Jack White: The Cream Interview



Jack White inside Third Man Records.
This week's Scene cover story is a profile on Jack White's Third Man Records, the shows they have there, the records they put out, the fans who buy them, and how they've began to find their groove in the Nashville rock scene. Last October, White hosted me in his Third Man office for a sit-down in which he opened up about why he left Detroit, how he ended up in Nashville, how the Third Man operation came to be what it is today, the confusion of the music industry, what he likes about PUJOL and JEFF the Brotherhood, and more. Check out the Q&A below:

Nashville Cream: Why Nashville? What brought you here, and what's kept you here?

Jack White: Well, I looked all over the South. I wanted to live down south when I was trying to leave Detroit. I just looked everywhere — Mississippi, South Carolina, Kentucky — I just was on the look for about a year, year and a half, and I kept finding myself working in Nashville for reasons out of my control. And it sort of just hit me over the head. [I thought], "There's a reason I keep coming here"' At first it was Tennessee, I thought. I was like, 'Memphis.' But Memphis is so similar to Detroit — it seemed like a lateral move to me.

NC: How so?

JW: I just think the vibe of the town, to me, felt exactly like Detroit. I think that an operation like this [would] be tougher to do in a small town, with a smaller music community, because you'd just get chewed up and spit out in a couple months. You couldn't stay afloat. That was the problem in Detroit. In essence, Detroit is a small town, it's just scattered over a wide area. You can get away with a lot of things in L.A. or New York, [but] there's so much going on, no one even notices what you're doing. When you're in a small town, when something big is happening, everyone's got an opinion about it. For some reason, Nashville felt like it was the in-between of all of that. Fame, and the plastic side of the music business, and the real deal of the American South that influences me, where I can just sort of sneak through the cracks and make sense of it.

I couldn't live in a small town, and I couldn't live in a big town. I don't like L.A. and New York. I don't like big towns. London. Paris. They make me claustrophobic.

NC: When you talk about fame vs. the grass roots, visceral part of being a music fan; Is part of having this space having a place to be comfortable?

JW: It's form follows function. I'm going where I can do what I need to do without being hindered. I was being hindered in the Detroit scene. I was too engrossed in it. That's why I try to stay a little bit out of the Nashville rock 'n' roll scene. Because I'll get too engrossed in it if I don't watch myself. I wanna record and produce bands. I've been doing it since I was a teenager. But it's different. We're not in the jazz world, or the bluegrass world, or something like that. Rock 'n' roll and alternative music is very shaky ground, because people are always jumping from one foot to the other about what's cool and what's not. And when you wanna keep moving forward it's really hard. You're walking through a mine field and you have to really figure out how much to give of yourself. That becomes tough, but I think this town's got a good head on its shoulders about that sort of stuff.

NC: In terms of the label and this operation, when did you start conceiving this idea of it being this whole storefront, live space, etc.?

JW: A couple years ago I was looking at buildings because I was getting tired of paying rent for storage all over the place. I had a lot of gear in Detroit, gear here. Between three different bands it just seemed like I had, like, five different storage spaces. I was looking for a building where I could keep it all myself, and also maybe get some other work done. I found this building and one thing led to another. I'd been talking to the Bens [Blackwell and Swank] who work here about reissuing all the White Stripes and Raconteurs vinyl that, once V2 had collapsed, I'd gotten [those masters] back, no one was producing them.

So I wanted to start a small, small division of Third Man to reissue those records; all those 45s and albums on vinyl. That was the plan. I was like, "Well, I'm looking for a place to store gear, and I wanna reissue these old 45s." So I thought maybe with these two guys, we can do that, it'd be enough work for them. And then this building started to grow and I thought, "Well, it might be good to have a venue in the back to rehearse for tour." And that was the photo studio, too, and I said, "Well, let's build a darkroom. And, you know, it'd be great to have a little record store in the front. Because if we're [putting out] these records, if someone buzzed in we could just sell 'em a record right here." And it just kept going, and going, and going, and within three months it was this. I'd never had the time to take courses in design or architecture like I'd wanted to when I was younger, so places like this, constructing them, I finally get to expand on a lot of that — the design fascinations I had when I was younger and I had my upholstery shop. Designers like Eero Saarinen, Eames, Frank Lloyd Wright — those people led me to architecture and design in several different ways.

