Jack White has a great laugh. A laugh that comes easy and quick, ever threatening to turn to a giggle if prodded. It’s the kind of laugh born of being the tenth and youngest child in a religious home, eager to ease both laugher and laughee.
Unless you’ve spent time one-on-one with White, you’ve likely never heard his laugh. Although he’s been a public figure for two decades, first as a member of the garage-rock duo The White Stripes, then as a musical polymath – label owner, vinyl resurrector, superband member, Bond theme writer, uberproducer, Beyoncé collaborator, solo artist – he rarely cracks a smile in public. But, like Voltaire’s deity, he’s been laughing the whole damn time.
White’s perceived sternness and Gothic devotion to sincerity has earned him the well-honed public perception of a control freak; a curioso Willy Wonka who oscillates between minimalism and maximalism at the speed of his own whim.
Witness the head-scratching critical reaction to his latest album, Boarding House Reach, a genre Frankenstein that at times features psychedelic Afro-Cuban jams, Rage Against The Machine-meets-wailing choir riffage, rapping about being misunderstood and a gentle rendition of an Al Capone song he bought at auction. It’s a long way from the stringent nursery rhyme simplicity and two-minute punk-rock blitz-outs that enshrined the White Stripes as the pleasant weirdos of the New Rock Revolution. And there’s a strong argument to be made that White now has equal pedigree to rock’s Judas as he does its Jesus.
White’s latest volley into this caricature is his war on cellphones. Attending a Jack White show this summer? Expect to have your mobile device tucked safely away in a secured Yondr pouch for the entirety of the program. Want to see White and his band rip into Hotel Yorba or Love Interruption? Get your ticket and use your eyes and ears.
If this sounds stern and paternal, well, you played yourself.
“The phone thing. It’s a provocation. It’s funny for me,” White tells me over decaf macchiatos on a recent morning, Cheshire cat grin splayed across his face. “I laugh because people think that me saying they can’t have phones during the show is some kind of Luddite thing – that I’m forcing other people to do so that I have the glory of complete attention of their brains. Absolutely not. I don’t even look at the crowd most of the time when I’m playing a show. My experiment for them was, ‘Can you do this? Can people handle this?’”
As it turns out, they could.
“I thought people were going to react negatively to it. I was kind of hoping they would. It would be an amazing art statement! But people have responded amazingly to it. That’s interesting,” he ponders.
Still, he offers with a laugh, “To look out the curtain and see people talking to strangers and not know what to do with their hands is pretty funny.”
That White has a sense of humour shouldn’t have to be explained – the man appeared as a karate-obsessed Elvis in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, after all. But, at 42, White has been shadowboxing his reputation for a little less than half his life.
“I think people love the easy answers when it comes to me,” he laments. “[They say] ‘he’s a Luddite or he hates technology or he wants everything to be old time-y’ and that’s absolutely ridiculous! I drive an electric car, I listen to digital music all day long. … I don’t like being punished for trying to look at the beauty in things rather than the fads.”
For White, the antagonistic relationship between beauty and impulse is writ large. To understand him, he argues, you must see him as a provocateur for that discourse. And if you’re witnessing his art, that demands a modicum of respect for his process.
“If you’re creative, it’s your job to seek out beauty; to seek out a way for other people to experience beauty somehow,” he says. “The problem is trying to find common ground between artist and the people, which is difficult because artists shouldn’t be at the service of the people. Artists should be provocative to the people. To provoke thought.”
To his point, White has consistently boasted of a willingness to enforce discomfort in the hopes of creating better art. It’s led to perhaps the most interesting thing about White (who takes great pains to indulge his interests): he’s never suffered from writer’s block.
White credits this marvel to what he calls his “methodology,” an anthology of strict dogmatic structures he’s employed since the mid-90s in the hopes of differentiating himself and evolving the artistic dialogue.
“What I see and what I’ve always seen in other [musical] artists is the lack of methodology to how they do what they do,” he explains. “I thought, well, that’s easy then, I’ve never seen anyone try to record an album in two days for $1,000 or record for a week and if it’s not done the album isn’t coming out. I never saw anyone do that, so I wanted to try them, to see what would it do to me.”
Other White methods included playing with a toy guitar, dressing in a strict colour code, refusing to use modern recording technology and putting his instruments slightly out of reach in the hopes of throwing him off his game.
“Problem is, if you [explain your process] out loud, some people will say it’s interesting, others will say it’s pretentious and ridiculous,” he sighs. “I think what’s probably good for me in the future is to not tell people the methodologies I’ve used, which has been hard to resist because I don’t want to be boring. The thing I don’t like about it is when people take what I’m saying and [see it as gospel]. I’m not saying anyone who doesn’t use my methodology, I hate them and they suck.”
That perception, of the holier-than-thou hipster who spends his days judging others for their modernist sins, cuts him the deepest. “It’s always been an issue with me, from day one,” he says. “I would think that someone like me would get a lot of credit for not being narcissistic: I don’t have a Twitter account. I don’t have an Instagram. I don’t do any of those things. I look at the way some other people do it and it’s blatantly narcissistic. They don’t seem to be called out for that but … I don’t know.”
There are moments, though, that White’s lack of social media savvy can come across as politically tone deaf. Take, for example, a recent interview with Rolling Stone in which he praised Jordan Peterson’s religious views before being chastised for not knowing about the University of Toronto professor’s anti-feminist stances.
“I still don’t know anything about his politics so I have to claim ignorance about that,” he says matter-of-factly. “I had just seen something at that time, it was him talking about philosophy and religion and it was really, really interesting. I still haven’t, to this day, researched everything else he stands for. So I actually don’t know much about him.”
If there’s a through-line to White’s thinking these days, it’s of his personal legacy. Along with correcting public perception, as he eyes his fifth decade, White can now romanticize his own nostalgia: speaking fondly of car rides across the United States with his children in which “they’d just look out the window, I was very proud that they were doing that. Every time you can have a real experience, it’s always going to be more beautiful.” (White refrained from telling them the car had a DVD player.)
There’s also the matter of White’s musical legacy. He knows there is little chance he’ll ever top the all-consuming infectiousness of the Seven Nation Army riff (you know the one). And cynics argue that that since the song became ubiquitous – chanted en mass in European stadiums and Brazilian favelas alike – White has just been running out the clock, as it were. Enjoying the junk time to create whatever he wants as sports anthem money pads the coffers.
But White believes his most successful moment may be yet to come. And, he adds, he might not even be there to see it.
“Sometimes it takes time. Sometimes you have to die and then 10 years after you’re dead, people start caring about something that you did,” White says. “Right now, it’s easy to say Seven Nation Army, but it’s beyond me. I don’t own that song any more. It’s a folk song. And the fact that people chanting a melody is testament to that.”
And those rumours of million-dollar royalties?
“Well,” he cackles. “When people chant you don’t get paid.”