Taken from Nashville Scene (Nov 15, 2018)
Jack White on Vinyl, Nashville and 10 Years of Third Man Records
We sit down with White ahead of his Nov. 20 homecoming show at Bridgestone Arena
by D. Patrick Rodgers
Photo: David Swanson
Jack White is sitting amid stacks of packages that are piled around his office inside Nashville's Third Man Records. They tend to accumulate while he's out on tour, he explains, and he's only recently returned from a string of European dates. One of his first orders of business will be sorting through it all now that he's back home.
On this particular Thursday morning in October, White is clad in all black, filling the air with the smell of the cigarillos he's known for smoking, with the disembodied head of a taxidermied giraffe looking on from nearby. White is all restless energy as he delves into topics like the record he's currently working on with his recently reunited supergroup The Raconteurs, or a fellow industrious Michigander from the previous century, Henry Ford.
"Probably about five years in with Third Man," explains White, "I said, 'It would be nice now to model this place on Ford Motor Company in Detroit,' which was pouring in raw materials on one end, and out came cars on the other. And they tried to make their own glass and their own tires. And Henry Ford even tried to open up his own 'Fordlandia,' a city in Brazil to grow rubber plantations to grow their own rubber for tires. There's these amazing books about Fordlandia, if you ever look it up."
Fordlandia ended up a failure, as White points out, but it's plain to see why the venture captured the former White Stripe's imagination. In early 2017, White & Co. opened their Detroit-based vinyl manufacturing plant, Third Man Pressing, and just a few months from now, Third Man Records will celebrate 10 years since opening in Nashville. But owning a record-label-slash-book-publishing-house-slash-venue hasn't been without its struggles. In March of this year, Third Man laid off seven employees at its Nashville location, among them designers, events staff and general assistants.
As White tells it, his staff had simply gotten too big, and "it was time to retreat." It was a tough and painful call, he says, but he's feeling better about his company's future now. "I never know what's going to happen with Third Man," he says. "I hope it lives on long after I'm gone, dead and gone."
On Tuesday, Nov. 20, White will headline Bridgestone Arena here in his adopted hometown. The concert comes as a sort of makeup date for his scheduled headlining appearance at Franklin's Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival back in September. Heavy rains forced Pilgrimage organizers to call off the festival's second day, but within two weeks of the cancellation, White had announced the arena date, which is set to feature opening sets from Third Man label artists Margo Price and Joshua Hedley.
The Bridgestone gig will be the last in a long string of dates supporting this year's Boarding House Reach, White's third solo record and his most experimental release yet. In advance of the show, the Scene sat down with the rock star to discuss his current backing-band lineup, the future of Third Man Records and much more.
The Jack White Show
Photo: David Swanson
It seems pretty important to you to do a hometown show.
Yeah! I don't take it lightly. It's an important thing for me and [the band], so I wanted to have it at a special moment. So I thought it would be nice to have the last show of the tour be there. ... I started working on The Raconteurs a month-and-a-half ago or something like that. We were slowly taking baby steps together, and songs just started coming out and coming out. So as that's been progressing, it's just sort of a debate - "Well, is that what I'm going to do next year?" I just don't plan things very far ahead, so that all was a part of the decision-making, too.
To my ear, Boarding House Reach is different from anything else you've done. How has it been coupling songs from that record with the other songs you're playing live - when people show up to see "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," or whatever it may be, are the new songs working alongside the older ones?
The Boarding House songs ... people are of course the least familiar with them, compared to stuff they have been listening to in their car for 10 years, whatever it is - Dead Weather, Raconteurs, White Stripes or other solo stuff. So they're least familiar with it, but what's great is we've learned throughout the months that by the end of the song, [the Boarding House Reach material] really connects with people on its own level. Even if it's people who aren't familiar with it. We've tested certain things out - what things work and what things don't. And you just always do that. There's deep cuts on albums that just don't transfer live that some obscurists would like you to play.
But when you're playing for a large audience, you have to pick your battles and what's worth it. So sometimes you sneak in some strange ones, and then do ones that are more appealing. I didn't want to go out and do nothing but stuff from the new album, and I always want to do anything that's a song of mine, because there's no set list. You just sorta pick, "Well, this song of mine makes sense right now for here, or for there, or for that." To just get the crowd riled up and take these trips up hills and down valleys. So the new stuff has been great - it's been really good, and it's also so entrenched with this band. I can see it being harder to do on future tours when I play by myself. Because it was so difficult to rehearse those songs and learn them and also change them around, and making them change up.