NC: It seems like it was an organic thing that took on a life of its own. You hadn't originally planned it to be what it is now, but people put a lot of focus on how calculating they think you are.

JW: That's always been the case with me. People always look at the finished product and they assume it was written down on paper beforehand, and all the bands I'm in, and all the projects — the funniest thing is, the bands, and the building, and these records; they're all the exact opposite, they're all just happenstance. Dungen was here a couple weeks ago. They were coming through town and [we were like], "Do you wanna make a 45? Yeah? OK!" I didn't plan that six months ahead of time. I didn't plan that 24 hours ahead of time. [Laughs.] I was here, they were here. But having a building like this, it helps those things exist. Now we're on our 60-something-th record, and those records wouldn't have existed had I not constructed this place, so that's what I really like about it — making new things exist.

NC: Even having grown up in L.A., where there were a lot of good all-ages shows, and good all ages venues, I'd still never seen something like what I saw the first time I came to a show here…..

JW: Well that's the main bridge we're trying to figure out. If bands wanna do a session, or a live record — first of all, I think this is the only venue in the world where you can record in front of a live audience, to tape. If there's another one I'm sure someone would've told me about it, but I haven't heard of another one yet — and also, that record will come out on vinyl, like, four weeks later. That's a pretty unique experience. But we also thought, we wanna do this blue series — it's just bands coming through Nashville, so it's very natural. It's not premeditated in that sense. So the other problem was we didn't want to piss of the local venues. We love all those guys at Cannery, Mercy, The End, etc. If they have a show planned, we don't wanna take away [from it].

So we have to figure out a different way to do it. So it's not a full set [that bands play]. We can't even do a full set, because an album, on vinyl, should be less than 40 minutes for the sound to be good. Sometimes the shows are free, and [bands] can just use the house equipment. After their soundcheck across the street, they can just come over here and do a quick set for the teenagers and kids who can't get into the bar show that night. So it's not a crowd [the clubs] are missing. That's where we're trying to find the balance. It's important for us to work with those guys too. We're not trying to swipe anything away from them.

NC: When people come into that room, come into this building, what do you want them to experience?

JW: Just rock 'n' roll. It has to feel alive, you know? I think at the first couple shows we did people acted like they were in an art museum or something. It was very quiet between songs. They were worried because it was being recorded. But now, that's all gone. It's rowdy — and electric. When JEFF the Brotherhood played here, it was incredible. Now we're at that point we wanted to get to.

NC: It seems like a lot of this is about what it means to be a music fan. Where the Venn diagram of being a music fan and being an artist meet. This place is a monument to music fandom — whether it's by bringing in the's, whose fans would seldom have the opportunity to see, or whether it's your fans who come to get things they can't get elsewhere, or if it's just people who are fans of vinyl as a tangible aesthetic. In the 10 years since you've risen to prominence, the music industry's struggle to sell a tangible product has become the bane of its existence, so they've had to focus more and more on mass appeal. In doing that, do you think they've kind of squeezed out the voracious fan? The voracious listener?

JW: I think the labels are just as confused as the fans are. If you go and listen to what the fans have to say on the Internet, they talk a game that they're not confused, but I tend to disagree. I think they're very confused by how many formats, and how many different types of experiences are thrown at them just from the Internet alone, and it's just too hard to compete with all that and have it make sense. That's another reason why this place made sense. Ten years ago a band was expected to have three or four press photos, and now they're expected to have three or four hundred press photos. Instead of other people deciding the content for bands, and just throwing them into this pit of "you have to come up with all this content," why don't we just make it ourselves and have it be real, and let people experience it from a different angle then just having someone throw something at you and you just have to go along with it? That's not really creative; that's just, sort of, perfunctory. So I think that the labels and the fans are both, just, inundated.

