By Brad Lopez
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The only downside to discovering a band that's so cool you simply have to tell the world about it is that eventually, the world doesfind out, and then things are never quite the same. The White Stripes' regular fan base in Los Angeles knew that a new element had infiltrated the ranks about a year ago, when the band played the first of two shows at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. In a rare moment, the Detroit duo's normally reticent singer/guitarist Jack White began relating a story about his collection of antique furniture springs, when he was interrupted by an unruly audience member.
"Shut up and play!" yelled the fellow, who was obviously not familiar with White's style.
"The second night was really great," Jack says now, "but the first night was horrible. Really bad. But what do you do with that? We've learned to deal with that now, because it's happened a lot in Europe and Australia and places like that, where we've just had to ignore the crowd. And it's a shame, really. I feel like that's the only way we can get through that kind of crowd is just ignore them and play the show. But then we're not friends anymore. Meg and I aren't friends with the audience at that point."
Watching the White Stripes do their thing on stage, both clad in their trademark red-and-white outfits, with Jack's anxious delivery and wild guitar playing and ponytailed Meg White, Jack's sister (or ex-wife, depending on whom you believe) smiling and pounding barefoot behind a peppermint- colored drum kit -- it's not hard to believe that they sincerely want to be friends with their fans. The nice ones, anyway.
"The only thing I hate," Jack says, "is when we get on stage and you can tell that this is the hip show to go to this week and everyone in the crowd is just too cool for school and all that. I hate that feeling, and Meg does, too."
Back in the summer of 2000, the hipness factor was far from an issue. Jack and Meg embarked on one of their first national tours, with a pair of seven-inch singles on Italy Records, two more singles and two full-length CDs on California-based independent label Sympathy for the Record Industry, and some excellent word of mouth extolling their live show. But despite advance buzz, their shows were attended by sparse crowds made up mainly of enthusiastic fans and curiosity-seekers.
When Jack and Meg decided to form their duo in 1998, the pieces seemed to fall together quickly. Both self-taught players, the Whites had already begun writing songs with a "childlike" quality when, as legend has it, Meg eyed a bag of peppermint candies hanging in a drugstore. The swirling imagery gave the band both a name and a visual direction. Jack contacted Sympathy for the Record Industry at the suggestion of friends in the Detroit Cobras, and with the urging of '68 Comeback's Jeff Evans, Sympathy founder Long Gone John released the self-titled White Stripes debut in 1999. White Stripes contained seventeen tracks, including covers of Bob Dylan's "One More Cup of Coffee" and Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down"; it merged elements of country, Delta blues and garage rock with a fresh, stripped-down musical approach that garnered raves in various punk-rock fanzines. A followup, DeStijl, was recorded soon after and featured some of the band's catchiest songs, such as the infectious "You're Pretty Good Looking" and the Ray Davies-like "Apple Blossom," as well as bluesy numbers like "Little Bird" and "Hello Operator," which sparked comparisons to early Led Zeppelin.
But as varied as the White Stripes' range of influences appeared to be on the two Sympathy releases, their subsequent support tour in the summer of 2000 revealed that they still had quite a few tricks up their sleeve. The band unleashed a diverse selection of covers, from a raucous interpretation of Iggy Pop's "I'm Bored" to a touching, transgender rendition of Dolly Parton's "Jolene." The latter has become a standout during all the Stripes' performances and yielded a much-sought-after Sympathy single.
"When we do a song, it's because it has a special meaning to us or is something that really triggered something in my life," Jack explains. "Like 'For the Love of Ivy,' by the Gun Club, or 'Jolene,' by Dolly Parton, or 'Baby Blue,' by Gene Vincent or something. All of these songs have something to do with me learning to play music or triggered something about loving music itself. Or it triggered some emotion that really meant something to me or Meg."
By the end of 2000, the White Stripes were gathering steam. Rolling Stoneand Entertainment Weeklyboth put Jack and Meg at the forefront of an emerging Detroit scene. Last year brought White Blood Cells -- the band's third full-length on Sympathy -- along with a Detroit compilation, Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit, which was put together by Jack and released on Sympathy. The compilation features Detroit bands like the Dirtbombs, the Von Bondies and the Hentchmen, with whom Jack briefly played guitar. And, buoyed by successful tours through the States, Europe and Japan, White Blood Cells raked in a flurry of rave reviews from the music press.
But so much attention has its drawbacks, and a persistent rumor about the nature of Jack and Meg's relationship culminated with a piece last June in Time claiming that the two aren't siblings at all, but rather a recently divorced couple. They continue to deny the report, and Long Gone John, for one, thinks it's irrelevant: "I think that the time will come, if it hasn't already arrived," he says, "when people will stop worrying whether they are brother and sister, ex-husband and wife, or whatever. What they are is a guy and a girl making incredible music. The only concern should be the music, and not whether Jack is a transsexual or Meg is a Vietnamese refugee. If they say they're brother and sister, that's the end of the story, in my mind."
Long Gone John has reason not to worry about such details: Whatever else they may be, Jack and Meg White have certainly been good for business. Until recently, that is: Citing a need for larger pressings and wider distribution, Jack and Meg have inked a deal with European label V2. It was a move Long Gone has known was inevitable ever since major labels began sniffing around the band upon release of their second album.
"I didn't think there was much chance that I would ever be doing the third album," says Long Gone John. "A much larger independent than myself made them a pretty substantial offer. And when it seemed that the White Stripes were steering away from major labels still, I finally agreed to meet the offer they had received, and that was it."
Even as the White Stripes' celebrity increased beyond the borders of cult status, the band continued to behave like an indie act at heart, making decisions that many bands seeking rock stardom probably wouldn't. For their first television appearance on the Late Late Show With Craig Kilbornlast summer, for example, they played "Screw Driver," inserting a short chorus from "Your Southern Can Is Mine" -- both songs from their first and second releases -- rather than anything from the album that got them the booking. "We wanted to show what the band was about," Jack says. "We weren't behind any single or anything at that point. We were in a cool position. If you're some major-label band and you go on Craig Kilborn, they'll say, 'You gotta do this song; it's the one we pushed on college radio.' But we're in a position where we can do anything we want to do."
And turn down anything they don't want to do. Offered a Gap commercial, Jack and Meg passed, despite the hefty paycheck and, even more promising, the increased national recognition. "It would have been most of America's first exposure to our band," Jack says. "And that would have been pretty pathetic."
The White Stripes' indie bent extends to their choices regarding the video for their single, "Fell in Love With a Girl." Instead of filming a typical lip-synched performance-rock clip, Jack and Meg sought out French director Michel Gondry, who has directed videos for Björk, the Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk, as well as the Patricia Arquette feature film Human Nature. "He showed up with a sculpture of my head made out of Legos," says Jack. "He said, 'This is what I want to do with the video: make you guys out of Legos.' It fit right in with the childish, innocent things that we've always played around with in music and art in the band."
Despite the preponderance of emo and heavy alterna-metal on the radio, "Fell in Love With a Girl" has made a niche for itself on stations across the country. A bare-bones musical confection of energetic guitar, drums and vocals, the song stands out.
"I saw our video on TV," says Jack. "It was us and then Puddle of Mudd, and I was just laughing. I'm laughing, number one, that they're even showing a White Stripes video on TV. That's hilarious.
"But then in between Puddle of Mudd and something else? That's very funny."