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Jack White Returns: Record Store Day at Third Man Records

on April 20, 2014, 7:36pm
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I’m not the first to suggest that Jack White is music’s modern day Willy Wonka and Third Man Records is his Chocolate Factory. When I received an invitation to tour the Third Man HQ ahead of his latest Record Store Day stunt, I truly felt like Charlie finding his golden ticket. That stunt — if you don’t already know — was to create the “World’s Fastest Studio to Store Record,” where White would record his new single direct-to-acetate live at Third Man, rush the masters to United Record Pressing (URP) to go through the pressing process faster than anyone else had done before, and have the record in the hands of customers at his store in just a few hours.

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Photo by Jo McCaughey

Located just a few blocks away from Third Man, URP is the largest vinyl record pressing plant in the United States and enjoys a great partnership with White’s label. Third Man was their third biggest client in 2013, just behind Universal and Sony. Together they’ve created a multitude of innovative vinyl releases: the liquid-filled vinyl, the triple decker, the tri-color, the 3 rpm, and more. It’s been a fruitful partnership for both parties, and together they push the boundaries of vinyl regularly. Naturally, this year’s Record Store Day stunt was no different.

Friday

12:00 p.m.

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Photo by Carson O’Shoney

Third Man doesn’t allow press behind the scenes at Third Man often, so it was a rare treat to peek behind the curtain and see the full scope of their operation. We congregated in the storefront and were met by original Third Man employee – one of two, now expanded to 17 – and Dirtbombs drummer Ben Blackwell. He led us through the hallway and into the offices. We went directly to the room where the live cutting would happen the next day and learned all about the intricate process. It’s the only place in the world that can record a live show directly to acetate. The room also houses their new Rupert Neve-designed mixing board, a stark contrast to the ’50s technology of the cutting lathe.

Blackwell then led us across a former alley and into their new extension of the building next door, which they bought and annexed near the end of 2012. The large warehouse-type room is stylized like a ’50s hotel and has all the touches and flourishes you’d expect from Jack White. Each “hotel room” is an office that houses a branch of the Third Man operation; the ground level is their mail-order hub, and the rest of the warehouse is used for storage space. The one takeaway Blackwell wanted us to have was that anything that can be done under their own roof gets done. They ship their own records, create all their graphic design work, control their online presence — really, everything you can imagine is done in their Nashville offices. The only thing they can’t do in-house is record production, though that’s where their partnership with URP comes in handy.

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Photo by Carson O’Shoney

After seeing their new offices, we circled back around to the blue room through the back porch, which was large and beautiful, complete with grills, bathrooms, and a unique area of the floor filled with tri-color records of the past. (A huge upgrade from the early days of Third Man shows, where it was just an alleyway leading to a seedy backstage area.) We then got to see the office’s main lounge, complete with an array of taxidermy and a kitchen area that they call “the hospital kitchen.” The area looks like an old ’50s-style soda fountain, and the hospital part comes from the red crosses on the wall. In the corner of the lounge is White’s office, where the door reads: “John A. White, III Family Dentistry.”

Everything in the entire building was handpicked by White: the colors, the designs, and the concepts. It was as eccentric as it was impressive. Everywhere you looked, there was an interesting flourish, from wooden records in door frames to pillows stitched with album cover art. It was all uniquely Jack White, and I wouldn’t expect anything less.

1:15 p.m.

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Photo by Carson O’Shoney

After our tour of Third Man, we were shuttled over to the site of the other side of the process: United Record Pressing. Blackwell explained that he’s likely their most frequent customer, as he’s over there at least once per day. He’s the only non-employee who can just walk in and lead a tour and everyone is okay with it. He led us through some of the history of URP, including the “Motown Suite,” where black musicians and label executives would stay in the early ’60s, no thanks to Jim Crow laws that were still in effect.

Eventually, we made it to the main floor, which was in full swing and louder than a dump truck driving through a nitroglycerin plant to borrow a phrase. They were pressing records of all kinds, including some Third Man materials, and to see the process in person was fascinating. From barrels containing literal tons of loose vinyl to the actual pressing of the product… it was quite an experience.

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Photo by Jo McCaughey

“Vinyl coming back is no longer a story,” Blackwell explained, asking: “The story now is, where does it go from here?” URP is producing at a rate higher than it has in decades, possibly even more than when vinyl was the only format. Because of this, Blackwell wonders if these old plants can keep up with the demand.

After all, the last record-pressing machine was made in the early ’80s, and it takes a very unique specialist to work on the current machines. As such, the turnaround times are getting longer as production goes up, so losing machines is a real concern that could hurt their production. Regardless, Third Man is one of the few labels really asking these questions.

Saturday

7:30 a.m.