[With] this place, we start with something real, and tangible, and things that you can only get and experience if you got up off your seat and went and did it. You know, we don't allow people to take photos, or film a concert. Some fans might say, "Well that's not fair, blah, blah, blah," but they have to remember, if you're really respecting the artist, the artist doesn't want to look out from the stage and see a thousand little metal gadgets pointing at them, and people who are watching the show don't want to watch a thousand blue screens between them and the stage. That's not experiencing anything. You're watching a little screen when you should be watching real life. It's such a strange concept. So we just wanna encourage things that are really happening. It means a lot more. Take a picture afterward.

NC: In the case of Third Man, it seems like the value of the product was been augmented by people focusing on digital mediums, and what not, whereas a record actually has more value. Do you think the record industry has sold short what the value of an actual vinyl record can be?

JW: I just think that the industry's not dictating it as much as people think. I think they're following what people want. They always will. They go where the dollar is. And they have to do that to stay afloat, it's not really their fault. If kids are saying, "We're not buying records," then [the industry] has to pull out every trick in the book to try and stay afloat, and that's what they do. All you're witnessing now is them pulling out every trick in the book, and none of them really work. So [Third Man] is on a totally different angle — starting from a very small, boutique idea — but it's more important than all of that trickery, because it's kids getting real records in their hands and listening to them, and starting a whole new trek down some other path that's not digital, not invisible, not disposable. It's about appreciating real experiences, and real objects, and art that can be appreciated, listened to, and loved, and all that.

NC: Industry chatter these days is all about branding, branding, branding. And I understand what they're getting at, trying to build careers instead of quick cash-ins ...

JW: But they have to stand for something first. Nobody stands for anything anymore, because they're so scared. If you have an opinion now, it becomes the goal of people on the Internet to spot the hypocrite. "But how dare you say that about my iPod. I love my iPod." No one's dissing your iPod. I have an iPod, y'know? People are scared to take a stand. And if you don't stand for something to begin with, you can't be branded.

NC: You're an example of an artist who has a brand, and a style your fans know, that allows you to go fluidly between different projects. That's what the industry wants for their artists — some of whom are kids who don't know what they stand for yet. But you can't just create that. Doesn't it have to come from somewhere internal? Somewhere intrinsic?

JW: It'd be pretty hard to do. I've always wanted to hear stories of the pop stars who supposedly have. Even Madonna — I don't really see her as such a pre-calculated thing as everyone thinks she is, you know? I think a lot of it really comes from her thinking up ideas and collaborating with people. A lot of spur of the moment ideas that just turn into something bigger. She's just really good at it, but when people see the end product they assume. It's like conspiracy theories. You see the end result, so you assume someone was smart enough to think way ahead of time of how to do that. But that's not very easy to do, y'know? [Laughs.] It has to come from what you love to do, first and foremost. I happen to care about the design of covers, and the design of the presentation, the aesthetic, the lighting onstage — I happen to care about all that stuff. A lot of artists don't, and they don't need to. You can just be a singer, and be a songwriter, and that's enough. It's enough for me, to appreciate someone else. But when you care about all that stuff you just can't help but be obsessed with it. You're not doing it for a branding, to make money off of it, you're doing it because you wanna see that project be something you can stand behind and defend 100 percent. I would never put anything out that looks cool just because it looks cool, or sounds cool just because it [sounds cool]. It has to come from something real to begin with or it's just gonna fall apart. It'll fall apart in my brain — I won't be able to defend it to myself. [Laughs.]

NC: Whether it's reissuing the's record, or working with a local artist like Daniel Pujol, how much of your goal with Third Man is to give exposure to artists you like?

