V. of at least a half-dozen lazier mortals, between his past and present bands (the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather), his solo career (Boarding House Reach, out now, is his third), the prolific output of his Nashville-based label-cum-musical-clubhouse Third Man Records, and his unofficial sideline gig as the global ambassador of vinyl.
In a phone interview with EW, White dove deep on George Orwell, the working methods of Michael Jackson, and the reason his own kids are his best critics. And of course, why what he really wants to do is direct.
You’re famous for how stripped down your production is. But your new record feels very maximalist — theme-wise, sound-wise, even lyric-wise. Do you think it’s fair to say that?
Oh yeah, for sure. It’s the fruits of me telling myself, “I want the sound I’m imagining to be on this song, so this time I don’t care what made it — if it was analog, digital, three drummers, one drummer, drum machine, it doesn’t matter to me, I want this particular sound.” And when you have that idea, that will lead itself to a maximalist tendency.
So you sort of threw out your own rules.
Mmm-hmm, yeah, and that’s what I think is good about when you make rules for yourself — that you’re the one in charge, and you can bend them when you want to, you can break them if you want to. But the fact is they have to be there to begin with, you know? If you walk in and say in any field, painting or sculpture or whatever, “There’s no rules!” you’re opening yourself up to a lot of problems.
Like, one problem a lot of artists have is knowing when to stop. So for me, creating with rules and parameters really helps me identify that and that’s really important. But everyone has to have their own thing, and it might not work for the next person. When I talk to people about what I’m doing, I think the misconception is that I’m telling everyone, “This is how you should do it,” you know? But I’m never saying that — never. I’m only talking about how I do things and how it works for me. Someone else can make an entire career on Pro Tools and make something amazing out of it. For me that’s an easy world to live in, so I have to make the things that help me create.
You use a lot of session guys for Boarding House — artists who have worked with JAY-Z, Beyonce, Talib Kweli, Kanye, Tribe Called Quest. Why did you move in that direction?
I was trying to find a particular type of musician, which is one who can recreate on stage what is on a modern hip-hop or R&B recording. Like if a hip-hop song has samples in it, these are the musicians who recreate those samples live onstage with instruments. And you have to be very talented to be able to pull something like that off.
I went looking through clips of hip-hop artists with live bands onstage with them and was like, “Can we get that drummer? Can we get that keyboardist, this bass player?” So it became this cool thing where it was all strangers, just going right into the room and starting to record immediately, and there’s an amazingly bizarre energy you get when you do that.
On the new song “Corporation,” you sing this lyric, “I’m thinking about starting a corporation, who’s with me?” And I didn’t know if that was ironic or not, because you kind of do have a corporation.
Well to be pedantic, Third Man Records is actually a sole proprietorship [laughs]. Which is funny, it’s actually interesting for people to know that, because if Third Man loses money, it’s not investors, it’s not stockholders. It’s me personally, it comes out of my wallet. So I’m the sole owner and the sole investor.
But in that song, what I was kind of getting at was the way that if you’re raised in a family like Donald Trump was, you are raised to think that when you’re older you become the CEO of a corporation, whereas someone in the inner city would never have the environment around them to even possibly think that’s a scenario. You don’t start a corporation, you start a company, a corner store, a small business, and you get a loan. You hope the bank gives you a loan. But that’s for the plebians and the peasants to do — that was my joke about people who grew up in that environment like Trump has.
So with you, it’s more of an LLC situation.
You really made me Google a lot of terms with this new record, especially the song titles:”Abulia and Akrasia,” “Hypermisophoniac.” Where did you find those?
[Laughs] That first one started with this singer C.W. Stoneking, who happened to be in New York when we were recording there. I asked if he could come in and try something and he said he could, so I wrote a poem the night before for him to recite and the point was to find words that I wanted to hear him say, because I just love that dusty ghost of a voice that he has.
These are just words that you collect in your brain over the years that are beautiful that you don’t hear too often. And it’s sort of your job if you write poetry or lyrics or you’re an author or a journalist, you know? It’s sort of an anti-Orwellian thing to not have less and less words but to keep these beautiful words alive that don’t have a fighting chance. You know like in 1984, they’re trying to eliminate words — “we don’t say fantastic we say doubleplusgood.” You can tell in the world of texting that that’s a dangerous possibility.
Hypermisophoniac is a beautiful word for kind of an ugly thing — someone who is almost medically averse to sounds, or at least certain sounds.
Yeah, it doesn’t actually exist. Misophonia does, but it sort of morphed. I just love this idea of a hatred of sound, and I saw a little documentary about people who have this affliction and it really struck a chord with me.
It almost seemed comparable to [something] I read about people born without pain receptors — they don’t feel pain, and that seems like a very excruciating way to live, so I was trying to put myself in their shoes. What if we took very annoying sounds in this song and tried to make something beautiful out of them by the end? I’m not really sure we succeed in that. [Laughs] But it was the idea of trying to do that.
