Jack White thrives on perfecting the small details. His instruments are placed just far enough apart onstage to generate more tension. The restrictive red, white and black colour scheme of his group the White Stripes only accentuates his and band mate Meg White's eclecticism. He even had his roadies dress in well-tailored suits when the band toured every Canadian province and territory in the summer of 2007.
So, given this meticulousness, it's surprising to hear that the band's big moments often happen by chance.
Take the release of the new DVD of the band's highly publicized, 2007 cross-Canada jog, which included numerous surprise public gigs. The tour was never even meant to be filmed. The DVD The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights, a live CD of the tour and a box set featuring the DVD and more, all being released Tuesday, may represent the most work White says he has ever dedicated to a release. But he adds that it all simply happened.
“We really didn't set out to make a film at all when we started that tour,” he explains. “My manager just said, ‘You know, you're going to strange places that we may not get to go back to. Why don't you take some cameras with you?' And we said, okay.”
That summer, the White Stripes were on a high. Their last album, Icky Thump, had just come out.
On the tour, the band played small Canadian cities in each province and was greeted with the kind of excitement reserved for rock 'n' roll royals visiting the hinterland, complete with plenty of adoring press coverage.
But while White and drummer Meg White weren't into the idea of behind-the-scenes filming, director Emmett Malloy and his tiny documentary crew, who were along to film the shows, began doing just that, capturing candid scenes of the sibling-like rapport between the talkative Jack and introverted Meg. (Once again, the two aren't actual siblings. They say they are. But they were found out to have been once married. But that's beside the point. Their bond is a life-long one, they've said.)
“By the third show, they were backstage filming. We started to tolerate it and thought, maybe 30 years from now, we'll put this out. But it's one of those things that just snowballed,” he says. Malloy also filmed the mayor of Yellowknife personally picking up the band on the tarmac of the local airport to show them around and a meeting of the band with a group of native elders in Nunavut.
“A lot of people came to us, man! It was wild. And I think that's the different mentality, that small-town mentality. We appreciate the effort [by everyone involved] and we want to share this with [them] We knew that experiences in smaller towns were going to be more interesting,” he says. “To get a tour from the mayor, that's a beautiful thing. I'm so glad we had a camera with us when we did that.”
White carefully plans for spontaneity with the band's indie style – its beat-up guitars and tube amps, and for that summer in Canada, no set lists for shows and no clue even where the band would make its surprise appearances until it was decided at breakfast. But he's very aware that while the details can be controlled, you can only invite the bigger experience to happen.
“It's an exercise in setting yourself up for failure if you say, ‘Okay everybody, we're going to film this thing, and it's going to be this incredible moment. Okay, go!' “ he says. “It doesn't really work that way. You have to try many, many things and have the cameras or the tape rolling for all of them. You're hoping to catch something by accident.
“And that's why it was good to film an entire tour, because it takes a minute for you to forget about being filmed, forget about the camera taking a picture. Then something good starts happening.”
The closest White has come to repeating those surprise appearances has been to set up spontaneous stalls selling his albums at events in various cities. His Third Man Records has one at this week's SXSW festival in Austin.
His band the Dead Weather (the other members are Alison Mosshart, Dean Fertita and Jack Lawrence) is occupying most of his time these days. “We're so inspired, and we push each other so far into music that we have never made in other bands. That's really, really interesting, and I want to explore that for years to come.”
But the White Stripes band is alive, as is White's other band, the Raconteurs. He still talks regularly with Meg about new songs, although he says they haven't recorded since Icky Thump. Right now, with the Dead Weather – plus the White Stripes DVD/live CD/box-set releases, plus an album he has made with legendary rocker Wanda Jackson, plus an album with his wife and model Karen Elson – White hasn't had enough of a window to devote to new White Stripes material.
“The only time I had for the White Stripes was all [given]over to this DVD and the live album and the production of it. All of that White Stripes energy had to go to this.”