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Taken from Esquire (June 27, 2019)

Why Jack White and Brendan Benson Refuse Negativity-And Trump's Name-On the Raconteurs' New Album

The musicians discuss the state of rock and getting political on their new album Help Us Stranger.

by Madison Vain


The Raconteurs. PhotoCredit: David James Swanson
The Raconteurs. PhotoCredit: David James Swanson


The Raconteurs didn't mean to wait more than a decade before releasing their dizzying third LP, Help Us Stranger. "I always felt like, we'll get back to that in one second," says Jack White, sitting in a meeting room at the NoMad Hotel in New York City with his bandmate and the outfit's co-lyricist, Brendan Benson. "It also had a lot to do with me," he continues. "I don't really plan far ahead and I often, in a naïve way, always think of a record as just something that, yeah, we'll put this out, we'll play some shows, and then we'll make another record in three months from now."


Given he's released six albums with the now since-disbanded White Stripes, three under his own name, three with his Alison Mosshart-featuring, blues-rock project the Dead Weather, and two with the Raconteurs-not to mention his role as a label boss of Third Man Records-he knows well what he says next: "That's not how it goes." Certainly not when things are going as well as they are for the group's latest.


A few hours before their fourth (!) release show-and a week before their first North American tour in eight years kicks off-Esquire caught up with White and Benson to discuss rock and roll, rap, and raising kids in the age of Donald Trump.


This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.



Esquire: You've said that the album began, really, when Jack, you played "Shine a Light on Me" for Brendan; that it felt like a Raconteurs song as opposed to a cut that would fit on the solo record you were working on at the time. What makes something a song for this band?


Jack White: I wish I could define that. I used to know that, like, if I was in the White Stripes, I was writing a song that these two people could perform live. And I think we all think that, too. We're writing something that the four of us can play live, together.


Brendan Benson: And play naturally. I remember giving these guys a song and we were kind of jamming it, this idea. [But] Patrick [Keeler, the band's drummer] didn't-it didn't sound like him. It sounded like he was trying to do something else. So that's a big part of it, too.


Prior to Help Us Stranger's release, it had been 11 years since the last Raconteurs album. What changes in a creative relationship when it hasn't been exercised in a decade?


BB: We fell right back into it, I think.


JW: Absolutely. I do feel sorry for bands. There [are] a million different ways bands can get along and work together. You read about horror stories where people don't speak to each other but they have to stay in the band because that's how they make money. Or there's a lot of stories about the Ramones, like the last 10 years of touring, no one talked to each other at all. It's nice that we don't have that in this band. We don't have any competition really, or that ego-tripping, going on.


BB: Each of us, too, is established in a lot of ways. If this was all we had, like the Ramones or something, or if it was the first thing we started on, it might be a different story.


Are there some people who you'd sit in a room with, even at this point, and feel competitive with?


BB: If not competitive, then it might still not work in other ways. [Where I live] in Nashville, I've tried doing the writer thing. In fact, it was my job. I got paid monthly to write so many songs a year, which involved a lot of co-writing and all that. And it mostly didn't go well. I struck up one relationship, with Ashley Monroe. I don't know why we work well together or Jack and I work well together and I don't work well with all these other people.


JW: I've done certain collaborations in the past where, I could tell it was very one-sided on the other person's side-that their decisions were going to happen in the mix and the songwriting and all that. I would make suggestions like, "I think we shouldn't do that," and it still happened. [It's like,] OK, well, I wouldn't have done that to you. I'm not going to quit, but it makes me not want to work with you again after that.


You both wrote each of the songs, save for the cover of Donovan's "Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)," on the album, and all four members of the band are listed as producers. How did the final lineup get decided?


JW: This is the only band I've ever been in where we do this: We have this board and we write all the names down and all the parts that are in it so that we can actually see it. It helps us get centered on what the album is turning into. Like, say if I was in the White Stripes, I would always have so many things planned out. I had the album cover planned out even while we were working on [the album]. I had the idea of what the overall tone would be, where we were going to record, and all that. It was only a two-piece band and I was the only songwriter, so it was a lot easier to do that. This is very much I'm just bringing my little piece to the table with everybody else.


