The White Stripes Biography
July 1975 • Detroit, Michigan
Guitarist, pianist, singer, songwriter
c. 1974 • Grosse Pointe, Michigan
Instantly recognizable in their stark red-and-white outfits, the White Stripes have become a worldwide phenomenon with their energetic blend of blues, punk, folk, and country. Consisting solely of Jack White on guitar and vocals and Meg White playing the drums, the Detroit-based White Stripes have been among the most visible groups connected to a revival of the loosely defined style known as garage rock—a usually fast-paced rock 'n' roll style favoring short songs with intense drumming and memorable lyrics. The White Stripes, however, bear the mark of a number of influences—not just the passionate, in-your-face Detroit signature sound they were raised with—including old-time country and traditional blues. With the release of their 2001 album White Blood Cells, the White Stripes graduated from regional success story to international stars. Their following release, Elephant (2003), further cemented their status, earning hordes of new fans, enthusiastic reviews from the music press, and a Grammy Award in 2004 for best alternative music album.
Even in the midst of tremendous recognition and fame, the group has insisted on maintaining a strong degree of independence and control, holding on to their unique vision. They tightly control how much and what kind of information the press receives about their personal lives, creating an aura of mystery. When they first began to receive national attention, Meg and Jack White told reporters that they were siblings. Later, it was revealed that their relationship was not one of brother and sister but rather ex–husband and wife. Even after proof of their relationship surfaced in the form of a marriage certificate and divorce documents, Jack White continued to insist, as he told Entertainment Weekly 's Tom Sinclair, that "we will be brother and sister till the day we die." White additionally maintains control by producing every album the band makes. In an interview with Guitar Player 's Darrin Fox, White explained his reason for acting as producer: "I didn't want to argue with anybody about how we should sound. It's not an ego thing—I just wanted to be as in touch with the original idea as I could."
"I consider everything about the songs—except the storytelling—to be a trick. If you're successful, and people love the songs, then you've successfully tricked them into liking the story."
Jack White, Guitar Player, June 2003.
Meet the White Stripes
Born John Gillis, Jack White is one of ten children in a musical family raised in southwest Detroit. He started playing drums in elementary school. He first picked up one of his older brothers' guitars after receiving a reel-to-reel tape recorder. He started playing the guitar simply to record some basic tunes to accompany his drumming. Jack told Fox in the Guitar Player interview that he thinks starting as a drummer helped him become a better guitarist: "A lot of guitarists I respect, like Dick Dale, started off as drummers. I think it's interesting how rhythms are already in your head before you even know how to play guitar." He attended Cass Technical High School, also known as Cass Tech, a highly respected public school in downtown Detroit. As a teenager, Jack became intensely interested in the blues, delving into the music of such legendary artists as Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, and Howlin' Wolf. While still in high school, he got a job working part-time at an upholstery company called Muldoon studio. He and the owner, Brian Muldoon, often jammed together, and Muldoon dipped into his extensive record collection to introduce White to the music of a number of influential bands. In 1994 Jack became the drummer for country-punk outfit Goober and the Peas.
In 1996 Jack and his girlfriend, Megan White, were married. Jack took his wife's surname, ever after being known as Jack White. The story of the band's origin involves Meg one day simply picking up drumsticks and playing along with Jack on guitar. "She was playing so childishly," Jack told Andrew Perry of Mojo magazine, intending the description as a compliment to Meg's simple, minimalist, untrained style. "So when Meg started playing that way, I was like, 'Man, don't even practice! This is perfect.'" Two months after Meg first picked up drumsticks, in 1997, the duo began playing gigs all over Detroit. They recorded two singles for the Detroit label Italy Records, "Let's Shake Hands" and "Lafayette Blues." They struggled for recognition, gradually winning over a small group of fans with Jack's songwriting and their passion for the music. During this time, Jack was invited to play guitar with the Detroit-based garage band the Go, an emerging band in the garage-rock scene. He joined the band, playing on their debut record. When the Go got a recording contract with the Seattle label (and former home to Nirvana) Sup Pop, Jack found himself at a crossroads. He felt that signing a contract with a band would compromise his freedom. He would not be the band's leader, and he knew that would not suit his personality. With the White Stripes, Jack would have the freedom to continually experiment, working in tandem with just one other performer: Meg. He left the Go and, by 1999, was completely focused on the White Stripes.
