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Discussions: The White Stripes

By Liam Demamiel & Ray Finlayson; March 22, 2012 at 1:00 PM 

The White Stripes

Liam Demamiel and Ray Finlayson riff on Jack and Meg, The White Stripes.

RAY FINLAYSON: I’m going to go straight for the jugular: do you think Meg White is a good drummer?

LIAM DEMAMIEL: I think Meg is an exceptional drummer! I can understand on some level the criticism directed at her, but if you don’t understand her role in the band you seem to be misunderstanding The White Stripes. I have always thought that what made the band was its simplicity and control. Jack doesn’t need a Buddy Rich drum-alike, he needs someone to keep a simple and direct beat. Having seen them live a few times, what stood out was Meg’s drumming. She really leans in and hits hard and most importantly, keeps Jack anchored. When Jack steps on that Whammy I think not even he knows what is going to happen! That dependability and un-flashiness somehow confines the music to supporting the storytelling, which I believe is a very good thing.

RAY: It pleases me to hear you say that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to just submit to people’s misunderstanding as they preach (in numbers, from my experience) that she’s a pointless and terrible drummer. In all fairness, yes, her beats are simple, but as you pretty much put it, that’s the point. If anything her style helps accentuate Jack’s skill and general (excuse the technical term) awesomeness. Considering they’ve produced so much great music, it was a match made in a sort of musical heaven. That said, I have often pondered what The White Stripes might have sounded like had they had some John Bonham-esque drummer instead of Meg, but the thought never goes far. At times it can sound like Jack is struggling with himself (or battling against himself), that the idea of having a drummer to compete with is a heavy and congested thought. Maybe I’m wrong though, but’s it’s not worth thinking and/or talking about, or is it?

LIAM: I think ‘struggling’ or ‘battling’ are good descriptors of the band. For all intents and purposes, they are an exercise in minimalism. Jack often spoke of the freedom one gains through restriction: two people limited by the drums/guitar/vocals equation and a red/white/black colour scheme. The White Stripes produced their best work when they surrendered themselves to these limitations and railed against them. Icky Thump was average at best, not because Jack and Meg exhausted their talent, but because they let themselves drift too far – synths, bagpipes even?! There is something special that happens when Meg is behind the kit and Jack only has his guitar to save him. I couldn’t think of two people more suited to play music together. Can you think of any other duo that has rivalled them in terms of creative ability or success?

RAY: For me, the best sound they created was one where they sounded eternally frustrated, like they were playing something in an attempt to scratch a decade long itch (which is kind of strange since it’s a sound that’s there from their first album). But I suppose if I were to try put it more accurately, the sound was more about the abrasiveness than the frustration on their self-titled album – but the effect feels similar. There’s a hell of a passion on tracks like “Stop Breaking Down,” “The Big Three Killed My Baby,” and “Astro,” which is all the more impressive considering they are brilliant songs in themselves performed by (as we now agree) two fine musicians. If I have to be honest though, what I really love is the feel of frustration on Get Behind Me Satan, which most people seemed to dismiss it for. That moment on “Instinct Blues” when Jack fidgets during one of the brief pauses and then yelps “Wooo!” when he brings it all back gets me every single time. Even though the track is somewhat half-baked (the riff sounds totally improvised) it just captures what I imagine a live show of their’s to sound like: a sound or idea, thought up in an instance by Jack but being overrun by another idea as it’s performed. It’s strange, one of the main reasons I love the band feels so very hard to describe but hopefully you see what I mean or where I’m coming from.

There are a few duos that come to mind but none of them match Jack and Meg. Male/female duos like Mates of State or The Like Young are enjoyable at the best of times but can, at other times, fall back on being a little too cutesy and charming. It’s no bad thing though, and perhaps not intentional half the time, but when you compare their work with The White Stripes, they barely seem to stand up next to them. There’s She & Him too, I suppose, but they seem to occupy a different kind of musical field and haven’t had the sufficient time to create a catalogue to match Jack and Meg’s. I have gone somewhat blank though, and I’m likely forgetting another musical duos that could be more accurately compared. But they are a band that I don’t think there’s anyone I’d actively say they sound like. Rather I’d revert to putting them into genres – blues, rock, garage, etc – in an attempt to describe them. Is that just me, or do you have a better point of reference for describing them?

