On his fascination with old school hip-hop, political upheaval, and retention of mystery...

Before we begin, a little insight is required into the process by which I prepare for any impending interview. Upon commissioning, I embark upon an exhaustive round of research, collecting the latest official biogs, links to as many interviews, past and present, as I can find, and then digging a little deeper to uncover facts or topics that will hopefully lure the subject into a more meaningful conversation.

Ahead of my time with Jack White, I did all of this, as usual. When it came to readying myself to begin jotting down question points, I first consumed myself in his new album, ‘Boarding House Reach’; working in real time as the 13 tracks played, I made notes of key lyrics, interesting musical passages, recurring themes, and drew from elements of its accompanying press release to expand upon. By the time the album had finished, I already had more than enough questions to fill an hour-long conversation. And then I dug out the old interviews to see if there was any ground I’d yet to cover.

Scrolling through the archives, I’d dismiss the stale old standard questions - I was too enamoured by the progression and complexities of ‘Boarding House Reach’ to enquire into the well-being of Meg White, his erstwhile White Stripes companion - and, while I’d been warned to steer clear of his private life, that’s really not Clash’s style anyway. I thought there was little left to add to my scrawled notebook, but then I became intrigued by this persisting curiosity that abounded regarding Jack’s identity; namely, the press’s obsession with deciphering this eccentric mythology he has supposedly built around himself.

It just wasn’t something I’d ever considered. Sure, Jack White has always cultivated an air of intrigue (who else would issue a limited edition single by means of balloon?), but I’d always interpreted his every new release as simply another facet of his ongoing creative progress and an extension of his shifting inspirations. In an era of corporate artform where innovation is a commercial risk, for me, he’s always represented that fearless artist who’d blindly follow his muse, regardless of the consequences. In short: he was a rock ‘n’ roll star. They’re allowed to be different.

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When we meet finally in a Central London hotel, Jack is relaxing on the suite’s couch. Unlike some other rock ‘n’ roll stars, however, he is immediately warm and welcoming. My opening gambit involved a story about my young daughter, who obsessed over his cameo in The Muppets’ most recent but ill-fated TV series, and in an instant any notion of an illusory front quickly crumbled. And so I ask: with so much importance being invested in untangling all the riddles and clues he apparently drops in his music, does he ever tire of being considered as anyone else but himself?

“The thing which I would have loved to have done over the years and I never did,” he responds, “was to actually have some sort of exemplary character for that album - you know, like David Bowie’s Thin White Duke or Aladdin Sane or Ziggy Stardust; any of those avatars. I would have loved to have done that for each album, so that it would really take a lot of that heat off of people wondering what the song had to do with my everyday life.

Mostly because they almost never have anything to do with my everyday life.” While his “character pieces” continue the great tradition of storytelling, they enable the intensely private White to intentionally distract away from his personal life, and it’s this refusal to break down the fourth wall that is so rare in music these days that further cultivates his status as an enigma.

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I think the newer generation doesn’t have any tolerance for mystery...

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“Reality television has so consumed people into ‘I want to see you do everyday things just like me,’ and I think the newer generation doesn’t have any tolerance for mystery like that,” he says. “The Internet almost kinda says there is no mystery; if you wanna find out, all you gotta do is type in those words and you should be able to find out what you need to find out, and if you don’t, it’s frustrating. People who are ambiguous about their sexuality, or ambiguous about what relationships they have in real life, that makes people upset; they want to know who such-and-such’s boyfriend is. So I think what you’re supposed to do right now is really give people everything. I’m supposed to take you into my house and show you what toys my kids play with and show you where I go out to have dinner and all that. That’s a very expected thing now, and to try to avoid that as much as possible is a harder sell.”

As if anticipating such intrusions, when it came time for Jack to start work on his latest album, he chose to physically remove himself entirely from everyday life. Echoing the quarantine themes that arose throughout previous album ‘Lazaretto’, Jack finally realised the fantasy he disclosed on the record’s ‘That Black Bat Licorice’: “I fantasize about the hospital / The army, asylum, confinement, in prison / Any place where there’s a cot to clear my vision,” he sang, and presently detained himself in sparse surroundings to focus his thoughts.

