Elephant in the Room: White Stripes Hit New York

On Monday, Feb. 17, the White Stripes sat side by side on a French love seat in the Gramercy Park Hotel’s Belle Epoch–style lounge, displaying the lazy élan of royal twins.

Jack White, 27, resembled a punk Lord Byron: ghostly pallor, consumptive eyes, black newsboy cap pulled down over inky locks. Mute, chain-smoking Meg White, 28, looked like an Edward Gorey character with porcelain skin and raven hair. Both wore skin-tight red pants.

Mr. White was explaining why he had dedicated the Stripes’ much anticipated fourth album, Elephant , “to the death of the sweetheart,” as he put it.

“It seemed to keep coming up lyrically when I was writing the songs for this record. They revolve around this sweetheart or gentleman notion. I was coming to terms with a lot of it being very uncool nowadays, or very dead.”

As Ms. White stared silently at her partner, Mr. White complained about 14-year-old girls who are tattooed and pierced, who look like “sailors” and talk the “ghetto” jive of hip hop. “People in other countries make fun of America for that Jerry Springer kind of attitude,” he said. He recalled, with similar indignation, a reality TV show he saw on ABC recently- Are You Hot .

“People come on stage to be judged for 10 seconds and get off-‘Yeah, I give your face a nine, I give your body a six. Goodbye,'” Mr. White said, a look of disbelief flashing across his pale face. “This whole judgment thing is coming down heavy,” he said. There was a little Elvis cornpone creeping into his voice. “I mean, people are really into sitting in their living rooms and just saying, ‘Oh, she’s terrible, she shouldn’t go out with that guy.’ It’s really getting pathetic. Where is that heading?”

It might seem odd for a band that’s been credited with saving rock ‘n’ roll to be obsessing about the end of courtship in America, but it’s not really. For all of their modernity, the White Stripes have always been a little bit old-fashioned, both with their art and their hype. Their music is an utterly convincing aw-shucks-look-what-we-just made-up-style rock, blues and folk that can clang with punk bravado or resonate like a gospel field recording.

Meanwhile, they have maintained an air of mystery and coquettishness that’s part Victorian, part Warholian. The media is still not sure whether they’re brother and sister, as they claim, or ex-husband and wife, as Time magazine reported as early as June 2001. When The Observer asked the duo if they are related, they both laughed knowingly and said in unison: “Of course!”

It’s a pretty smart tack to take when you’re dealing with a puritanical media that will judge you a nine one day, a three the next-spin ‘em like a pinwheel.

Who’s Dave Eggers?

Clearly, Mr. White has a Dave Eggers flair for grass-roots integrity and P.T. Barnum showmanship. The whole concept of a brother and sister who make classic rock with only guitar and drums and who wear only red-and-white uniforms might have seemed hokey, but instead they appear to have split the rock ‘n’ roll atom: their breakout album, 2001’s White Blood Cells , sold 600,000 copies-not too shabby for a former furniture upholsterer and his “sister” from hard-scrabble Detroit.

His latest down-home concept was to release 500 advanced copies of Elephant -which will be officially released on April 15- to critics on vinyl only. “Any journalist who didn’t own a record player, we didn’t want them writing about us,” he said. “The first time you listen to it, you couldn’t just walk around and do laundry or whatever. Every few minutes you had to flip the side.

“It became an event ,” Mr. White said.

At one point, the album was selling on eBay for $399, which generated stories in publications that might not have paid a lot of attention to the White Stripes.

Even Mr. Eggers is interested. Mr. White was also scheduled to be interviewed by the McSweeney’s founder for a magazine that Mr. Eggers is launching called The Balloonist -a sort of younger, hipper Harper ‘s for the winsome set.

Mr. White, however, didn’t seem to know who Mr. Eggers was.

“Dave Eggers … ?”

“The guy who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius ,” his publicist told him.

“Oh, O.K.,” he said. He still didn’t know.

