Black and white and red all over
On Elephant, the White Stripes perfect a winning formula: black blues, white rock and a strict dress code.
Thu Mar 27 2003
Photograph by Andrew Hart Styling by April Johnson/independentny.com.; Makeup by Mike Potter/independentny.com for Nars Cosmetics; Hair by Carol Ramer/Art House
I live in a cramped 15th Street walk-up with one small futon, no table and an uncomfortable pair of folding chairs. The walls are supermodel-thin, and my neighbors, professional Chelsea Boys, continuously threaten to transform my living room into a sweaty '80s dance club. Accordingly, guests are scarce, which renders me at nerve's end when the White Stripes accept my half-facetious invitation for morning tea.
As it turns out, I needed to wash only one mug, not two. Come teatime, Jack White—the duo's 27-year-old singer, guitarist and songwriter—arrives sans drummer, Meg White, who slipped on ice the previous night and fractured her left wrist. "She showed me her cast this morning," Jack grumbles. "It was covered in tan bandages. I told her, 'Couldn't they at least give you white ones?'"
If the guitarist's response seems insensitive, it's only because the White Stripes adhere to a strict color-coding policy that would make Tom Ridge proud. Since the pair began banging around Detroit in 1997 (insisting from the outset that they are siblings rather than once-weds), Jack has militantly confined their wardrobe to red, white and black. He even enters my apartment in uniform: solid-red pants and shirt, dutiful black pea coat and newsboy cap. Just as his eyes seem to be saying In Detroit, we call these broom closets, mine reveal an equally perplexed thought balloon: Hey! This dork wears his band uniform offstage!
Slouched in the living room, a blazing red ribbon ripping through my futon's gray, the solitary Stripe speaks of his determinedly sloppy band's meticulous aesthetics: "From the beginning, we've organized ourselves around the number three." White winces when it's pointed out that the White Stripes are, in fact, a duo, but he soldiers on nonetheless. "Well, there's guitars, drums and vocals. Red, white and black. Storytelling, melody and rhythm. It's a universally perfect number. People die in threes. Three is the beginning of many. Focusing on it helps restrain us so we can get more primitive and honest."
Leaving aside the couple's notorious dishonesty regarding their relationship, the pursuit of a primitive sound has long defined the White Stripes, from their 1999 self-titled debut to 2001's White Blood Cells, a characteristically raw collection of garage songs that became a surprise hit, eventually selling more than a million copies worldwide. Now, these unlikely veterans of Radio City Music Hall, the MTV Film Awards and a much-coveted Rolling Stones warm-up slot are preparing to release Elephant, the follow-up to White Blood Cells. Recorded with typical briskness and frugality in a London studio renowned for its antiquated equipment, the White Stripes' fourth album includes a rare vocal turn by drummer Meg, some elaborate overdubs and even a bass guitar (generally a White Stripes no-no).
Mostly, however, Elephant sticks to the script: crude, spare songs steeped in the same Delta blues that inspired the earliest rock & rollers. Like the Ramones—another cartoonish act that flourished in dark economic times by stripping their music bare and assuming matching surnames—the White Stripes view conventional artistic progress as detrimental to their quest for a childlike rock & roll purity.
"This band is all about constrictions," says Jack, his hands grasping a cigarette lighter emblazoned with a large numeral three. "We're purposely trying not to evolve. We began looking for an entry into the blues, which I consider the very pinnacle of songwriting. The blues represents the easiest way for me to express myself...but we're two white people from Detroit! Keeping everything so primitive gave us a way in."
While Jack acts as the band's resident Svengali, it is Meg—with her flowing pigtails and faltering beat—who embodies its minimalist spirit. Later that day, as she rests in the back of a taxi that's inching toward a Madison Avenue doctor's office, her plaster-covered arm tilted at an awkward 90 degrees, the incapacitated drummer talks of the White Stripes in the same way she does of her wrist: It's something she fell into, and now she's dealing with the consequences. (At press time, the group's tour plans were unaffected by the injury.) "This is my first band," says Meg, 28, uncomfortably shifting in the red togs she wears even to a doctor appointment. "When we started, I was a bartender—the shyest bartender on the planet. Jack had a set of drums upstairs, so I began playing with him. I had no idea it would get this big. Come on! We're a two-piece blues band from Detroit."
It is unclear whether Meg's partner, a born showman who speaks of his band with the honed polish of a politician stumping for tax cuts, shares her bewilderment. Stinking up my apartment with an omnipresent cigarette, Jack cites the pun behind the title of the duo's commercial breakthrough—White Blood Cells—which initially trickled into record stores through a small indie label, yet featured an oddly prescient cover picturing the then-unknown musicians hounded by paparazzi. "At the time, we were starting to get attention on what we considered a big level," he explains. "You know, 'Oh, my God, we sold a thousand records.' The whole thing was a play on that. There are no straight-up blues on that album, and the idea was that the white-blood version of this music will sell more than the true, honest black version."
White squashes his Camel into my ashtray, which prior to his visit led the happy life of a coin holder. Few contemporary musicians share his talent for embracing fame while keeping it at arm's length. "I fight ego at all costs," he says. "But sometimes, in order to get anywhere, you have to embrace it. If you want to get a date, you have to be cocky picking up a girl. You can't just be fumbling about in the corner. I've always found that notion depressing, but when you go onstage, you have to jump that fence. From the get-go, we thought, Let's do this."
With a stage director's timing, a publicist raps on the door, and White leaps from the futon as if Robert Johnson's ghost had just floated from my toilet bowl. He snags his pea coat, tugs his black cap over his ears, and is out the door and onto the street, a red-and-black stripe stomping through the white Chelsea snow.
Elephant is out Tuesday 1 on Third Man/V2 Records. The White Stripes play Hammerstein Ballroom April 19, 2003.