Exclusive KEXP Interview: Jack White

Interviews, The Roadhouse
photo by Jim Bennett (view set)

Just before a pair of sold-out shows at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, Greg Vandy, host of The Roadhouse on KEXP, sat down with Jack White to discuss his new album, Lazaretto, his label, Third Man Records, vintage recordings, the Paramount reissues and even his sprained ankle.

Listen to the interview, as featured on The Roadhouse this week as part of an all Jack White-related music special, and read the transcript in its entirety below:

You can also listen to Greg's entire Jack White-themed show on KEXP's The Roadhouse here:

Greg Vandy: Jack White's in the Roadhouse. Welcome to KEXP.

Jack White: Thank you for having me.

Do you listen to KEXP? Is it on your radar?

I have in the past when I've been around. It's very nice. Thank you for supporting for all of the Third Man records.

How's your ankle?

Not so good. It's pretty painful, especially in the morning. But after all of the crazy things that have happened onstage to me in the last decade, I've been very lucky, so I can't complain.

What's the gimpy Jack White like onstage?

(laughs) I try to shake it off and do what I normally do. I'd hate to do a show where I'd have to just stand there or sit on a chair or something. That's what worries me about it – I hope I'm not making it worse.

Lazaretto is the new album on Third Man Records. What's your favorite song on the album?

It might be "Would You Fight For My Love?". I feel like it was the most challenging and intricate song on the mechanical side. To put it together with three different bands playing on this one song, punching them onto analogue tape over one another was pretty complicated. It's one of those things where you're doing something so complicated that you know no one will ever appreciate it unless you took them into the studio and pointed it out to them. (laughs) In an age where everyone is recording on digital on the computer, no one is really impressed by that anymore. It's one of those things that only some engineers and musicians would think was interesting. (laughs)

And it's the new single.

Yes, it is our new single and I'm glad to finally to have that out. We thought it would be a little too dramatic as a first single, so I thought, "Well, we'll put it out second and we'll get people's attention with 'Lazaretto'". Singles are a strange thing. It's almost like a commercial for your album. You almost start to forget about the song that generated it to begin with when you start talking about business. It's a shame that mixing business with art is something that we have to do so much. That's why I made Third Man Records. Since we have the disease of having to mix art and business, at least we can do it from our point of view and always have our own box where things get created in our world. Then we release it to everyone else and just see what happens.

Third Man Records was started back in 2001, but in 2009, you built the physical location of the label in Nashville. Why did you choose Nashville?

Well, I wanted to live down south. I looked all over – I looked at Muscle Shoals, I looked at Mississippi, I looked at Athens, Georgia. I just kept coming back to Nashville. It just felt like the place for me, and it really is. I'm there for life now. I moved there without knowing anybody. I had stone cold zero friends there. Now we have such a huge family, especially around Third Man Records. There are so many people from Detroit and London who have moved there. All four members of the Dead Weather and all of the Raconteurs live in Nashville now. Plus, the city has just blown up in the last few years.

And United Record Pressing is there.

Yeah! That was a big plus for starting Third Man Records there. When I bought the building, I was just looking for a place to store all my gear in one place. That gradually turned into baby steps towards ideas like "What about rereleasing all the old vinyl we have the rights to?" or "What if we had a small store where we could sell those records?" and having a venue where you could practice before going on tour. That eventually turned into a live venue with analog recording capabilities where we can record live and direct to acetate. There's so many things about that place. It would take an hour to tell you about them all.

It's really exciting stuff. It's exciting to see what you're doing not only with the vinyl, but with the photography and the packaging and all of those pieces that that you're putting together. It's really a fan's dream for all of us to see an artist that we love to do it that way, so completely.

Well, thank you. I look at it like, "What would I have liked to have seen on tour when I was 19?". There's these different things, like an old style photo booth, that I always looked for when I was on tour. I always wanted to see a booth like I'd seen in old movies where you could record records, and I never found one. Or a place where your band could play a strange set of whatever songs you wanted and then release it on vinyl. These are all things you can do at Third Man now, and there's more and more of those things happening every year. We're putting together new ideas all the time. Things that you were always looking for on tour, but you never saw – that's our goal.

On top of that, it's brilliant that your Rolling Record Store is bringing the product to the fans.

I love that component. That was a big project for us. The recording booth from the '40s that we have in the store, I found a second one from a collector. We restored it and we're going to try to put it on a trailer behind the Rolling Record Store, so wherever that truck goes, you can record a record in the trailer behind it. But it's going to be very difficult, because we have to make this spring-loaded case for it so that it can handle the highway and not get destroyed (laughs). If you move a jukebox ten feet, it doesn't want to work any more, so moving that thing is very, very delicate. That's our new project right now, how to figure out moving the booth with the Rolling Record Store.