LIAM: I don’t think I do have a better way of describing them! I think the ‘garage,’ ‘punk,’ and ‘blues’ genre tags are as close as one can get to describing, possibly with the addition of a ‘neo-traditional country’ descriptor too. But even then, I feel as if I am clutching at rather generic terms to pin to something that is anything but homogenous. One could possibly classify them by reference to their influences, however they are a band who seem to have taken these influences and who have run with them in an entirely different direction. When they cover songs such as “Jolene” and “Death Letter,” there is somehow both fidelity to the original effort and a new slant that is so simple that it is unexpected. I think you nailed it when you said that male/female duos can fall back on being a little too cutesy and charming. There are sometimes elements of this when it comes to The White Stripes, but it vanishes in an instant when Jack hits a power chord that has the decibel level of a jet engine.

We have touched briefly on their recorded output, but what is your favourite album or period of the band?

RAY: I remember when I first heard their take on “Stop Breaking Down.” A friend of mine made me a mixtape of blues music (this was about six years ago, so it was an actual tape – and it was blue!) and stuck in the middle on one side was “Stop Breaking Down” and it just completely blew me away. I was amazed with how much force it had while still managing to fit in perfectly with the Leadbelly and Robert Johnson tracks that surrounded it. To this day the track remains one of my favourites of the band and is definitely a highlight of the album.

Which leads me perfectly into answering you question about my favourite album. While I can understand why most people usually put White Blood Cells on top, it’s not an album I’d put even my top three. The top position is often a battle between their self-titled and Get Behind Me Satan. It’s a strange combination so I should probably explain it. When I first played their self-titled on my CD player, it was just so raw and loud and powerful. It was so much more naturally fierce than everything that followed and captured a pair of musicians just wanting to rock the fuck out in their garage or some small mid-town venue instead of just going into the studio and doing their thing. Years back, when I was first playing it, it was so impressionable that it felt almost daring and “bad” for me to play it in my parents’ house even though there wasn’t a single swear word in it. I’d never heard music quite like this before (sure, I’d heard plenty of Led Zeppelin but never did they sound so untamed as Jack and Meg), it was a sort of awakening for me and I think that’s why it’ll always be placed on a pedestal.

The love I have for Get Behind Me Satan on the other hand, I feel, will be harder to defend. I know many speak lowly of it, or just downright dismiss it when considering the band’s catalogue. It’s sloppy, it’s unfinished, it’s a mixed bag of ideas, style and genres, it’s hurried; it’s amazing – to me at least. It may well be all those things described but they are hardly insults in The White Stripes world. As Jack’s progressed as a guitarist, he’s relied more and more on improvisation and spontaneity, and while some could argue it has led to important qualities being undermined, it’s also a return to form. The White Stripes were never about perfection; they’re a band based on fuzzy logic, playing the song with the sound they want to make. It just helps that Jack’s an underrated musical genius and never lets the best slip away from him (too often). But what sells it for me is the feel and the mood of the album. Sure, there are light moments like “My Doorbell” and “The Denial Twist,” but pretty much everywhere else, Jack sounds like he’s either going to explode with frustrated tension or just give up on all music entirely. On “Red Rain” he sounds the most pissed off you’re ever going to hear him on record while juxtaposing this you have at his most vulnerable sounding when he’s plinking away on his glockenspiel, while on “White Moon” he sounds ready to walk away from his life as a musician over the hammered piano chords (I particularly love the tambourine which is dropped near the end, like it’s an audible sign of what I just described).

I could go on – oh man, how I could go on – but I won’t as there’s a whole discussion to be had and plenty more to be said about everything else. Plus it would be very rude to not let you get your say of your favourite album/era. So do tell.

