White Stripes Stick To Primary Colors, Ideas And Sounds

Detroit brother-sister duo let simplicity guide their raw, bluesy rock.

Jack White likes things that are as simple as his name: American flags, peppermint candies, the blues.

"A blues song is simple and raw, and it's not polished," he said. "But it's perfect because it's based off a simple idea."

Simple ideas are at the core of the White Stripes, the group White shares with his sister, drummer Meg. On their 1999 self-titled debut album, they kept the sound to a blend of rock and blues, which propels lyrics that deal with unencumbered times and childhood memories. The LP's design was limited to two colors: red and white.

Small wonder, then, that the title of the White Stripes' second album (due by June), will be De Stijl, after the early-20th-century Dutch art movement that focused on primary colors and straight lines.

White's also taken with the number three, as in three lines per verse in traditional blues. "Three can be translated in so many ways," he said. "There's the trinity in Christianity, and objects in the world: a traffic light. A table can have only three legs and stand up. Or a wheel on a car can have only three nuts to hold it on. There's a definition about that."

Simple Tastes

Such unadorned tastes once drove the 24-year-old singer/guitarist to bedeck his entire upholstery shop — the site of his Third Man Upholstery business — in just two colors.

"Everything was yellow and black, all based off of my hand tools," White said. "I painted the entire shop yellow and black, all my cutting tables and sewing machines. Everything."

He eventually abandoned the upholstery business — his own push for perfection in the craft became too stressful, he said — but not before he'd formed a two-man rock outfit with his mentor that they called the Upholsterers.

Later, with piano and dobro skills under his belt, he signed on to a Detroit country group called 2 Star Tabernacle, who released a single with R&B shouter Andre Williams, songwriter of such classics as "Shake a Tail Feather."

Even his teaming with Meg had a disarming simplicity about it. One day a few years back, his sister, now 25, plopped herself down behind a drum kit in Jack's attic. Though she had next to no experience on the instrument, the two penned "Screwdriver" (RealAudio excerpt) before the day was out, and they decided to keep at it.

Fractured And Homogenized

While the White Stripes draw on the legacy of such Detroit punk icons as the Stooges, they've also got ties to arty British influences such as the Kinks and David Bowie, according to Ben Edmonds, a rock writer who's inhabited the Detroit scene for three decades.

Because of proto-punks such as the Stooges and MC5, as well as the R&B history of Motown Records, people often romanticize the musical heritage of the Motor City. But the White Stripes and other garage acts, such as the Demolition Doll Rods, are products of much more than their storied environs, Edmonds said.

"While there are various scenes here — techno, garage, whatever — it's not the Detroit of the glory days," he said. "That was about a scene that really supported local music and encouraged it and nurtured it and gave it a place to grow. Like any other urban location in your post-MTV, post-Internet world, everything's a lot more fractured and homogenized at the same time. The entire local-identity thing is almost passé."

The White Stripes forgo covering hometown heroes in favor of targeting several of history's biggest guns. On their debut they serve up threadbare, guttural renditions of blues legend Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down" (RealAudio excerpt), Bob Dylan's "One More Cup of Coffee" and the classic "St. James Infirmary Blues," which Jack White first heard by '30s and '40s singer/bandleader Cab Calloway.

Motor City Blues

That said, the band still takes account of its Detroit roots, particularly on "The Big Three Killed My Baby." The cut is a visceral indictment of the auto industry. Full of fits and starts, the song chugs like a combustion engine ready to overheat.

The way the industry seeps into all facets of Detroit life, putting money in one pocket while pulling it out of the other, is frustrating, White said.

"Everybody, all they do is spend all their money on the car companies," he said. "It seems to be this thing that everybody just accepts, like that's the way it's gonna be, and nobody complains about it. I don't understand it."