The Dead Weather: Back In Black

There's a storm brewing in Nashville
The Dead Weather, August 2009
Read the full interview from the 'August 2009' cover stars 'The Dead Weather' below

Clash is holed up in a hotel in the Tennessee state capital, looking out at the 9am sky. It’s as black as coal. Is my watch right? Am I still jet lagged? Yes and yes, actually, which makes things even more disorientating.

Looking out, I see the darkest clouds hovering just slightly above the downtown high-rises, while the deserted streets are punctuated only by locals running for cover before the heavens open. And then they do, with the most almighty downpour imaginable. My first thoughts are of our imminent cover photo shoot, but then, I think, what could possibly be more appropriate on the day of my meeting with The Dead Weather?

Having lived with ‘Horehound’, the debut album from this familiar quartet, for some time now, the ominous anticipation and menacing growls I am currently surrounded by is nothing new. The album is similarly brooding: raw, brutal and vicious, it is as unrelenting and delightfully dark as the low-hanging nimbuses over Music City. ‘Horehound’ brims with scuzzy guitars, dirty bass, merciless drums and sinister, beguiling vocals. “I’d like to grab you by the hair,” we’re warned at one point, “and hang you up from the heavens.” Ouch! It’s rough and ready, but it’s also as dominating and audacious as the horizon I’m staring into. It’s the product of four adventurous minds breaking free from their usual regime and exploring the darker side of their art...

The Dead Weather is Jack White (he of White Stripes/Raconteurs fame, but here to be found behind the drums), Alison Mosshart (otherwise known as VV, one half of The Kills, on vocals), Jack Lawrence (AKA Little Jack or LJ, bassist from The Greenhornes and The Raconteurs), and Dean Fertita, on loan from Queens Of The Stone Age, on guitars and keyboards.

The location of our summit is the office of Third Man, White’s own Nashville-based label, which also houses a recording studio, rehearsal space, a photo studio and a shop that sells various White Stripes/Raconteurs/Third Man merchandise. In keeping with Jack’s previous business venture, Third Man Upholstery, in which his staff wore black and yellow uniforms, the label’s home is dressed in similar hues, standing out a mile on a road which also houses a methadone clinic. It’s a mini-empire for like-minded music enthusiasts where nothing stands between you and your art, and where your records can be written, recorded and manufactured within a couple of hours - and blocks! It’s in this familial atmosphere that The Dead Weather were born, and where White continues to create, acting as the crazed architect behind it all, lending his hand and experience to every project that passes through.

Safely ensconced within the lounge, Clash sits opposite three-quarters of the band (Dean’s off to see the doctor) to get to grips with this new incarnation. With the tape rolling, we discuss the principles of prolificness, why modern music sucks, and how the divisions between fantasy and reality are getting ever more blurred...

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Jack, one of the last projects you undertook before The Dead Weather was the Bond theme song, ‘Another Way To Die’, made with Alicia Keys. I imagine that would have had lots of constraints, having to please so many people. Was The Dead Weather a reaction to doing that?

Jack: It definitely coincided with the idea of me playing drums and producing, because that’s what I did on the James Bond song - I started on drums, producing that track. LJ and I went into the studio and did it with drums and bass at first, and then I built on top of that over and over again until Alicia came and then we finished the song together. So, when we started to do this band, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do that again’, because I liked producing from that - because we were just gonna do one of these 7”s like this [points to Third Man 7”s by Mildred And The Mice, Dex Romweber and Rachelle Garniez]. We ended up writing and then it became an album etc, etc, so yeah, it’s directly correlated to the production of that record.

Were you reined in on that song, having to meet specific requirements? Does The Dead Weather make you feel freer?

Jack: Well, they didn’t get specific until after I was done with the song, you know what I mean? When you sit around in meetings, you know? That’s why I don’t get involved too much in film work, because I don’t really want to have to answer to anybody. That was one of the few times where I allowed myself to do that, but it’s not as pleasing as working on your own things. It’s too hard to communicate about music; music isn’t really a product, you can’t really ‘make it better’ if you need to. (Laughs)

How exactly did this band come together? I know The Kills toured with The Raconteurs - was there a moment this thought popped into your heads like, ‘This could work’?