LIAM: A friend at school slipped me a copy of White Blood Cells a few months before Elephant hit. Whilst White Blood Cells is probably a better album, and I can certainly appreciate its genius, Elephant somehow has the mystery element that blows me away every time I listen to it. I remember getting a copy of it as a gift, and then needing a replacement copy a few months later as I had abused the poor thing into scratch-dom. At first I didn’t really ‘understand’ it that much – it seemed a little confused and manic for the music listener I was in my early teens. But one night I was watching television and the European Music Awards came on and Michael Stipe introduced Jack and Meg and they belted out a pretty ferocious rendition of “Seven Nation Army” (Meg had a pretty crazy fur hat on too, if I remember correctly). That was the first time I had sighted the band – the crafted image and just two people making a hell of a racket. From then on I listened to Elephant religiously. Years down the track I somehow acquired it on cassette too, and listened to it on most of my trips to and from work. It is one of the few albums I can keep in constant heavy rotation and never get bored of.

What I have always liked about the record are its contrasts. There is some really heavy stuff going on (“Little Acorns” is perhaps the heaviest I have heard them and they can sure pull it off) but then there are those lovely kind of wacky moments like “It’s True That We Love One Another” and “In the Cold, Cold Night.” It is also one of the few albums where I love both sides equally, even though they sometimes seem like different records. Side A starts upbeat but then lulls down fairly quickly, with more ballad type tracks. But when Jack hits that first chord on “Ball and Biscuit” and side B starts, things go back to full pace again and hardly let up. I think there is something for everyone on Elephant, maybe that’s why some don’t like it that much (apart from the oft cited – ‘it’s too commercial’ excuse). But I think there is something for every mood on it, at least for me anyway.

We mentioned ‘periods’ of the band too, and the Elephant ‘period’ is my favourite time of the band. I think the record was a transition work between the old more ‘traditional’ White Stripes and the more experimental stuff that was to follow. As someone who has always appreciated Mr. White as a guitarist, I think the album is important in that it best evidences the early development of his current sound – crunched out chords and overdriven soloing. I see the merit of Get Behind Me Satan and to some extent Icky Thump. But after these two records (this may be a little controversial) I think it was either time to head back to basics or move on entirely. Do you think they made the right choice in calling it quits when they did?

RAY: I can almost exactly relate to why you like Elephant. Much like yourself, I found myself quite entranced by the album – it was first experience with the band (yes, I jumped on that “Seven Nation Army” bandwagon) and played the album to death. And like you, I even listened to it on tape. I was perhaps the only person in the world that used a cassette walkman in the post-millennium age but personally I found the devices brilliant (I still do – if my iPod ever breaks down, I know what its replacement will be). Two albums could fit on each side of a tape (provided they were no longer than about 43 minutes), which meant I really got to know the music I listened to. And Elephant was on one side of one of my tapes and thus, by listening to it to and from school for months on end, I came to know it like the back of my hand (fun personal fact: the tape cut off half-way through “Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine” and for a long, long time I thought that was the end of the track, and it still feels weird when listening to the whole song today).

But as I said, I played it to death and I think I killed the album for myself and now, instead of thinking Elephant was a pinnacle of music awesomeness, I consider it the worst White Stripes album. I understand what you say when you talk about its broad appeal and its contrasts, but there’s just too many lacklustre tracks on the album. Yes, all seven minutes and nineteen seconds of “Ball and Biscuit” are utterly fantastic, “Hypnotize” is a brief and brash kick of the band’s old style, and “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket” is the most gentle and perhaps most beautiful thing Jack’s ever done, but in between these tracks are ones that do nothing for me. “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart” sounds too a little saccharine for me while the only intriguing thing about “The Air Between My Fingers” is the song’s almost Descartes-ian title. I can appreciated what’s being tried on “In The Cold, Cold Night” but it doesn’t work for me and, let’s be honest, Meg’s singing can’t hold a song together (not even for thirty seconds on “Passive Manipulation” from Get Behind Me Satan). Even the traditional jocular final track on the album falls flat.

That is just my opinion though, and I can understand why you praise the album, much like why anyone can praise any of their albums. What really (and I mean really) riles me up though is when I see Elephant appearing on The Greatest Albums Ever lists. It may well be because I think every other album by The White Stripes is better than Elephant, but the fact that inane and narrow-minded music critics stick it so high makes me wince and near enough vomit onto my computer screen. It is a good album in certain respects and “Seven Nation Army” is a forever memorable rock song, but Jesus Christ, it is not a life changing album. I can’t help but think that critics listened to the first track of the album, thought, “what a tune!” and then stumped it onto their already terrible list and moved on to the next piece of trite (some modern Primal Scream album, probably). I’d put White Blood Cells on such a list way before Elephant, as that album really changed the game and ripped open the revival of Zeppelin-inspired rock music into the chart domain as opposed to just giving the band commercial success (an excuse, as you said, but inevitably true).