BB: Luckily, there was no real argument. The only thing that happened was we weren't going to put "Bored and Razed" on the record and Patrick was vehemently rallying for that song.


JW: Please, finish it!


BB: He was like, "We've got to work on that. Are we kidding? It's so good!"



"Thoughts & Prayers" feels very in conversation with the world today. It's the familiar rejoinder of leaders in moments of tragedies at this point.


JW: I didn't have a title for that song for a long time. The working title was "World War." I was trying to find this character who was not in too specific a scenario, but something like a post-apocalyptic scenario. I kept thinking of that Twilight Zone episode where the guy ...


BB: Burgess Meredith?


JW: Burgess Meredith, and his glasses break. He wants to read and he finds a library, but then he steps on his glasses. I was thinking of that kind of a character in modern context. That's when I thought "Thoughts & Prayers" made sense, because it's become such a meaningless, almost insulting phrase at this point.


I don't think of either of you as overtly political artists, but with this title and song, it seems like people do want to fit it into the narrative of calling out our leaders for certain things. Do you welcome that conversation?


JW: [I have] this new thing in my mind, which is to not even mention Trump's name anymore. If you do it in song, it's like you're giving him too much credit. I think he feeds off that, like some kind of evil, electrical ghost, feeding off that negative energy. It's never stopped him, no matter how wrong he is, how bad he is, no matter how much he gets caught lying. He enjoys it, in some way, and he plays the victim. So maybe, if you're writing directly about Trump, it's better to be abstract and go to the larger picture of why he's there, which is everybody's fault. I'd like to blame the Electoral College for most of it, but it's still everybody's fault.


BB: Yeah. I think, with any megalomaniac, any news is good news-is that the expression?


JW: No such thing as bad press.


BB: Yeah, whatever. But as far as in my art, I never, ever, ever consider politics when I'm writing music. I do like and encourage and I'm all for it if you can draw parallels, or if you can see a meaning or see a political meaning and hear a political meaning in a song, yeah. I think people are searching for meaning everywhere. Anytime somebody mentions anything semi-political, I think people are piqued.


You even see it in pop music, that search. Anxiety is sort of the prevailing theme right now.


JW: It's been hard to raise kids and not...I don't want my children to be proud of the President of the United States. It's pretty sad, but I can't abide by it.


BB: I don't allow them to call him President. They can call him Trump.



"Somedays (I Don't Feel Like Trying)" is unique in how it deals with such a heavy topic but also feels so good. It sort of begs for a live audience reaction with its chanted finale.


BB: I have to admit, it came from a dark place. I was in a really bad way, I guess in my life. Depressed. That's what I came up with. It's the one song I wrote in that period-I didn't even feel like writing, really.


JW: It turned out there was just nothing on Netflix. [Laughs]


BB: [Laughs] When I say depressed, I just mean there was nothing on. It was the worst day ever.


How do you feel hearing it back now?


BB: It's kind of hard to sing.


JW: That's why I try not to write about myself. If it's a bad moment, you'll still be reliving some breakup with a girl from 15 years ago.


BB: It's like a tattoo. [Everyone asks,] What's that tattoo mean? But it is hard. You either have to go there, to that place, or fake it. I find if I'm faking it, I'm embarrassed to be doing so ... I probably sang too much. You know what it is, too? I don't want to bum anybody out. That's the other thing.


JW: The ending is positive, though. The ending is a really positive chant, I think-that's what I took from it. You hear "I'm not dead yet." It's like, alright, let's figure this out.


The songs here, or on any Raconteurs LP, never feel forced or overly manipulated. When you're in the studio, how long do you give yourselves working on a track before you say, "This one is not going to happen, let's move on."


JW: I think the song tells you. If not quickly, then eventually they will tell you it's time to move on to something else. You have to keep letting the song tell you what to do, in a way. The ones that don't work out are probably ones where you, as a songwriter, exerted too much control over them. You didn't let the song do the work.


What sort of pride do you feel when you look at your album credits and it's just two writers and only the band producing?


