A definitive oral history: Revealing The White Stripes
The enigmatic duo propelled Detroit Garage Rock onto a global stage. Those on the inside tell the story of the band's rise to stardom
April 13, 2003
BY BRIAN McCOLLUM
It's one of the most intriguing stories in the rich annals of Detroit rock: the unlikely rise of the White Stripes, from a scruffy two-piece once scoffed at by some garage rock scenesters to critical acclaim, MTV success and a Top 10 debut last week for the album "Elephant."
Through it all, Jack and Meg White have surrounded themselves with a playful mythology, avidly adhering to a distinct red-and-white visual theme and insisting they're siblings.
The White Stripes have achieved something few could have envisioned, taking one of the city's musical secrets -- the primal blast of Motor City garage rock -- and turning it into an international phenomenon. Here's how they did it.
While a music student at Cass Tech in 1992, John (Jack) Gillis landed an apprenticeship at Muldoon Studio, an upholstery shop run by a family friend and hobbyist drummer. Born in July 1975 to a musical family of 10 children in southwest Detroit, Jack had started playing drums in elementary school.
DOMINIC SUCHYTA (friend, musician): I met him in fifth grade. That was our start -- I'm talking like 11 years old. His six older brothers were in a band called Catalyst, gigging around Old Miami, Paycheck's, all the dives. So we had a basement to jam in. He had this tiny bedroom with an old 4-track reel-to-reel recorder. We'd ride our bikes down to Dearborn to buy equipment -- riding our bikes back loaded up with high hats and stuff. In the fifth grade, he was already wearing Doors T-shirts, and by the sixth grade Pink Floyd and Zeppelin shirts. So we were listening to stuff really early.
BRIAN MULDOON (upholsterer, Muldoon Studio): I'm 16 years older than Jack, and I had an established business by then. I was talking to his older brother, and asked if Jack wanted to help out -- tearing stuff up, doing deliveries -- so he started working in my shop.
He told me one day he was starting to play guitar. Within a year, he got really good. At the time we had another kid from Cass Tech -- Dominic Suchyta -- and we played together. Then Dominic went off to school in East Lansing, so Jack and I went on as a two-piece, from the fall of '93 through '96. It was just the two of us -- guitar and drums.
SUCHYTA: Brian had all these great records and turned us on to all this stuff. Jack always liked the blues. That was our common ground -- stuff like Howlin' Wolf.
MULDOON: I had a hand in that sound. Jack didn't have a record collection then -- he was into Helmet, AC/DC and, like most 17-year-old kids, Led Zeppelin. He became fascinated with Dick Dale, the Flat Duo Jets, the Stooges and the Gories, which influenced us a lot. And Rob Tyner's singing (in the MC5) was a real influence for him. That was the stuff we were playing all the time in the shop while we worked. And it wasn't long before Jack was writing his own songs.
We were very serious about the sound. We were very determined about the way feedback should be, the way things should sound. He was never just goofing around.
In 1994, still working in the upholstery shop and jamming with Muldoon -- they called themselves Two Part Resin -- Jack successfully auditioned as drummer for Goober & the Peas, an established country-punk band. The band lasted another year. Jack had also become close friends with Megan White, a Grosse Pointe native still living on the east side. They would marry in 1996 in South Lyon, and Jack would take his wife's surname.
DAN MILLER (singer-guitarist): With Goober & the Peas, we knew we'd be touring a lot, so we wanted someone whose personality we liked, too. Jack was a lot younger than we were. He wasn't the most technical drummer, thankfully -- not a Neil Peart-ish drummer. Everybody in the band was like, "Wow!" It was great to see somebody with that kind of passion for music. His instincts were really great.
MULDOON: He learned a lot about being on stage while playing in bands with Dan Miller -- how to present himself, how to dress himself.
MILLER: I think it was a good thing for him just to see what it was like to be in a band that toured -- and probably see what kind of mistakes we made. I do remember the first show when he played drums: For an encore he came up and sang some Elvis song. People where just shocked by his passion for it.
BEN BLACKWELL (Jack White's nephew): Jack really looks up to the Gories. He bought "Broad Appeal" and Mick Collins was behind him in line. And Jack was all excited -- "Mick Collins was just behind me in line!"