But, again, that’s just my opinion. As it is also when I say the band were probably correct to bring their life to an end. While I would have loved another record and likely would have kept welcoming music by them for the rest of my listening life, they had exhausted their options. Jack is still a brilliant musician and continues to create brilliant music in various other guises but as a duo, there wasn’t much more territory for them to explore. If they did another album, I think you’re right in saying it would have been a back to basics album – something akin to their self-titled debut, but with more studio sheen – or a vastly odd experimentation record (a concept rock opera where Meg plays a damsel in distress, or something). It’s sad, but the end of The White Stripes was probably a better decision overall. Would you agree?

LIAM: It was very sad, but I believe they had to end it when they did. On a practical front, there had been many references to Meg’s health problems and that is as valid an excuse as anyone needs to end a project. But there are a host of other reasons that made 2011 the best time to stop – Jack had been for some time venturing into different things that required his attention (more of The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, Third Man Records, and producing), the band had resorted to somewhat trivial novelties to keep things fresh (like the ‘one note’ show), and they had really reached the point where the formula had been worked to death. Without rejuvenating in some way or another, there was a real risk that their legacy as a band would have been severely tarnished. Instead, they walked away still relatively at the top of their game with six amazing records to their name and a reputation as one of recent music’s best live bands. I know many people were severely disappointed with the decision to call it quits, but who knows… maybe in a few years we will get a reunion tour [ed. Jack recently suggested otherwise].

RAY: I definitely wouldn’t put some sort of reunion out of the question, but knowing Jack and Meg and their odd style, it’ll likely be done in some cleverly weird way (I, for one, can’t wait). That said, The White Stripes may, on paper, be dead but the body of the band still has blood pumping about in it. By that strange metaphor I mean that their music still lives on – and not just in the typical “their songs are timeless” sense. Jack has been re-releasing the band’s early singles on 7″ singles for some time now and I don’t see this stopping. There have been White Stripes jukeboxes and White Stripes cameras (both of which I do very much pine after) and Lord knows what else is around the merchandising corner. But their fans have always been materialistic ones, and will buy this stuff. I’m not trying to imply it’s bad quality or anything, but rather point out how clever and sensible a business man Jack is to notice this and play the market to his profit (I hope). I mean I love the albums of theirs I have on vinyl (Icky Thump especially) and if I had the money to spare I would buy one of those cameras. How about you? Do you match this somewhat stereotypical materialistic image I’m painting of The White Stripes fans?

LIAM: I do! It has always intrigued me as to why White Stripes fans are so materialistic, and I think it is a rare thing amongst ‘newer’ bands. Having said that, Jack is hardly in the Gene Simmons league and what they have released is generally pretty cool (I lust for those cameras too). I was collecting their 7″ singles and simply hit the point where it was either one piece of wax or a few weeks rent. I am glad the singles got reissued and I really appreciate the ‘music should always be available’ mentality that Jack seems to operate by – it reminds of punk labels like SST and Dischord. On some level it worries me how obsessive the fans can be and I wonder where they get their money from. A lot of what is offered is not that cheap – cameras, Rob Jones posters, vinyl subscriptions. I don’t think it is a bad thing, and there definitely seems to be a market for it. I just can’t really name other bands where there is such a demand for merchandise (outside the usual craziness of vinyl, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish).