You’ve spoken about wanting to write music in the same sort of way Michael Jackson did, by doing it all in your head. Did you have to teach yourself that?
Yeah, that was from watching that documentary This Is It, which brought me to tears. It’s just unbelievable how talented Michael Jackson is, but when he was talking to the band he would say, “No, the bassline is like this: d-d-dd-d-duh-duh, d-d-d-d-duh,” humming the bassline and beatboxing at the same time. He’s not saying “It’s C-D-F sharp,” and he never says the notes or a key, and it made me wonder.
I’ve never actually asked anyone who worked with him, “Did he know notes, did he play an instrument like piano or anything?” And I thought, you know, I bet you he probably didn’t, he just writes melodies and sings in his head and sings to himself and then the song comes from that. So I thought “Well let me try to do that. I’ve never written songs like that, where I write the melodies first and add the lyrics later,” and I did that with many of the songs on the record.
Did it start to feel natural to you?
No, it’s very unnatural. [Laughs] Well, I guess I can definitively say it’s sort of like singing in the shower, it’s whistle while you work, that sort of style — what’s naturally inside you. So I had to teach myself that.
Quincy Jones talked once about Michael doing something like 25 takes of a song, I think maybe it was “Human Nature,” and still not being satisfied, even though Quincy thought it was perfect. And Kanye, famously, was still working on Yeezus mid-release. Do you ever feel perfectly satisfied with a record once it’s done?
Yes I do. I’m the exact opposite of that. I feel done and finished and ready to go probably before it really is done [laughs]. I’ve gotten so in tune with hurrying up and getting it over with and moving on that at times I’m sure it could have used a little bit more work.
But I’ve never looked back at any of my records and said, “Ah man, that was wrong I shouldn’t have done that song, or that way of doing it.” I think going with your gut you definitely feel good about it forever. If you listen too much to other people or do something that you knew in your gut probably wasn’t a good thing, that’s when you become dissatisfied and look back with regret.
It’s kind of a stock question, but is there any special significance to the album art and the title?
Mmm. The album [art] is sort of emphasizing the feminine and masculine qualities that everybody has, and if you cover up just the eyes on the cover maybe it’s a beautiful woman, but if you cover up the mouth and the jaw you can see that it’s my eyes — you know, if you recognize my face or whatever.
But the title, there’s a scene in the  movie Yankee Doodle Dandy where they actually do use this phrase “boardinghouse reach.” The idea is, you put the good food in a boardinghouse on the other side of the table from people who haven’t paid their rent yet so they have to reach across to get it.
You collect a lot of things: taxidermy, rock memorabilia, comic books. The first Elvis recording you bought specifically so you could share it and press it on Third Man. Do you ever think about maybe starting a Third Man Museum?
Mmm. Yeah it’s definitely a possibility. If we had the room for that, it would be nice. Because I think things are supposed to be shared. It’s almost like you have to have this custodial idea behind these things that you think are beautiful. It’s tricky, I don’t know. I think nobody should own anything, first of all. If you own a van Gogh painting that’s only in your house, that only you and your friends get to see, that’s a little bit tough.
I don’t know, I haven’t really come to terms with some of those things. Sometimes to me it’s also a cathartic investment to make, rather than investing in stock in BP oil company or something — investing in the history of things you think are beautiful to preserve that, you know?
But the best moments are when you can share with other people like we did with the Elvis acetate, which is probably one of the most important recordings ever made. The fact that we could make it available to everybody and press it up, that was a beautiful moment.
Do you like to visit your things — the Leadbelly arrest record and the first Superman comic and all that — or is it enough just to know that you possess them?
Well, I gotta say I really don’t feel like I possess anything. I’m not trying to sound like I’m too pretentious, but I really don’t feel that, like, the chair I’m sitting on right now — you know, I found it in a vintage shop, I had it reupholstered, I picked the fabric and blahblahblah, but I feel like I rescued something and brought it back to life, and now it’s something beautiful.
Like, say, everything in your living room: One day all those things are going to be in someone else’s house. I would love for my grandchildren to have a lamp of mine and know that it was mine. I love the things I have that were my grandparents.
Speaking of your kids [White has a son and a daughter with his ex-wife, Karen Elson], are they old enough to give you feedback on your work?
Oh yeah. Very much so. I’ve been asking them since they were 5 or 6 years old or younger what they like, because kids don’t lie. When I say “What do you think of this?” they’ll say “I love it!” or “Nah I don’t like it.” You know you have something when a kid really likes a song because they’re not pretending, so they’re best feedback you can get.
Have they developed their own taste at this point? I’d guess they’re into some things that you’re really not.