GREG BAISE (the Magic Stick): I worked at Car City Records, at 8 1/2 and Harper, in the mid-1990s. Meg lived in the neighborhood and would come in and buy records all the time. One day she showed up with her boyfriend -- or fiance. Back then he had blond hair, really curly. They'd come in and do what everybody does at Car City -- go through the vinyl bins looking for good records, both popular records and more obscure things as well.
MILLER: It was weird, knowing him at 19, and seeing this person who had all these really clear-cut goals and this real commitment and passion for how he wanted things to go in his life, musically and otherwise. I remember him saying, "I really want to be proud of everything I do."
BLACKWELL: My earliest memory of the White Stripes was going to my Uncle Al's wedding. Jack and Meg had just jammed in their attic. That was about the time, when I was in eighth grade, when I told Jack I wanted to play guitar. And he was all like, "There's already 10 guitar players on your block. You should be a drummer." So I started practicing and one time we were up in his attic and he told me to play a drumbeat and he busted into "1969" by the Stooges.
BAISE: The legendary story is one day Meg just sat down at the drums while Jack was playing guitar and they started playing "Moonage Daydream" by David Bowie or something like that. That's the thing -- the people making this kind of music, they ain't chops-oriented. It's all about the feeling. So much of the stuff is self-taught, so much of the music they're creating can't be taught. It's people making the music they want to hear. It's raw and intuitive. It's not technical and it shouldn't be.
BLACKWELL: When I first heard about them naming the band the White Stripes, I thought people were going to think they were a skinhead band. Originally they were tossing back and forth the names Bazooka and Soda Powder, so after hearing the other names they had come up with, the White Stripes didn't seem so bad. Meg came up with it, and the story about them getting it from the candy might be true, but they also had some old bricks in front of the house in the garden that said "White" on them, and that might have had something to do with it.
In 1997, a new surge of garage rock was hitting the Detroit underground, led by a band called Rocket 455. With the White Stripes under way, Jack kept busy working with a variety of bands, including the Hentchmen and a country-infused outfit with Miller they named Two Star Tabernacle. In August 1997, the Stripes landed their first public show: an opening gig with the Hentchmen at the Gold Dollar, a Cass Corridor club at the nerve center of the garage scene.
MEG WHITE: We did our first show two months after I started playing.(Detroit Free Press, 2001)
DAVE BUICK (Italy Records): Meg had just started playing drums, so it was a little more primal. She's gotten so much better as a drummer, but right from the get-go she was just perfect for that. She's gotten so much better, but she never needed to, really.
WILLY WILSON (WDET-FM): It was fun at their first shows, being one of 20 or so people there. It was really sloppy and stripped down, because Meg really couldn't play. But it was fun and interesting. There was something unique there, because you could tell that the songs Jack was doing stood out. It was better songwriting.
BLACKWELL: I had made a copy of their first show at the Gold Dollar and listened to that tape forever. I remember singing "Screwdriver" and "Jimmy the Exploder" over and over. By the time the first record did finally come out, I was tired of the songs because I'd been listening to those songs for two years.
BAISE: Jack was friendly. Kind of intense -- he always seemed like a very determined person. He seemed to already have his vision. He took his music and his playing seriously.
DION FISCHER (Godzuki guitarist): When they first started playing out, they were like the kid band that no one even liked. The Rocket 455 fans were like, "Hmm -- what are they doing?"
BOBBY HARLOW (vocalist, the Go): It was tough for them at first. People saw it as half a band. When you've got a night full of five-piece bands, and then you've got a drummer and guitar player, it's hard to get a promoter to take you seriously. Jack was bummed out: "We can't headline, we can't get anything. We're a two-piece and nobody takes us seriously."
BUICK: The reason I got into the White Stripes is they were a lot like the Gories. I was at the first two White Stripes shows and the majority of the fans were outside the Gold Dollar while they were playing -- there were maybe 20 or 30 people inside when they went on. That first year, they were always the first out of three (on a bill), and there'd be hardly anyone there -- me and a few people. People would complain about Jack sounding whiny or whatever.
JASON STOLLSTEIMER (Von Bondies guitarist): He had dyed his hair blond and he was playing on stage with the Hentchmen wearing this bright yellow suit. Me and Marcie (Bolen of the Von Bondies) were there and saw him play and thought, "What is the deal with this guy's voice?" I mean, it was terrifyingly high-pitched. Like opera weird.
