Back in 2001, the only thing we knew for sure about The White Stripes was that they were the most exciting rock band in a generation. John Mulvey stepped into the weird world of ‘brother and sister’ Jack and Meg in their native Detroit, a world where numerology, taxidermy and poverty are king…
Open the front door to Jack White’s house in south west Detroit, and the first thing you notice are the giant stuffed heads of antelopes and elks lying on the floor, slightly fusty, their stitching beginning to fray. These, Jack announces proudly, are new. That one’s called Aquinas, that one O’Brien, the one next to the two old jukeboxes? Onion.
Since he bought them the other day – from a guy who told him they’d been worked on by hunting-mad ‘70s rocker Ted Nugent’s personal taxidermist – Jack hasn’t had a chance to put them on his walls. And where would they go, anyway? Next to the tiger’s head with broken teeth? Between the rusty sculptures made out of bits of car? Beneath the large collection of old alarm clocks, or the photograph of bluesman Charley Patton’s gravestone? Maybe he could put one near the battered piano, but wouldn’t that spook out Beretta and Mellow Yellow, Jack’s decidedly alive canaries?
As for King Christial Mark David Edison’s Ghost, he’s still in the big red van. King Christial’s a noble if undeniably manky zebra head, stuck just behind the back seat, surrounded by all the rubbish of The White Stripes’ endless touring, near the bright red umbrella and the spotless white rollerboots. Jack’s especially pleased with this one: halfway through the photo shoot right by the Hotel Yorba, he’ll announce, “I’ve just got to go and check on my zebra,” and run back to the van. Next moment he’s dragging it across the grass for pictures.
A man may jealousy guard his privacy, but sometimes he can’t stop himself from showing off his trophies. This is the way with Jack White, the boyish, hyperactive half of Detroit’s astounding White Stripes. Myths and misinformation cling to Jack and drummer Meg White, the woman introduced as his sister but who’s the subject of much more complicated rumours. Plainly, the Whites love to play with ambiguities. They’re aware the stories that have clustered round them since their extraordinarily received British debut in July serve to protect the truths of their lives.
Nevertheless, when the van pulls up in front of his three-storey place deep in Detroit’s Mexican district, Jack’s only caveat is that we “don’t go writing about (his) breakfast cereals”. His house isn’t the red and white one on the sleeve of their first album, ‘The White Stripes’. It does, however, seem to be a clubhouse for the tight-knit Detroit garage scene. As Jack charges through the door, he swerves to avoid Ben from The Soledad Brothers, busy playing a 20-year-old arcade game. When NME’s photographer goes for his cameras, the host goes for the stereo and selects an album of ‘30s jazz standards by the suitably obscure bandleader, Little Jack Little. Then he poses by his kudu and his white elk, while Little Jack croons delectably, ‘You Oughta Be In Pictures’.
It seem The White Stripes can turn anything into an event. There are many things that make them the most remarkable rock’n’roll band to emerge in years: the taut brilliance of their songs and performances; the clean simplicity of their ideas and image; the way they use the raw materials of tradition to make something new and madly exciting. But there’s something else, too, a gift bestowed on the very band which allows us to see the simple power of rock’n’roll through fresh, clear eyes.
A few minutes later, we’re up in the loft, full of The White Stripes’ equipment. Jack makes Meg beat him over the head with a Barbie doll that, until seconds ago, was nailed to the wall. Checking out all the gear, the various room-mates, tour managers and band members hanging out downstairs, the thought occurs: how do the neighbours deal with casa White?
Jack looks bewildered, but only for a moment. “In Detroit,” he says, “you can do anything you want.”
The reason being, perhaps, that in Detroit there’s no-one to stop you doing what you want. It’s easy to see where the centre of this sprawling and impoverished city begins: the roads become empty, and the buildings are mainly derelict, burnt-out ghosts of past glory.
The downtown area of North America’s car capital has been this way for some 30 years, since a series of race riots caused Detroit’s white middle classes to flee into the suburbs. What they left behind was an anachronism: a major American city with a visible history. While other American cities continually erase the signs of their pasts, the monumental old buildings of Detroit have been accidentally preserved, only because no-one can be bothered to tear them down. As we drive around in The White Stripes’ van and Jack points out the shop where he used to work as an upholsterer, your eyes are drawn instead to the massive disused railway station, looming up in the middle of nowhere.
“The race riots happened in the ‘60s and the city never recovered, I guess,” says Jack. “It’s an abandoned city. Even related to music and what artists do in the town, that desolation, that abandonment is the best part of it.”
“As bad as it is, a lot of good music’s gonna come from poverty,” agrees Meg. “It’s horrible people have to live like that, but a lot of times it’s people in pain that come up with things. Once you become rich and famous it’s hard to keep your identity. This city has a lot of soul.”
After three albums and numerous singles for Sympathy For The Record Industry, The White Stripes have licensed all past and future recordings to XL in the UK, home of The Prodigy, Basement Jaxx and Badly Drawn Boy. In the States, every major label and management company continues to chase them, fended off by Jack, Meg, and their friend Dan, and a lawyer from Los Angeles.
Today’s tour of Detroit has ended. It’s taken in an island industrial complex where the MC5 once had their pictures taken, a beautiful old building with ‘New York City type shit’ graffitied on the side and, of course, the sprawling dosshouse Hotel Yorba, immortalised in the Stripes’ rattling new single. As a child, Jack was told The Beatles stayed there.