You know, I would have imagined that they would be into lots of things I don’t like, but they actually aren’t. I’ve exposed them to as much as I possibly can, which is your job as a parent, I think. And I had always assumed that by now, at 10 and 11, they’d be liking what their friends like. But they have really great taste, they are very selective about what they think is interesting, and that’s really impressive.
It’s kind of funny, when I was a kid I didn’t like anything anybody else liked. It was almost like if other people liked it, it was a sign to not like it, which was not good for me socially. [Laughs] I should have been sat down and talked to. You know, “Take it easy buddy, it’s not that big of a deal.”
But early on I was so in love with music, I had so many opinions about what was beautiful and what was fake. And these are good things. You can’t just go along with the crowd. We teach our kids that all the time: “Be unique, be yourself, be your own person, do your own thing.” And we’re probably in the midst of this gigantic cultural revolution because of the internet, because of testing that out. Are we really being unique, or are we afraid to like something that other people don’t like? It’s a giant test isn’t it, on social media.
Your kids could rebel and get really into Chainsmokers just to piss you off.
[Laughs] I would definitely be open to take them to any concert I thought was not that interesting. If they loved it I would definitely support it. I mean, there are things I liked a few years ago that I don’t like right now, and I’m 42 years old. They do get to see a lot of acts at Third Man Records though — country and R&B and rock and roll and blues.
Does touring feel like an interruption to you now?
I do enjoy it, but it does take a long time. It’s the equivalent I guess of if you make films, you have to dedicate a year and a half of your life to that film, and you’re going to be sitting in an editing suite in the dark for many, many hours. That’s a little bit of what touring’s like. It’s hard to go everywhere you want to go, too. There’s places I’ve never played because we can’t get a gig there. You know, I’ve never been to the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia.
It’s sort of funny — by now I should have been able to get a gig in some of these places, but it’s so expensive to fly all the way over there with a crew you lose money when you do that. I mean we’ve definitely done money-losing tours just because I wanted to do them, [like] when the White Stripes toured Eastern Europe and South America, places where they didn’t even have our records.
I’m getting into the economics of touring, but the point is yeah, it does take a lot of time and makes you wish you could get everywhere. But in order to do that you pretty much have to dedicate about two years of your life to really tour an album.
You just mentioned films. Is it true that you’d like to direct?
Oh, very much so. That’s the thing that music sort of keeps getting in the way of, because you really need a giant window to do that. I’ve had many opportunities, but I’ve never had the window. Like, “Ah dammit, man, if I didn’t have children and I didn’t have all these musical projects and Third Man Records!” A lot of things would have to really suffer for me to [make movies] but it’s definitely going to happen one day, it just hasn’t yet.
What kind of project interests you?
Well I’ve written scripts, but I really want to direct someone else’s script first as a feature length. I’ve directed a hundred small things, commercials and videos for Third Man Records and comedy things and stuff like that, but I’ve held off on the full-length thing because I want it to be just right.
There’s this idea that rock stars and movie stars lead fabulous lives. But in reality there’s actually a lot of tedium, a lot of boring hard work in between all the sexy bits.
Oh yeah, I agree. You have to absolutely be in love with it. Like, I can’t help myself — if I get up in the morning and I walk through a room and there’s a piano in there, there’s no way I’m walking past that piano without touching it. I have to. And that’s something you can never even consider as work. And then you realize, “Oh I’ve been doing something for 12 hours.” And that’s definitely a job to most people, that’s overtime, but when you love it you don’t even notice, it goes by in like two seconds.
Did friends start texting you when you were a visual Jeopardy! question recently? The guy who guessed first thought you were Eminem.
Oh yeah! Where they put some weird photo of me up there? Yeah, a bunch of people did. That was funny. Being on Jeopardy! is definitely some form of making it, I suppose. [Laughs]
I’m not sure how many hours you sleep a night, but how do you discipline yourself? How do you decide when to say no to things?
A problem I have is definitely guilt. I’ve been involved in many things that I have done because I feel too bad to tell someone no or say I’m not interested. I’ll think “Okay well I’ll do it and I’ll learn something from it,” but I noticed that most other artists I’ve dealt with, they don’t have that at all, they don’t want to do something they just don’t do it, straight up. And I have to learn a little bit of that. But I worry too much that people will find it as a mean gesture.
Are there certain things lately that you find yourself leaning into or away from creatively?
That’s a good question. I’ve never planned my life very far ahead at all. The biggest thing I probably did was after the album I said, “Well I’m definitely taking a couple years off of touring so I can spend time with my children more while they’re still in their young years,” and that was a very smart thing to do.
But I’ve been doing that since they were born, and you’re not supposed to do that. When you go on tour you’re supposed to go four or five weeks at a time but I’ve gone two weeks on two weeks off since my children were born which is a very not smart economic thing to do, because two weeks in is about when a tour starts to make money but you know you have to make those kinds of sacrifices when you love them like that. So I’ve never really planned that far ahead. I don’t know what I’ll be doing next year.