JW: That's a nice plus. Once this institution is set up, people can slide through it. People like Dex Romweber can come by. People I really respect. Also, a lot of times these are people who've asked me to do things years ago with them and I had to pass. Like, say, Wanda Jackson wanted to do one of those duet albums where every song's a different collaboration, and I don't really like those records. So I said, "Well, can we do something else? Can we do a 45 together maybe? If you wanna work together, let's do it like that." Because I think those [duet] records are sort of throw-away records. It worked for Santana once, and that's it, [laughs] you know? So it breeds a new idea for that kind of collaboration, as a producer, or however I'm collaborating with people. But, yeah, it's nice plus to be able to have the ability to bring over The's — who'd never played Nashville before, and have played America very few times. To be able to reissue their album, it's just ... that feels really good. I love the idea of being able to help expose people to records that are hard to find. We're gonna do a lot more of that in the next couple years, because there are so many records that aren't being pressed.

NC: And a 16 year-old kid who's a White Stripes fan or a Dead Weather fan is probably gonna hear about those records a lot sooner. I found out about most of my favorite bands through other favorite bands, and through reading about my favorite records and their reference points. Do you see yourself as a taste-maker?

JW: I don't think so. If I am, it's by proxy.'s — that show was gonna happen whether anybody showed up or not. [Laughs.] If five people were there, we were still gonna do that show, and still put that record out. So it's hard to define people's taste. You really can't put it on a graph.

NC: But if they'd come here a year ago and played a club, there would've been 50 or 60 people there. Maybe. Here, there was 300 people there to see them.

JW: Over 300, yeah.

NC: Part of that is the aura of this space and how that makes the show more of an event. Because it's a unique venue, it doesn't feel like it's "just another show." At most shows in Nashville it's this, sort of, armchair quarterback thing where everyone in the crowd's a musician, and no one wants to show too much excitement or enthusiasm. Does it feel good to have an island of excitement amidst that?

JW: It's cool to have [something] a little off to the side of what a normal venue is, where people could possibly have more of a reason to come here from farther away. Because they can say, "Well, I'll go to the show, then I'll go to the record store too and, hey, I've never been to Nashville, so why not? Now I've got three reasons to go." As opposed to New York, where there's 16 shows happening every day. It's nice to be able to have the opportunity to be able to make an event out of the things, and to make an event out of bands who don't get events made around them very often. That's a plus, because the artist is excited about it, because it's something new to do. Jenny & Johnny were here doing a show a few weeks ago. I know what it's like to be on tour. When you go on tour, and you're playing a different show every night, you're dying to do something else that's creative on the way, but nothing ever happens on the road. You don't find yourself in a studio with some blues musicians on accident in Mississippi, or something. It doesn't happen. So an idea like this, to record something live, and to have a different kind of scenario that isn't thrown at you for the sake of content, for some corporate reason, but for a music reason, for making a recording of something real and tangible — it's really exciting to artists. I mean, I just know they're gonna be excited about it, because I know I would be if I was on the road and someone came up with that idea I'd be like, "Ah, great! I can't wait to stop by. Even it's just two songs or something. Anything to just stop the monotony." And have it be creative at the same time. It just doesn't happen on the road.

NC: If you keep making these live recordings and putting them out for years, it could become a Peel Sessions kind of thing, where you have this time-capsule of all these artists who came through Nashville during this period. Have you thought about it that way?

JW: Yeah. When we first started doing the live records I said, "You know, it'd be great in five years time to have a hundred of those in the bin at the front of the store." A kid could come in and just flip through names and say, "Wow! Who is that? They did a live show here? I'm gonna check it out." That could lead on to so many other things. And that would be really great. And it's cool too, because we're not selling them a full, glossy photograph cover live album. They're just die-cut sleeves that just say the names of the artists. Everyone's in the same room; given the same treatment, you know? It's sort of a "Show us what you got!" situation. It's also a challenge for those artists to, in the middle of a tour, record live. I like those challenges. So I like to see when those artists are excited to take on that challenge too, you know? It's pretty cool.

NC: What about the local artists you had in here during Next Big Nashville, or in your studio to record? What is it you like about the Nashville's Dead scene? How did the alliance you've got going with them come to life?

