The great Jack White recently sat down with the great Dan Rather for an hour-long discussion on the latter’s AXS TV programThe Big Interview. White touched upon many facets of his life and career, from the persona and design aesthetic he puts forward, to his near-brush with the seminary and leaving Detroit. You can watch the entire episode below, which includes a brief tour of Third Man Records and ends with White covering Hank Williams’ “Tennessee Border”. We’ve also pulled some highlights for you to peruse.
On the success of the Lazaretto vinyl LP: “I think if you’re someone who watches movies on an iPhone or an iPad, you know you’re watching a film and you’re getting something from it. But you know that if you drive by a movie theater that day, you also know that, ‘Well, that’s where you really watch movies: in that theater…’ I think when you listen to music on an iPod, and I do in my car and all that, you’re like, ‘This is the song, but this isn’t really the record. The record is the vinyl record.’ What’s great about it is that I think things have gotten so invisible with music on a listening level, that the demand for [vinyl] over the last decade has just risen and risen and risen.”
On technology and art: “It does [make art better], but you have to know the limit of the technology. There’s a time when it’s just time to stop,” White said, before referencing a nearby Silvertone amplifier and commenting that even though it was a cheap model at the time, it actually represents the “crescendo” of tube-based amps. “And that was it, that was as good as it got… I think a lot of people think I don’t like technology. And I really do like technology; I drive an electric car, I drive a Tesla, I listen to songs on a computer. But I know what the real side of it is. If I’m listening on an iPad, I know the vinyl is the real thing. If I have to record something on a demo on a computer somewhere on tour, I know what I really want to do is record to tape in my studio.”
On leaving Detroit for Nashville: “It was very hard for me to move. I always imagined I was going to be there my whole life. It always felt like my home, even as hard as it is to live there. But I think that the rust belt area… the working-man towns, those are really cynical towns. They’re very cynical about things such as what was happening to me and Meg and the White Stripes when we were breaking into the mainstream. Our music was getting out to a lot more people. It was very hard for people around… to understand how to relate to it. It was definitely hard for me to understand how to relate back to everybody, because I didn’t really know what else I could do for them. It became a whole thing where I’m thinking 90% of the time what I can do for other people so they don’t have their feelings hurt. Like, when you win the lottery, what do you do? If you give all your brothers and sisters a million dollars, they’re going to end up hating you a couple years later. You can never fix that problem… So that was a hard place for me to live and create after that, and I really had to get somewhere else.”
On whether the revelation that Jack and Meg were exes had anything to do with Detroit’s cynicism: “I think everyone was fine with Meg. She’s a very quiet person, so she was off everyone’s radar. No one had any problem with her; they had a problem with me because I’m very extroverted. If you try to be extroverted in a small town of 10,000 people for example, you can’t do that. You can’t go eat at the local diner and have breakfast when what you’re doing is globally getting accepted. People don’t know what to do with you anymore. In a lot of ways, Detroit is sort of like a small town despite how large it is, especially the creative community that was around us.” It’s worth noting that the only time Jack looked uncomfortable in the interview, and in fact the only time he broke eye-contact with Rather during a question, was when Meg was mentioned.
On what he thinks his own music tells us about America now: White explained that he isn’t a “retro-ist”, but that he simply finds a beauty there that he wants to bring to the present and future. ‘Like I said to [Bob] Dylan one time, I said, “In a lot of ways, you guys had it so lucky in the 60s. All these recording techniques had never been tried before; the Civil Rights Movement was coming to a head, you had that to sing about; the Vietnam War. The whole world was changing… It was like shooting fish in a barrel to sing about those kind of songs.’ And now it’s an age that’s a little more – I hate to label the generation now “entitled” – but the sense of entitlement that’s around nowadays seems to be something that bugs me enough to want to try and overcome it… I don’t see that beauty in the way that pop music is all recorded on computer and auto-tuned and presented in that really plastic way. And I guess I just do my best in whatever I do to try to defeat those ideas and present something that’s at least an attempt at getting at truth and getting at beauty.”
On the greatest country song ever: “For me it has to be something by probably Hank Williams, like “Cold, Cold Heart”, or Loretta Lynn, and I’d probably say “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)”… No, no! I would say for Loretta Lynn “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)”, because that went in so many different directions. It was the female side of our species speaking finally for themselves out loud, and it got by the censors and became a hit.”
On the greatest rock song ever: “That’s really hard to say, but I really like The Stooges’ album Fun House. There’s no hits on this record at all, but it contains to me all the elements of what rock ‘n’ roll is really about. It’s hard when you get into rock ‘n’ roll because there’s the Little Richard songs, the Jerry Lewis songs, and the Gene Vincent songs that are so important, and people don’t realize how important they are and how they just changed the world. They changed the world in kind of a flashy way, but also in an underground way where they were being played in people’s bedrooms and garages, and all the bands that learned from them and passed it on to their kids.”
On the greatest blues song ever: “Well, there’s a song that Blind Willie Johnson recorded and it’s called “Dark Was the Night”, and that contains no actual lyrics. He’s just playing slide guitar and basically moaning. It almost feels like a religious spiritual. And it also feels like blues. And it also feels like, I can’t believe the record label at that time really allowed this to be released. It starts beautiful and some of it turns evil sounding, without using any words. That’s very, very powerful, and very hard to do.” This response, by the way, took the least amount of thought from White.
On which of his own songs he’d like played at his memorial service: “Oh wow, that’s really tough to say. There’s one song I wrote called “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known”, though I don’t really know if that song’s really about me. It did feel at the time that at least that sentence was about me: “I’m the same boy you’ve always known.” It sort of encapsulates the idea as an artists of always trying to paint like a child paints, always remove yourself from your environment and get back down to the reality of who you really might be inside. And how some of us never really feel like we’ve grown up. A lot of us feel like we’re these boys and girls trapped in adult bodies. So that might be a good one to play.”