RAY: It’s hard to say exactly where this kind of mentality came from but I have two theories, the latter of which likely stems from the first. The White Stripes were born from the garage rock scene and during the time they were starting out and quietly making a name for themselves, preceding the release of their self-titled debut, there was certainly a market for stand-alone 7″ records. I’m no expert in this area but it definitely seemed to be the in between time from the demise of the cassette tape and, I suppose, the peak of CDs. But there was still a market for the single at this time, one that remained alive in the wax world, making those first few 7″ singles from The White Stripes appealing little things if you found yourself fond of the band’s music. Anyway, this has definitely carried throughout their lifetime, as they consistently released their work on vinyl. Why, I recall the 7″ “Rag & Bone” single they released with NME, making me buy the dratted magazine (I couldn’t find anyone else to go buy one for me but I do remember joking with the cashier that the only reason anyone will be buying it is the 7″ attached to the cover). Even final single “Conquest” had three separate 7″ records.

The second theory I have is that Jack White must simply believe that his work sounds better when being played via a needle. I don’t have any evidence for this but the fact the promos of Elephant (and Get Behind Me Satan too, I think) were full gatefold vinyl, says to me that Jack believed his work was best judged and heard on wax. But this just could be his fondness of vinyl lasting from those early days or indeed, from perhaps listening to records when growing up. Who knows? I know I’ll always defend vinyl and will say immediately that the vinyl version of Icky Thump trumps the CD version, but you’re right in saying that becoming a true collector of all things White Stripes is an expensive business. I was lucky enough to have money at my disposal back when I was buying all three of those “Conquest” singles but I still felt like it was a bit too much. Part of me just wished they released a CD version of all the songs (which they did, but in the U.S., whose import charges weren’t at all appealing to my strained back account). Is it all a bit too excessive though? Are three version of one song really warranted along with sending out promos on vinyl? Or do you think Jack was just showing off?

LIAM: At the risk of sounding cynical, I think Jack is a rather astute businessman who has found his way to make money out of what he loves doing. I agree that Jack must believe that his output sounds better on wax. But, more importantly, he has a loyal swathe of fans who are convinced of this point… and are happy to part with their hard earned for the pleasure. It can get a little excessive – the three “Conquest” singles for a rather dull song are perfect case in point – but what is the harm of it? Perhaps Jack is getting cocky, but even then the fans still lap it up. The triple inchophone, the triple decker record – both of these are rather excessive and were released in ridiculously low quantities – but everyone still wants one. What confuses me sometimes is the mixed messages that Jack gives. On one hand he complains of profiteers, yet, he created that market and still continues to fuel it with quirky limited editions. I think issuing the promos on vinyl somewhat indirectly contributed to this. As soon as the collectors heard about them, they needed them and the market began to boom. I don’t know. Maybe I am just being cynical.

In an attempt to change topic, the other day I found a rather long list of covers the band played whilst performing live. Have you got a favourite cover that the band either cut or played live?

RAY: I should say, I don’t think you’re being cynical. In fact, I think you’re pretty much entirely correct. Jack’s a business man, but much like when he set up his own upholstery shop, he’s having fun with all this. I don’t think he makes these odd limited contraptions with the drive that other people will love these things and buy them, but rather that it’d be cool to see what the end result would be. Who knows though; Jack’s a curious and odd character, and trying to find a reason behind anything he does – from releasing music on wacky limited edition vinyl, to the music he creates – is something of a futile thought process.

On the subject of my favourite covers, I have to be like an embarrassed mother in front of her kids when asked which of them she loves most, and say I couldn’t possibly pick a favourite. I’ve already spoke of how much I adore their snarling gut-punching version of “Stop Breaking Down,” and I think their take on “Death Letter Blues” (on De Stijl) is highly commendable. “Shelter Of Your Arms” – by The Greenhornes originally – is also extremely good, and almost matches the original in its overall quality, while their ferocious live takes of “Lovesick” are very deserving of a mention. And then of course, everyone’s favourite, “Jolene”. Of all the cover versions I’ve heard though, this track is the one that transfers consistently well into their live show. It’s just amazing how they took a relatively tame sounding song and turned it into a beast waiting to be tamed. Indeed, much like the mother answering the question about her kids, I will say I like them all, but really my favourite changes, often depending on what mood I’m in.

What about you? And also, to sort of twist the question, have you ever heard any decent covers of songs originally penned by The White Stripes?

