The lobby of the century-old Hermitage Hotel in downtown Nashville is incredibly lavish and slightly bizarre: Reproductions of Old Master paintings hang on walnut-paneled walls next to autographed photos of Gene Autry; sets of formal couches festooned with fringe reminiscent of flappers' dresses are grouped like gossipers under a vast stained-glass ceiling on which Christian saints disport with mythological creatures. The likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Al Capone, and Greta Garbo used to drink highballs in the Oak Bar; Dinah Shore made her singing debut in the ballroom. It's not hard to imagine why the hotel is now a favorite haunt of Jack and Meg White—as anyone remotely familiar with the White Stripes knows, the pair are lovers both of history and theatrics. Still, it's a little weird to find them here, holding court in a top floor suite. Jack, wearing a blood-red shirt and black suit, sits uneasily in a garishly upholstered chair with his back against the wall, while Meg, in a black-and-white polka dot blouse and white jeans, perches next to him, smoking. Both of them are as pale as funeral parlor proprietors.
Jack White is a rock star in the most rare, classic sense of the term: Not only does he positively exude presence, he is an intense and virtuosic talent, a man capable of twisting sounds into terrifying, heartbreaking shapes with nothing more than a guitar and the feral howl of his voice. He's a lyricist with the ear of an auctioneer or a ladies-and- gentlemen-step-right-up traveling vaudevillian, and a performer with the higher-power-channeling bombast of a Baptist preacher. Meg, whose drumming acts as metronomic ballast to his feats of six-string derring- do, is his counterpoint, his buttress, his foil. Onstage, they share an almost palpable silent communion, and their dynamic is similar offstage: They have the unmistakable bond of two people who have been in a band together for a decade (and yes, used to be married), though their personalities couldn't be more different. He does nearly all of the talking; she watches and listens intently. He's a taut, vibrating livewire; she's beatific and blissed-out. One gets the feeling she's like a satellite locked in orbit around the whirling dervish that is Planet Jack, and that's perfectly OK with her. She has little interest in the limelight, other than that which is reflected off of him.
And so it follows that in the two years since the White Stripes' last album, Get Behind Me Satan, he's been the visible half of the band: He married the perfect red-and-white maiden, model Karen Elson, fathered a daughter, Scarlett (there's a second child on the way), and recorded and toured an album with his other band, the Raconteurs. When we meet today, he reveals that he's just finished filming a cameo role as Elvis Presley in Walk Hard, a Judd Apatow comedy starring John C. Reilly to be released in 2008 ("It was my favorite era of Elvis, around '56, and when John sent me the script I laughed out loud the whole way through," he says) and that next week he's heading into the studio to record the next Raconteurs album. "It's sounding really interesting," he enthuses in his anomalous, Detroit-meets-Deep South drawl. "There are a lot of songs being written, man. We're gonna have to stop ourselves."
But of course it's Icky Thump, the White Stripes' new album, that we're here to discuss. Its peculiar title, Jack explains, is not, as some might guess, the sound of a meatloaf hitting the floor, but rather a slight bastardization of northern English slang. "It's an exclamation of surprise or disgust or excitement," he says with a playful grin. "Like, ecky thump, I forgot to do the dishes! Or, if someone's driving you crazy: [his voice drops to an exasperated whisper] Oh, ecky thump. My wife said it a bunch of times and I thought it was really funny, and somehow it came to encompass the whole album. But I did call our English record label to ask, ‘What are the repercussions of us naming this record Icky Thump?' Just in case it actually meant something really bad."
The fact that Icky Thump is the White Stripes' most experimental venture yet (brace yourself: there are bagpipes) makes for an audacious statement, as it's not only their much anticipated comeback after Jack's stint Raconteuring, it's also the band's first release on Warner's, with whom they have cautiously chosen to sign only a one-album contract (their previous deal with V2 dissolved when the label was restructured last year). Although some may read this as indication that the White Stripes plan to make this LP their swan song, the duo's reasoning is far less ominous: "Things change so fast now with labels and the whole music industry," Meg says, "that we just thought it might be best to kind of get an idea of what was going on before really committing." It's also the first album for which they ventured into a state-of-the-art studio (up to now, if the equipment wasn't lo-fi and authentically vintage, they wouldn't use it), although they still adhered to the analogue process. "I think we're in a totally different mindset than we used to be," Jack adds. "We're in a really positive, happy mood and environment—a place where we're so strong we can do things like sign to a major and go into a modern studio and not have it affect our sound, which is what we used to be afraid might happen."
