FeaturesWritten by David James Young on April 18, 2019
Somewhere between the rise of the White Stripes and the arrival of The Dead Weather, a restless Jack White formed the band whose name changes depending on where you’re talking about them. To most of the world, the quartet are known as The Raconteurs – they of ‘Steady As She Goes’ fame, primarily a songwriting collaboration between White and multi instrumentalist Brendan Benson. Due to a unique bit of copyright on behalf of an Australian jazz act, however, they are known exclusively in Australia as The Saboteurs. You know how we’re the only place in the world that has Hungry Jack’s instead of Burger King? It’s like that.
Still, a rose by any other name would still draw as much blood – which is exactly what the band did across two hard-hitting and slick rock records, Broken Boy Soldiers and Consolers of the Lonely. For nearly a decade, however, the project lay dormant – never proclaimed dead, but never showing any signs of life. In the last six months, however, the gears have started to shift and the wheels have regained motion – not long after releasing two new songs, the band announced the imminent release of their third album Help Us Stranger, not to mention a world tour that would include – of course – a visit to Australia as a part of the 30 the annual Bluesfest in Byron Bay.
So, how did White and co. get themselves back on the level after years in exile? Ahead of their Australian shows, we spoke to Jack White himself about the return, his own musical legacy and whether or not Donovan will hear their album.
Music Feeds: We’ve caught you during rehearsals for the tour – how’s everything sounding?
Jack White: It’s sounding incredible. It’s been interesting – we’re going to be playing new songs for the first time on thus run, so we’re listening back to the recordings. Essentially, we have to re-learn how to play the songs. When you’re working on them in the studio, you build and you build and you build. When you go back, you have to figure out how you’re gonna play them. That’s keeping us busy along with re-learning all the old songs, too. It’s refreshing, y’know? It feels like starting over.
MF: You’ve had Dean Fertita play with you in the past as an auxiliary live member. Is he returning for this tour?
JW: He is! Luckily, he doesn’t have a Queens of the Stone Age record coming out this year, so we’ve been fortunate enough to steal him away for our own usage. We’re very excited to have him on board – he’s a busy man, and he’s quite the hot player.
MF: It feels as though things have escalated quickly in regards to The Saboteurs’ comeback. Was there ever a stage in the intervening years between the band going on hiatus and making Help Us Stranger that you’d considered that maybe the band would never return?
JW: I mean, the band technically never broke up. We’ve all just had so many other things going on. Our bassist, LJ [AKA Little Jack Lawrence] has been playing in City & Colour. Patrick, our drummer, has been on tour with The Afghan Whigs. Brendan’s been making solo records. I’ve been making solo records. The Dead Weather came back for a couple of years in there, too. None of us have been slacking off or anything, it was just so hard to find a time to get all four of us back into a room again. It took a lot longer than we thought it was gonna, but I’m so happy that we found the time to do it.
MF: You only just put out your third solo album, Boarding House Reach, last year. Was that written in tandem with Help Us Stranger, or one after the other? How far back does this new Saboteurs record go?
JW: Y’know, it’s funny… I had this one song that I’d written for Boarding House Reach that I was playing with my backing band in Los Angeles. When I listened back to the recording, I couldn’t help but think “Man, this sounds like a Saboteurs song.” I called up the guys, and I told them we should get in the studio and record it ourselves. That wasn’t the impetus for us to get back together, but it did spark what happened next. When we were all in the same room, Brendan told me he’d been writing songs too. We started going back and forth again, and soon enough we were all bringing in ideas. What started as this one-off thing ended up snowballing into something bigger – it was nice.
MF: Is that your instinctual response when you hear back a song that you’ve written? Given you’ve had so many projects over the years, do you envision where the song will end up – and in whose hands?
JW: I try not to do that at the start of writing songs. I do my best to try and not tell songs what to do. I just let it come out, and maybe then it can figure out what kind of song it wants to be. Maybe it’s a little more dramatic – a film score, perhaps. Maybe it feels like a Dead Weather song. I don’t like to get into that until I feel like a song’s done, though. Funnily enough, going back to doing a solo song that sounded like the Saboteurs… there was a song I wrote for this record that we tried together and it ended up sounding like a Jack White song. [laughs] That didn’t work at all, but I still really liked it. Maybe that’ll lead to something else a little further down the track.
MF: It’s interesting to talk about certain sounds and certain songs that you come to associate with various bands and projects. Do you feel as though The Saboteurs, for better or worse, have a sonic palette attached to it?
JW: I think that seems to be the case, yeah. It’s especially apparent when Brendan and I write together. When we write on our own, it’s very different. It’s all about what happens when one brings a song in and the other one helps to complete it. A song might be 80% me or 80% Brendan, but the 20% is where it all changes. We each bring our own elements in the production and the writing process, the layering and the building. You’re working together as a band. There’s all these different steps you can take, and it really makes you appreciate how many different lives a song can have.
Songwriting is really interesting. It shouldn’t be a burden, and it’s too bad when it is. Sometimes, you just build and build into these giant songs that make them so big that it’s impossible to find how to perform them in a way that makes sense. I don’t feel like writing with Brendan is ever a burden – more often than not, it’s a beautiful thing.
MF: What do you feel it is about Brendan as a songwriter that allows the two of you to work so well together?
