They don’t exactly wish it was still 1965, but the White Stripes would probably be a lot happier if everything still sounded like it did back then.
Not that they want every artist to be a facsimile of the Kinks, the Sonics, Loretta Lynn and Muddy Waters (of course, they probably wouldn’t mind), but they cherish the organic sounds of vintage recording equipment. That’s why frontman Jack White and his drummer sister (wink, wink), Meg White, flew to London to record their new album, Elephant, at Toe Rag, a studio owned by ’60s throwback Liam Watson, who doesn’t own any gear made after 1963.
“It’s so hard to find a studio nowadays that’s devoid of that evil digital and computer technology,” Jack said while Meg nodded, which is about as vocal as she gets. “You can find studios that have all the same equipment that he does, but they also have all this other modern stuff. … To give you too much opportunity really destroys creativity. If you took an artist you respect and put them in a room with a broken guitar and a two-track recorder, something more interesting would come out of them than if you put them in some fancy L.A. studio with a million dollars to spend.”
The White Stripes take the same approach to songwriting as they do to recording. Jack is convinced that less is more, which is why he refuses to have more than two members in his band or to include basslines in his songs. And while keyboard passages occasionally filter through the group’s songs, computer effects are strictly prohibited.
“From day one, we purposely got involved in this box and with these limitations and chose not to grow and evolve,” he said. “We still have the same ideas we had when we started. We break everything down to its most primitive state and involve the number three — storytelling, melody and rhythm; guitar, drums and vocals; red, white and black. Having these set parameters allows us to work best.”
The music on Elephant is deceptively simple yet created in a way that allows Jack and Meg to intuitively feed off of each other. Her rudimentary snare and bass drumming pave the way for his bluesy guitar bluster, which lays the foundation for his vocals, and as they veer between raspy and bratty the intensity of the music rises and dips.
Blind Willie McTell, the Rolling Stones and the Sonics are signature touch points, especially on the more rockin’ stuff such as “Black Math,” “The Hardest Button to Button” and “Ball and Biscuit.” But the White Stripes also pause to deliver softer, more folksy fare like “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket” and the Meg-fronted “In the Cold, Cold Night.” Once again, the band shuns bass; Jack insists the low resonant groove in the single “Seven Nation Army” comes from an octave guitar (see “White Stripes To Put Their Best Trunk Forward On April Fool’s Day With Elephant“ ).
And even with their self-imposed limitations, the White Stripes have built an expansive soundscape that includes elements of ’50s rock on “Hypnotize” and ’70s pop with bluesy slide guitar on “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart.” They even cover Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself.”
“There was no real conscious thought involved in the different styles,” Jack insisted. “Every album we’ve done, we’ve always tried to bring the songs that were written and just force them all into this box and make them work. We never premeditate anything. If we went in and said, ‘OK, we want to make a country record or a soul record,’ we would just fail miserably.”
The White Stripes spent more time on Elephant than any of their past three albums, but compared to nearly any other group, they bashed out the record in a heartbeat.
“We did the whole thing in 10 days,” said Jack, “and that’s just because the engineer at Toe Rag only wanted to work six-hour days.”
Working so quickly forced the White Stripes to be on their toes and avoid distractions. For most bands, speed is a recipe for disaster, but Elephant sounds complete and unrushed.
“We like to be uncomfortable,” Jack said. “I don’t like those kind of places where the studio is nicely heated and you’ve got a cappuccino machine and video games to use in between takes. It should be uncomfortable and you should feel forced to be working on something. It feels like school to me, and I like that.”