How The White Stripes Create Songs

Excerpt from Rolling Stone ..

A year ago, I listened to the first tape Meg and I made. It’s a recording of the first time we played together. It still sounds raw and cool. We did [David Bowie’s] “Moon-age Daydream.” Then we wrote “Screwdriver,” our first song. There was a red screwdriver sitting on the table. We wrote the song that afternoon, and it hasn’t changed at all since that day.
When we play a song I wrote, it’s the White Stripes covering a Jack White song-that’s the best way to describe it. I write most of my songs on piano and acoustic guitar. Then I show it to Meg, and it’s like, “OK, how can we do this onstage?” That becomes the way we do it, from then on.

Are there times when Meg’s style of drumming is too limiting — that you can’t take a song as far as you’d like to go?
No. I never thought, “God, I wish Neil Peart was in this band.” It’s kind of funny: When people critique hip-hop, they’re scared to open up, for fear of being called racist. But they’re not scared to open up on female musicians, out of pure sexism.
Meg is the best part of this band. It never would have worked with anybody else, because it would have been too complicated. When she started to play drums with me, just on a lark, it felt liberating and refreshing. There was something in it that opened me up. It was my doorway to playing the blues, without anyone over my shoulder going, “Oh, white-boy blues, white-boy bar band.” I could really get down to something.
Do you think the brother-sister thing was a miscalculation — that you overdid the mythmaking?

Do you sing? Get this great studio mic_

I saw a review of our new album, and it said, “Every single component of the White Stripes is a gigantic lie.” What does that mean? Have I sat down and said I was born in Mississippi? No. Did I say I grew up on a plantation and learned how to play guitar from a blind man? I never said anything like that. It’s funny that people think me and Meg sit up late at night, in front of a gas lamp, and come up with these intricate lies to trick people.
But because you present that relationship as fact, it obscures your real connection as a couple — the truth and value of what you play together.
I want you to imagine if we had presented ourselves in another fashion, that people might have thought was the truth. How would we have been perceived, right off the bat? When you see a band that is two pieces, husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, you think. “Oh, I see . . .” When they’re brother and sister, you go, “Oh, that’s interesting.” You care more about the music, not the relationship — whether they’re trying to save their relationship by being in a band.

You don’t think about that with a brother and sister. They’re mated for life. That’s what family is like.

 

Studio accesories

So when did you come up with the idea?
I’m not saying I came up with anything [laughs]. It’s like people thinking we would be more real if we went onstage in jeans and T-shirts. How ignorant is that, to think that because they don’t wear a suit onstage that someone is giving you the real deal? People do come and see us and think, “Look at all these gimmicks.” Go ahead, man. Go ahead and think that.

How do you write songs? Do you sit down and pound something out every day?
Until a couple of months before Satan, I hadn’t written anything in a year and a half. We’d been touring, and I don’t write on tour.

Usually, I’ll just be walking around the house. I’ll go by the piano, sit down, and the first thing that comes out turns into something. It’s always the first line. I had a conversation with someone, and I said to myself, “I blew it,” after I got off the phone. Then I started goofing around: “I blew it/And if I knew what to do, then I’d do it” [from “Forever for Her (Is Over for Me)”]. You get three lines, and you know: “I better go write this down.” Sometimes you find yourself going downstairs and writing a song, even though you want to go to bed. It’s out of your control.

Learning Guitar? Need a new instrument?

How much do you write about yourself? Seven Nation Army, on Elephant. sounds like it is full of autobiography: the experience of feeling surrounded, defensive, even paranoid, after the sudden success of White Blood Cells.
That song started out about two specific people I knew in Detroit. It was about gossip, the spreading of lies and the other person’s reaction to it. It came from a frustration of watching my friends do this to each other. In the end, it started to become a metaphor for things I was going through.

But I never set out to write an exposé on myself. To me, the song was a blues at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The third verse [“I’m going to Wichita/Far from this opera forevermore”] could be something from a hundred years ago. It won a Grammy for Best Rock Song. [Laughs] Maybe it should have won for Best Paranoid Blues Song.

You wrote about the actress Rita Hayworth in two Satan songs; “White Moon” and “Take, Take, Take.” But it’s hard not to hear your own mixed feelings about celebrity, especially in the latter.
Rita Hayworth became an all-encompassing metaphor for everything I was thinking about while making the album. There was an autograph of hers — she had kissed a piece of paper, left a lip print on it, and underneath it said, “My heart is in my mouth.” I loved that statement and wondered why she wrote that.

There was also the fact that she was Latino and had changed her name. She had become something different, morphed herself and was trying to put something behind her. And there was the shallowness of celebrity when it’s thrown upon you. All of that was going around in these songs: what had been thrown on me, things I’d never asked for. Every song on that album is about truth.

 

Goin’ hard? Need a new guitar?

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