The Great White Way

Stuffed elk, vintage gear, vicious guitar solos and other obsessions: Inside the private world of Jack White

White in Nashville in May
Mark Seliger
By Jonah Weiner
Jun 11, 2014

TOWARD THE SHADY WESTERN EDGE OF JACK WHITE'S seven-acre Nashville estate, between his tennis court and his grand white-and-red brick house, lies a row of outbuildings where he spends much of his time. At the far end is White’s recording studio, which has only two rooms: one for the musicians, one for the engineer. “I wanted it small,” White says. “When we’re working, I want everyone close, focused, feeling like we’re in it together – you can’t wander off somewhere and surf the Internet.” Everything inside has an unlikely story attached. The 16-track Neve mixing console, the controls of which are labeled entirely in Afrikaans? “That came from a TV studio in South Africa,” White says. “Sixteen tracks is small, but we like to keep things simple.” The enormous beast mounted to one wall? “That’s a white elk,” he says. White has long been a taxidermy enthusiast but says, “I could never go hunting and kill something. I look at it kind of like I’m rescuing these animals, giving them someplace dignified to go.” A disco ball twinkles- above the elk’s antlers like a glam halo; it was a rescue too. “That belonged to Johnny Cash – it was just sitting crammed into a storage unit down here, gathering dust,” White says.

In 2012, during gaps in touring, White holed up here with members of his two backing bands – the all-male Buzzards and the all-female Peacocks – and bashed out songs for his bracing new solo album, Lazaretto. Over the subsequent year and a half, he refined the songs: adding new elements, overdubbing, stitching together takes. It felt like an eternity for the guy who, as one-half of The White Stripes – the epochal blues-rock band he formed with his ex-wife Meg White – made the raucous White Blood Cells in a week and its blockbuster successor, Elephant, in two. “I thought, ‘How about the challenge of working on something for a long time?’ ” White, 38, says. “ ‘Can you make it hard?’ instead of, ‘I’ll come in for 20 minutes, then go on vacation.’” Ideas for new melodies occurred to him so frequently that, rather than recording them, he started sitting with a guitar or at a piano, trying to commit the notes to memory. “That helps filter out the garbage,” White says, “because if I can’t remember it, it wasn’t that good in the first place.”

White’s chosen hue as a solo performer is blue, but right now he’s wearing brown Levi’s, brown suede motorcycle boots and a black henley shirt buttoned all the way up. At an imposing six feet two, he could almost head-butt the elk. He’s waiting for an engineer named Josh to show up and help mix a Lazaretto outtake that will land on some future release. The album itself is done, touring to promote it won’t start for a few weeks, and White’s other bands – the power-poppy Raconteurs and the moody, scabrous Dead Weather – are on hiatus. But he gets antsy if he’s not occupied. Whether it’s tugging at his twisty chin-length hair, lighting up the Al Capone cigarillos he keeps close by or noodling on his guitar, White likes having something to occupy his hands, and his brain works the same way. “The other day,” he says, “I saw photography of radios being played in prisons in the 1930s, and I started digging online,- trying to figure out what the wattage was that could carry that kind of volume throughout a prison system.” Six hours later, he was still chasing links: “That’s what a photograph does to me!”

It’s a gorgeous spring day in Nashville. Red and white flowers bob in the breeze along White’s driveway, and a red-tailed hawk circles overhead. “We’ll get a pileated woodpecker here about once a year,” he says. This is White’s Xanadu: a sprawling- sanctuary within whose fenced perimeter he can optimize, tweak and color--coordinate nearly every last square inch of space. Having spearheaded the garage-rock renaissance of the early 2000s, established himself as one of the all-time-great guitarists and packed arenas across the globe without so much as a bassist, White is content, at this point in his career, to burrow deep into his own obsessive world and let the faithful follow, or not. A lazaretto is a place for lepers, and it’s clear that, for all of his success, White still regards himself as an outcast. “I was never trying to get approval,” he says. “I was doing the things I needed to do. Sometimes you get approval, sometimes not, and you keep on trucking.”

White frowns. Josh still hasn’t arrived. “Change of plans,” he says, leading me to another building, this one painted black and yellow. “I’m gonna teach you how to reupholster a stool.” He throws open his workshop door and crosses the sawdust--covered floor. The centerpiece of the room is a worktable he built in 1996, in his native Detroit, a year before starting The White Stripes. White, then 21, thought he might carve out a career as an upholsterer. An Orson Welles devotee and, he says, the third upholsterer to come from his block, he called his furniture-repair shop Third Man and decided that every last element – uniform, delivery van, invoices – would be black and yellow, just like his power tools. Upholstering never lost its fascination for White. “Each piece of furniture poses its own set of problems,” he explains. “You’ll get to what you think is the end of a job, and suddenly there’s something you didn’t expect that you’ve got to figure out.” A red iPod sits on a shelf, shuffling between some of White’s gods: The Stooges, The Beatles, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan. The last, having befriended White, is among the dignitaries who’ve visited this place. “Bob likes workshops,” White says, picking up a mallet.

On tour and online, White hunts for vintage pieces: “I’ll go on eBay, use a fake name,” he says. He gestures toward six bar stools he recently bought from a Kentucky antique shop. He thinks the red--vinyl cushion covers are an eyesore, so he’s replacing them with pool-table felt. He hands me the mallet and a tack puller and sets me to work dislodging the vinyl from one cushion, staple by staple. “See that cover underneath the vinyl?” he says, like a giddy archaeologist. “And beneath that, where they used tacks? That’s probably from the Sixties, and that’s probably from the Forties.”

A guy with a cutoff T-shirt, deep suntan and thick Southern accent steps into the workshop. “Hey, Art!” White says. Art is a house painter and craftsman, finishing a job somewhere else. He’s mislaid a drill. “You can borrow mine,” White says. Art says the job has been tricky: “It’s hard to know with that eucalyptus wood when it’s ready for a third coat.” “Yeah,” White replies, happy to talk shop. “The paint just kind of sits on there, huh?” Art heads off with the drill, and White returns to the lesson, showing me how to: slice a new foam-rubber cushion with an electric saw; pin, measure and cut a square of felt with scissors the size of a broadsword; tug the felt tight to the cushion and shape it with my palm, like a potter – “no pleats, no puckering” – and then staple the fabric, patiently and precisely. “OK, we left a little dimple there,” White says. “Let’s redo that last one.” He inspects the finished product. “Looking slick!” he declares. He scrawls “Jack White III” in pencil on the wooden underside and hands it over: “Sign it.”

This is an extract. To read the full story, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone Middle East

Latest News