Lotta Things Happening:
The Raconteurs Continue to Make Their Contrasts Work for Them
Jack White is in very high spirits. Gregarious and engaging, he seems far removed from his intense, sometimes intimidating onstage persona. But there’s good reason for his enthusiasm: Help Us Stranger, the just-released third album by The Raconteurs, the band he co-leads (with fellow singer-guitarist Brendan Benson), debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. White is grateful for the warm reception, especially given that their last release, Consolers of the Lonely, came out way back in 2008. “Over the years I’ve definitely heard a lot of people saying they wanted another Raconteurs record to come out,” he says, “And I also knew, in playing solo shows, when I play a Raconteurs song, everyone would know all the words to it. And I would think, ‘Wow, that’s a deep cut, that band has quite a following.’
“I do think that it’s dangerous for bands to take time off if that’s the only thing they’ve got going on,” White continues. “But luckily, everyone in this band has a lot of things happening in their musical lives.” This may be the understatement of the decade. Known as an incredibly prolific artist, in addition to his Raconteurs work, White has been a member of White Stripes and The Dead Weather, has had an extremely successful solo career, and also founded and oversees Third Man Records. Meanwhile, Benson has also enjoyed an impressive career, releasing six critically acclaimed solo albums and also working as a much-in-demand record producer. Bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler both came from the much-admired garage rock group The Greenhornes.
Given the scheduling conflicts inherent in having such a stellar lineup, it’s perhaps understandable that a long hiatus would happen. Still, White admits, “Man, it’s kind of a stupid thing to do, I think,” he says. “We just didn’t realize how much time had gone by. A lot of it might have to do with me not really planning things ahead very much.”
In contrast to White’s rather unruly approach, Brendan Benson seems more reserved, tending to choose his words carefully, though he warms as he talks about the new album. Clearly, he also takes immense pride in this project’s success. “We’re really fortunate,” he says. “I’d like to think it’s because they’re good songs, and it’s a good live performance… [W]e’re kind of a lucky rock band, in that way. In this kind of time we’re in, where it’s really dominated mostly by hip-hop, it’s very refreshing and cool that people are excited about a rock ‘n’ roll record.”
In fact, The Raconteurs have always been hugely successful – their first single, the angular and powerful “Steady as She Goes” (off their 2006 debut album Broken Boy Soldiers) received a Grammy nomination and hit the charts across the globe. That song confirmed that White and Benson’s contrasting songwriting styles, with White more freewheeling and Benson more considered, resulted in an intense and special mix of rock, blues, and psychedelia, with the occasional touch of country earnestness in a nod to Nashville, where the members live.
“Generally, I think my songs are a little bit more crafted, and I think Jack is more from the heart,” Benson says. “And together, I think it’s like this raw yet refined thing, hopefully in all the right ways… Recording [this] record, songs were just whizzing by, and I was like, ‘Wait a second – is this any good? Is this done?’ This band has jerked me out of my routine, and it’s a good thing. I need to get out more, you know?” he says with a laugh.
White also appreciates their differences. “If we had been very similar guys, it would probably just cancel each other out. I think it’s because we come from different songwriting styles that a new blend comes together. I think most new types of music throughout history have been when you synthesize two different disparate types of things, and something new comes out of it – you are taking different personalities and attacking the same problem with more than one brain, and something new comes out that neither of the people would have done on their own.”
The hardest part about their writing, according to Benson, is “knowing when you’re done. And luckily, Jack has a good sense of that. I think he doesn’t like to dwell on things too long.” For his part, White agrees that knowing when to stop is “a very, very hard thing for most people to do. It really is. I don’t think I’m that talented of a guy, but I think that’s one of the few talents I was born with, was the ability to be very decisive quickly. Like, I’ve always thought I would be a good soldier, like a good World War II soldier or something, because if there’s anything good about what I do, it’s because I know when it’s a good time to stop and move on to the next thing. And that has worked out well for me.”
They realize that this means their songs are not as slick as they could be, but in their view, this allowance for imperfection is actually one of the band’s strongest assets. “You don’t hear too much music where you can actually hear the mood of the room anymore,” White says. “People erase all the dead air, and erase all the tape hiss, and erase all the accidents, so you don’t really hear so much mood as you used to hear in music. And sometimes it can make it really powerful. Sometimes with pop music, you can’t really hear any soul because of the way it’s all been digitized. It can be a shame sometimes. Sometimes you’ll hear a song and say, ‘Wow, if that was recorded in a different style, that song could be ten times as powerful.’”
