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Little White truths

Inspired and determined, Jack White gets personal, crafting a White Stripes CD so surprising it recalls the Beatles' creative leap on 'Rubber Soul.' Here's how.

June 05, 2005|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Detroit — The White Stripes' Jack White is ready for a break as he slips behind the wheel of his vintage four-seat Thunderbird and switches on the ignition. White has been working feverishly on a new album, and he is just days away from starting a grueling world tour.

The CD, "Get Behind Me Satan," is a a daring creative advance in which he and drummer Meg White have added layers of imagination and depth to what was an already thrilling sound.

Despite all the gloom surrounding the record industry about the way bottom-line consciousness at major labels is stifling creativity, White shows how a fiercely independent artist can still make music that is both cutting-edge and commercial. The Stripes' last album, 2003's "Elephant," sold 4 million copies worldwide and won an album of the year nomination in the Grammys.

In "Satan," which will be released Tuesday on Third Man/V2 Records, White sets aside his signature blistering guitar lines on most of the tracks. Marimbas dominate one song, grand piano and/or drums highlight others, and he mixes them in dazzlingly original ways.

The subject matter is more personal -- anxious, even desperate looks at conflicts between innocence and morality on one side and compromise and betrayal on the other. Even in some of the album's gentlest moments, a guitar suddenly cuts through like a knife through a curtain. "It's probably the most cathartic record I've ever made," White says.

The creative leap in "Satan" is, in its way, reminiscent of the breakthrough the Beatles made in "Rubber Soul," the album that not only introduced more adult themes to the Beatles' compositions (the disarming vulnerability of "In My Life") but also new instrumental textures (mysterious sitar touches in the sophisticated "Norwegian Wood").

For all the assurance of the new album, however, the "Satan" recording sessions left even the normally workaholic White drained.

"It was the first album that was really hard to make," the singer-songwriter says. "It wasn't because we needed inspiration or help creatively. I was writing songs every day, which is unusual for me. I probably have 35 done. The problem was outside things."

The tape machine kept breaking, microphones often went on the blink, water dripped from the ceiling. You can even hear part of Meg's drum kit tumble over at the end of one song. "Torture," White sums it up. "It got to the point where I was almost feeling, 'Let's forget it. I can't take it anymore.' "

Despite the frustrations, the Stripes recorded the album in just over a week in March for under $10,000. (It's not uncommon for major label bands to take months and spend $1 million in the process.)

And White hasn't let up. He's worked nonstop on every detail of the album's launch, including planning a tour that would take the duo to Mexico, Chile, Russia, Poland and Greece before the U.S. leg, which includes Aug. 15-18 dates at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.

That's why a ride in the Thunderbird must seem especially inviting on this rainy afternoon. He wants a couple of double cheeseburgers and onion rings from his favorite bar, about 45 minutes away in Dearborn.

Everything about his car, from the upholstery to the tinny radio, is original -- except for the supercharged engine features that make the car's roar as loud as a jet as White pulls into the street.

By the time he hits the freeway, the noise from under the hood makes the car feel as if it's going 120 miles an hour, though the speedometer reads a prudent 65.

The car skids noticeably when he encounters a sudden traffic tie-up on the wet streets.

"Sorry about that," he says, smiling. "I should have told you, this car's got '90s power and '50s brakes. "

The same could be said about Jack White.

A state of readiness

"I've been working all night on the artwork for the album," White, 29, says by way of greeting as he walks down the stairs of his elegant turn-of-the-last-century home.

On stage, he plays guitar and sings with an immediacy that makes him seem dangerously near imploding. And even at home, his mind seems amped up, as if he's about to excuse himself at any minute and race back to his home studio to put his latest thoughts on tape.

The house documents his endless fascinations. The main floor spills over with a crazy quilt of passions and projects -- from religious statues (he thought of studying for the priesthood as a teenager) to pinball machines, animal heads on the wall and a drum kit in the hall.

White leads a guest to a back room where the Stripes recorded "Satan." The room is so crowded that White can barely make his way past the guitar cases and microphone cords to show where he did his vocals.

"A formal studio would have killed this record," the 6-foot-2 musician says. "People didn't used to have enough money to do more than one or two takes, so they would put everything into each one.

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