BUICK: I'd told all these people, "You gotta come see the White Stripes," and they were like, "Nah, the singer annoys me. He whines -- it's annoying." And then a couple of months later, they were saying, "Man, I've been listening to it, and this stuff is really, really good."
MARIBEL RESTREPO (Detroit Cobras): All the girls used to kid -- we used to call him the Great White Hope, because he was tall and handsome. They opened for everybody, including the Cobras. At first, you heard this Robert Plant screaming-woman thing. He's really got that honed now.
BUICK: At the end of '97 I confronted him about putting out a single. And he was immediately like, "Nah, no, no, I can't afford it," and walked away. He didn't understand at first that I was offering to pay for it.
MILLER: The first single they did was "Let's Shake Hands." It wasn't this macho crap about this-girl-doing-that. It was this honest, emotional, sweet thing.
BUICK: I put out the first two singles. Jack always had long-term plans for the White Stripes. . . . That whole first year, every single person misprinted the band name -- it was always "White Stripe" or "White Strike" or "White Strikes." It never got printed right, for a whole year.
BLACKWELL: I drove down with them to see a show at Frankie's in Toledo where there was no more than 10 people watching. They were opening for Two Star Tabernacle and were misbilled that night as the White Lines. Of course, that wasn't as bad as when they played the Magic Bag one night and were billed as the Light Strikes.
BAISE: The watershed for so many people -- and not just in a destined-for-success kind of way, because it didn't seem like that at all -- was the summer of '98 at the 4th Street Fair. One of the greatest days for Detroit music ever. Almost all the great bands played that day, including the White Stripes, who played around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. The sun was still up. They didn't even have an album out yet, and they already had signature tunes that you learned from seeing them live, like "The Big Three Killed My Baby." It was exciting.
BUICK: I remember one of those early shows, playing at the Magic Stick, and opening up for, I think, the Hentchmen. I remember Jack getting so mad at the Magic Stick and storming off because the light wasn't the right color on him. . . . Anyone accusing him of getting a big head is wrong, because he's always had a big head.
By 1998, Jack had caught the attention of Bobby Harlow and John Krautner of the Go, a young band hatching a glam-sparked garage sound.
HARLOW: John and I saw Two Star Tabernacle one night. Jack was laying back playing great guitar, singing harmonies with Dan Miller. He just had a great stage presence -- he looked really cool, he looked comfortable. He wasn't a phony at all. I said to John, "Let's go up front and look at this guy." Dave Buick had already put out a White Stripes single at that point. Dave and Jack were buddies. Later, Jack was over at Dave's house, so John and I went over there: "Hey, Jack, we've got a question for you --" And Jack said "Yes, already, yes, absolutely, wanna join, count me in." We said, "All right!"
Whenever we practiced at Jack's house, we practiced upstairs in his room. For the record: Jack's house is red and white. The whole damned thing is red and white. The attic -- the practice room -- has got an American flag, all done in red and white. He's full-blown. Borderline psychotic, I don't know.
BUICK: The Go had a good thing going, and Jack saw it, so he got in on it.
Within months, the Go became the preeminent band on the downtown Detroit scene, attracting the attention of Seattle's Sub Pop Records, former home of Nirvana. Jack White performed on the Go's debut record before splitting from the band.
HARLOW: We were signing with Sub Pop -- an exclusive contract, so it was a matter of whether Jack was going to be on the contract or not. Basically, if Jack had signed, that would have meant Sub Pop would have rights to the White Stripes stuff as well. Seemed like a bad idea. Jack had established the White Stripes as something he wanted to do. He was sort of teetering -- "Should I sign, should I not?" He decided no.
BUICK: I'm not saying Jack is an egotistical jerk or anything, but he's set in what he does, and he does it well. But the lead singer of the Go is the same way -- he knows exactly what he wants, and how he wants things to sound. And they clashed -- one person couldn't deal with the other person. So things ended. He was really good in the Go, but it probably worked out better -- not for the Go, but for Jack. It worked out better for Jack in the long run.
HARLOW: He's one of the most talented guitar players I've ever met, and I have nothing but respect for him. To have a focused vision like Jack does, there's no way he can compromise that, where somebody can step in and say, "I think you oughta play like this, Jack." It would be an insult, really.