JW: Well, I tread lightly on the scene in Nashville because I don't wanna infiltrate it and be too involved in it. I got really burned in Detroit, being heavily involved in the scene up there, so it's a little bit scary. I have some trepidation about it. I don't wanna cause any problems [laughs], you know? I don't wanna interrupt the flow of what's naturally happening with those bands either. So, it's more of a case of how those bands would gravitate to what we're doing, and if it makes sense to them. And I don't think the bands we've worked with, they're not opportunistic or anything. PUJOL just wanted to make a good recording, you know? That appeals to me. There's no other side-issues of anything going on. I had enough of that up north, so I'm not looking to come cause any problems in that realm.

But at the same, you know, my mind has become so all-over-the-place as far as artists. The's from Japan. Or Laura Marling from London. I don't care anymore. I used to care [about scene politics]. When I was in Detroit, I was so Detroit. I did a whole compilation of Detroit bands. We had a Detroit flag hanging behind us when we went on tour. I took all the Detroit bands on tour with us, etc. All that stuff. And I loved all that. But it causes a lot of problems, you know? Again, it's not the jazz world, or bluegrass world, or something, so it's a little bit tricky to do something like that. I just think more all-over-the-place now, and Nashville's just a part of it because this is where we are.

NC: What is it you like about the music of those artists from Nashville you've had here?

JW: That PUJOL record, and JEFF the Brotherhood too — they're really, really, highly energetic. And that's a good place to start. [Laughs.] If you don't have that electricity and energy to begin with, it's harder to get to someplace new, someplace that musicians haven't gone to before. It's a wild abandon inside them. I can see that it's inside of those guys, and it's just gonna keep snowballing. In three or four years from now, it's just gonna get bigger, and bigger, and bigger. It's the timid ones that I don't know sometimes whether I should be an enabler and help push them off the cliff — a little lemming sort of thing — or just watch and see what they do on their own. Timidity is hard to deal with in any style of music. Because people don't want to see someone onstage nervous, or shy. [As audiences] we want you to act like you own the place, and impress us, and show us something new. We don't know that we want that. Out loud, we don't say, "When I go to the show tonight, I want somethin' to catch fire, I want somethin' gettin' knocked over, I want a new song I've never heard before that I want listen to 50 times this week." But that's really what we want once the lights go down and the shows starts. We wanna see something happen. So I gravitate to those people who wanna make something happen.

NC: What's been your impression of the attitude among the local rock community in Nashville? What's been your experience in dealing with people here?

JW: It's all been good. But maybe it's all been good because I'm a little bit stand-offish from it. I haven't been to that many shows in town, for the sake of protecting that for myself. But I've felt nothing but positivity from everybody in town we've worked with here, or that The Dead Weather's taken on tour, or who're session musicians who've played on recordings, I've got not one complaint — it's been incredible. It's been an incredible place to be, and I just know that those records, and those live experiences wouldn't have existed had I been someplace else. So it makes me feel like this building's in the right place.

NC: When you go to shows elsewhere, do you feel people's eyes on you? I remember an interview I read once with Ian Mackaye where he was talking about how it was hard for him to go to shows because he felt like the audience was watching him to see what his reaction to a band was.

JW: Yeah. Some people who are famous have the problem where you can't check somebody out because immediately it's an endorsement: You "love the band." Even though you've never even seen them before. You just wanted to see what they were like. So there's that aspect of it. Then there's the aspect that, everyone's got a camera in their pocket, and you got flashing. I don't wanna do anything that's rude, that's distracting to the person onstage either. And that's hard to do too. There's a lot of reasons why it can be difficult. But it's tough to talk about that stuff without sounding egotistical or something. I don't know if people would understand the real answer to that question. The easy thing to say is, "It's tough."

NC: Nashville's been wanting attention for things …

JW: Other than country.