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Photo by Carson O’Shoney

The next morning, I arrived at Third Man HQ to find an already hefty crowd filling the block in two lines. One line lead to the booth in front of the store, where they would eventually sell the “World’s Fastest Record” if all went according to plan. The other came to an end on the back porch, near the entrance to Third Man’s famed Blue Room. Everyone in line already had a ticket or was on the list, yet some superfans had been camping out since 5:30 p.m. — as in, the evening before. Remnants of tents could be found strewn around in these wee hours from the campers who were that committed. Elsewhere, Third Man offered bagels, coffee, and mimosas to those souls brave enough to greet the dawn on their turf. Just as people were starting to actually wake up, the doors opened to the Blue Room at around 8:30 a.m., and everyone filed in.

9:45 a.m.

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Photo by Jo McCaughey

At 9:45 sharp, the doors closed and no one was allowed in or out until the show was over. Ten minutes later, self-proclaimed Third Man Consiglieri Ben Swank hit the stage to get the crowd pumped about ground rules. Or maybe get them pumped, and then provide ground rules. Regardless, he gave the standard no cameras speech, except at Third Man they really mean it. In fact, if they catch you, they’ll delete the picture and kick you out immediately, no questions asked. He then explained the day’s process of both recording to tape and cutting directly to acetate. It would go something like this: The band will come out and play one song to get the levels right, then a quick break, cut the single, another quick break, cut the B-side, another quick break, and then an intimate set. Simple enough. Our only task as an audience was to go nuts when they first came on and go even more nuts when the live cutting began. We were up for the challenge.

10:00 a.m.

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Photo by Jo McCaughey

As Ben Swank left the stage, the myriad of musicians in Jack White’s backing band took the stage. It was a mix of Buzzards and Peacocks, his respective all-male and all-female backing bands that he alternated on his Blunderbuss tours. White followed close behind them, escorted by two Third Man employees fully decked out in CHiPs uniforms. The crowd acted as if Lazarus had risen from the dead, just as Swank had instructed. Shortly after, White and his band launched into the first taste of Lazaretto that we’ve already been offered: “High Ball Stepper”. It was even heavier than the massive studio version we’ve all heard. Behind White sat the sole piece of set dressing: an old tube television that was somehow connected to his guitar. When he wasn’t touching the strings, the TV showed a still image of White’s iconic “III”, but the image reacted to his guitar. In other words, the louder he played, the more distorted the image became. It was fascinating to watch a visual representation of the sound he got from his guitar.

Once the opener came to a close and George Ingram — Third Man’s mad scientist and master of live cutting — spoke over the PA, the energy in the room elevated as we were all about to witness the first step in this record-setting process. The back-and-forth from the stage and the cutting room behind it made things even more exciting. There was a timing element to it that had to be right, which heightened the urgency. The countdown was like a NASA shuttle launch, and Ingram shouting, “We’re in the groove!” was our “Liftoff!”

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Photo by Jo McCaughey

White & Co. then launched into his new album’s single and title track, “Lazaretto”, a high-energy buzzer in which White quasi-sings and raps à la “Freedom at 21”. Expect to hear it all over alternative radio this summer. A small break was required to get a new slate of acetate on the table to record the B-side, and White took the opportunity to introduce the band. Some familiar faces included Daru Jones, Dominic Davis, and Cory Younts of the Buzzards in addition to Lillie Mae Rische of the Peacocks, along with some other new faces. That band, which varied from six to nine people depending on the song, was on fire all morning. They had an arsenal of instruments at their disposal — from slide guitars to autoharps. Drummer Daru Jones, in particular, was a joy to watch, just like he was on all Buzzards shows from the last tour. His energy was palpable, and his enthusiasm was only matched by the audience, who didn’t get the memo that it wasn’t even noon yet. They were just as rowdy as if it had been a drunken midnight at the bar.

When the time came to cut the B-side to tape, the band launched into a cover of Elvis Presley’s “The Power of My Love”, which stylistically fit in with the rest of the set. During another short break, while the acetate masters were being hurried out the door to be driven to United Record Pressing, White admitted, “We were originally going to cut the record and go back to sleep, but we figured you guys wouldn’t like it if we didn’t at least play a couple more.” They did more than that, launching into a set that lasted nine more songs for an hour-long show. First up was “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, the same slightly more bluesy version that was played on the Blunderbuss tour, which was followed by “Freedom at 21”.

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Photo by Jo McCaughey

After those two, it seemed that he might not debut any more material than the already-released song and the previously scheduled performance of the new single, but he put those worries to rest with Lazaretto opener “Three Women”. With White on piano instead of guitar, it had a bluesier feel to it than most of the other songs, even squeezing in a distinct southern flavor (“Oh lordy lord” is repeated throughout). The potentially semi-autobiographical song chronicles the protagonists’ three women — “red, blonde, & brunette” from Nashville, California, and Detroit (ahem, Karen, Renée, & Meg, perhaps?) — and is filled with White’s trademark storytelling humor.