MILLER: I know one of the things that was frustrating for him back with Goober & the Peas is he'd want to change songs night to night, even as the drummer. But that's hard when you have five people in the band. That's one of the great things about the White Stripes, because he can change keys in a song. He and Meg are locked in. From early on, they had that down. He was always passionate about keeping things fresh, keeping the inspiration. If we practiced a song a few times in a row, it would be played three different ways. And maybe one way would be horrible, but at least he took the risk of trying something that came into his head.
By 1999, Jack and Meg's full focus was on the White Stripes. They cut their first album with help from Detroit engineer Jim Diamond, including songs Jack had written back in his days playing with Brian Muldoon. It was released by the staunchly independent California label Sympathy for the Record Industry. In fall 1999, with the buzz building around Detroit, the White Stripes were tapped to tour with indie rock stalwarts Pavement and Sleater-Kinney.
SUCHYTA: The attic where Jack ended up recording a lot of the first White Stripes stuff -- that was all set up in his parents' house.
MILLER: The first album was really a document of what the band was like, their live show. Jim Diamond did a good job of capturing the power. Lyrically, it was such an amazing thing listening to it for the first time. For a lot of people who'd seen the band live, with crappy PAs and all, you couldn't really make out the poetry, the Dylanesque aspect of Jack's lyrics.
BAISE: What they do is this really great, real-deal stripped-down rock that's influenced by blues, influenced by garage rock, influenced by punk. . . . These are people who not only create music but listen to music closely. There's a lot of work that goes into it, which is kind of deceptive, because people might look at it and go, "Oh, it's just a drummer and a guitarist." But there's a lot more to it than that. Jack's a great lyricist, and great at paying homage to his antecedents and things he's interested in. And it's catchy.
JACK WHITE: There's definitely a childishness in it. From Meg's standpoint, the drumming is real primitive and I really love that. My voice, I think, sometimes sounds like a little kid. You see that approach in a lot of great bands -- Iggy Pop throwing tantrums on stage. Everybody's still that same person they were when they were young -- at least they still want to be. They still want to have that freedom. (Willamette Week, 2000)
MILLER: When he heard "Grinning in Your Face" by (bluesman) Son House, he was like, "That song changed my life." Hearing something that raw and emotional, and the fact that they're still doing Son House songs now -- I think it's really great to see people keeping that music alive in a modern context.
BLACKWELL: When they toured with Pavement in September or October of 1999, I had this great soundboard tape of this show. There were 800 people there, by far the biggest crowd they had ever played in front of. They were supposed to play a half-hour set or something, but because they were so nervous they played it super fast and did it in 20 minutes. There was this amazing solo on "Let's Shake Hands."
I'm kind of weird about letting Jack have stuff because I let him borrow this tape and he had it in his van. I don't know why, because the van didn't have heat, let alone a tape deck. But someone broke into his van and took nothing but the tape. So, to the citizens of Detroit, somewhere out there there's an awesome soundboard recording of the White Stripes at the Recher Theatre in Towson, Md. I also lent him the master sleeve, the original sleeve with all the cut-outs and stuff from the "Let's Shake Hands" 7-inch. He had asked for it back because they were going to reissue it, and somehow someone spilled a Coke all over it.
A year after the release of the White Stripes' self-titled debut -- and several months after their March 2000 divorce -- the duo recorded "De Stijl," and again toured with Sleater-Kinney. Thanks to Kid Rock and Eminem, the nation's attention was now firmly on Detroit music, and the White Stripes began attracting notice outside indie rock circles.
MILLER: With "De Stijl," you saw better fidelity with the recording, but some of the stuff Jack just recorded in his living room. I think you saw more of the progression -- developing songs and messing with the arrangements more, more of a pop aspect.
JACK WHITE: The first LP's really angry, you know. This LP we tried to get a little cleaner. Maybe we changed from anger to bitterness. (Maximum RockNRoll, 2000)
BAISE: I remember each show getting more and more packed. It usually takes a lot to sell out the Magic Stick -- like a New Year's Eve gig or something like that. It's very rare that even the best local bands sell that place out, but they did that several times.
BLACKWELL: I think they got off on the right foot opening up for the right people -- Rocket 455, the Hentchmen, so that all helped. I mean, there was a time right before "White Blood Cells" when they never had a publicist or a manager. They got a booking agent right before "De Stijl," but they were in Rolling Stone before they ever got a publicist, so that's pretty impressive.