JW: You know what it is? It’s the differences between the two of us. Brendan and I have a bit in common – we’re both from Detroit – but we’ve always been very different people. He’s an only child, and I grew up in a huge family. He was always a solo singer-songwriter before we formed The Saboteurs, whereas I had been in a tonne of different bands. I didn’t even make a solo record until 2012! We’ve always thrived in different musical environments, but we see things that we like in one another’s work. It continues to be a fruitful working relationship, which is a very nice thing to have.
MF: Back to Help Us Stranger – was there anything about this record in particular that you wanted to get out creatively or artistically that perhaps you hadn’t been able to with Broken Boy Soldiers or Consolers of the Lonely?
JW: On my last solo record, I did a lot of wild experiments where I took my music to places it had never been before. I painted myself into a corner and figured out how to fight my way out of it, which is a technique I’ve used in the past. It was a little bit refreshing to just be in a room with three other guys and that’s the guys you’re in a band with. I hadn’t made a record like that in awhile. It also just felt like good timing to do this – we’re at a point in time where it just seems like there’s not that many rock & roll bands out there. I mean that in the sense of ones that are capturing people’s attention. For us, that felt like an invitation: Why don’t we make a rock & roll record that we would want to hear right now? We made the push to try and create something that we ourselves would want to go out and buy. It was a really cool way for us to inspire ourselves.
MF: Help Us Stranger is all new original songs, with one exception: A cover of ‘Hey Gyp’ by Donovan. You’re no stranger to covers yourself – what prompted the decision that Donovan would get the Saboteurs treatment?
JW: I’ve done this a lot in different projects, just to break the ice and ease the tension. I take a song that we like and perform it together – never with the intention of putting it on the album, but just to get the ball rolling.
It’s a cool thing to do, but the only drawback is that we get so excited about our version we have to include it on the album. It’s happened with all of my projects – there was ‘I’m Shakin” on my album Blunderbuss, ‘New Pony’ on the first Dead Weather record [2009’s Horehound] and ‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself’ for The White Stripes before that. Going into this record, I never would have thought in a million years that ‘Hey Gyp’ would end up on it. As it turned out, it ended up being exactly the way we wanted it to sound.
MF: Have you sent it off to the man himself for approval?
JW: You know what? I haven’t, actually. I’ve never met Donovan. I would love to meet him – maybe now I can. You never know. [laughs]
MF: This year marks two pretty significant milestones for you personally. The first is the 10-year anniversary of Third Man Records – at least in a brick-and-mortar sense. You established this space in Nashville, which has since turned into a studio and venue as well as a record store. This was all new territory for you – how did you come to navigate it?
JW: It was all baby steps. Just asking things like “Why don’t we try and do this?” and “What happens if we try that?” We were very lucky that a lot of things worked. We created a live venue, a straight-to-acetate studio behind it and a record shop in the front. To this day, we only sell the records that we produce in there. It’s amazing that enough people buy them that we can keep the doors open. It’s a lovely thing, and it’s gone on to be even more things as well. We have Third Man Books now. We have poetry readings. We have nights where we show avant-garde films.
The things we’ve been involved with in the last decade have just been so numerous. We’ve put out 600 records in 10 years. That’s incredible. I never would have imagined this would have happened when we first bought that building. I was just trying to find a place to store my equipment. [laughs]
MF: This year also marks 20 years since the release of the self-titled White Stripes album. This was your first proper LP, and you’ve gone on to make over a dozen more with all of your different bands and projects. How do you reflect on what The White Stripes means to you now?
JW: I really love it. I put a lot into that record – I honestly thought it was the only album I would ever get the chance to make a record. Coming from Detroit, and the environment I was in, those opportunities didn’t present themselves all that often. I figured I’d just go back to being an upholsterer for the rest of my days, and one day I’d be a grandpa and show the kids the one album I got to make. Of course, that’s not what happened – I was very lucky in the sense that everything snowballed from there. I got to make another record, and another and another. I got to join another band, and then join another band, and I made records with them too. It all came back to this record, which is just so raw and so Detroit sounding. It’s a real garage rock record – I love it so much.
MF: You’ve made records as a frontman, a sideman, a bandleader, a producer, a co-writer and a guest musician. You’ve been able to approach a myriad of albums from all angles. From The White Stripes to Help Us Stranger, what do you feel is the most important thing you’ve learned about making records in that 20 years?
JW: It’s about knowing your mindset and your position. I used to have this thing where I didn’t want to learn about gear at all – I didn’t know want to know the names of compressors and reverb units too much. I just wanted to know a little bit – enough to know what I like. Eventually, I built my own studio in Nashville, and once you do that you have to start getting a bit more involved. You try to get everything that you want that’s going to be perfect for different acts and your own different ideas. I try not to get too obsessed – I don’t want to be one of those guys who spends all their days sitting in the garage and fixing up old amps. I want to still keep enough fuel in my brain, so that I can be a songwriter and artist in different ways but still have the freedom to go to the studio and put down what I need to. That feels good to me.
Jack White’s The Raconteurs (aka The Saboteurs) kick off their debut Australian tour in Melbourne tonight, followed by a show in Sydney and a set at Byron Bay Bluesfest.
The Saboteurs 2019 Australian Tour Dates
Thursday, 18th April
Regent Theatre, Melbourne (Lic/AA)
Saturday, 20th April
Big Top Luna Park, Sydney (18+)
Also appearing at Byron Bay Bluesfest 2019