Another cool project I saw that you've got on is the tintype method of photography that you've got going on with some photographers. Can you explain tintype?

Well, tintype was an old process they used in the 1800s where the photographic printing plate was a piece of tin. It was actually considered a very cheap version of photography. People who couldn't afford to get real portrait photographs done got tintypes. But even though it was considered a cheap version of photography, those photographs had their own beautiful look to them. The focus on those old tintype cameras is so minute that if you focus on someone's nose, their mouth might be blurry – it's so exact. There's an artist at Third Man this weekend who's doing tintype portraits for anyone who wants one. He set up at this summer's Newport Folk Festival where we saw him doing them, so we invited him to come to Third Man and do it there too.

I think you said something earlier about capturing souls with that kind of photography.

Yeah, it feels that way. You can see why Native Americans were scared of it. (laughs) I am.

Tell me about these vintage machines like the Scopitone or the Mold-A-Rama or the Voice-O-Graph booth.

The Voice-O-Graph booth was what we were talking about earlier. The Scopitone is a really, really beautiful project. I think a lot of people walk right by it and think nothing of it at the shop, but that was an incredibly hard project to get going. Scopitone was a 1960s video jukebox that was made in France. They didn't take off because they didn't sign enough big enough names to keep it going. They only had a few big names like Procol Harum and Nancy Sinatra. It was made to show music videos in bars, just like a jukebox. There are only a few collectors who have them now, so there are no working Scopitone machines in a public place in the world, except for at Third Man. So we acquired one, got the machine running, and then decided to put all of our videos on 16 mm film and have those play in the machine. So it's all of the Third Man Records-related videos playing on that machine. It's very cool.

And there's the Voice-O-Graph that Neil Young recorded his new record on.


That record, A Letter Home, is great because of its sound. He really took to that idea, didn't he?

He came on the perfect day. We were debuting that booth on Record Store Day in Nashville and he came to check it out. We were behind a curtain making sure it was running properly, because there was a whole long line for it. And one kid came up and recorded a Neil Young song, and when he was done, Neil peeked around the corner and looked at him and the kid flipped out! Of course, you would never know that Neil Young was standing behind you while you're recording his song. So then Neil said, "I've got to come back and record something on this". I thought, "yeah, people say stuff like that all the time,", but he called me up a month later and said he wanted to do his whole new album in that booth. It was really cool of him to do that.

I love the intros of him talking to his mother.

Yeah, that was great. On the second day of recording, I wrote him a letter at night after we finished and said, "you know, a lot of people, like soldiers, sent letters home from these booths, so maybe you could send a letter to your younger self or an imaginary person or something like that when we record tomorrow." And the next day, we were getting ready to record the next song and everything was ready to go, and instead of recording the next song, he just recorded that letter to his mom in Heaven. He never told us he was going to do that, which was the perfect way to do it. It was so beautiful. I don't think you're going to get any closer to Neil Young than that album.

photo by Jim Bennett (view set)

As a younger person, did you ever dream of the professional success that you're enjoying now? When you were riffing in your home practicing guitar as a teenager, did you ever imagine the success of having not only hit records, but a whole label?

I still don't feel it, but I did have those dreams when I was younger. I was all about music, 24 hours a day when I was younger. I don't know how many hours a day I am now, maybe I'm down to 19 or something, but as a kid, that's all I thought about. But I never had any illusions that it was possible to make a record. I just didn't grow up in that scenario. I think maybe if you grew up in a band in LA or somewhere like that, maybe you'd think, "of course you could make a record, half the people on this block made a record". But growing up in Detroit, no one I'd ever heard of had a made a record. It was like a pipe dream. I never had any illusions about that. But I still don't feel it to this day. I don't feel like what I'm doing is any kind of thing that's a bigger deal than anything else. People come up to you on the street and they want to take a photo with you or they want to talk about something, and you get used to it. It becomes a strange thing when doesn't become a compliment and it just becomes something that happens during the day. I think that there's a side of it that could really feed your ego to absorb all that, and you have to turn into a different kind of person who looks for that wherever you go. But it's very difficult because you don't know how to get your pleasure from any of that stuff.

What about in terms all of the projects that you get to do? You get to do all of these fantastic, really creative recordings.

You never don't appreciate freedom. I really appreciate that I can go out in the studio and work as long as I feel like and do what I need to do and that nobody is telling me how to do it or what to do with it . I don't have to answer to a record label or anything like that. That's the most you can ever ask for as an artist, never having to answer to anyone. I always appreciate that. As far as enjoying it... that's a different world man, I don't know. You kind of have to look at it from a different angle or something.

Tell me about the Paramount box set. That's an incredible release and a huge project for you. You released the entire catalog of the Paramount record label in suitcase packaging.