NC: Yeah. I think people here want people on the outside to see it as being as broad as it really is. So it seems like Nashville's welcoming of something that can come along and galvanize that reaction. There are so many bands that do so well outside of Nashville, but then they come here and it's like everyone's over it, because they're spoiled on it. Shows at Third Man don't feel that way, people are excited about it here — like they're coming to the visit the chocolate factory.

JW: Oh? Yeah? That's great.

NC: Tell me about your relationship with Ben Blackwell and Ben Swank, and how you work with them, and how you work with everyone else here.

JW: Well, we don't have real job titles here. Which sort of sounds maybe a little pretentious, but at the same time, we don't have them because I didn't want anyone to ever say, "It's not my job." When we're putting on a show I sort of have that "our gang" mentality. Like, "Let's put on a show in the basement." I want everyone who works here to feel that way. That, "Yeah, we're filming a video here tomorrow and you're working the spotlight. I don't care if you went to Harvard and got a graphic design degree, it doesn't really matter because we need someone to hold the spotlight right now." You know what I mean? Or, "Where's an amplifier? Someone go buy a guitar cord. Whoever can go get it, go get it, because we need a guitar cord." And on, and on, and on.

The videos we've filmed here have all been like that. There's been no script, and how it's gonna be done, and budget for whatever. If we wanna make something happen, we make it happen. And in the end it'll all work itself out. We're doing that this week with Elvira, and The Greenhornes, and the Black Bells. There's hundreds of ideas going back and forth with people. I'm not that interested in throwing a party, you know? That's not really my cup of tea. But I'm interested in people all brainstorming and trying to put on a show. That element of show business has always appealed to me. I'm always interested in people wanting to create something that didn't exist already. Because anybody can sit back and let everybody else do it. So that's what this environment here is. All those guys, they all have names on their business cards like Gravedigger and whatever. It's better for them, because when the photo booth is broken we've got someone who'd be in marketing, or works the vinyl department is helping me fix a broken photo booth [laughs], and that's the way it should be. It shouldn't be like, "No, sorry, that's not my job."

NC: Is there any label, or operation — be it something from the past or otherwise — specifically that you're emulating with the Third Man model and how it operates?

JW: Well, there's elements of a lot of things in what we're doing, whether it's Sun Studios, or Chess, or Paisley Park, or whatever, there's a lot of small elements of all those things. But we're not setting out to copy anything in particular. I mean, there's a lot of new things that this generation has to offer that all those places couldn't.

NC: Like what?

JW: Like our online subscription service — The Vault. That people can belong to that kind of a club, I mean, you couldn't have a thing like that, obviously, 20 years ago. And the access to United pressing plant that's a few blocks away, to be able to have such a marriage with them, to create really unique pieces and break open new ideas in vinyl — a format that's over a 100 years old — to try and come up with new twists on it, we've come up with a couple so far and it's not easy. But the marriage with them has really helped, and I think having all that in house is totally different then what a lot of those [other labels] were doing. A lot of those labels were interested in making great music, and they did it, and they handed it off to other people to process and exploit. But we're doing it all together — from beginning to end — from the first note recorded, to the photograph is printed at the printers, we're all a part of it as a team. And this is what I've been doing with the Bens. We were doing all that in my living room in Detroit in '97. A band would come through town — like The Greenhornes — we'd be recording them, and they'd be sleeping over, we'd take photographs the next morning for the cover of the 7-inch, etc. We're doing the same thing we were doing then, it's just a different way of doing it.

NC: I imagine it's easier now, with the resources your success has provided you.

JW: Oh, no doubt. It's great. A band like The Dead Weather can sell a lot of records, and that helps pay for all these little records that maybe only a 1,000, 500 people will buy, but now they exist and it just keeps going, and going. We're having a glut right now. We have, like, 10 records we want to come out right now. We're to find the space to put them all out so they all get their own attention. There's too much happening, and there're so many ideas that are gonna change in the next six to eight months too. It's expanding in a lot of ways I can't tell you yet. [Smiles mischievously.] But there are some really cool things that are gonna happen just in the next month or two.

NC: And business is good?

JW: [Laughs.] YEAH!

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