Graham Reid | | 8 min read
Jack and Meg White are easily spotted in the large lounge of Sydney's swanky new W Hotel on a converted wharf in Woolloomoloo. But they were always going to be.
The Detroit duo who are The White Stripes - formerly said to be brother and sister, but now we know are ex-husband and wife - always wear a combo of red and white, and occasionally black. On this day Jack sports a red shirt, black pants and has a black cap pulled down over his long black, cheek-kissing bangs.
Meg's ensemble of red top and white pants is accessorised by a white cast on her left arm.
"I slipped," she says with a slightly embarrassed smile. "I know, I guess I should think up something more glamorous to say - but that's the truth."
"It's just as well it happened at this time and not in two months," adds Jack. That's when they start touring to back up their new and much-anticipated album Elephant. But right now they are just doing press, which they don't enjoy much although each endure the indignity with friendly, if guarded, graciousness.
They've just come from Japan where the album is already released, two weeks before anywhere else.
"Japan was good, they are really knowledgeable about us," says Jack pulling on the first of many cigarettes he will light in the next 20 minutes, always blowing out more smoke than he inhales.
"They are also a really polite audience, they clap and they sit quietly during the songs. I like that. But this [round of interviews] isn't ... Well, it's okay, and it needs to be done. It's like Elvis said, 'If I go to Germany then I have to go to Spain', so here we are. And [the record company] really is going to a lot of effort, so we should at least do as much. It's okay," he ends unconvincingly.
Jack and Meg are weary - wan might be the word - and their naturally pale complexions look even more pasty-like in this sunburned country. This has been a long day, three hours of 20-minute interviews so far, another three to go. About halfway through our conversation Meg squats on the floor, Jack does the talking.
But they visibly brighten at the mention of New Zealand.
"Oh, we love New Zealand," says Jack, lighting another cigarette and sipping mineral water. "When we get there I never want to leave."
He could just be being polite - they are nothing if not scrupulously polite and well-spoken - but he doubtless means it because they know all about us and have a good time here. Their tour manager John Baker is a Kiwi, the Datsuns have supported them across Australia and in New York, and this country has been good to them.
They toured here three years ago playing small alt.rock venues to great acclaim, and returned last year for a blinder pre-Big Day Out gig at the Dogs Bollix and then a BDO showing.
By then their star was well in the ascendancy on the back of their excellent third album White Blood Cells which went on to sell over a million copies worldwide - pretty impressive for a student radio act. However, we embraced them even before they took off in the UK when the influential radio DJ John Peel announced their live-in-the-studio show in early 2001 was the most exciting thing he'd hosted there since Jimi Hendrix thirtysomething years before.
Since then it's been up and up for this primal-sounding duo who meld ancient Son House Delta blues, melodic McCartney-pop, Led Zepp energy and fuzzbox rock into something unique, vital and sometimes sinister.
"We didn't have a manager, accountant or anything like that so it was a little out of control for a while," says Jack.
But doors opened for them. The old guard of Richard Branson and Paul McCartney appeared backstage at their gigs, they opened for the Stones, toured with the Strokes, appeared on Letterman and played the Royal Albert Hall with former Yardbirds' guitarist Jeff Beck.
Jack took a part in the Anthony Minghella-directed Cold Mountain alongside Oscar-gal Nicole Kidman, her Chicago screen partner Renee Zellweger, and Jude Law.
Filmed in Romania, the movie, in which he plays a soldier, will be released this year, which means a break in their touring schedule so he can do promo and play the material he has written for the soundtrack.
Surprisingly the White Stripes are not booked years in advance and promise to be back in New Zealand later in the year.
"We've only got bookings for this year really, and there's that time off when the film comes out. You need to keep things open otherwise ... " he says with a weary smile. After their sudden success there was the not-unexpected offshoot reaction to any band which breaks through. After that Peel session when they went from cult act to the cover of NME - the influential Mojo magazine hailed them as the best live band on the planet late last year - record company people started searching for any band that sounded like them.