For people who don't know, Paramount was famous in the 1920s and '30s. It started as a furniture company called the Wisconsin Chair Company, and they turned into a record label by accident. They started making cabinets for record players and then they made records for those record players. They could hardly care less about music; they didn't care at all about black culture or Southern culture, they just asked certain producers to just record whoever they want so they could put these records out, and in the process, they accidentally captured this incredible period in American history. They recorded people like Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson and Skip James. It's funny because Third Man Records has its roots in the furniture business as well. It used to be Third Man Upholstery, my upholstery shop. It was a cool project to work on, because working on the case was like working on a piece of furniture. I wanted to make sure it was made out of quarter sawn oak like those old Vitrola cabinets, and that turned into a really expensive project, so we ended up just trying to make the most beautiful box set that you possibly could, mainly because Paramount would never have done that. They would have never spent the money on making something so elaborate, because they were all about the cheapness of it. So we sort of thought, "what would Paramount do if they wanted to make something incredibly expensive and beautiful?", and we did that. We're coming out with volume two this fall, which will have a whole different feel and look. Each of them have about 800 songs digitally and five or six vinyl records, so you get digital and vinyl components.

Did you happen to see the New York Times piece about Geeshie and Elvie?

Yeah, it was incredible. I'm really glad they did that and made it a cover story. It was really nice of them to explore that in depth. I also went and talked to Mack McCormick, the folklorist in Houston who worked on it and gave them a lot of information. It's just an incredible story. Like I said, Paramount was just there accidentally, thank God, and caught some of those recordings.

The piece is so interesting because it starts like a detective tail, trying to find these two obscure women who recorded these obscure, ultra-rare records, and it turns into this story about record collecting and the path of discovery for this limited knowledge.

Like anything beautiful, there are these moments where everyone can share. And there are these people who hold on to these moments or hoard them – all those bizarre record collectors who feel that they own the blues and all that weirdness. The music is not owned by anybody. It's like Native Americans would ask how could someone be so egotistical to say that they can own land? How can you own music in that sense? You find that through all those explorations. It's also in other obscure zones. For example, you get into certain kinds of paintings or sculptures, and there's only like five other people who care about this one thing. With the internet, you can tell everyone if you like a certain song, so you think there's like ten million people who like Charley Patton, but it's really more like 10,000 people who care about Charley Patton, and maybe only 1,000 who have any interest in buying his records. When you run a record label, you start learning things like that. The numbers I'm saying are abstract, they don't mean anything specific, but it's just an example of obscurity when there's beauty. It's a strange thing because when you find something that's beautiful, you want everyone to know about it. You wonder why Charley Patton's record isn't in the museum like the Mona Lisa is.

Well, the fidelity of the Patton recordings is so horrible.

Yeah, that's Paramount.

Some of their recordings are so pristine and some of them are so horrible.

It's because Paramount only used 20% shellac in their recordings and they were supposed to use 30%. They were just being cheap, whipping out the records as fast as they could. Like I said, they didn't care about quality.

Who do you think is your favorite performer you've ever seen, living or passed?

Oh, Bob Dylan. No doubt about it.

What year did you see him?

He was my very first concert. I was ten years old, and I had seat number 666. I've seen him as many times as I can in my life. There have been moments I've seen where there's 10,000 people in the room, and you look around, and you feel like they really aren't seeing that moment you're seeing. You think they are, and you hope they are, but they're not, and he does that so often. It's mind boggling. It's amazing that he can speak so individually to people and speak to the masses at the same time. It's funny when you meet people who aren't into him. It boggles my mind.

What's your favorite Dylan song?

There are several, but I really like "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)". That's one of my favorites.

Who else do you plan on recording in the future?

We really want to do a live-to-acetate recording of the Milk Carton Kids at Third Man. And Lille Mae Rische, who plays fiddle with me on tour right now, I'm begging her to let me produce an album of hers. She's just hemming and hawing and doesn't feel like it's important enough, so I'm using trickery and jumping out from behind bushes, scaring her in the middle of the night, to try and convince her to let me record her.

I'm doing a Halloween show later this year. Do you have any Halloween song suggestions?

Oh yeah! How about "Baby Brother"? That's an old, strange song. The Cramps played it one time at one of their shows, the Purple KNIF.

Jack White at the Paramount / photos by David James Swanson

Jack White is finishing up his North American tour now and heads to Mexico and Europe next month. Find out more about Jack on his website and more about Third Man Records here. Thanks to Matt Ogaz for audio recording, Jim Bennett for photos, Jacob Webb for interview transcription, Jack White himself, Matt Pollack, Lisa Sonkin and the whole team at Third Man and Columbia Records.

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