There are some who might say that Mr. White shares something with Mr. Eggers: The desire to be an antidote to the big, greedy, sin-filled world-Jack White is pure of heart! “Storytelling-wise, it’s just getting honest about things,” he said. “Maybe a lot of artists or writers or poets or whatever, maybe they find humor in the relaxation of rules and ethics. They find some humor in it. I just don’t think it’s funny. I don’t think it’s cool to not have morals. I don’t think it’s cool to just forget everything.”

When Mr. White spoke about old-fashioned stuff like morals, he seemed to be going into character, as if he were a preacher or an old blues man-or “Jack White,” the self-styled persona he adopts in blues numbers. “People think of how a family was in the 1940’s,” he said at one point during the interview. “‘Oh, it was terrible because of religion and there was an ogre for a father yelling at everybody’ or whatever. They’re picking out all the bad qualities and saying, ‘We’ve improved, we’ve advanced.’ But perhaps those ways were closer to natural instincts about what it means to be male, what it means to be female, what it means to be a father or a mother.

“When these natural instincts start to get denied too much,” he said, “you start saying, ‘That’s not truth any more. It’s just not honest.’ What are those things? What is male? What is female? What is natural? Those kind of questions are important.”

Blood of the Lamb

On the upcoming record, Mr. White is full of this kind of fire-and-brimstone. The 14 songs on Elephant dig deeper into the epic language of the crossroads-old-school blood-of-the-lamb stuff-to cast out devils, curse enemies, defy gossips and cope with love and women. “It’s quite possible that I’m your third man, girl,” Mr. White sings on the track “Ball and Biscuit,” “but it’s a fact that I’m the seventh son.”

This might seem like some bad white-boy aping if Mr. White didn’t win you over by immediately dropping the heaviest fuzz-rock riff this side of Hendrix while yelling, “Now, lookout!”

The songs on Elephant -recorded in April of 2002 in London, held until now because White Blood Cells was still burning off the shelves-are more sophisticated than Mr. White’s past efforts. There are more chords, more guitar solos, more notes , and the results are not as obviously radio-friendly as, say, ” Fell in Love with a Girl,” the group’s punk-pop hit of 2001.

With fewer straight-ahead hooks, Mr. White takes bigger risks with the simple combo. “There’s No Home for You Here,” the third song, has a multitracked chorus right out of a Queen song, and “I Want to Be with the Boy … ” is a white-soul piano ballad that sounds like Small Faces –era Rod Stewart. There’s a Johnny-and-June-type song with British folk-popster Holly Golightly and Ms. White that play up the brother/sister/ex-wife conundrum. “Well it’s true that we love one another,” the Whites sing in unison, to an acoustic guitar and tambourine. Then Ms. Golightly chimes in: “I love Jack White like a little brother.”

Ms. White even sings a song, a winsome flower of a song called “In the Cold, Cold Night.”

The band’s last album adhered to a kind of self-imposed Sharia Law of rock: no bass guitar, no guitar solos, no cover songs. The result was rock ‘n’ roll with a kind of righteous purity, one in which Mr. White sang of the “Holy Ghost,” of wanting to get married “in a big Cathedral by a priest.” (Before that, their second album was called De Stijl , after the Dutch art movement that adhered to principles of simplicity.)

On Elephant, however, the first thing you hear on the record is the thudding of a bass guitar and a drum beating out a sort of dance rhythm. What gives? Mr. White said the self-imposed rules came and went from album to album-he’s not married to them. “I finally relaxed those rules,” he said. “I don’t know why.”

But with Mr. White, nothing is as it appears. The bass note heard on the song-“Seven Nation Army,” the first single-is actually something called an octave guitar, a plain old six-string with a bass string on it. It eventually unfolds into a heavy slide blues-rock thing, in which Mr. White promises to ditch the scene for “Wichita, far from this opera forever more.”