But no one in current rock sounds remotely like them, and certainly not what they do on Elephant. Because of their blues base - they play Robert Johnson as convincingly as they did Dolly Parton's Jolene and Jack says, "I love that honest Southern blues sound" - they have a broader emotional reach than most of their peers. Their willingness to take their sound to the work of others has opened them to other approaches.
On Elephant Jack aches through the Burt Bacharach-Dusty Springfield hit I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself. It's not the first time - as is evident with Jolene - he has taken on songs written about or sung by women.
"I like the idea of that, just opening yourself up to another way of thinking and another perspective."
That said, the Dusty song is now undeniably a White Stripes track. Elemental and emotionally raw, it fits naturally alongside the rest of the rough-hewn music.
For the most anticipated album of the year ironically Elephant sounds ruthlessly lo-fi. It was recorded in London's unglamorously named Toe Rag Studios, which friends in Detroit's Henchmen recommended. Jack has written the occasional song for them, one of which - the scouring Hypnotise which clocks in at fewer than two rowdy minutes - is on Elephant.
What appealed about Toe Rag was the absence of digital technology which Jack considers something akin to the spawn of Satan. It's possible to get anything you want out of analogue equipment, he says, and notes with a satisfied smile he has produced persuasive evidence: "The Beatles' Revolver was recorded on four-track."
Toe Rag might be primitive by most studios' standards but it has allowed them to multitrack vocals (the Queen-sized stack-up vocals on the raw and bitter There's No Home for You Here), bring home some ragged urban blues on Ball and Biscuit which joins the dots between Howlin' Wolf and Led Zeppelin, and let Meg essay an eerie In the Cold Cold Night which sounds like a Peggy (Fever) Lee track which lost its way and ended up in a Detroit basement.
The album, recorded in an intense two weeks, is diverse, brittle, uncompromising - and reviewers' copies appropriately came in a red cover as two slices of old-fashioned black vinyl. Much what you'd expect from a retro-sounding band which still wilfully releases 7-inch vinyl singles.
Early reviews are hailing Elephant as a masterpiece, although Jack bristles at some interpretations. A writer in NME suggests from a reading of the lyrics that Jack has trouble with women ("Huh!" he says with bitter laugh), and he is particularly annoyed at the misquotes in his synopsis of each track in another British monthly.
"I don't know if the guy taped it or maybe just took notes, but there's the song Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine and he says I said that women have no faith. I would never say that."
And what can he do about that after the fact? "Well, there's nothing you can do because otherwise you end up looking ... precious."
If there is one thing Meg and Jack White are not, it's precious. They are affable and good-humoured, and despite the tensions of the past year when Jack's name was linked with a bevy of supermodels and actresses - he laughs down these suggestions, too - they remain down to earth but intensely private. You sense any interviewer will only get so far before being met with the politeness which is genuine but a useful defence from prying eyes.
The album opener Seven Nation Army takes a few swipes at gossip-mongers, but they seem reluctant to be drawn on it. Jack comes over almost like a shy child when it is mentioned. "Well, things were just a bit out of control," he says for the second time.
They poke gentle fun at themselves on the album in the final track, a vocal menage-a-trois with Holly Golightly of Thee Headcoats in which Holly wonders about whether Jack loves her and Meg gets to say of her former husband, "Jack really bores me".
It has a childlike naivety about it and that's a notion that appeals to Jack.
He dedicates the album to "the death of the sweetheart" but is at a loss to explain what that means.
"I really don't know, but that word and its connotations just appeal to me. I like the idea of the sweetheart and the gentleman," says the man who wrote I'm Finding It Harder to Be A Gentleman on White Blood Cells. "It's just what those words mean to people. I like the notion of innocence. It's hard to remain innocent but ... Well, I don't swear in songs or anything like that so it's that idea, too."
We discuss innocence - in the recording process, keeping yourself open to ideas, the power of it in old blues - and it all adds up to what they are doing. But is it a knowing innocence with them? They smile knowingly and agree.
Meg has slipped lower on to the floor, her eyes about level with the rim of her water glass. It's time to go.
They have been charming if weary people. But the question remains: How does this nice, polite, former-couple from Detroit conjure up such an unholy, blues-driven rock'n'roll racket?