Alison: I just had so much fun on that tour. I just got on the bus with them and came back to Nashville because he [Jack White] said he had a recording studio, like, ‘Why don’t we do something?’ That’s kinda how it happened really.

When you start new projects like this, is there pressure on you to see it through and make it a marketable group, rather than just doing something for fun?

Jack: I think the pressure is to not see it through, really. I mean, of all the things I do and all the things I’m involved in, I think probably the one thing that most people want - label-wise or fan-wise - is for me to go back and be in The White Stripes and just keep doing that. So what happens is I end up pressuring everyone else to let me see it through: ‘Let me do this band right now. I have to. It’s what we need to do.’

How do you balance being prolific, being able to go into the studio and put songs out, without feeling like you’re just giving too much away?

Jack: It’s tough at times. Sometimes you’ll see people who’ll put out way too much music or too many films or something like that and you kinda want them to slow down, but at the same time, you know, the artist isn’t at the service of the people one hundred percent, so you have to do what you have to do. If you’re just doing things to stay afloat, or to make vehicles to propel celebrity or money or all those reasons, then I think it’s really bad. But if everything’s about music... I mean, like these records here [points to Third Man 7”s] that I’ve been working on the last couple of months. I mean, obviously they’re not going to be big sellers - they’re on vinyl, for God’s sake. They won’t get worked at radio, they won’t have videos for them, so they’ll exist in their own realm. I hope those kinds of things come off to people like it’s not a vehicle for anything other than the music itself. I mean, look how simple they are: ‘What can you do? You’ve all got the same background (cover art), you have the same recording equipment, let’s see what you can do.’ In one sense, I almost don’t need to have anything to do with them. I like this; it’s a good spot to be in.

The songwriting process for The Dead Weather was apparently looser than the structured methods you were used to with The Raconteurs. How did the two compare?

Jack: Well, me and Brendan [Benson] were definitely sitting down with instruments like piano and guitar and writing - Brendan was writing a chord change and I’d come up with a middle eight, etc, etc. Alison is a vocalist who’s an incredible lyricist too, and in this band I’m the drummer, so things are kinda going in a bizarre carousel motion. Maybe I’d come and, with the songs I was writing, I’d write some riff on a synthesizer and then let Dean take over and I’d go sit behind the drums, and [Alison] would do what she needs to do. Stuff like that would happen.

Regarding the lyrics, do you think, Alison, what you wrote for The Dead Weather was similar to what you might do for The Kills, or did you enter another mindset to deliberately create something different?

Alison: I think it was different. It’s just like a period of time, you know? I don’t know where all that stuff came from, but I haven’t written a record in ages, so maybe that was kind of a weird stockpile in my brain I didn’t know about. I dunno; I hope it’s different. I hope it’s not exactly the same; that would be tragic.

The looseness of the songs means that there are quite a few mistakes that are audible. Were these left in to make the songs sound honest, or was it a case of just wanting to finish and move onto the next song quickly?

Jack: We were recording at a very low speed on a tape machine, the lowest speed you can record at for this format, and it’s very hard to edit, which is a constraint that I chose for my studio. It would just be an eight-track with that slow speed. So, [the tape] goes by really slow, right, so if you wanted to edit from this point of the song to another point that you did well without the mistake in the middle, it’s an obvious edit the way you cut it. Say the tape was going by very fast, the edit is invisible. So you get to a point where something is in there - and this is the beauty of it - and you’ll leave it in there because it’s too hard to fix. Which wouldn’t happen if you recorded on ProTools - you’d just look at the screen, take your mouse and wipe it off. And that’s why music sucks today! (Laughs) Because everybody’s fixing all those mistakes.

Alison: And it doesn’t sound real. I don’t think there are mistakes [on this album]. I think that’s just the way it happened.

Jack: There’s a new country record by a famous artist right now - I won’t mention their name - but the engineer who worked on that told us that there was four thousand edits per minute - per minute!


