April 6, 2012

GETTING THERE:

Jack Outside the Box (JOSH EELLS, 4/08/12, NY Times Magazine)

"I'm trying to get somewhere," White, who is 36, said, reclining in his tin-ceilinged office. He's an imposing presence, over six feet tall, with intense dark eyes and a concerningly pale complexion. On his desk sat a cowbell, a pocketknife, a George Orwell reader and an antique ice-cream scoop. There was also a stack of business cards that read: "John A. White III, D.D.S. -- Accidentist and Occidental Archaeologist." "The label is a McGuffin. It's just a tool to propel us into the next zone. There aren't that many things left that haven't already been done, especially with music. I'm interested in ideas that can shake us all up."

White walked back to a room called the Vault, which is maintained at a constant 64 degrees. He pressed his thumb to a biometric scanner. The lock clicked, and he swung the door open to reveal floor-to-ceiling shelves containing the master recordings of nearly every song he's ever been involved with. Unusually for a musician, White has maintained control of his own masters, granting him extraordinary artistic freedom as well as truckloads of money. "It's good to finally have them in a nice sealed environment," White said. I asked where they'd been before, and he laughed. "In a closet in my house. Ready to be set on fire."

White said the building used to be a candy factory, but I had my doubts. He's notoriously bendy with the truth -- most famously his claim that his White Stripes bandmate, Meg White, was his sister, when in fact she was his wife. Considering the White Stripes named themselves for peppermint candies, the whole thing seemed a little neat. "That's what they told me," he insisted, not quite convincingly. I asked if I needed to worry about him embellishing details like that, and he cackled in delight. "Yes," he said. "Yes."

A few days later, White was sitting behind the wheel of his 500-horsepower black Mercedes. Howlin' Wolf was on the stereo. He wore black sunglasses and a tight black T-shirt, and he drove fast, steering with one hand while ashing an Al Capone cigarillo with the other. "I quit smoking cigarettes like six years ago," he explained, rolling through a stop sign. "These are just baby cigars. I don't inhale."

He pulled into the parking lot of United Record Pressing, the largest vinyl-record plant in the country. United has been pressing records since 1949. The first White Stripes single was made here in 1998, and now Third Man was its third-biggest customer. The label excels at vinyl novelties: glow-in-the-dark Halloween 45s; peach-scented albums; a "triple-decker" record featuring a 7-inch single sealed inside a 12-inch LP. (You needed a Swiss Army knife to get it out.) Third Man's slogan is "Your Turntable's Not Dead."

White walked the factory floor, pausing now and then. There were massive gray bins full of rainbow-colored vinyl pellets ("like the flooring you'd see in your aquarium"), large extruders to melt and shape the raw vinyl into pucks, steel presses that employed 6,000 pounds of steam pressure to flatten the pucks into records. "It's a really beautiful process," White said. At the labeling station, an employee handed him a pressing of an old Robert Johnson LP that was being rereleased, and he weighed it in his hand. "That's killer," he said. "It's not as heavy as mine, though. I've got the real one."

White calls LPs "the pinnacle of musical expression." "I was talking to Robert Altman before he died," he said, "and I asked him about an interview where he said that he would never switch to videotape, that he would always stay in film. He said: 'I know what that is. It has a negative. It has a positive. With videotape or digital, I have no idea what's going on.' That's how I feel about vinyl. The left wall is the left channel, the right wall is the right channel, and you're just dragging that rock through the groove. Watching it spin, you get a real mechanical sense of music being reproduced. I think there's a romance to that."

White famously doesn't own a cellphone, but he isn't the Luddite he's often made out to be. He has an iPod; he knows how to Skype. His friend Conan O'Brien says he'll occasionally e-mail to say he laughed at a tweet. Yet there is a bit of curmudgeon to him. "This generation is so dead," he said at one point. "You ask a kid, 'What are you doing this Saturday?' and they'll be playing video games or watching cable, instead of building model cars or airplanes or doing something creative. Kids today never say, 'Man, I'm really into remote-controlled steamboats.' They never say that."

White once wrote a song called "This Protector," about rescuing traditions from the march of progress. In a way, that's what Third Man is -- 21st-century monks of Kells, defending the catacombs against the digital horde.

Back in the car, White played a song he recently produced for Tom Jones. "Seventy-one years old, and he just came in and murdered it," White said. Then he told a story about the time he was in Transylvania, filming the movie "Cold Mountain" (he played a minstrel). Every morning on his way to the set, the driver would be listening to Tom Jones. Later he went to a local record store, and there were something like 60 Tom Jones records. No one could explain what the deal was, so White asked Jones about it. It turned out that everyone in Transylvania thought Tom Jones was a Gypsy. He insisted that he wasn't, but they still didn't believe him.

"What an incredible story," White marveled, no doubt jealous of a narrative that brought together slippery notions of identity, misleading your audience, dubious Romanians. "They really thought he was a Gypsy, and he was hiding it. He didn't think that was the answer, but it seemed to me like it was the answer. Even if it wasn't," he said, "I'd make it that."
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Posted by at April 6, 2012 6:45 AM
  

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