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High Art, Low Blues


October 15, 2012

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and former White Stripe Jack White on what’s killing the humanity of performances, how the wrong teacher can “really mess you up,” and the power of the blues.

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Photo courtesy Ross Haflin

After graduating high school in 1993, eighteen-year-old Jack White worked as an upholsterer in a gritty neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan. It was during this rather humble period that White got serious about his music. He immersed himself in the primitive sounds of the Detroit garage rock revival, playing drums and guitar in several bands while privately forming a very sophisticated musical aesthetic. The turning point came in 1996 when he married Meg White and began teaching her how to play drums.

Thus was born the White Stripes, a band whose music was informed in equal parts by the harsh sounds of thirties-era Mississippi Delta blues, Dutch minimalist art, the electric aggression of Led Zeppelin, and Meg’s naïve drumming. The results were so original and uncompromising that soon the entire alternative rock world stood up and took notice. At a time when the slick pop of Jennifer Lopez and Justin Timberlake ruled the airwaves, the White Stripes disrupted the charts with raucous slabs of artsy garage rock like “Fell in Love with a Girl” and “Seven Nation Army.”

The White Stripes recently called it quits, but White soldiers on, performing as a solo artist, producing artists as he did with country legend Loretta Lynn, and running his own Third Man record label.

“I think it’s magnificent how Jack has stood his ground,” Page says of White. “Of course, you have to have talent. He is unique and has clarity of vision, which makes him refreshing. His honesty in his playing and approach is to be admired. Most musicians would’ve compromised. He hasn’t and he won’t. He’s a solid rock.”

Jack is equally glowing about the guitarist who he acknowledges had an enormous influence on his music. “Jimmy Page has the special gift of taking an idea and presenting that idea in its most powerful form,” White says. “Artists often lose their focus or become distracted, but that’s never been the case with Jimmy. For example, as the Yardbirds were ending, he was able to find new people to work with, musicians that he knew could most powerfully present the ideas he had for the blues. What’s even more impressive is that it was at a time when everyone thought that the blues had been taken to its highest, hardest-hitting point. It turned out to not be the case. Page came along with Led Zeppelin and turned it up ten more notches.

“I also believe that his work as a producer at times exceeds even his importance as a guitar player. Not only did he write incredible riffs, he also knew how to present them.”

–Conversation published courtesy of Crown Publishers.

Brad Tolinski: Jack, you’ve used primitive elements of the blues to rebel against what you perceive as an excessive and overly processed and technological culture.

Jack White: The main things to rebel against right now—over-production, too much technology, overthinking. It’s a spoiled mentality; everything is too easy. If you want to record a song, you can buy Pro Tools and record four hundred guitar tracks. That leads to overthinking, which kills any spontaneity and the humanity of the performance.

What was interesting about Led Zeppelin was how well they were able to update and capture the essence of the scary part of the blues. A great Zeppelin track is every bit as intense and spontaneous as a Blind Willie Johnson recording.

Led Zeppelin’s version of Bukka White’s “Shake ’Em on Down” on Led Zeppelin III [entitled “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”] is a great example of a track that captures the essence of the country blues without copying them.

Jimmy Page: The key is you don’t want to copy the blues; you want to capture the mood. On III, we knew we wanted to allude to the country blues but, in the tradition of the style, we felt it had to be spontaneous and immediate. I had this old Vox amp, and one day Robert plugged his mike into the amp’s tremolo channel, and I started playing and he started singing. And what you hear on the album is essentially an edit of our first two takes. The band had an incredible empathy that allowed us to do things like that.

But that gets back to what you were saying before: You can’t overthink this music. Mood and intensity can’t be manufactured. The blues isn’t about structure; it’s what you bring to it. The spontaneity of capturing a specific moment is what drives it.