Now we’re sat in the bar of the St Regis, NME’s shabby-genteel hotel, slightly distracted by the wedding party next door and, in Jack’s case, checking out the upholstery. “I know this stuff, it’s cheap,” he says, fingering the slip cover of his chair. It’s time, finally, to try and sift a little truth from the fictions that surround this fabulous and canny band, one for whom facts have been replaced by misheard and half-understood stories, waves of disinformation and Chinese whispers gleaned from the internet. Most notoriously, Jack and Meg were not, apparently, brother and sister, but a divorced couple. Jack’s real name was Gillis, and he had borrowed his ex-wife’s surname. Now he was going out with one of the girls from The Von Bondies, or brilliantly, Winona Ryder.
All of this is plausibly denied. Watching them together, they have the offhand affection you’d expect of a brother and sister. If it were an act, we’d be forced to applaud an amazing performance. Nevertheless, they both delight in playing with the myths that surround them, in smudging the facts about their private lives.
“I really respect Bob Dylan,” begins Jack, namechecking someone whose early interviews were riddled with self-mythologising. “Maybe I wanna know what he has for breakfast, but then I don’t wanna know what he has for breakfast. I respect him for not being interview on MTV every week. I don’t like to see people dissected and obliterated so you feel you know them 100 per cent.”
So how much of what you tell people is true?
He looks incredulous: “It seems that everything I do is true. I don’t sit around spinning yarns or anything. I always thought it was funny when white rappers always claimed they were from the ghetto. I don’t have to pretend – you’ve seen where I live. I’ve never made up anything about all that stuff. I just don’t think everyone needs to know everything about everybody. If you say, ‘My name’s Bob Dylan’, they’ll say, ‘The artist Bob Dylan (whose real name is Robert Zimmerman)’. Why do you have to write that in parentheses? What is the point? If he tells you he’s Bob Dylan, he’s Bob Dylan.”
Jack White (whose real name is John White) is the youngest of 10 children and grew up in the house he now owns. His father and mother worked for the Catholic church (“He was in maintenance and she was a secretary”), and his brothers and sisters are several years older than him save Meg, who’s one year older. Now 25 and 26, the pair aren’t particularly religious but continue to credit God on their album sleeves because, says Jack, “I think it’s egotistical not to give some sort of credit to something.”
When Jack left school, he worked in a few upholstery shops before starting his own, renovating antique furniture in spite of having neither a business mindset nor what he calls “a drive for money”.
“I was more in the cartoon aspect of it,” he remembers. “The entire shop was yellow and black, all my tools, all the walls. I even had a yellow van, and I’d deliver the furniture in yellow and black clothes. People didn’t think it was funny at all. I guess it wasn’t working out.”
The colours may have changed nowadays – Jack maintains the uniform is red, white and black rather than just red and white – but one part of The White Stripes’ mythology that endures from his upholstery days is the significance of the number three. Hence the big red digit roughly sewn on to his white T-shirt.
“It’s really important, it means perfection to me. All the songs and lyrics, the way the songs are structured, everything we do with our artwork is based on the number three. I try to have it involved in anything we do, or at least things that are divisible by three. My studio’s Third Man Studio, my upholstery shop was Third Man Upholstery.
“The first time I realised it was when I was an apprentice at an upholstery shop and I had a piece of fabric wrapped around a chair. There were three staples on it, one for the middle and one for both sides and that held it down, y’know? It hit me then that it was perfect and cool. The White Stripes are just vocals, guitar and drums – it seemed like that was all it needed to be.”
Having only two members makes The White Stripes slippery and highly mobile, giving them an advantage over most bands that’s “almost unfair”. It also allows them to sneak into places like the Hotel Yorba, book a room for 65 bucks a week, and record the B-sides to the new single amid what Meg describes as “urine-soaked carpets and towels that are bar towels”. They tried to shoot the song’s video there, too, until the management got suspicious of all the coming and going, waved a hammer at them and barred Jack for life.
In many respects, Jack White is a man out of time. He rails against things which kill culture, and mourns the loss of local identity which makes most cities in America (save Detroit, perhaps) seem identical. Hip-hop, far from being the modern equivalent of the blues he loves, is dismissed as novelty music about “women, money and cars, where every other word is bleeped out. It seems so meaningless”.
Do you ever worry about living in the past?
“I don’t know… Hmmm, it’s hard to say, maybe I should. It’s very hard when you look around at modern music to find five things that are amazing, when in the 1930s or the 1960s they were all around. It’s hard not to look back and say, ‘Wow, those were the good old days’.”
When he gets home, he likes to be surrounded by all the stuffed animal heads. Always fearful of egomania, they make him feel humble and “not very important”. “No matter where I look,” he says, “there are eyes staring at me. And they’re totally silent. They’re such majestic creatures and I relate to that so well. It really puts me in my place.”
You can imagine him, in those rare moments when he stops moving, sitting there in this odd place that’s part bluesman’s homestead, part pop-art den, part Baronial hall. The ideal lair, perhaps, for the most charismatic and talented rock’n’roll star of his generation. What he wants now isn’t the money, the women or the cars. It’s just one last thing – the buffalo head that would complete the collection. Every band has its dreams, of course. But when all the usual ones are coming true so fast, it’s useful to have a speciality interest.
Before we begin the next chapter in NME’s history, it’s important to celebrate the first. NME’s massive 132 page collectors’ edition is available now in all good newsagents and to buy online: http://nmem.ag/QIruC