Another thing that seems important to you is the spontaneity of the live performances. How, after dozens of shows with these same four people backing you, do you maintain spontaneity? How do you not fall into a routine of each song sounding a certain way each night?
It's tough, because certain songs you can't really change too much. You try to do it, and [sometimes] that song just kinda needs to be that way - it's those three chords. What you could do is try to change the tempo or the style of it. Say, like, I was doing "Hotel Yorba" on this tour in more of a Memphis honky-tonk style, kind of a "Mystery Train," shuffle-y style. That's basically the only thing I can do with "Hotel Yorba." I can't do too much else with it, because it just needs to be those chords and that vibe. And other songs can totally change and morph into gigantic, long things. Like [The Dead Weather's] "Cut Like a Buffalo," I've been playing on this tour - nine minutes long, and it sounds nothing like The Dead Weather would've done it. So that's nice, and I like to be able to do something new with the band.
The Past, Present and Future of Vinyl
Vinyl has increased in sales every year for, what, 10 or 12 years? I think Third Man has played a part in that making that happen. Do you think it's a bubble that will burst at some point? Do you think the format has outgrown its novelty status and is now seen in a mainstream light?
Yes, I think it's definitely mainstream now. ... I saw record turntables for sale at the airport yesterday in Boston. They're selling turntables at the airport in 2018? And I saw them selling turntables at Office Depot or Staples - one of those office-supply places I went into - and that was like 2012, a couple years after the boom had started to explode. I thought: "Wow, that's an interesting sign. They're selling turntables at the office-supply place. ... That's a really cool sign, but also, is this really getting big right now and everyone is cashing in for a second? That could mean this could go away in a year."
But, man, every month I see a new TV commercial that's like, "Ask your doctor about Photroxia," and there's somebody flopping a record on a turntable, you know? So whenever I see [that sort of thing], it means that's just getting to this new segment of mainstream. Way down the line of mainstream. Like, your Aunt Tilly's got it now. So I think it's in a really comfortable spot. ... If it's a novelty thing - novelties are usually one or two years, I think. So I get a really great vibe, and also the music business really responded to it in a great way, the way they should have. To not just do it for the novelty, they wanted to get involved and capitalize on it and make it more important to people out of respect for music. And it's really worked.
This is something we tried to do with The White Stripes in the late '90s and on our very first television [appearances] in 2000, 2001. We were asking them to hold the vinyl up on the late-night shows, and they were like, "Why would we do that?" And we were like, "No, we really believe in this format." And when Elephant came out, we only sent it out to journalists on vinyl. We were like, "If you don't have a turntable, then don't bother even listening to the record." It was a nice moment for us that we had that kind of clout at that moment to make that statement, where it would have some effect for maybe everybody else.
Third Man at 10
You guys had some downsizing earlier this year - you lost a handful of positions. Was that the sort of thing where you just had to adjust your model? Because you're 10 years in with Third Man, are things looking different now?
Yeah, we sort of knew that day was coming, because I said, "As long as we're doing great, and it's profitable, I want to keep expanding, keep constructing, keep building." And then once we built the pressing plant [in Detroit], that was the biggest, "Wow, this has really expanded into its own universe." There's almost nothing on a record that isn't done [at Third Man Records] - the artwork, the mastering, the cutting itself. The only thing is the making of the sleeve, the actual cardboard sleeve and the metalwork for the vinyl. Those are the only two things we really don't do, and maybe hopefully one day we will.