Perhaps to deflect concerns that a bigger budget might bland them out, Icky Thump veers defiantly toward the weird, with the biggest surprises being an emphatically exuberant cover of a 1950's Patti Page song, "Conquest," featuring a mariachi trumpet (played by a guy they recruited from a Mexican restaurant, and with whom they had to communicate via translator), and the aforementioned bagpipe tracks, "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn," and "St. Andrew (This Battle Is
In The Air)," the latter of which is an avant-garde noise piece with a spoken-word performance by Meg. ("We both have Scottish ancestors," Jack explains foggily, "and I guess it's our way of paying tribute to those people"). Not that Icky Thump isn't also packed with classic White Stripes blues-rock knock-outs: "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told)" is one of the best they've ever written, and the introspective "300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues" is sure to invite all kinds of speculation into White's relationship with Elson: "There's all kinds of red-headed women that I ain't supposed to kiss/ And it's that color which never fails to turn me blue/ So I just swallow it and hold on to it/ And use it to scare the hell out of you."
As part of the cocoon of self-created mythology that surrounds them, the White Stripes' lyrics have always eluded easy analysis. Jack's favored themes of unrequited or squandered love are certainly still present
on Icky Thump, but the songs are less sentimental, and much more oblique—piecing together the stories is a bit like playing Scrabble with
o vowels. "Storytelling is always my goal," he says, furrowing his brow, "but storytelling that isn't, ‘Bill walked down the road...' I never want the songs to be utterly blatant. I'm just trying to sneak up on the listener. And on this album I tried to explore different characters' points of view."
On "Rag and Bone," for instance, Jack and Meg take on the characters of rag pickers going door to door in search of cast-off junk. The idea was partly inspired by one of Jack's recent fascinations: the curious English tradition of "pearly kings and queens," people who sew buttons all over their clothing and parade through the streets. In his eyes, this is a metaphor for the White Stripes—they take obsolescent folk and blues traditions and fashion them into something new, and have always made it their mission to re-introduce the conventions of early 20th-century songcraft to modern listeners: To wit, on the album cover, he and Meg are wearing their own custom-made pearly suits, created by a seamstress friend who sewed 13,000 buttons onto each of them. "It's all sort of about the idea of creative people as garbage collectors," Jack says, precariously placing the bottle of Perrier he's been drinking from on his knee. "Taking other people's junk and trying to make something useful out of it, I guess. Oh, shit." The water has just spilled into his lap, and all over his chair.
"I'll show you this old upholstery trick," he says, with a cunning wink. He stands up, flips the cushion over, and sits back down, grinning. "No one will ever know."
Nashville isn't nicknamed Music City U.S.A. for nothing. There are staffs and treble clefs on the sides of taxis, country songs blaring out of storefronts and elevators and honky-tonk bars and restaurants; the airport even features a welcome mural where you can have your photo taken next to a life-size image of Kenny Chesney. Elvis's gold Cadillac— painted with 40 coats of crushed diamonds and fish scales—is parked for posterity in the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum downtown. The surrounding sun-baked streets have been home to many of Jack's heroes—Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Jimi Hendrix—and now he's made a home for himself and his family in a rambling old house on the city's outskirts. Grubby Detroit, with its garage-rock grudges and cliquey social politics, was no place for him, not anymore. "You don't have to worry about being cool here," says the coolest man in rock, wearily and without a trace of irony. "I had enough of that."
Another one of Nashville's more seductive attractions was the fact that, despite the glitz and prominence of many of its country-music-star citizens, it is, for the most part, an easy place to hide from the press. The White Stripes are both notoriously close-lipped when it comes to their private lives, and biographical information is scant. We know that Jack has an interest in taxidermy, that he idolizes Orson Welles, that he's the youngest of 10 siblings, that he seriously considered becoming a priest, and that he was running his own upholstery business (he wore only yellow and black; his card read YOUR FURNITURE'S NOT DEAD, next to a drop of blood) when the White Stripes recorded their first 45. About Meg, there's less: She was born in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, in 1974; she met Jack while she was working as a bartender at a place called Memphis Smoke in Detroit; they were married in 1996 and divorced in 2000 (though Jack still refers to her as his "big sister" onstage). She has modeled for Marc Jacobs; she enjoys cooking. And when Jack moved to the Bible Belt last year, she quietly moved to L.A. (about which she says only: "I know a lot of people out there...I like it"). For both of them, any discussion of their lives beyond the White Stripes' music is merely an unnecessary distraction from it.