Photo by Jo McCaughey

RSD_TMR_2014013“Just One Drink”, another new track, played after “Love Interruption” and a crowd-led rendition of “Hello Operator”. Another humorous track, this one was decidedly heavier, although it retained that loose, playful feel. White seemed genuinely happy to be onstage, smiling from ear to ear during most of the second half of the set, culminating in the penultimate song, “Hotel Yorba”. The crowd sang every word, and White let them take the lead on certain parts. Eventually, things took a more serious turn with one last new song as the closer: “Would You Fight for My Love?”. The unique track pressed down with all the dramatic weight of White’s best songs.

The show ended just before 11:00 a.m.. Granted, the whole experience of seeing a show that early in the morning is strange enough, but with a show like that, it has the potential to ruin the rest of the day before you even eat lunch. Where else is there to go but down when you start your day with an incredible Jack White show at the house that he built with only about 250 other lucky folks? Luckily, Third Man had plenty of fun stuff planned for the rest of the day.

11:30 a.m.

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Photo by Carson O’Shoney

Shortly after, the crowd filed out of the Blue Room to a feast. Hot dogs and burgers were grilled on the porch, while Two Boots Pizza provided slices of their newest flavor: “Third Man Coney Dog” — all for free. On the other side of the building, the Rolling Record Store was parked on the street and selling exclusives, Las Paletas were selling popsicles, and The Bang Candy Co. were selling marshmallows. The block party really kicked off at noon, when local teen punks Waxed and Jawws took the stage for 20-minute sets. They each played a bratty brand of punk that would sound right at home on Nashville’s Infinity Cat records — home of JEFF the Brotherhood, Diarrhea Planet, and more. Most, if not all, of the band’s members were around the age of 16 or younger. Hell, Jawws even brought some high school drama to the table by calling out a chick’s name who had “messed around with everyone in the band.” They both showed plenty of promise; in fact, once these kids grow up a bit, they might become forces to be reckoned with in the Nashville basement scene.

2:00 p.m.

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While all this was happening at Third Man, Jack White was taken over to URP to oversee the whole pressing process and make sure everything was running smoothly. Whatever he did worked swimmingly, as they finished ahead of schedule, with an official run time of 3:55:21 from recording the first notes to selling the first copies. White himself brought those first few back from URP and hand-delivered them to some lucky fans who had been waiting in line for a long time. Shortly after he arrived back on the scene, a band near and dear to his heart took the stage for the first time since 2006 and likely for the last time ever: Whirlwind Heat.

During his show earlier in the day, White expressed how happy he was to get to see them again, and you could tell he was giddy that he pulled off the mini-reunion. They finally took the stage around 2:30 p.m. and played a blistering 12-song set that lasted about an hour. The trio, consisting of just drums, bass, and the occasional keys or guitar from their singer, played mostly from their debut album, which Third Man was re-releasing for Record Store Day. They also played from their final record, 2008’s Self Titled or Scoop Du Jour, which they had never done before as they stopped playing live in 2006. However, onstage it looked like they had never broken up, playing with an intensity that only comes from a group of veterans.

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Photo by Jo McCaughey

Admittedly, Whirlwind Heat are a wholly unique group and hard to pin down. But it would be hard to come away from that show and not be impressed on some level. If it truly is their last hurrah, we sure were lucky.

4:15 p.m.

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Photo by Carson O’Shoney

While the line for the “World’s Fastest Record” was still massive and seemingly never-ending, Third Man welcomed press into their new annex for a press conference with White himself. He spoke for about 15 minutes and revealed some interesting information. For one, George Ingram was the one who first had the idea for the concept a couple years ago, and they just never had a good chance to try it until now. Also, the B-side that they chose, Elvis’s “Power of My Love”, was originally suggested for Wanda Jackson during the recording of her Jack White-produced album, Thunder on the Mountain. While White was a fan of the song, he felt that it didn’t suit her style. He kept it in mind for a while after and finally decided to use it for this project.

Still, the biggest revelation of the conference was that the whole project almost didn’t happen at the last minute. They did a test run late the night before to make sure everything was in order, and in his words, the cutting mechanism “blew up” and was unusable. They had to find another cutting lathe, and the only other one they could find was a mono cutterhead, which meant the record was actually produced in mono. It could have been a disaster, but White actually ended up preferring that it was made in mono, which made the project all the more special.

7:00 p.m.

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Photo by Carson O’Shoney

A full 12 hours after the day’s events officially kicked off at Third Man, the line for the “World’s Fastest Record” finally died down. There were still some stragglers, but Third Man lived up to their promise: everyone who was in line got a copy. That promise addressed the problem with some of their exclusive releases, where fans would wait for six hours or longer in line only to leave empty-handed. Sure, it made the record a little less exclusive, but it was still the only day and place you could get one, and every fan went home happy. That’s what Record Store Day is all about. Third Man continues to outdo themselves every year. We can’t wait to see what they do next.

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Photographers: Jo McCaughey, Carson O’Shoney

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