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Jack White's energy plant is humming

December 09, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

NASHVILLE — Jack White resembles one of those improbable characters from a Coen brothers movie as he leans against his late-'50s Ford Thunderbird, dressed in red and black and holding a hard-shell camera case.

Like a mysterious, gaudy courier, he walks across the steakhouse parking lot in the bright autumn sun. He leaves his thin cigar on a low wall and steps into the restaurant's bar, at ease among the midafternoon regulars even though he stands out like a toucan in a chicken coop.

In a corner booth, the White Stripes' singer and guitarist orders a Glenfiddich on the rocks and opens the case.

"You seen this? . . . This is my camera. . . ." He extracts accessories one after another and lays them on the table -- boxes of peppermint-pattern filters, a fisheye lens, a roll of 120 film, a manual with a camera-headed monkey on the cover. And the centerpiece, a customized White Stripes model of the cheap plastic '80s-vintage Holga camera, in red and white with "JACK . . . The White Stripes" printed on the top.

There's a Meg camera too, for Stripes drummer Meg White. Both models are packaged in boxes designed by the Stripes' visual collaborator Rob Jones and sold through their website and at photo retailers, in a limited edition of 3,000 each. They're part of the Austria-based photo subculture known as lomography, which encourages members to document their worlds by shooting fast and furiously.

It's kind of the garage rock of the photography world, with a "cheaper-simpler" philosophy that appeals strongly to White, 32. A card-carrying member of the National Geographic Society, he intensely monitors the world's vanishing traditions, from indigenous tribal languages to plastic film cameras.

The White Stripes, of course, led the charge of so-called garage rock into rock prominence during the past decade, but right now the band's future is cloudy following an abrupt cancellation of its tour amid concerns over Meg's health.

The duo has found ways to fill the gap, most notably by recording some songs in collaboration with Beck. But today Jack seems more excited about the camera.

"On mine you can also change the flash to red," he says as he inserts two AA batteries in the Holga, then attaches it to an instant camera back, which blocks the viewfinder. "They're completely unpredictable things, that's the whole beauty of them. It's completely unpredictable what kind of light leakage you'll get and what kind of results you're going to get. . . ."

It's not much of a stretch to connect White's enthusiasm for his Holga with his approach to music, and to creativity in general.

"Yeah, for sure. Give me a broken tape machine, give me a guitar when it's out of tune. This camera's perfect."

He holds up a picture of the waitress that he took a few minutes earlier. "You have no idea what that was going to turn out like. Was I even aiming it right? We cut off the top of her head here, but we got the drinks, so good things are coming out of that. If we had a brand-new digital camera, you instantly see it. It's a different world. It's got its pluses too, no doubt. But I like the idea of pushing yourself, not making it easier on yourself. This is not making it easier on yourself, this is making you work, and when you work, something good is going to happen."

Quickly and eagerly

Even sitting with a Scotch on a quiet afternoon, White, who moved here from his hometown of Detroit a couple of years ago, doesn't strike you as a man of leisure. Restless and animated, he answers questions quickly and eagerly, the way he fires off guitar flurries in response to Meg's prodding, inquiring drum patterns on stage.

That's where he expected to be these past few months, touring the world after the June release of "Icky Thump," the White Stripes' sixth album. While it wasn't selling like their 2001 commercial breakthrough, "White Blood Cells," or 2003's "Elephant," their pinnacle at 2 million, it was widely acclaimed as an assured return to the band's raw basics (albeit with some bagpipes and mariachi horns thrown in).

But in September came the unusually forthright announcement that their monthlong U.S. concert tour was being called off because Meg, Jack's former wife and his White Stripes comrade since the beginning in Detroit in 1997, was suffering from acute anxiety and could not travel.

That might have seemed like devastating news for a band that so values its live shows as a theater of cathartic spontaneity. The tour had also looked like a good opportunity for the duo to reassert its prominence in the rock world as it tested the major-label experience -- "Icky Thump" was released on their own Third Man imprint through Warner Bros. Records -- after a career on independents small and large. And though it's all but impossible to measure the numerical impact of the tour in the changing music business climate, the album's sales would certainly have been higher than its current figure of around 645,000.

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