They didn’t break up, they were just busy. Jack White and Brendan Benson on how their odd partnership led to the band’s first album since 2008.
There have been numerous (in)famous pairings throughout music history: Mick and Keith. Sonny and Cher. Metallica and Lou Reed. So how to characterize Jack White and Brendan Benson, of rock quartet the Raconteurs? Well, according to White, they might just be the oddest of the bunch.
“We both really inspire each other, but we both think each other is the strangest person,” says White. “Brendan’ll say to me, ‘You are just the weirdest guy I know.’ It’s so funny, every time he says that, I wanna say it back to him, but I don’t wanna argue with him! Most of the people I’ve loved and admired — mentors I’ve had — are people I’ve found to be odd. Not at first glance, but maybe as time goes on. I find an appeal to their eccentricities.”
Their collaboration proved wondrous rather than strange on Help Us Stranger, the new, long-time-coming Raconteurs record. The band’s 2005 debut, Broken Boy Soldiers – along with lead single, “Steady As She Goes” — were nominated for Grammys. And in the 11 years since their second album, Consolers of the Lonely, fans and critics alike have been eager for more of the lineup’s driving, precise, and clever melodies.
“It was just timing, we never broke up or anything,” explains Benson of the group’s decade-long absence. “There wasn’t some epiphany. I was busy producing and writing, Jack was busy with his solo career, and Patrick [Keeler, drummer] moved to Los Angeles. So when Patrick came to visit Nashville recently we got together and jammed; it was really fun and I think we actually recorded some stuff.” (Bassist Jack Lawrence, who also plays in the Dead Weather with White, is the fourth full-time member.)
The first song the group tracked was a cover that appears on the album, a lesser-known Donovan song called ‘Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness).” “Right from the get-go it was like, ‘Press record, let’s go, we’re doing this.’ Not much discussion, not much planning — as is often the case with the Raconteurs,” says Benson, laughing.
However, there was a method to their madness. “The morning we recorded [“Hey Gyp”] I heard [the Donovan original] on the radio in my car,” says White. “It was this trick I’ve used over the years, which is to record someone else’s song — any song will do — just to get our brains working on the first day back in the studio. Then we’ll move on to our own stuff. It’s an icebreaker; like if you’re at a party, and you just bring up the weather.” The only issue? “This trick usually backfires, and we end up falling in love with the song and having to put it on the record. I did that on [Little Willie John’s] ‘I’m Shakin’ on my solo record and with Bob Dylan’s ‘New Pony’ on the Dead Weather’s first album.”
That spiritual intuition comes through in the dozen tracks off Help Us Stranger. Like the previous two Raconteurs releases, the album title is the plural version of a song on the record (“Help Me, Stranger”). “It’s one of those things that the band thinks is funnier than it actually is in real life,” says White, laughing.
Given White’s fame, he admits he’s a stranger to very few, though anonymity is one of his fondest wishes: “My favorite thing is to be at the airport and not be recognized and be able to just talk to people. That’s a blessing. Once they recognize me, the conversation’s over, basically. It’s a shame, because they’re coming with preconceptions, so it’s kind of ruined.”
With the exception of “Hey Gyp,” White and Benson wrote all of Help Us Stranger. Though the duo generally work separately on the lyrics, Benson explains, “we might help each other out on a few words now and then; if somebody gets stuck on something, it’s always great to have another brain.” White, an encyclopedic musical obsessive, adds, “It’s nice to have that much songwriting history that has come before you, because it gives you a lot of places to say, ‘Oh well, that’s been done,’ or ‘Don’t go there; someone’s tried that, and it didn’t work.’ It gives you places to aim for and places to stay away from, to be knowledgeable of that history.” White even harkens back to the Bard for inspiration. “William Shakespeare, whether it’s a comedy or his love sonnets — I think those are, of course, the most incredible work. It’s almost like written by God herself.”
The release of Help Us Stranger also finds the duo dissecting their music and process in the press, which wasn’t done with their last release. Consolers of the Lonely dropped almost as a surprise in 2008. (Per White, “Years later, you saw Beyoncé doing it, and everyone was flipping out. ‘Oh, it’s amazing! The record just came out of nowhere.’ We were like, ‘Wait a minute, we did that like eight years ago,’ which clearly wasn’t the right time to try it.”)
“I think all artists would probably rather create and not talk about it, in a perfect world. It would be as hard for a painter to describe a painting,” adds White. “But at the same time, you’re putting it on a record store shelf, you’re going onstage, you’re trying to share it with people. You’re trying to see if there’s anybody out there who can dig it, and if they do, you keep going with it. That could be a hundred people. You never know what’s gonna happen. You’ve just gotta go with your gut.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the year Consolers of the Lonely was released. It was 2008, not 2005.