JW: I am more proud now than ever. Last year, a thing happened. It was a song that I put out on my last record. And there was a moment where I realized something. I got the 45. [And I realized] I had written the song, recorded the song on my own equipment-I was the engineer on the track-we mixed it in my studio. We did the mastering at my mastering studio that I own in Detroit, Third Man Mastering, and pressed it at Third Man Press, in the press that I own. So DIY? No one can fucking touch me. [Laughs] I laughed out loud. And this is the same thing. The Raconteurs is completely DIY. It's only the four of us, really, and the Third Man team.


BB: And we're competing with these massive artists, like Nicki Minaj, whose records were coming out the same day-


JW: Those records have a hundred people involved in them.


BB: -and we're giving them a run for their money.



Certainly, when you've been away over a decade, part of you had to wonder if people would still care about an album from the Raconteurs. The reaction must be heartening.


JW: This time, we were doing a record, and you know, I was like, should we almost even think about [if] we are the only rock and roll band right now? Maybe we should pretend like that's what's going on. What would that be like? We didn't really do that, but I did say it out loud: Let's brainstorm here, what if this comes out and we have to be representatives of rock and roll? Maybe we should look at it that way. Then I started to think the other day that it was just as scary when we did White Blood Cells with the White Stripes [in 2001]. That was breaking through into the mainstream and had to make another record right then and there-and even then, it seemed like, are people going to care about rock and roll next year? They're going to care about this band and the way we do it? I don't know.


Maybe that's a good thing, all the time, that you should always be worried that by the time we finish this record, it's not going to be interesting to anybody anymore ... That's the thing with [current] pop music. Do you see people aiming for timelessness anymore in songwriting?


BB: Or even greatness. I feel it's so off the cuff. It's just like, "Yo man, let me bust a rhyme on this and lets go home."


JW: It's a huge hit.


BB: And it's kind of cool! It's got swagger.


JW: It's cool. They're not going to play it at your funeral...


BB: Right.


Benson and White of The Raconteurs on May 25, 2019 in London. PhotoCredit: Matthew Baker / Getty Images
"People are searching for meaning everywhere," says Benson. "Anytime somebody mentions anything semi-political, people are piqued." Here, the band performs during the All Points East Festival on May 25, 2019 in London. PhotoCredit: Matthew Baker / Getty Images


I have to imagine you get asked in every interview about the State of Rock and Roll. I'm more curious if you both, as rock musicians, think that's a worthwhile question. Does it matter how rock and roll progresses?


JW: It's hard to know what's good for society, good for pop culture, good for the world, good for the next generation of kids and teenagers. I don't really know what is. I don't think anybody ever does. You just do whatever you can. I remember when grunge rock came out, everyone thought, this is great all the hair metal bands are going away. At that time, it seemed like a great thing. But I was actually thinking more of the Tom Pettys and those guys. What are they supposed to do in [that] moment in time? What's the Rolling Stones supposed to do in '91? I think all of those guys just said, it's not stopping what I'm doing. I'm still going to be Tom Petty, still going to be Bob Dylan, still going to be Neil Young.


I don't think I have a great answer. I do think it's on your mind [as a rock musician]. When you do get to the point where you're going to be onstage and you know that people will at least give it a listen-what you're about to release-[you wonder], what does it mean to everybody else? Damn, if you could sit down and write something that's poignant and relevant and will make everybody feel like this is happening right now, everybody would do it every single time. But there's no way to do that. You just have to try your best when you write music. You may think it's amazing and it comes out, and someone will come, "That sounds just like something on Devo's second record."


Someone will find something that you didn't realize. With this record, so far, it's surprisingly amazingly connecting with people to the point, like, wow, rock and roll is really relevant in this little corner of the world at this moment in time. It could have very easily been, poof, who gives a damn?


BB: I think whatever is good...it matters a little what [a song] sounds like, but more, it has to have that greatness. We have an advantage because we already have an audience, we have fans and all that. If you were a new rock band, man it would be tough to get your shit heard. But if it was good, if it was really good, I think it would-


JW: You can't keep a good song down, ain't no way.


BB: No matter what.


Help Us Stranger is out now. Wednesday, the band also released a deluxe edition of the set, which features White's commentary on each track. All Raconteurs tour dates are available on the band's website.



 
 

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