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What can you possibly do four thousand times in one minute?

Alison: It’s just warping people’s minds, what they think is good and what they think is a mistake.

LJ: It’s funny cos that song turned out to just sound like R2D2. (All laugh)

I think leaving mistakes in there adds to the whole organic feel of the music.

Alison: I think people can relate to it better because it’s more human. It kinda works better with your brain to hear those things, you take it in better. The stuff that sounds perfect, to me when I listen to it, it just feels like I’m not soaking it in very well; I don’t understand it. I can’t relate to it.

Jack: The last song on the album (‘Will There Be Enough Water’), you can hear crickets coming through the window at night - we were recording late at night. I mean, if we had added that sound of crickets that would have been ridiculous. Even if we had said that out loud: ‘Let’s put crickets on this!’

Alison: (Laughs) ‘What’s wrong with you?’

Jack: But it’s there; it’s real and it’s something you wouldn’t want. I mean, most studios build cinder blocks so that you cannot hear the outside infiltrate, you know? I think those real things, people identify with them.

Does it make it harder for you to be impartial when you’re producing your own material?

Jack: I think from different angles, like being the singer or the performer or the one who’s going to go out and play the guitar solo - or now the drummer - I mean, they’re all different angles to look at as a producer. Sometimes when you’re just the producer it’s a bad place to be when you’re not involved. If I’d done Loretta Lynn’s record [2004’s ‘Van Lear Rose] and I hadn’t actually played on it, it would have sounded different. It would have been a different album altogether. You’re involved, you’re really close to it - sometimes you get too close and it’s a mistake - but if you can find that right spot, you should just be close enough.

When you go home at the end of the night, do you have the producer’s hat on or the musician’s hat on? What are you thinking about?

Jack: It’s just sort of a creator’s hat. That’s it; I mean, all the other things are just words, but you’re just making things happen. And it sort of doesn’t matter how you do it. Sometimes I get like, ‘God, all these things...’ This temple here and the studio itself, they’re all for what? For music to happen. To make music out of. Facilitating the idea of music being created, whoever it is. Sometimes you think, ‘God, is that all this is about? Is this really all this about?’ And it’s not bigger than that. You have to remind yourself that music is bigger than that.

Your studio complex is amazing. It seems like you want it to become this creative hub for musicians. What are your intentions for it?

Jack: It’s just the early days, you know. And in the first couple of months we’ve put out five or six records already. We’re selling them upfront. The three-colour versions we had, there was a line around the block to get those coloured vinyls. I mean, people are getting of their ass, off their chair and putting down their video game and coming to buy vinyl. I mean, we are ecstatic. And it doesn’t matter if we sell five hundred or five thousand of whatever record, it’s happening. So yeah, there’s a lot going on here, and I want it to get even more so in the next couple of years; I want things to expand even more.

And you’re using local businesses in the process, I believe?

Jack: We are, yeah. We press the sleeves on that block (points right), the vinyl’s pressed at United, a couple of blocks that way (points left); we’re doing it all here… this is the right spot. Even in New York or LA, it’s hard to do that.

So what’s the plan for the actual record label, Third Man? Will you be A&Ring different people?

Jack: I think right now I’m trying to see what happens. I just kinda set everything up; I built the studio, I built this trying to find out... ‘Let’s see what happens’. I’m trying to funnel things through the system, and some of these are coming out together just the way I first envisioned. Like, Dexter Romweber came to town, played a show in Nashville. We saw he was coming, so I said, “Can you come and record a seven-inch?” They said yes. They came. We recorded two songs. The next day we shot the photos here, and, within three weeks, this record was done. And that was the first thing I envisioned for this. I don’t know what’s happening; it’s tough to compare to other things. Maybe like Sun Studios or Chess Studios meets Motown meets modern post-punk indie label aesthetic as well. There’s a lot of things floating around. There’s not as many producers actually playing on records for different artists, over and over and over again in this style. And the big thing is it’s single formatted; it’s not album orientated right now.