MICK COLLINS (the Gories, the Dirtbombs): They went on tour with Sleater-Kinney and the next thing anybody knew they were famous.
April 2001: Jack White helmed "Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit," a compilation of contemporary Detroit garage bands. In his liner notes, White wrote, "No suit from L.A. or New York is going to fly to Detroit to check out a band and hand out business cards."
MILLER: As absurd as it seems now, I think Jack was really sincere when he wrote that, because it was really like that. For Jack, the idea was to get a bunch of these bands that are similar in the way they sound -- "I'm gonna record all of them using the same drum kit, the same amps, in my house, and who cares. Hopefully this might be interesting for a few hundred people, and it'll be something to capture a moment in time." And you wouldn't think that a lot of people would care about that.
That spring, Jack and Meg headed to a Memphis recording studio to cut their third album, "White Blood Cells," which would become the band's international breakthrough.
STUART SIKES (recording engineer): We just set up and they started going. Jack knew what he wanted. Meg didn't really think they should be recording -- she thought the songs were too new. Jack pretty much knows what he wants, has a really good idea what he's going for. Meg is pretty quiet. She sort of drank her bourbon and smoked a lot of cigarettes. I think Meg was a little nervous being in a big studio, bigger than what they were used to. The main thing I tried to do was make them comfortable so they could play well -- with Meg, making sure her part didn't totally suck. She was pretty self-conscious about it.
BLACKWELL: Meg's quiet, but Meg's power is in that she only speaks up when she has to. She very rarely says anything, but when she says something it holds an awful lot of weight, and Jack always takes what she has to say into serious consideration.
SIKES: They came for three days and did most of the songs, then came back for two days and then we mixed the thing the next day. Jack told me more than once not to make it sound too good. I knew what he was talking about -- from recording at their house to a 24-track studio. We didn't come close to using all those tracks. Basically he wanted it as raw as possible, but better than if it was recorded in somebody's living room. He steered me that way, and I ran with it.
NEW YORK TIMES, August 2001: "With a stripped-down grace, the White Stripes, who recently released their third album, 'White Blood Cells,' have achieved something uncanny: They have made rock rock again by returning to its origins as a simple, primitive sound full of unfettered zeal."
In summer 2001, Great Britain caught White Stripes fever. Enthusiastically introduced to the British public by influential radio jock John Peel, the band staged a quick club tour in August and found itself the focus of a media frenzy, hailed as the savior of rock 'n' roll. Amid it all, Jack and Meg toyed with the press, continuing to insist they were siblings -- part of a sly mystique that many close to the band remain reluctant to talk about.
JOHN PEEL (BBC): Each year I go to a town in the north of the Netherlands called Groningen. . . . In Groningen, there's a great record shop. They'd got "White Blood Cells," and it just looked so interesting, just the concept of it. I bought it, brought it home, listened to it, and started playing it on the radio. That sort of proper, over-the-top guitar playing -- where you're actually playing something -- has always been something I've enjoyed very much. So it was just good to hear that kind of guitar sound again.
MILLER: People have made this big deal about Detroit having a history of the way bands present themselves visually, the rawness and emotion of the music, and that's something Jack's always been all about -- having that real emotion come through. Sometimes it's a little bit deceptive, intentionally -- there's a little bit of irony.
CHARLES PIIPO (Dearborn Heights fan): When we drove over to see them in Kalamazoo, someone had written a negative article about how they were married or whatever, and Jack's up there bitchingout this critic. I mean, it really bothered him. He was just up there saying, "Why can't people just write about the music? Why do people have to worry about our personal lives?" I really think that speaks for how much Jack loves music and what it means to him.
PEEL: It was an extraordinary time. The thing was, it wasn't hype. The NME (magazine) has a kind of an obligation to find a new sensation every week, because that's what sells the paper. But I think people were just relieved at the simplicity and the directness of the White Stripes, and the fact they were making a noise they could identify with. It was extraordinary that people did take that much of an interest in the White Stripes, and I like to think it was in part because they'd heard the band on the programs I do, and thought, "Hey, actually this is pretty good!"