K-Rock Culture

Mr. White said the band’s recent fame has brought him in closer contact with the detested Are You Hot minions than he’d ever expected. He said it took some time, for example, to navigate the MTV and K-Rock culture, what with glossy hucksters clawing for a piece of him. “It was a lot of learning,” said Mr. White. “It was us jumping into a world that, No. 1, we never thought we’d be in, and No. 2, never wanted to be in, really. So it was a point where we were forced to like, ‘O.K., here’s all this opportunity and chance and money right here for you, do you want it?'”

As it happens, the answer was yes. White Blood Cells broke first in the U.K., where the music press makes an incredible din. “After our initial anger for having all this press attention in England that we thought was going to destroy us, we said to ourselves, ‘Well, we have to embrace it and make it work for us, and manipulate it to our advantage to make it work, because if not it’s just going to just ruin the band and we’re going to break up in two months.'”

That meant resisting a lot of temptation-including a reported $1 million offer from the Gap to shill blue jeans. “There’s been tons of things: beer commercials, video-game scores and movie soundtracks-it just never stopped,” Mr. White said. “It starts to get really weird when these money amounts, they start adding up in your brain, you’re like, ‘This is disgusting.’ I mean, I can’t believe these corporations are like, ‘O.K., what’s the hip new band? Yeah, White Stripes, let’s get them on the commercial. Give ‘em a million dollars.'”

But Mr. White said that he didn’t exactly enjoy playing integrity cop either. “I started to feel like a real jerk about it,” he said, “because I start thinking, ‘Who do you think you are to turn down that kind of money?’ or, ‘Who do you think you are that you’re better than that or you’re too good to do this?'”

Ms. White, who’d sat silently smoking-and coughing-for most of the interview, suddenly spoke up. “It just takes constant vigilance to know what you should do and what you shouldn’t,” she said. “Some things are really obvious. It takes a lot of thought to decide what you should do and what you shouldn’t do and still maintain some kind of respect for yourself.”

‘Garage Rock’ Jeans

One thing Mr. White did seem to enjoy about his newfound fame was the power to manipulate the media-or at least watch his influence grow with simple gestures. He recalled seeing some “garage-rock-cut jeans” at a local mall that he said were directly inspired by an interview he gave in England. “That’s why it’s on there right now,” he said. “We were laughing but we also thought it was pathetic. But what are you going to do? Andy Warhol would have thought that was funny.”

Mr. White also claimed to have christened the new “garage rock” revival. He said he dubbed it so in an interview in London in the fall of 2001. “All of a sudden, after I said that, everybody was ‘garage rock’-the Vines, the Strokes-that was all ‘garage rock.’ When we came home, us and our friends were laughing because we always thought of garage rock as the Sonics and the Gories. Now it’s this global term for anything that’s happening in rock ‘n’ roll now.”

If there’s one thing that might preserve the White Stripes when the garage-rock revival goes the way of bubble-gum pop-and really, can it be long now?-it’s their distinction as genuinely great practitioners of a broader sort of Americana-Mr. White’s blues and country and folk and punk and rock are all meshed together by his cheap, fuzzed-out guitar. It’s in their simple guitar-drum setup that they keep finding the common DNA that connects styles and sets them into a sort of monochromatic stone. It also helps that Mr. White has a soulful yelp and can tear up on the guitar.

On Elephant, Mr. White said he’d been digging deeper into the same few influences he’s always looked to, from early blues to Cole Porter, plumbing them for their traditional “notions.” “I always feel like I don’t know enough about the songs from the 20’s,” he said. “I don’t know enough about Cole Porter, I don’t know enough about Irving Berlin. I always feel that way. Or how much I love Johnny Cash and someone brings up some song that I don’t know and I feel like, ‘Why don’t I know everything by Johnny Cash by heart?’

“But that’s good, it keeps me alive,” Mr. White said as Ms. White sucked on her umpteenth Camel. “A lot of musicians would just ignore that fact and not care about the past or the tradition they’re joining. I like joining this tradition and I like paying my respects and my dues to the people who did it better and not pretend that we exist in a vacuum or that we’re completely original-I think it’s ignorant.”

Then he added: “It’s like not thanking God for things that happen.”