"Being photographed on the street is an invasion of privacy," Jack says. "It's tough. But we've been really lucky in that sense. It has a lot to do with the fact that Meg and I don't really walk down the red carpet and go to a lot of L.A. parties to be seen, which I think is sort of false celebrity. I strongly believe that if you're famous it should be because you did something, and the fame is the side-effect of accomplishment. In this day and age nobody seems to be looking at it that way anymore."
"To me, [being recognized] is like if your boss came every morning and tapped you on the head to wake you up," Meg says, with a quick, nervous, rat-a-tat laugh. "It's like, not now."
"You have to construct a foundation in a sense, create a certain space around you," Jack continues, quietly. "Beck said something to me once: ‘You manifest your fears to people and they smell them and pounce on them.' It's why dogs will always come after the person who's scared of them most. So you have to be careful when you're relating to people what you're really afraid of, because when it comes backlash time that's the first thing people are going to go to."
Of course, backlash is something that the White Stripes have never suffered: It's hard to think of another band that has made six albums and had them all be so well received. They're sticking their necks out with Icky Thump—it's easily their least accessible effort—but they've also reached a place where it wouldn't particularly matter if the album was panned: Their achievements render them virtually unimpeachable.
Ten years ago, on July 14th, the White Stripes went onstage for their first-ever performance, during an open-mic night at a Detroit bar called the Gold Dollar. They played three songs, one of which was a cover of "Love Potion #9." The room was virtually empty. To commemorate that anniversary this summer, the duo are going to work their way across Canada, playing a show in every province ("I don't think any band has ever done that before," notes Jack), then hop around the U.S., where they will play in every state they've never played in before. "After 10 years," Jack says, "it seems like it's time we tied up some loose ends."
The White Stripes shoot a glance at each other. "Ten years!" he booms. "It feels like one year to me!" Meg's eyes widen. "It's the same feeling as when you've been on tour," she says, "you feel like you've been gone for a day and also a year at the same time." She shakes her head. "It seems really quick but then so much has happened..."
With every album they've done, the White Stripes have challenged themselves to see how far they can go within their self-imposed limits. What began as a sort of candy-cane-colored art-project has become one of the biggest bands in the world mostly thanks to the resourcefulness of their creativity--restricting everything to three elementary elements (voice, guitar, drums, and variations thereof), they have consistently surpassed their more instrumentally evolved peers. For Jack, the box they've built around themselves is necessary--"It forces us to work. It gives us a lot of energy and urgency, I think," he says--but at the same time he's beginning to allow inspiration to sometimes win out over his purist sensibilities (hello, bagpipes). "When we break the rules there can be beauty, too," he reflects. "Just like when we follow them."
And now it's time for the pair to leave the Hermitage for the photo shoot. Jack squints out the window at the bright afternoon sun, Meg grabs a fresh bottle of water, and they head downstairs. As they walk out of the hotel's broad front door, swept open by a liveried bellman, a low silver sports car pulls up, and out of it steps a tiny, preternaturally tan, sandy-haired fellow dressed entirely in denim. It's Keith Urban. He flashes a mouth full of Hollywood-whites at the Whites. And as Jack—a tall, imposing figure in his slim black-and-red suit—takes his extended hand, there's a moment of dizzying incongruity, like seeing Elvis Presley shake hands with Donny Osmond. It's suddenly striking how beautifully anachronistic Jack White is in this day and age: In the face of so much empty commercialism, he has mystery and dignity, gravity and grace. Like Nick Cave or Johnny Cash, he is the one in control of the persona he has so carefully created—and whether that persona initially sprung from mischievousness or self-preservation, it no longer matters. As he stands there in the glare of a Nashville afternoon making neighborly small-talk with a faintly ridiculous country singer, he appears nothing less than a living legend—even, perhaps, one of the last true rock stars.
Then Meg beckons him from a waiting town car, and in a blur of red, white, and black, they're gone. -- APRIL LONG