JACK WHITE: It's kind of hard -- we sort of feel like the flavor of the month, that there's nowhere to go but down. We're kind of hoping that all the fake attention we're getting lately will go away. In the meantime, we're trying to decide how to respond. (Detroit Free Press, 2001)
MILLER: When the success first came in England, and nationally, I think everyone around here was just like a little bit skeptical -- like, "Is this really happening?"
BLACKWELL: When I first put up the Web site and started sending out e-mails there were less than 100 people getting them. Now there's like 21,000 some people on the e-mail list. It's so weird that in such a short period of time their fan base has grown like that.
MILLER: (Around Detroit) you'd start hearing, "Did you hear that so-and-so label is looking at so-and-so band?" It was more comical than anything -- nobody took it seriously. It was kind of funny to everybody. I think there's still skepticism some people have about it. There's tons of people in Detroit who have no idea who the White Stripes are -- and I mean people who listen to music. It's pretty shocking. But in a way that's really good -- because the White Stripes haven't gone out of their way to make themselves this real well-known commodity.
Jack and Meg White returned to a triumphant homecoming concert at a jam-packed Detroit Institute of Arts in November 2001 -- 3,750 fans and a Detroit city flag behind them. With industry interest growing, the band took a call from V2 Records, a label with hefty distribution and marketing power via the BMG conglomerate.
BAISE: It was clear they were on their way. And then the DIA performance -- I didn't go, but my dad did, and he thought it was just amazing.
ANDY GERSHON (president, V2 Records): I took over V2 in summer of 2001, after being out of the business for almost two years. I asked one of the assistants here to make me a tape of bands she liked, bands she thought V2 should be looking at. So I'm listening to this cassette in the car as I'm driving over the weekend. She'd put on "Hello Operator." I thought it was absolutely magical, absolutely brilliant. I went out and got "De Stijl" five minutes later. Then I found the first record, and then "White Blood Cells" a day later. This was the type of band that I found completely fascinating musically and conceptually. When you look at it -- the whole "brother-and-sister" thing, dressed in red and white, really raw -- I figured this will never get on the radio. But I didn't care about getting hits. I just knew that musically they were doing something fascinating.
The White Stripes agreed to a deal with V2 -- an unusual contract that let them retain control of their work, including ownership of the recordings. As the band found itself on MTV, "White Blood Cells" was reissued and went on to sell nearly 700,000 copies in the United States.
BLACKWELL: They never said they wouldn't sign a major label contract, and they walked away with the juiciest contract you could ever ask for. I mean, they got the masters in the end; Jack got his own label.
SUCHYTA: The first tune Jack and I had ever learned to play was "Can't Explain" by the Who. It was weird when I saw the White Stripes on MTV, the first time I heard "Fell in Love With a Girl" -- it was really familiar. It was Jack.
PEEL: When they first did something live for my program, we'd gone around the corner to this Thai restaurant for a meal -- a producer and myself and Jack and Meg. British bands are so worried about being cool or being thought uncool, that they have to pretend that they're unaware of any music more than two years old. They're reluctant to admit they've even heard Oasis. It's really strange, but they're so concerned about that aspect. I was amazed when Jack was perfectly happy to talk about things from my own childhood, because he knew them and he didn't think it was uncool to know them.
So we were talking about one of the great concerts of my life, when I saw Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent play at the Liverpool Empire, four days before Eddie Cochran was killed in a car crash. When the White Stripes played that night, they ended their set with an Eddie Cochran song and a Gene Vincent song. And I thought, what a nice thing to do, but also incredibly cool. A British band couldn't do that -- they don't have that kind of flexibility.
BUICK: One time me and Jack and Greg, my roommate, went to dinner; we came home and my dog Barkie had chewed my couch -- a big hole. Jack was like, "Hold on, I'll be right back." And he went to Brian Muldoon's house and came back and fixed the whole thing. This was like a year ago -- he'd already been on the cover of magazines. And he still reupholstered my furniture.
RESTREPO: Meg's a very cool chick. She's like all the Detroit rock girls -- they party hard. Meg is a classic example that just because you don't play a lot doesn't mean you can't play. Meg has more swing than most drummers I know. It's hard to be put in the spotlight like that, but the first time they played "SNL" and David Letterman, she was so at ease.
