Jack White talks to Mary Lucia over the phone about his record label (and store) Third Man Records, collaborating with Wanda Jackson, "throwaway" records, and why comedians should record more albums.
Hey Jack how are you doing?
Jack White: Good.
Tell me, let's just assume you have a mission statement for the Third Man Records enterprise. What did you initially think when you started this whole thing? What did you want to do?
It was all baby steps, it wasn't really a big master plan. It sort of fell into itself with tiny steps. But the main thing that became our concern was to get tangible music into people's hands.
Kids would come to shows and we would be selling a vinyl record at the merch table and people would pick 'em up and ask what they were, and it was the saddest thing to all the musicians. We all thought "that's just terrible" and then we would hear these statistics that 97 percent of high school kids have never gone to a stand-alone record store in their lives. It's just very sad.
So when we were opening the label and starting to re-release out of print records of mine -- that was the initial idea -- I said "Why don't we have a record store in front of the shop in case anyone wants to come in, and we'll buzz 'em in and sell them a record?" We thought it would happen a couple times a week or something. But when we opened, we had 300 people every day to shop. So it became a bigger and bigger thing, and the place just expanded from there out. The big mission became to put the tangible music in people's hands.
Did it start with you being a fan of these particular artists that you've been supporting?
I do get offered to work with people a lot, like, produce their records, and things like that. It's not always something I can do. Sometimes it'll be someone I really, really love, and would love to work with, but I don't have the time to work on a whole album.
[So I do] a blues series I did on Third Man, which is people coming through Nashville, and I do just one or two songs with them. I produce one or two songs, and that way we get to work on something as they are coming through town, and it's no big hubbub. If it's something great -- something sparks -- then something more can happen and we get a whole album out of it. Like Wanda Jackson, that's what happened with her.
Did you approach her, or did her people come to you?
No, her people had approached me in just that manner. They were doing an album where every track is a different collaboration. I said I'm not a really a big fan of those kinds of records, they're kind of throwaway, but let's do a single together -- that would be more important -- and we could get Wanda to a new audience through Third Man. And that was great, and the single was great. We ended up and recording six or seven songs the first day with her. So it turned into and album and we ended up doing shows. It was great; it was incredible.
I don't know how familiar she was with you, and everything that you have done, but was she at all nervous about like, "I don't want to change what I actually do. I don't want to change my sound."
Yeah, she was uh... she was worried about a lot of stuff. Like about lyrics and how she would come off. I remember at one point, she turned to me and said 'Jack, you're going to have to paint devil horns on my head on the cover of this album.' She thought the album was so dark. I think we found some middle ground. I think that's what you're supposed to have. You're supposed to have two people who are from different worlds trying to find middle ground. Like if you do rock 'n roll, and you get the famous rock 'n roll producer ...OK, I mean, what do you get when you guys are both swimming the same pool together? You know?
It's interesting when you take people from different directions and try to do something else. I just worked with this bluegrass, kind of ragtime guy named Pokey LaFarge from St. Louis. It was great to bring him in here, and I brought in a flugelhorn player and a clarinet player from the session world of Nashville into it, and we're all working on music together. It doesn't matter what our specialties are, or what we're known for, we're making new music together and that's where something new happens.
How hands-on are you in terms of, especially with the 7", the packaging and aesthetic is really distinctive, how hands-on are you with that stuff?
I like to collaborate with people and work with people. We have photographers and graphic designers at Third Man and everything happens in the building. I just like to nudge people in this direction, like, 'let's go in this direction, and you guys do it.' And people take the reins, and they're happy to take the reins and run with it. I don't like to micro-micro-manage, or anything like that, but it's nice to have an overall idea of what we're doing with each particular record, because it is important to present it in the right way. I mean it's easy to make these records, put them on a vinyl, not tell anybody about it, and it's this underground thing that sells five hundred copies, you know, big deal.
The cooler thing is that me and you can talk to a bigger audience and try to get people interested in, like, this Auctioneer record that just came out this week, and this Amy Walker record about accents. I mean, these are odd records to put out; they're spoken word and instructional, but I think there is beauty to them, and I think that people would really dig them if they put them on. You can also get them digitally on iTunes in the portable version if you can't make it to a record shop and get the vinyl.
Did you ever own any comedy records when you were little?
Oh yeah, lots of 'em. I wish comedians would do it more. You know Bill Cosby, Jonathan Winters and Steve Martin, they just made so many records. You go to a bargain bin at the Salvation Army and you'll see fifteen of those records. I think people should do it more often these days. Comedians should be doing two a year.
I can remember a couple of friends who got to him in the Eddie Murphy Raw cassette. I mean it was like porn. It was the dirtiest...
Yeah, you had to hide that.
Are you seeking bands out, or have you just been deluged with people saying "Please please please put out a 7" for me"?
There's both. It's a record label, and it's a place where people know that musicians are directly involved in that family, so we get lots of demos and things from all over the world. They have to speak to me. Sometimes, like I said, it could be someone I'm in love with or an idol of mine even, who said 'let's do something.' But if I feel like I can't add anything to it, then I won't do it just to do it.
It has to be something that, when I hear it, I know what I could do if we were together in the studio. I know what we could do that they're not doing already. That's what excites me and gets me to want to work with them.
Who is one of the more random people who has approached you to make a record and you had to say "Ah.... I'm busy."?
There's a lot. A lot of people. People that I love -- I mean Dick Dale -- when I was a teenager, I listened to Dick Dale records and copied his guitar playing note-for-note. I just don't know how to present him, so I don't know how to work with him yet. Maybe in a couple of years it will hit me and I'll say "Oh, I know what I can do with Dick Dale."
How much does living in Nashville influence what and how you listen to music?
It makes me comfortable, I know that. You know, I can't live in bigger towns like New York, LA and London. They kind of make me claustrophobic.
And there are certain towns, that if I went to, trying to do an operation like this, it might get kinda chewed-up and spit-out pretty fast. The rock underground and hipsters or whatever would be very anti- within six months, so I was worried about that. Nashville felt like the perfect place to get away with this, you know, and it really has been. I feel as comfortable today as I did five years ago.
What's the longest time you that you've ever actually taken off to do nothing?
I don't know. Not much. When my kids were born, I took a lot of time off... off the road. 10 or 11 months or something when my last boy was born. People go to 9-to-5 jobs and it's such a sad thing when people have a job and are miserable about it. They don't want to get up and go to work. But I don't even feel that. I can look at the clock, and wow, I've been in the studio twelve hours, I didn't even realize it. That tells me I'm doing what I'm supposed to do.
If somebody is a novice to Third Man records, where do they start? What would you suggest?
I would just say you just pick out something. Pick out three things. They're only five bucks a piece or something, it's not that bad of a risk. But the other thing is that a lot of them don't have turntables. Now we're selling turntables that are affordable. Vinyl is the only thing growing in the music industry, the only thing that is growing in sales. The only thing were the numbers are going up. When it comes down to really respecting and loving music, I'm so glad that vinyl is still alive and people really still love it.
So you have never even faltered once as far as losing your passion for music.
I was an assassin there for a few years in the nineties. I can't say I didn't have headphones on while I was doing that. [ Laughs ] I think the mistake to make is when you choose to do something. "I'm going to be a painter and then get a studio in a force myself to paint." I mean, I think you just have to do it because you can't help it.
That shows with the work you've done, and with what you're doing with Third Man as well. I appreciate you taking some time this morning and, again now you have to go, its like night time for you right now... so go to bed. Thank you, Jack!
Thank you, Mary.