When the White Stripes played the Bowery Ballroom, one of New York City’s better rock venues, on June 16, 2001, I went on assignment from Blender magazine to review the show — with the proviso that I include some quotes from the duo. Jack and Meg White were touring in anticipation of the release of their breakthrough third studio album, “White Blood Cells.” So though they were popular enough to pack a good-sized club, they were not yet stars with a million-selling record.
Before they went on, Jack, Meg and I commandeered a banquette in the club’s downstairs bar and did a short interview. Amazingly (in retrospect), none of the fans drinking nearby bothered us. Meg didn’t say much, but Jack was a fascinating and voluble character full of stories he relished telling. Here are some excerpts from that interview.
Weirdest thing that’s ever happened onstage:
Jack White: Not too long ago I forgot my shoes and I used a friend’s shoes and they were too big on me and I had to stuff another pair of socks inside ’em to make ’em fit. When we were playing, they were falling out, and the socks flew off onstage. I rocked my socks off!
Early reception for the band’s then-unfashionable music:
Jack White: The first time we came here we played the Mercury Lounge, and it was sold out. We were amazed because we thought no one had heard of us in New York. We were on tour with Sleater-Kinney and we booked our own show just to see what would happen and it was a really nice reaction. We always figured that New York and L.A. wouldn’t like us. And here we are doing three sold-out nights. Whenever we’re onstage I never comprehend that there’s more than five people in front of us. A couple of weeks ago we played in New Orleans and (the Kinks’) Ray Davies came to the show. Nothing was miked in the club, and my tuner didn’t work. After the first song, I looked out and caught where he was standing. I couldn’t stop looking over there — I don’t know why, I’ve never done that before.
The importance of signing a major-label deal:
Jack White: If God wills something to happen to us, that’s good; if not, we still have our house in Detroit and we can afford to live there. All we’ve ever heard is bad stories anyway, and I’m sure that if we do (sign to a major label) it’s going to be a bad story, too.
Playing shows at big venues:
Jack White: We got the chance to open for Weezer in a small club in L.A. I like Weezer. They have good songs. Then someone had tickets to see them in Detroit, and it really depressed me. It was sponsored by some computer company. …We’ve had the opportunity to play bigger places and we won’t do it. I hate being a spectator and getting frisked three times, getting yelled at for your ticket… If we get really successful, we’ll just play small clubs for seven nights in a row. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Rolling Stones did a tour of small clubs?
The blues influence:
Jack White: The blues is my number-one love. I love it to death, yet I’m white. I wasn’t born in 1910. When we’re playing it I feel bad at the same time as loving it. It’s difficult for me to think about. It makes me uncomfortable. That’s why the new album is called “White Blood Cells,” and there’s no blues on the album. Everything to me is derivative of the blues, that’s why it’s important to me, but I don’t want people to think we’re Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s not about guitar solos. Blues is a simple thing for playing guitar solos — every guitar shop you go to in the country there’s some idiot playing something like that. I don’t ever want to be associated with, “Oh, check this out!” We never want to make the same record twice. We don’t want to get pigeonholed. I’ve never heard (an entire) Jon Spencer Blues Explosion album. People were saying that about us (comparing the White Stripes to the Blues Explosion). It gets uncomfortable to just be “this is our thing, look at what we’re doing.” I get bored so fast. I love blues to death, but I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. It disappoints me when I see other bands doing that.
Live performance vs. studio recording:
Jack White: The studio should always be different from the live show. The album is what lasts forever; the live show comes and goes. If a band has a string section (on a record), I don’t think they should bring an orchestra along (on tour) just for that song. …The shows I like the most are when we’re trying to win somebody over. When they’re yelling at us, that really gets me going. It makes me feel something, it’s much more exciting. …Last time we were here, during a break between songs, while I was tuning up, someone in the crowd said, “It better be good.” We had just played Hoboken (the night before) and it was a whole crowd of rock critics — everyone was like, “Oh, impress us.” I said, “Where are we, Hoboken?” Half the crowd went, “Ooh.” The other half cheered.
On tour in support of "Get Behind Me Satan" in 2005, the White Stripes perform on Nigel Godrich's "From the Basement" series. Focused on exacting details and visual touches, the duo play a thrilling set that captures their essence — and that of weird, brilliant American music.
Ira Robbins first encountered rock ‘n’ roll in 1962 and began writing about it in 1972. Trouser Press magazine, which he co-founded in 1974 and published for a decade, is now online at www.trouserpress.com. He has served as pop music editor for New York Newsday, written for dozens of publications, supplied liner notes for 50 albums and edited five Trouser Press record guides. He has authored two novels — “Kick It Till It Breaks” (2009) and “Marc Bolan Killed in Crash” (2020) – and is currently preparing to publish an anthology-cum-memoir titled “Music in a Word.”