So I knew, "I'm going to keep expanding until it gets too big, and then I'm going to retreat." 'Cause I think that's what you should do with businesses, and I'm definitely no businessman, but I think that's what businesses should do. You expand whenever you can expand, and then when you can't, you retreat. And it was time to retreat. It was like two years in a row of, "OK, well we've expanded too big, and our staff, especially in Nashville, has gotten so gigantic." You gotta remember, this isn't a corporation either. This is coming out of my pocket personally. It's only so much I can be generous and charitable about that stuff. It was an unfortunate moment. We knew it was coming. But the nice thing was that we could spread things across, where we could downsize across the board from each department, and each entity of Third Man. Just to, you know, tighten up. I don't want to use any words to make it sound like it wasn't a hard, negative thing. It was really hard for us. It was no fun to do that. But I think that me and [Third Man co-founders Ben Blackwell and Ben Swank] always knew that, back in 2011 when we're expanding, that one day we were going to have to do this. 'Cause we don't want to turn into Sony or Warner Bros. So knowing that, knowing we want to keep it at a certain level, we'll just keep expanding until it doesn't make sense anymore. ...
And we do a lot of progressive things. I mean, we've had a $15-an-hour minimum wage since 2013. That's a lot more than you'll make at any mall job, and it's the way I think things should be. And we have health insurance for the employees, and maternity leave. [I was] part of the mayor's Gender Equity Council. Just trying to do a lot of progressive moves that we feel strongly about, just being on the right side of history when it comes to that. And we are in a lucky place where we can do those kinds of things, because - I mean, most businesses are about making a dollar, and if you don't make a dollar, there's hell to pay or whatever. We don't do anything we do here really to make a dollar. It's only about, "Can we keep this open and make it pay for itself?" It's always been that way, so that's the driving force behind it, which is really nice. It's a way better place to be in than having to live and die by the almighty dollar.
You guys are approaching 10 years here in Nashville next year. What's different now versus 10 years ago when you started? Both in the industry at large and with what it is you guys are trying to do?
I could give you a really long, 45-minute answer. You know, I could talk about [the changes] just relating to Nashville alone, or relating to the music community in town, and different sections of the music community, how much has changed and how much Nashville's real estate has changed. God knows I wouldn't be buying this building in 2018 for how much it probably would cost. So I'm glad we did what we did and when we did it. And I love how the city has grown from that. And now that's happening in Detroit as well, which is even more of a humongous triumph, because that city was so down-and-out for so long, so many decades.
But in the music scene, the thing I'm most proud of is Third Man's involvement in country music, especially in the last couple years. And that's something I don't think we would ever have planned to be a bigger part of. It just kinda happened that way, and it seemed like - with Margo [Price] and Josh Hedley and Lillie Mae, and other things like the Craig Brown Band and the Loretta Lynn project and other country shows we do here and stuff - it's a natural place for what we think is really good country music, aside from the plastic, slick stuff. I don't think anybody who really loves music likes that kind of style and production or style of selling it, but everyone understands why it is that way, and there's a different culture going on. We were talking about the decline of CDs everywhere - but not if you're Garth Brooks at Walmart. Things are just fine and dandy in that zone, for example. So there's different sects of things, different sections that the hipster world and rock 'n' roll world and the blues world and the country world - they all attack things differently. The good thing about Third Man is we've been genre-less. Our attempt has always been at genre-less, and that way we can put out comedy albums just as much we put out a heavy metal record. We can put out Margo Price just as much as we can put out Sleep's album. That feels really nice, and it feels nice to be able to support bands like that in a way.
A long time ago, the Alabama Shakes wanted to be on Third Man Records, and I told them at that time - whatever it was, 2010 or something - I said, "You know, you guys are really blowing up. I'd rather you go with a major label, because I don't think we're in a place to where we could really handle and support you on this humongous level that you're about to crack into." And I wouldn't say that now. I would say, "Yes, definitely, very much so, we're a good place for you to be and probably better than a major label for a band like Alabama Shakes." So that's what's changed here.
You have that sort of infrastructure for the artist support?
Yeah, and also the world has changed to streaming and digital so much that, how different is Third Man Records from a major label now? [The difference] is really only the question of muscle at radio. "I'm so-and-so calling you from a major label who is trying to get you play this song on the radio." That still has its strength behind it, where that is probably the only real difference [between Third Man and a major label], is the team of 60 people calling and harassing the radio station to play its music or something.
Radio seems like part of the equation that Third Man has just avoided. Also, country is playing vastly more male artists than female artists, but there are just as many good female artists - whether it's a Margo Price or a Miranda Lambert or whoever it is. So I feel like you guys avoided the quagmire of country radio just by not having that be a part of your marketing process.