“[I was] renting an apartment in Nashville and setting up all my gear from when I was a teenager in this room, and trying to record quietly so other people couldn’t hear - the neighbours couldn’t hear what I was doing,” he recalls. “I got to live out this fantasy - I had an army cot there, and it was just so nice; nobody could get in contact with me, nobody knew where I was, I had no cell phone, so it was just wonderful.”

There, he toiled alone on demos that would form the foundations of ‘Boarding House Reach’, but it was the next phase in the songs’ development that would impel the album in a remarkable, fresh direction, resulting in White’s most distinctive sonic landscapes yet.

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Forsaking his trusted pool of collaborators and Nashville compadres, Jack sought a less familiar team to take into the studio to bring to a life a particular vision he was harbouring. “I specifically wanted musicians who perform live on hip-hop tours,” he states. “Jay-Z goes on tour and he has a live band behind him. That’s a specific type of musician who can do that; they can replicate samples and tones that an engineer or a producer came up with on a recording and perform them live. So those types of musicians I thought would be very inspiring to me, to just get to a new place that I’d never been before.” Included in the contributing musicians were Beyoncé’s drummer, Louis Cato, Lil Wayne’s bassist, NeonPhoenix, and Pitbull’s keyboardist, Quincy McCrary.

Citing Kanye West, A Tribe Called Quest, Nicki Minaj and “’80s and ’90s hip-hop specifically” as his playlist staples of late, Jack was intent on exploiting the adventurous spirit so redolent in rap of late, and reclaiming those startling and revolutionary moments of sound that are less forthcoming. “I want someone to blow my mind right now,” he enthuses, “like a brand new band to come out and be like, ‘I can’t wait to hear that next song… That’s that moment that we don’t get enough of nowadays.”

Searching for that sensation in hip-hop, he soon discovered the exhilarating parallels between the contemporary scene and those of other genres from the past. “In a lot of ways, it is the new punk rock,” he offers. “They’re doing the dangerous things - whether it’s Trippie Redd or Tekashi69; these are a very punk, dangerous side of music.”

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Everything involved in that was me trying to find very annoying sounds, and try to figure out a way to make them beautiful...

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“[If] you listen to Nicki Minaj’s ‘Only’,” he continues. “I mean, some of those lyrics are like, ‘Holy shit!’ I, as an adult, listening to that by myself, am shocked at some of the words that I’m hearing. But it’s brilliant! It’s brilliant to be able to say that, to be able to say whatever you want. I couldn’t get away with saying half of those things that Nicki Minaj says in that song. It’s just brilliant to see how far things have gone in that sense, and how cool it is for people to talk about these moments and say, ‘Wow, check this out.’”

Using Jack’s rudimentary demos and previously recorded drum loops as guides, over just a few days of recording, the musicians were given free reign to expand upon his ideas, injecting their own personalised spin into proceedings. The collision of influences unsurprisingly produced surprising results: the Stevie Wonder strut of ‘Corporation’ and the Funkadelic groove of ‘Get In The Mind Shaft’ being just two examples the record’s more diverse moments.

The instrumentation quickly becomes the main essence of the album. There are occasions where it becomes even more expressive than Jack’s lyrics. In the disruptive ‘Hypermisophoniac’, for example, it was paramount its score should be so unsettling. “There’s a syndrome called misophonia, and it’s the hatred of sound,” he explains. “Everything involved in that was me trying to find very annoying sounds, and try to figure out a way to make them beautiful by the end of the song. Annoying rhythms, off-tempo squealing things, shrill sounds - a shrill vocal tonality with a bizarre harmonizer attached. I was trying to put my mind in the place of someone who hated sound. How could I morph that and figure out a way so that by the end of the song they actually are enjoying this and grooving on it?’