MILLER: When Rolling Stone did a story on the White Stripes last year, they had a quote from Jack saying, "I have no idea why we're here," talking about the MTV Movie Awards. And then there were all these people writing letters: "Well, why are they posing for the cover of magazines, why are they making videos for MTV, if they have no idea 'why we're here'?" But it's one of those things where the quote was taken out of context, because all he was trying to say was that he couldn't believe a two-piece band like the White Stripes had been asked to be part of something like that; because it seems like much more mainstream bands are the ones they have perform on shows like that.
In other words, the band isn't "mad" or "whining" about their success and popularity -- MTV awards, magazine covers, commercial radio airplay, album sales. They're just surprised by it, and they can't really explain it.
Between tours overseas, Jack and Meg continued to pop up at clubs around Detroit to hang out. A series of high-profile Detroit shows followed in 2002: sold-out dates at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, Clutch Cargo's and Chene Park.
RESTREPO: I'd already been wowed, but at Royal Oak I saw a level of professionalism that had gotten really high. They had it down. I'm a cynical musician, but I couldn't quit watching. It's hard to entertain a whole theater with two people. It was quite a feat.
BAISE: At Chene Park, they owned that stage. There was a level of authority that Jack and Meg had on there. They knew exactly what they were doing.
MILLER: They're at an interesting point right now where they just get bombarded with requests -- "This film wants to use this song from this album," things like that. I think it's really hard for somebody like them. They've always tried to make the best decisions that they're really proud of. It's all happened so fast. And they've tried to keep it under control by not doing a lot of things -- like not letting their songs be on compilations. . . .
It's just a bombardment. It's harder now. The band's publicist had to stop answering her phone and just leave a message: "If this is about the White Stripes, I'm taking requests by e-mail only."
As 2002 wound down, the pair headed to a London studio to cut tracks for their next album. "Elephant" hit stores in April 2003.
GERSHON: Conceptually, it's the same as the other records, but I think musically Jack is broadening things. This one has guitar solos, some guitar instrumentation that he hadn't used before. He's pushing the songwriting.
MILLER: "Elephant" is going off in another tangent, keeping in the spirit of things. It's about not being afraid to try new things, to not care if the garage devotees go, "What?! This should all be live."
PEEL: When "Elephant" came along, I listened to it and I thought they have taken that necessary next step, when people might have thought, "Well, they're played out, they've done as much as they can do." It's an LP that hangs together as an LP, and there's not a bad moment on it. I got the album a couple of months early, so I played a few tracks on it, and . . . some lawyers from New York with the record label let it be known that legal action would be taken if I continued to play tracks from the record.
I used to get this sort of thing in the days of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and all that kind of stuff, but I'd thought, really, we'd grown out of that. I wanted to play it not out of any sense of scooping anybody, but because, "Hey, this is a great record -- listen to it." Not to be able to play it really upset me.
FISCHER: I think there's some people around Detroit who would have a problem with the band that wasn't the beginning of the '90s Detroit garage rock scene now being the band that gets all the attention. But they're a great band, and they deserve whatever they get. Anyone who feels sour grapes is an idiot. Who wouldn't want the music that is their heritage to get the attention?
CHRIS FACHINI (former Rocket 455 drummer): When I see a guitar magazine now, it's like, "There's Randy Rhoads and Angus Young, my two favorite guitar players -- oh, and Jack White!" It's weird. Not in a bad way, but like, wow, that's crazy. As a kid, you dream about wanting to be a rock star. And here he is on a magazine cover. He's a rock star, and he's a kid we all know.
HARLOW: With any band that would get huge -- like the White Stripes -- I imagine there are other bands that feel like they've been around longer, they've put more time into it, and feel like they deserve it. So there's gotta be a certain amount of jealousy. But it's good, because even though there may be that element in it, I never really experience it. Everybody still parties together and has a good time together. For Christ's sake, Jack is sitting at the Magic Stick and there's Beck sitting next to him. That's gotta be a little weird.
MILLER: Loretta Lynn invited them to her ranch, and I went with them. It was funny -- her manager was asking, "So, what's Detroit like? Don't you ever want to move anyplace else?" We talked a little bit about the city's shortcomings. It's not the most cosmopolitan place in the world. But as Jack pointed out, we're not leaving -- "Detroit's home."
"Well, you're in your little room and you're working on something good
But if it's really good you're gonna need a bigger room
And when you're in the bigger room you might not know what to do
You might have to think of how you got started sitting in your little room."
-- "Little Room," the White Stripes, 2001.
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