Well, they play this very narrow thing on country radio. It's a really narrow window, what they will actually play. And I think that's a disease. I feel bad, I really do feel bad for a lot of country artists that they have to live and die by [radio plays], because if they don't make that song [fit in] that narrow corridor where it will actually get played, then why even bother recording it? It's lucky to be in a spot where [we can say], "No, we just really want to make good music, if people like it, that would be nice." I'm [not trying to] say, "Oh no, we make good music and we don't care if anybody likes it." I've never been that way. I've always tried to find a bridge between the two worlds. But to not live and die by the sword of radio play? It's a nice place to be. ...
Are there any baby bands you're interested in producing? Or other little projects you're interested in focusing on?
Well, Third Man has got lots of things coming up in the next year, a lot of big records. I'm really hoping to expand on the country records with new Lillie Mae, new Margo Price, and I'd love to - Tyler Childers, who we love so much, I would love him to make an album with Third Man. ... It's just so interesting now, the tools we have at our fingertips that we didn't have when we first started this place. And the position we've all found ourselves in. Like, I never wanted to run a record label. I kinda still even don't look at it like that, unless we are actually talking about it [directly]. I mean, we're on our almost-600th release. Jesus Christ, that's a lot of music we've put out in the world, and a lot of music that I've personally produced myself. I can't even believe I've been involved in that many things. It just feels really strong. It's like these little time capsules that, who knows, one day 40 years from now, someone might pick that song up and cover it and it'll be a No. 1 hit for somebody in 2055 or something like that. That's nice for us to be able to do that, and also to have the historical things that we can be a part of, like Chess Records and Sun Records, and keep those records in print. I love keeping records in print. And Paramount and all of these things that we are lucky to be a part of. And to have our own [pressing] plant now. That just cracks everything wide open. If you see the copper record that The Raconteurs are putting out, that's such a strange-looking piece of wax that feels like an antique or something. But it also feels like the future format of music in a way, where we can expand in all these crazy ideas.
The Racs are Back
So The Raconteurs are planning a new record next year? And a reissue? Will there be any live dates?
It's all being discussed right now, but we are definitely about 15 songs into recording, and it's feeling really good. So we thought it would be cool to tell people, "Why don't we give people the very first two songs we ever put out [via a Third Man Records Vault package], and along with a re-release of Consolers [of the Lonely]," because we got the rights back from that vinyl from Warner Bros. Third Man has the rights to Consolers, so we can finally release it on our own. And we thought it was a good time, we never put out a limited edition of Consolers, and we have new music happening. "Let's put that out and see how people are interested in that while we are taking these baby steps as a band again." We haven't played together in like 10 years or so. It's the four [original] Raconteurs, and we never broke up or anything. Everyone has just been so busy with other projects. It just became, "Wow, look how many years it's been, we didn't even realize!" If you'd asked me on certain days, I would've said, "I don't know, what's it been, like three years?" [Laughs] I'm bad with that kind of stuff, but it's great to get in the studio and instantly realize, "Wow, man, how nice." It's like [being] in The Who or something. Like, "Oh, guess who's doing the overdub - it's Keith Moon or John Entwistle's doing the overdub." I mean, when [bassist Jack Lawrence] goes in there and is overdubbing bass, or Brendan [Benson] is going in doing a vocal part - it's like, whoa, these are really, really talented people going in that room.
Well, and it's a different dynamic. You constructed a band, for instance, around playing Boarding House Reach to make sure it works with the sound and with what you're trying to do. But The Raconteurs, that's four big personalities and four unique musicians. Is that a different set of limitations to work with?
It's great. It's a whole different bag of bones. [With] Boarding House I was deliberately trying to work with strangers, deliberately trying to work with people in genres of music like funk, R&B and hip-hop, which I've never really fully worked with, and all be a slave to the songs as a group. And work with that chemistry and electricity in the room. So this is now old, old friends, who I know very well, and I've been around the world and slept in rooms with them, in motels back in the '90s together. And we're older now, and people are married and have kids. We've been around the block many, many times. How do we write songs now? How do we write rock 'n' roll songs in 2018 in the climate of rock 'n' roll right now? It's very interesting. It's kinda nice, because it's warm - it's kind of a warm, fuzzy feeling to go into the studio and create, in that sense.