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There’s over three minutes of music in the aforementioned ‘Corporation’ before Jack sings, building up a heightened sense of potency, and his ensuing message is a suitably direct. “Who wants to start a corporation? / I’m thinking about taking it all the way to the top,” he freestyles, taking aim squarely at the entitled arrogance of Donald Trump. “In my head was someone like him growing up in an environment where the word ‘corporation’ is just like, ‘Oh yeah, a corporation: you start one and you make a lot of money. Big deal.’ Whereas I probably think that a guy like him doesn’t understand… Why don’t you go outside and walk down the street in New York City and look around. Do you thinkany of these people ever have a chance of being a head of a corporation? Because they have a hard time just being able to get the permit and the loan from the bank just to open a corner store.”

“The only way you can start a corporation is if Daddy helps you, and teaches you how to get into this specific world that’s only available to the elite, to be able to be a CEO of a corporation… Those are very, very privileged thoughts and notions where I think someone like Trump doesn’t even understand that, because he has never involved himself in what real day-to-day life is like. It’s just hard for me to understand how to be that out of touch; to be that in control of so many people, and to be out of touch of how everyday people do what they do and what’s missing from their lives and how hard it is.”

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It’s sort of your job as an artist to provoke people, and not really give them the answer...

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It’s not necessarily an angry song, per se, but in its mockery lies a despair that seems to reappear throughout ‘Boarding House Reach’. In ‘Ice Station Zebra’ he is critical of classification (“You create your own box,” he advises), while ‘Everything You’ve Ever Learned’ is contemptuous in its mockery of modern culture (“Shut up and learn,” he snarls), and the last five words of ‘Ezmerelda Steals The Show’ sums up this outlook of malaise: “You people are totally absurd.”

Despite the recurring theme, White refrains from offering a solution to the world’s problems. “It’s sort of your job as an artist to provoke people, and not really give them the answer; the answer lies with the masses,” he says. “People like to say things like, ‘Make sure to get out and vote.’ Okay, get out and vote for what? For the electoral college to actually pick our President, and for the popular vote not to actually matter? It’s a nice thing to say, ‘Get out there and vote,’ but it actually has no useful purpose. You can see from the last election: Hillary won the popular vote and lost the election. That means the people wanted her to be President, and nobody cares.”

“And they’re never going to change that, because the people who are able to change the electoral college system, that’s how they got in office! They’re not gonna change the system that got them there, no way. So we’re stuck with that, and that’s a shame. So, I mean, you can say these pretty solutions and pretty answers out loud, but if it was that easy, people would do it.”

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Ever the provocateur, by absolving himself of resolution, Jack leaves his songs in the hands of the listener, whose own actions will shape their moral implications. Ultimately, he says, that is the greatest compliment an artist could hope for. Maintaining a safe distance from the invasion of privacy that comes with fame, refraining largely from putting himself out there in person, Jack White’s songs are out there doing that for him, left to defend themselves in the world, where they will become what the public want them to be. Perhaps ‘Boarding House Reach’ will provide impetus for change, either personal, professional or political, or perhaps the songs will instead infiltrate the public domain to become, much like a dead Jedi, something infinitely more powerful: folk music.

In sports arenas around the world, the vocalized riff of The White Stripes’ classic ‘Seven Nation Army’ is indicative of its pervasive universal impact above and beyond its origins as a pop song, and it’s a consequence that Jack is delighted to leave as a legacy. “I think that’s the ultimate reward for writing any kind of song; is that, at the end of the day, it can take on its own life,” he declares. “I’ve heard a lot of people call my song ‘We Are Going To Be Friends’, ‘Oh, that’s that song from Napoleon Dynamite,’ because it was used in the opening credits for Napoleon Dynamite. That’s wonderful to me that people are calling it the Napoleon Dynamite song - fine with me!”

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It’s folk music - you don’t own it anymore...

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“‘Seven Nation Army’ being played at a stadium where 70% of the people have no idea what that song is, they just know that they’re chanting that melody? The more that they don’t know where it came from, the happier I am! That’s an amazing thing; it’s folk music - you don’t own it anymore. None of usown songs - they just exist. It’s egotistical for me to even say I wrote a song - I helped channel it, I helped direct it, I helped become an antennae for it, but where it came from I have no idea.”

“It’s taken on a life of its own, ” he smiles, reflecting back on his work. “There’s nothing more beautiful than that.”

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'Boarding House Reach' is out now.

Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Dan Boulton
Fashion: William Barnes
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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