LIAM: The cover of “Shelter Of Your Arms” is undoubtedly my favourite of the rather extensive list of covers they have done. “Walking With A Ghost” – originally by Tegan and Sara – is another cover I particularly enjoy, surpassing the original for me. I know many love “Jolene,” but for me it generally waxes and wanes between average to poor. Whilst I applaud Jack’s attempts at attempting to inject that raw masculinity of his into the song, for some reason I just don’t think it needed it. I think of “Jolene” as a very feminine song, for me Jack just can’t get the emotion into it that Dolly could. Instead – at least to my ears – it comes off a tad confused and a little bit too heavy.

As for other band’s covering The White Stripes, I haven’t really delved into such covers. Although, I liked Of Montreal’s cover of “Fell In Love With a Girl”. How about you?

RAY: I think part of the appeal – for me, at least – of their cover of “Jolene” was the fact that they took a rather feminine song to begin with. It’s always interesting to hear a male singer try and find his way into a woman’s words and Jack’s the perfect kind of odd individual to revel in this weird role reversal. I completely forgot about “Walking With A Ghost” though, which is rather ignorant of me considering they have an EP named after it. I do agree with you, in that it does probably surpass the original, but the song wasn’t anything brilliantly special to begin with, and considering the relative simplicity of the song, I can’t imagine Jack had too much trouble arranging it for himself and Meg (not to pay any insult to Tegan and Sara, whom I do have a fondness for).
I too haven’t really delved into any covers of The White Stripes, and I can’t help but feel this is mainly because there are so few that have ever come to my attention. That version of “Fell In Love With A Girl” I came across last year, and it’s pretty commendable (and arguably the best thing of Montreal recorded in 2011, due to its simplicity – but that’s a whole different discussion). The only other cover version that I can actually recall is Nikka Costa’s take on “The Denial Twist,” which again is perfectly fine. One could argue that her version beefs up a track that lack that strand of life to make it something truly special, but I still think I’ll always go for the original first. But I feel it’s worth pausing and considering why it seems to be the case that The White Stripes aren’t a more widely covered band. Sure, go to any Battle of the Bands concert and you might see some half-assed rendition of “Seven Nation Army” or “Fell In Love With A Girl,” and there was definitely a time when the way to a girl’s heart was by playing her “We’re Going To Be Friends” on your acoustic guitar, but outside this, there’s never really been anything. Is it a case, perhaps, that other bands put Jack and Meg’s music in a certain “untouchable” category? There’s definitely certain songs of theirs I wouldn’t want to hear other bands try (unless there were some seriously special circumstances), but is it right for The White Stripes’ music to considered so sacred?

LIAM: I don’t think anyone’s music is sacred, or should be considered “untouchable.” Original Delta Blues has been covered to death, as have the works of true modern masters like Bob Dylan. Maybe sometime down the track musicians will be better placed to approach and cover The White Stripes songs. Perhaps they are still too fresh, or artists are still too fond of them to approach them in an objective way. Any last thoughts, Ray?

RAY: You make a good point. If an artist were to try cover The White Stripes then, in a nutshell, they have two routes to take. Firstly they could keep it relatively simple; much like Jack and Meg did for the majority of their time together. But this in turn can come across as lazy imitation, and unless you’re bringing something fresh to the table with your simplicity, then you’re setting yourself up for an assault on your cover. The other option is to complicate it – add other instruments, completely re-imagine and perform the song in a totally different light. And while this sounds intriguing (again, to me, at least), one could easily accuse an artist who did this of completely disregarding what the band are known for – simplicity. It’s a guitar, a singer and a drummer. Anything else is superfluous, and unrequired, and, it could be argued, if you have to add anything else, then you just can’t pull it off.

But I don’t want to deter people from trying! There’s definitely potential, and since there are relatively few covers of their songs out there, there’s definitely a market to glut. It might not be needed – the music of The White Stripes will last many decades, as far as I’m concerned – but there’s no harm in playing tribute to a band who defined and refined their type of music (and more – as we have discussed), all while confining themselves to a simple structure. If there’s any lesson to be learnt from them, it’s that you can do a lot with a little.

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Other Discussions:

Tom Waits
The Velvet Underground
Led Zeppelin
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Pavement
Radiohead
Bob Dylan
Prince
M83
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Andrew Bird
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Pearl Jam
Pink Floyd
Jay-Z

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