How about unsolicited material, would you accept things that were sent to you?

Jack: Yeah of course, yeah. I mean, we’re scouting all the time, you know. There’s a team of people who work here that go to a lot of shows too. The great thing is, now that this institution is set up, my eye’s out for things all the time, even more so. I’m paying more attention to music. I’d just lost touch. It’s hard for me to go to shows too. So, this is getting me back into it. It’s about finding a back door into it again.

Are you taking precautions about this album leaking? Are you worried about that at all?

Jack: Those days are over, you know what I mean? Well, what can you do?

It just ruins the element of surprise, doesn’t it?

Jack: That’s all that I care about. That’s the hard part for me, that’s the heartbreaker for me, all the elements of surprise.

LJ: I just can’t find an answer in my head, or talk to anyone and get an answer, but why do people want to ruin the surprise? What is the big deal? Why do they need to know?

Alison: Cos people like having things that other people don’t have. It’s a power thing.

LJ: A surprise is good. It’s nice to be surprised. Just let us surprise you.

Jack: We’re gonna go play Kentucky tonight. Say someone goes to the show tonight, and they love what they hear and they record it. And then the album comes out a month later. “Oh. This sounded better live.” Now they’re comparing the album to the live show that came after the album. We’re already starting to change these songs, you know what I mean? That happened with The Raconteurs. We were changing songs completely before people even heard them, and then it was so comparative. And I’m a victim of it too. Like when I saw the Arctic Monkeys video - it was the first exposure I had to them - for the ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ song, I loved it, you know, and I watched it like three times and I thought, ‘This is incredible’. And then when the album came out I wanted it to sound like it sounded in the video where the drummer sang in the background. So then I started thinking, ‘Well, maybe that was a mistake for that video to be live, because now I’m comparing this album to that. Maybe we shouldn’t do that.’ I don’t know what you’re supposed to do.


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Do you try and keep up with the demand? Do you try and officially leak stuff to prevent anyone else doing it?

Jack: The very frustrating part right now, to be in the music business is… it feels like you have to be… It’s a long explanation to this question. Sorry for just running my mouth here, but let me try and address it, because I think what’s happened here, like, what I’ve built here is the sum of the idea that, ‘Well, it looks like I have no choice. I have to be a salesman of my own art, whether I like it or not.’ Gone are the days where you could just be Johnny Cash, and everybody did everything else for you, and you just stumbled onto stage and sang some songs, then you went home and wrote some more songs.

Now, you get approached like, ‘What kind of live session are you gonna do for iTunes, and what are we gonna leak, and what songs are you putting on MySpace, and we need to give these guys exclusive photos...’ and all that shit that I could care less about, really, you know? So now I’ve sort of been forced to care about it. So, if I’m gonna do it, I better do it well and better be hands-on and really involved in it, thinking that would lower the frustration of all that trickery - which is what I think it is; trickery. Like, give them a free song or give an extra track on iTunes when you buy the album and all that... It’s all desperate trickery to me. We tried it with The Raconteurs’ last album, like, ‘How about we just put out the album? Is that okay? Is that good enough for everybody? Before you even knew we made it, why don’t we just release it and then people can release it afterwards?’

Well, this is where we find out that journalists - excuse me - are not on the same team as musicians and artists. Neither are the VJs or the DJs or the editors - we’re not in the same business. And that’s what I thought; I thought we were all in the same business together, but sadly we’re not. Because it’s the Brazilian journalist who leaked The Shins’ album five months ahead of time. He doesn’t have any respect for The Shins’ music and he doesn’t care, so he’s not on the same team.

The radio station that played [The White Stripes’] ‘Icky Thump’ weeks before it was released and gave it away to everybody - they’re not on the same team as us; they don’t care. So now, what are you supposed to do? Now you’re a singular artist or producer or creator who’s up against your own teammates, you know what I mean? And you’re supposed to take what you can get when they’ll work with you. MTV is not playing videos anymore, so are we supposed to make videos? ‘I thought you guys were called ‘Music Television’?’ ‘Well, we’re not on your team either.’