Jack White: One thing is for sure: Jimmy doesn’t get enough credit for his skill as a producer. Not only did he compose and play these great songs, but he was able to capture great performances from his band and made sure it was all properly recorded. I would go as far as to say that the way you were miking Bonham’s high hat was just as important as how heavy your riffs were. You had an amazing sense of how to deliver that rhythm, not only in your guitar riffs but also in the production of the music. It was the culmination of all of these elements that made Zeppelin so dynamic.

Jimmy Page: I had this idea of making a collage of contrasting sounds to create a wide range of dynamics, right from the first album. It just evolved from there.

Brad Tolinski: Jack, Jimmy went to art school and you’ve taken some cues from the world of fine art. Your second album was entitled De Stijl after the Dutch movement that attempted to purify art by bringing it back down to basic colors and form.

Jack White: When we were finishing that album, I decided I wanted to dedicate it to Blind Willie McTell. [De Stijl features a cover of McTell’s “Your Southern Can Is Mine.”] During that time it hit me that McTell and most of the great country bluesmen were recording and performing in the early twenties, which was the same time period as when the De Stijl art movement was taking root. They were both doing the same thing: breaking things down to their essences.

In my mind, both the country blues and the De Stijl movement represented a new beginning of music and art, perhaps for the rest of eternity. Both broke their respective arts down to its very core. You couldn’t get any more simple and pure than the De Stijl school. They only used squares, circles, horizontal and vertical lines, and primary colors. That’s it. The country blues of Son House and Charley Patton also brought music down to its fundamentals.

I wanted to draw those comparisons between those two things, which made people think that Meg and I were art students, which we weren’t. I couldn’t afford it. I probably would’ve gone if I could.

“If you are on to something creative, school can also inhibit you. The wrong teacher, man, can really mess you up.”

Brad Tolinski: But you don’t have to go to college to study or read about art.

Jimmy Page: I think that’s a good point. If you are on to something creative, school can also inhibit you. The wrong teacher, man, can really mess you up.

Brad Tolinski: How do you know if you are creating something important?

Jack White: You know a songwriter’s heart is pure when they have the desire to keep digging deeper into music. And invariably, when you dig deeper it always leads you into the past. Once I was able to dig back to the music of the twenties, it enabled me to understand more clearly the music of the present and the music that Jimmy was making in the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin. It even helped me to understand my place in the musical universe. It’s like we’re all connected as a big gang of roving minstrels.

Brad Tolinski: Jack, you said in a previous interview that it’s easy to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan and difficult to play like Son House. Could you clarify what you meant by that?

“We wanted to create an atmosphere that was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Our goal was to make music that was spine-tingling.”

Jack White: I guess what I meant was, the blues scale is one of the easiest things you can learn on the guitar. It’s the old cliché—“It’s easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master.” That’s where I was headed with that. I’m not impressed with somebody playing a blues scale at blinding speed, but I am impressed with Son House when he plays the “wrong” note. Somehow it’s more meaningful to me when I hear him miss a note and hit the neck of his guitar with his slide.

I think the distinction you’re looking for is that Son House is not being superficial—he’s not just playing a scale. He means every last note and is projecting it. He’s not showing off his technique, he’s trying to create a real emotional moment.

Jimmy Page: Technique plays a part—you have to know how to play. But what is important is that pursuit of something new and capturing that moment. Every band I’ve played in did a great deal of improvisation onstage, which is where the real magic takes place. That’s where the real drama happens. You might fuck up, but that’s also part of it. It’s the tension that makes it exciting. Great music is never safe or predictable.

Brad Tolinski: Jack, what impresses you about Jimmy’s work?

Jack White: I remember knowing the break in “Whole Lotta Love” when I was six. I had it on a cassette tape and there was actually a glitch on the tape from where the solo began because I had rewound it to that spot so many times. But now, as an adult, what impresses me is that Led Zeppelin is the ultimate expression of the power of the blues. Jimmy was really able to center in on the most powerful aspects of the form. If there was a knob for the power and expression of the blues, he was able to turn it up all the way.