Both White and Benson say that sharing frontman duties is good from a practical standpoint, as well. “[I]nstead of wanting to be the lead guy, I think both of us want to take a break from that and let someone else play that role, pick up the slack,” Benson says. “It’s nice. Like, I can be the lead singer on a song and then the next song I take a break and I’m the guitar player. It’s cool. Singing all night long is really tiring, so it’s nice to be able to take breaks and the show can go on a little longer that way.” White agrees: “We both worked on our own, where we have to do 100% of the work. So I can see it in [Brendan’s] face that it’s a relief to have someone else help carry the load. And I know that I feel that, too. It’s very nice to be able to bounce things off of another songwriter that you really respect. And it’s wild, because you can go to places you would never go to when you’re writing by yourself. I’m always trying to find these things that will push me. And one thing in The Raconteurs is, there’s another songwriter sitting across from me, so I wanna impress him, and I wanna help his ideas come to life, too.”
Beyond their unique songwriting blend, The Raconteurs’ signature sound may also result from their decidedly unorthodox recording practices. For example, Help Us Stranger was mixed using White’s car. Using an FM transmitter in the studio, mixes of songs could be played on his car stereo. He and his bandmates would sit in the car in the parking lot, listening, then give feedback to the sound engineer via walkie talkie. (You can watch this process in action in a brief video posted to YouTube under the title, “The Raconteurs Reveal New Album Mixing Technique.”) As White explains, “I had heard that in Motown, in Detroit, that they would broadcast the song, and go out and listen to it in the car, to see if it sounded good over the radio, because you lose things, like on the radio you lose certain frequencies, and things get a little bit squashed and compressed. So I thought, why don’t I take that and take it one step further? And it’s really worked out in a great way.
“I mean, you can make everything sound amazing in the studio,” he continues, “and then you stop and think, ‘Well, wait a minute, nobody has speakers like this – nobody is ever going to listen to this record like this. So then you go down to listening to it on computer speakers, listening to it on earbuds. And you’re like, ‘Aw, man, what a shame that 90% of the listening of things you work really hard on, I think there’s really horrible ways to listen to it!’” He laughs. “It’s almost like Stanley Kubrick being shown: ‘People are going to watch your movies on iPhones one day!’ But the positive part about that is, it makes you work harder to make sure that what you’re trying to produce will sound good no matter where it’s played. And that’s a good thing. And I think that the car is the number one place for me to listen to music to, so it has to sound good in there.”
White grows particularly animated as he talks about various methods; it’s obvious this is a favorite topic of his, and one he has studied extensively. “You can read about recording techniques from long ago, in the early days, and all they were trying to do was get the best-sounding recording and not have any distortion on it, and it seems so wild,” he says. “I listen to this 1940s station on SiriusXM, and some of those recordings are just so incredibly clean and clear and loud. And they’re just mono recordings, and I’m sure were only done with a couple of microphones, if not just one microphone. And I would just die to be able to be in that room to see what they were doing to make it sound like that; it’s just incredible. But these moments are sort of lost to history – you’re not going to record like that anymore, and never will again. It’s funny, because if you came up with an interesting style of painting, like, ‘I’m using oils, and this kind of paintbrush, and it works out really great, look at the effects, it’s amazing!’ – you’d say, ‘People are going to paint like that forever now, ’til the end of time.’ But in filmmaking and recording and those kinds of technological fields of artistry, these are just small windows of time.”
While this adventurous approach to songwriting and recording has certainly paid off, White and Benson are quick to point out that success, while much appreciated, has not been their main focus. “I guess some people on the shallow side of things have a desire for fame and money and all those kind of shallow things,” White says. “But I think, luckily, with these guys in this band, it’s a fortunate place to be, where we just want to do it for the art itself, and for the music itself. And that’s a really healthy place to be, because it makes everything positive at that point. Your expectations are very low: I just want to write to write a song…I want to write a song with Brendan…I want to record a song with this band…I want to put this song out on a record, and I would like to play this song live – and now everything after that is just gravy.”
Now that The Raconteurs have undertaken a massive world tour in support of Help Us Stranger, White and his bandmates will have plenty of time to revel in the full Raconteurs experience again. Benson is thrilled at the to be playing live with the band once more; he says there have been no anxieties or issues surrounding performing together after so long apart. “It’s easy playing with these guys. It’s like picking up where we left off,” he says.
Still, don’t be surprised if there’s always be an element of unpredictability when it comes to The Raconteurs – at least, White hopes so. “I grew up in a house with like 20 people living in it [he is the youngest of 10 siblings]. So I think there’s something in my brain that kind of likes to have chaos around me all the time!” he says with a laugh.
Photo by Olivia Jean.