Clash’s editor Simon Harper in conversation with The Dead Weather – the full transcript (part one, part two HERE) from our current issue’s cover feature.
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One of the last projects undertaken 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 White: 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 other Third Man 7”s). 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?
JW: 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, you know, to fight for that experience, 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) It’s hard for me to say, ‘That needs to be twenty seconds shorter’ or something; I don’t really know how to live in that ideal, it’s not really my world, but I enjoyed trying it out and seeing what it’s like.
How exactly did the 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 Mosshart: I just had so much fun on that tour. I just got on the bus with them and came back to Nashville because he [White] said he had a recording studio, like, ‘Why don’t we do something?’ That’s kinda how it happened really.
How long did it take for the songs to get together?
AM: Well, we wrote and recorded the record in twenty-one days. Is that long? (Laughs)
Alison, you wrote most of the lyrics on the album. Did it feel strange presenting or performing your lyrics in front of your new bandmates?
AM: What do you mean?
After having worked with Jamie in The Kills for so long, now you have three strangers to write for.
AM: I hadn’t thought about it. I dunno. I always just expect if something is really bad someone will just tell me…
Surely that doesn’t happen?
AM: No, it does. (Others laugh) Jamie’s like, ‘No, I don’t think so’, and I’m like, ‘Okay.’ But that didn’t happen on this record. (Laughs)
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?
JW: I think the pressure is to not see it through, really – if there is any at all. 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. That’d be the only pressure I’ve ever really sensed around. 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.’
Was anything discussed before you guys got together?
JW: No, it really wasn’t. The funny thing is the same thing happened with The Raconteurs; the way they just came together naturally, it’s almost like you can’t even tell people that because they think you’re lying. But I’m so proud of that. I’m so proud that we didn’t sit down with paper… And I always make a joke that if I did I would never have picked these guys! (Laughs)
Jack Lawrence: You always say that? I’ve never heard you say that.
JW: Yeah, I always say that. (Laughs) But you know what I mean? If you did do that, for example, it would be a mistake. ‘I’m gonna have this guy from this band and that guy from that band…’ You’d end up with Band Aid or something; ‘We Are The World’.
So it was all pretty organic?
JW: I guess that’s the word, yeah.
Do you think the band works well together because your styles are so similar, or because you’re so different?
JW: I think we sort of float around… I think we’re like from different households but we live in the same neighbourhood.
Will The Dead Weather always be the same band or might it be an evolving group that could change?
JL: You mean different in the line-up? I don’t think so.
JW: I never liked when bands do that. It always feels like it’s cheating.
AM: It’s just a different band really, isn’t it?
JW: I still haven’t been in that position yet, where someone replaced somebody. I can’t imagine what it would be like though.
JL: It’s weird.
JW: It seems like it would be strange, yeah.
How might the music progress? Does this album, ‘Horehound’ (REVIEW), just represent the fledgling Dead Weather?
JW: We just finished recording three new songs yesterday, and we’ve written a couple more for the next album, whatever that’s gonna be – whenever that’s gonna be. It’s already changing; it’s already going into something else, and I don’t know where that’s going. I think this sort of feels the way that we didn’t talk about how the songs were going to sound or what kind of style the band would have, so this is how the first album sounds. And I love that. I love that idea of, ‘Wow, this is what happens when you don’t talk about it and just do it.’ This is what the four of us would sound like. That’s what it is. I think if you went back in time, I don’t think The Stooges said: ‘We’re gonna do this, this and this.’ They just did it.
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?
JW: 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, 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.
You’ve talked before about the juxtaposition between the structured songwriting process of The Raconteurs with the looser process of The Dead Weather. How did the two compare?
JW: 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, et cetera. 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 [Fertita] take over and I’d go sit behind the drums, and she would do what she needs to do. Stuff like that would happen.
So the songs were kinda like a patchwork – anybody could come in and add something new?
JW: Yeah. If anybody had an idea, we would just…
AM: But everything kinda got worked just by everyone playing it once, all the time. We didn’t really ever go back and change too much. Even the next day. It was really quick.
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?
AM: 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?
JW: 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 edits, it 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.
AM: 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.
JW: 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!
What can you possibly do four thousand times in one minute?
AM: It’s just warping people’s minds, what they think is good and what they think is a mistake.
JL: It’s funny, because 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.
AM: 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.
JW: 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!’
AM: (Laughs) ‘What’s wrong with you?’
JW: 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.
I think there’s also interference from a mobile phone at one point too.
AM: Dean! (All laugh) Him and his fucking iPhone!
JW: That’s so funny because last night I was mixing that [song, ‘New Pony’] and I thought, ‘No one’s noticed that.’ Congratulations! When we were editing, we had the choice of editing that out, and we left it in there.
