White Stripes Blow Up With Red, White And Blues

Stylish duo address inspiration, idyllic childhood on White Blood Cells.

Apparently the folks at Detroit's Hotel Yorba aren't very big music fans. If they were, they'd probably know that the White Stripes are white hot right now, selling out clubs and collecting praise for their third album, White Blood Cells.

But when the blues-rock duo recently tried to shoot a video for their song "Hotel Yorba" at the country stomp's namesake, the "vacancy" sign was quickly switched to read "no vacancy."

"They wouldn't let us in. They thought we were from the IRS or something," Jack White said Sunday before a show at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall. "It's a really seedy hotel, so I guess we just looked a little too respectable to get a room there. The funniest thing was we were sitting out in the van saying, 'Man, we can't get in, I can't believe this,' and just then NPR did a review of our new album, saying, 'Here's the new song "Hotel Yorba." ' They started playing it, and we were just laughing."

Such a chilly reception is rare these days for singer/guitarist Jack and drummer Meg White. Levi's sponsored the duo's sold-out show across town on Saturday so it could make posters of the two (along with the Levi's logo, of course) and plaster them all over San Francisco. Everyone from Time to the Washington Post has taken notice of the pair lately, whether it's speculation on whether or not they're really brother and sister or attention to their penchant for dressing only in red and white (see "White Stripes Stick To Primary Colors, Ideas And Sounds").

But what has most people buzzing is White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry), an eclectic collection of songs written throughout the band's four-year career and ranging from gentle, acoustic lullabies to fuzzed-out garage rockers. With Meg supplying deceptively simple beats, Jack sings, warbles and screams while playing guitar or pounding on a piano.

In the folk-music tradition, he often carries the melody solely in his voice, such as on the guitarless "Little Room," which comes eerily close to describing the band's rising profile: "Well you're in your little room/ And you're working on something good/ But if it's really good/ You're gonna need a bigger room/ And when you're in the bigger room/ You might not know what to do/ You might have to think of/ How you got started/ Sitting in your little room."

"It's about how ... if you're a great painter and you're just painting in your room and all of a sudden someone sees it, then they're all, 'This is great! You're genius! Let's have a show.' So they have a show and everyone goes nuts," Jack said, brushing aside the mop of dark hair hanging down to his nose. "Then they're like, 'OK, let's have another show,' and now your inspiration isn't from where it used to be when no one knew about you. How do you keep your inspiration? If you actually are doing something good, how do you handle it?"

The sentimental "We're Going to Be Friends" tells the story of walking to school with a girl named Suzy Lee and quickly becoming pals. Jack, who's now 25, has made revisiting his youth a common lyrical theme.

"I didn't really have much of a great time in grade school, so I like writing about that. I write about it a lot — actually having friends in grade school and having a girlfriend or something back then when you really wanted it. Kids are just so cruel sometimes. It's nice to fantasize that they're not."

The ruthlessness of kids in his Detroit neighborhood inspired another song — the dramatic "I Think I Smell a Rat," on which Jack snarls, "Walking down the street/ Carrying a baseball bat .../ All you little kids seem to/ Think you know just where it's at/ Oh, I think I smell a rat."

"There's these punk kids who break windows and stuff like that — you know, make fun of me when I walk into the gas station. It's like, I've lived here my whole life, and he's 8 years old and talking to me like that," Jack said. "They'll bust your window, and then you go take them to their parents and their parents take their side. They get away with murder."

But that's not to say the duo have lost faith in the youth of today. The band recently received a videotape from a grade school teacher who taught the White Stripes song "Apple Blossom," off last year's De Stijl, to her class.

"We started crying, it was so great," Jack said. "It's just so nice to hear all these kids singing one of our songs. You can't top it. We were just like, 'Well, let's just quit the band now. That's about as good as it's gonna get.' "