I can give you an example of what I’m talking about. On the Led Zeppelin DVD, the band plays a version of “Dazed and Confused” on Copenhagen television that always gets to me. Right before the second verse, Jimmy starts making a bunch of abrasive noise for two seconds, and that is so much like a 100 percent amped-up version of Robert Johnson. When Johnson did that sort of thing, it was the most powerful sound he could make using just an acoustic guitar and microphone, and when Jimmy did that, he was making the most powerful sound he could make in the environment he was in. When you have a vision like Jimmy’s, I think that’s the aim. To make everything as powerful as you can make it.

Jimmy Page: But it wasn’t just power—atmosphere was very important for us as well. We wanted to create an atmosphere that was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Our goal was to make music that was spine-tingling.

Brad Tolinski: Both of you are guitarists that produce. What does production mean to you?

Jack White: What you said before: having a vision for what you want done. I was originally afraid that having too much control would come off looking too egotistical: “Songs written by Jack White, produced by Jack White, guitar played by Jack White,” and so on. But what it really came down to was my belief that I knew what I wanted to happen and it was just more efficient to do it myself. I didn’t want to discuss what I wanted to do with someone for an hour. I just wanted to do it.

Jimmy Page: That’s it, isn’t it? Who needs someone else getting in the way of the process? Even if you’re wrong…

Jack White: …at least it’s my mistake.

Jimmy Page: Actually, I should say, even if you’re not right. We must always remember, Jack, the artist is never wrong!

Brad Tolinski: There is something else unusual that unites both of you: Zeppelin wrote lots of great riffs, great hooks, and refrains, but rarely did the band write what I would call a conventional chorus. Some of Zeppelin’s biggest hits—“Stairway to Heaven,” “Kashmir,” “Over the Hills and Far Away”—don’t have choruses. The same is true of many of the White Stripes’ biggest songs, including hits like “Seven Nation Army” and “Blue Orchid.” Was that intentional?

Jimmy Page: Yes, it was done purposely. We wanted every part of the song to be important and have movement. There was no need to retreat to the security of having a big chorus in every song. If you emphasize one part of the song, it trivializes the rest of the music.

“Artists say that paintings are never done. I sort of feel the same way about music. I would never say something is perfect.”

Jack White: As far as I’m concerned, the riff in Led Zeppelin’s “The Wanton Song,” for example, is the chorus. It could go on for a half hour and I would be completely riveted and satisfied. It’s so powerful and concise that it never gets boring.

Jimmy Page: A riff can take on the aspect of a chorus in a listener’s psyche. When that happens, the whole song becomes one big chorus. The idea of a hypnotic riff as the prime mover of a piece of music has been around for a long time, whether you’re talking about the Delta blues or music from Middle Eastern and African cultures.

Brad Tolinski: Is there one piece of music that either of you can point to that in your mind represents some sort of Platonic ideal of a great song?

Jimmy Page: Artists say that paintings are never done. I sort of feel the same way about music. I would never say something is perfect. There are performances that can generate a lot of emotion in me when I hear them, but I can’t say if anything is perfect.

Jack White: That sounds good. I’m gonna go with Jimmy on that one!

Reprinted from Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page by Brad Tolinski. Copyright © 2012. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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3 comments for High Art, Low Blues

  1. Comment by Bernard on December 6, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Jack White…..he is a Genius!

  2. Comment by Dennis on January 22, 2014 at 9:54 pm

    Jack is good but Stevie was an all-time great. I’ve seen them both in concert and jack isn’t even on the same planet! For him to say what Stevie played is easy is ballsy to say the least. When he does it then he can talk, until then shut and know your place. I play and jack plays very simple raw riffs. It’s fresh sounding but simple.

  3. Comment by Brad on October 13, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    Jack white is an ASSHAT. He is no blues man. He is full of shit.

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