You’ve covered Bob Dylan’s ‘New Pony’ on the album, which is quite an obscure choice. Why did you choose that?

Jack: I always think when you’ve got a new project or even a new album, one idea I had was to pick a song - any song - and see how the band attacks it. We did it on the last Raconteurs album with ‘Rich Kid Blues’. ‘Let’s see how we play this.’ And how we play it, maybe it will morph into the idea of the mood of the album and something else will appear. So, with this band, we did that [Dylan] song and a Gary Numan song [‘Are Friends Electric’], which I thought was pretty far away from each other. Maybe there will be some middle ground in there; maybe we’ll find some blues out of Gary Numan; maybe we’ll find something modern and rhythmic out of that Dylan song. But then we’ll throw those away and move on. I think they both turned out so well. That’s a live take, that Dylan song. I don’t think any of us would have picked to put that on the album, on paper, but it turned out to have such energy to it because of Alison that it had to go on the record.

The lyrics on the album sound as vicious and raw as the music. Was The Dead Weather a cathartic release for your thoughts?

Alison: It felt good! I mean, writing music is in general. It’s one of those things I have to do.

Are you living your fantasies out through your music?

Alison: I don’t know. I can’t tell the difference anymore.

Do the songs take on a new lease of life when you play them on stage?

Alison: I guess in a way. Performing is a strange thing. I just always love that line between you and everyone else. There’s so much adrenaline and there’s so much to get away with and to do anything you want - there’s no rules anymore. I have to do that. But I guess those songs do change. Sometimes they mean totally different things to me on different stages in front of different people in different rooms.

Is the brutality of The Dead Weather a diversion for you to release some energy by playing things loud?

Jack: It feels different, yeah. It feels like a different territory than we’ve been in before - it feels that way for me. It has strength to it - it’s not feeble.
LJ: It almost feels more natural to be more aggressive at this stage.

You talked about the expectations of your fans - have you read any feedback or anything that’s been said about you thus far?

Jack: There’s a temptation to do a couple of things: there’s a temptation to ignore everything - not read anything, not hear anything and only listen to the faces and the sounds from the crowd on the stage - or there’s a temptation to go the other way and absorb every single thing you can to completely understand the perception of your band. Sometimes it’s hard; sometimes you lose all idea of what the perception of what you do is. It’s impossible to tell. I’ve had backlashes before, and in the middle of a backlash you think it’s a hundred percent against you - everything is. But that’s not really the case, because you walk around outside and people tell you completely differently.

There must be times when you read something critical and realise they’re right and have perhaps gone a step too far.

Jack: The written word is a powerful thing. I think they should start teaching that too, because of how much access young people have to blogging and Twittering and all those things. They should start teaching creative writing classes where they really inform new generations of how powerful the written word is and that it’s a responsibility...

LJ: Because it won’t be. It won’t be powerful in a few years.

Jack: Yeah, they’ll destroy it. You’re right.

Are you intent to make The Dead Weather a success or is the fact that you’re having fun and doing something different more important?

Jack: Because you’re sharing with other people you sort of let them help you decide. If people are digging it and they want it and they want more of it then you’re inclined to want to give more, you know? And if it’s time to pull the curtains closed then you pull the curtains closed. I think everyone informs each other on what’s the thing to do. And especially the music itself - the music has a life to it and you keep going with it. Interview over, the band collect their travel bags and board their big black (of course!) bus that’s taking them to their Louisville gig. Clash stays in Nashville, starting work on this feature and listening over and over again to ‘Horehound’, delving deep inside it. But outside, things are getting heavy. Tornado warnings have been issued and major outdoor events have been evacuated. The Dead Weather may have already split town, but their underlying danger has clearly left its mark. As I hear Jack screaming “Time to manipulate” in ‘Treat Me Like Your Mother’, inciting the song’s savage breakdown, trees bend and break in the cruel wind, while insistent rain lashes down and against my window. It’s like the elements are trying to tell me something. It’s a warning to all: prepare to be blown away.

Words by Simon Harper
Photo by Scarlet Page

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