No, it’s good. It’s the juxtaposition of the old Dylan song with the new technology.
JW: Yeah, exactly. It’s very modern.
Does it make it harder for you to be impartial when you’re producing your own material?
JW: 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 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?
JW: 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.
Does Jack boss you around when he’s the producer?
AM: (Laughs) No. You don’t boss us around, do you?
JW: I have too much guilt! I’m too polite! (Laughs)
AM: We boss you around, actually!
JW: That’s actually my big flaw as a producer: I’m too polite to tell engineers, ‘That’s crap. I don’t like that’. I’ll sit there like, ‘Okay. Good.’ And I’ll wait a long time before I finally nix it.
AM: You did try to make me sing at six hundred miles an hour yesterday and I refused.
JW: (Laughs) But I wouldn’t call that ordering you.
AM: (Laughs) Anyway, I was right. It’s impossible!
JW: She was right; we couldn’t do it. Next time.
Your Third Man studio complex here in Nashville is amazing. It seems like you want it to become this creative hub for musicians. What are your intentions for it?
JW: 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 vinyl releases. I mean, people are getting of their ass, off their chair and putting down their video game and coming to buy vinyl – 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?
JW: 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. After I bought it, I thought, ‘Man, I hope this is the right spot,’ but it really ended up being that way. It’s tough to do in some towns, where you can have all that right next to you like that. Even in New York or LA, it’s hard to do that.
You guys have all been on indie labels – White Stripes/Raconteurs on XL and The Kills on Domino – so perhaps you’re used to this kind of home-grown process?
AM: None of them operate like this. All labels pretty much operate the same now, much like major labels. There’s not massive amounts of difference. This has been an incredible experiment. This is probably more like something that happened a long time ago, you know?
So what’s the plan for the actual record label, Third Man? Will you be A&Ring different people?
JW: 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 they were 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. So, I produced it – I actually ended up singing on this record, but I was just gonna produce and maybe play bass or something for him. But he wanted to do a duet as well, so we did that. So 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. I don’t know. 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?
JW: 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 was looking at, a couple of months ago, I picked up a copy of NME and I didn’t know any band in the entire magazine, and I thought, ‘Wow, things have changed.’ I used to know every single artist in a magazine like this, like in 2003. And now, I’ve 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.
Like you’re fine-tuning that quality control?
JW: Yeah, we’ll just try a lot of things. I mean, some things might be a disaster, but there might be one masterpiece that comes in the next year. Who knows? We’ve just gotta keep trying.
Do you think that the 360 model is the future for what labels have to do – getting back to basics?
JW: They’re desperate right now, you know? They’re trying a lot of things to stay afloat, because they’re very close to going out of business.
How does releasing on this label affect your contracts with other labels? Are you licensed to do stuff with Third Man?
JW: The band is signed to Third Man, yeah.
How does this affect the other bands?
JW: You just work out deals; you figure out some way of, you know… So we’re all on different things, but it’s okay. It benefits for everybody.
Third Man is going to be going through Sony Music. Is that the first time you’ve gone through a major label?
JW: It’s tough to define ‘major’. I mean, not really. We have gone through them before. I mean, say XL: they’re an independent, but they’re gigantic. The Prodigy went to number one in fifty countries or something. I mean, is that a major or not? I don’t know. Warner Brothers, I’ve been doing the last couple of records through. But they’re all Third Man, and then they get sent and they distribute them out there. But it all starts here.
And how do you choose who you want to use? Do you look at what the benefits are?
JW: I don’t know. I just think we finish a product here, and we walk out with that finished product. That product never comes back. We just get told if we need to change it. And then when the album’s done, we hand it to either Sony or Warner Brothers, and say, ‘Okay, here, now go sell it to everybody,’ you know? It’s their job now. If it came back and they said, ‘Sorry, you need to change this, and this song, and change the title of the album,’ and all that, then it wouldn’t fly. That’s not what we wanna do, so we’ll just put it out ourselves.
So do you think Third Man has this key to success that other people should take on board?
JW: It’s a fortunate place to be. It’s hard to get to, you know what I mean? When you’re an up-and-coming artist and the label says, ‘We wanna sign you, but it’s gonna be a 360 deal. We’re gonna take part of your merch, and part of your live thing, and we’re gonna sign you for an eight-album deal in an exclusive contract.’ I mean what are you gonna do?
AM: Your life is over. (Laughs)
JW: It’s a hard choice, you either take it or don’t. It depends on where you go. I mean, we got lucky back in the day, when I was sort of maybe even naïve, telling people no. White Stripes were blowing up and I was telling people, ‘No, we don’t wanna sign with you unless we get exactly what we want.’ I mean, I could have blown it. Looking back, we said no to some pretty big things that we could smack ourselves for, but we got fortunate in the end.
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