The White Stripes take off
The Stripes recorded their self-titled debut album in 1999. Made for about $2,000, the album was released by the independent Sympathy for the Record Industry label, located in California. The album, recorded in part in the attic of Jack's parents' house, captured the raw, stripped-down power of the White Stripes' live show, but it also showcased Jack's poetic, heartfelt lyrics. Writing for All Music Guide, Chris Handyside singled out the words to the White Stripes' songs, suggesting that it was the lyrics that set them apart: "The White Stripes are grounded in punk and blues, but the undercurrent to all of their work has been [a] striving for simplicity, a love of American folk music, and a careful approach to intriguing, emotional, and evocative lyrics not found anywhere else in ... modern punk or garage rock." Looking back on their debut during a 2003 interview with Guitar Player, Jack White said, "I still feel we've never topped our first album. It's the most raw, the most powerful, and the most Detroit-sounding record we've made." In the fall of 1999, the White Stripes were invited to tour with Pavement and Sleater-Kinney, two bands that had earned critical praise and were fixtures of the independent-rock scene.
During the summer of 2000, not long after Jack and Meg White got divorced, the White Stripes released De Stijl, which means "the style." The title refers to an early twentieth-century art movement that emphasized simplicity and abstraction, or the depiction of objects in a way that makes them unrecognizable. Critics praised the White Stripes' second album for its primitive, basic style and the variety of songs, both originals and covers. In Rollingstone.com Jenny Eliscu described the album as "blues-tinged rock & roll scaled back to its most essential elements—one guitar, a simple drum kit, and sneering vocals." Heather Phares summed up De Stijl in All Music Guide: "As distinctive as it is diverse, De Stijl blends the Stripes' arty leanings with enough rock muscle to back up the band's ambitions."
Stars and Stripes
For their third release, White Blood Cells (2001), the White Stripes laid down some ground rules before recording began. First, they decided to avoid the genre they felt most passionate about: the blues. Jack explained to Fox in Guitar Player that he had always felt conflicted
The Stripes continued their upward climb with their next album, Elephant, which was released in the spring of 2003. Heather Phares of All Music Guide wrote: Elephant overflows with quality—it's full of tight songwriting, sharp, witty lyrics, ... judiciously used basses and tumbling keyboard melodies that enhance the band's powerful simplicity." The album showcases the female half of the duo more than previous releases had, with Meg contributing not just her telltale strong-but-simple drumming but also vocals on such songs as "In the Cold, Cold Night." Increasing numbers of critics and fans were won over by the Stripes' intensity and sincerity, somewhat unusual in an age where many artists feel that detachment is far cooler than passion. Writing in Esquire, Andy Langer expressed his appreciation for Elephant: "In the end, Elephant is an album destined for a long shelf life.... But its importance couldn't be any simpler or any more worth repeating: There are fourteen blistering songs on this record with Jack and Meg White's blood, sweat, and tears all over them. And every single one of them matters." The album certainly mattered to Grammy Award voters in 2004, who designated Elephant the best alternative music album of the previous year.
While keeping busy recording and touring with the Stripes, Jack White also tried his hand at acting with a small role in the 2003 film Cold Mountain, starring Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, and Renee Zellweger. He contributed several songs to the soundtrack. Most were covers of traditional songs, while one track, "Never Far Away," was composed by White. This soundtrack allowed White to further demonstrate his versatility and talent, prompting John Mulvey of NME.com to assert that " Cold Mountain proves what most of us have long suspected: when the White Stripes end, White will be far from finished."
Many fans of the White Stripes feel the band's power comes across best in live performances. Jack's guitars are old, inexpensive, beat-up instruments, and Meg's drum kit is small and simple. They rely very little on technology for their performances and recordings, instead banking on their energy, anger, and earnestness to carry their message forward. Jack told Fox in Guitar Player: "We put a lot of pressure on ourselves live. We don't have a set list, we don't rehearse, and we don't play the tunes exactly like on the album. We're just two people on stage with nothing to fall back on. But, that way, if something good comes out of it, we can really be proud because we know we did it for real."
For More Information
Fox, Darrin. "White Heat." Guitar Player (June 2003): p. 66.
Langer, Andy. "The White Stripes' Elephant Is a Rock 'n' Roll Record So Rousing, You Won't Mind Paying for It." Esquire (May 2003): p. 80.
McCollum, Brian. "A Definitive Oral History." Detroit Free Press (April 13, 2003).
The White Stripes. http://www.whitestripes.com/ (accessed on August 17, 2004).
"The White Stripes." All Music Guide. http://www.allmusic.com/ (accessed on August 17, 2004).
"The White Stripes." Launch. http://launch.yahoo.com/artist/default.asp?artistID=1042272 (accessed on August 17, 2004).
"White Stripes." NME.com. http://www.nme.com/artists/173888.htm (accessed on August 17, 2004).
"The White Stripes." Rollingstone.com. http://www.rollingstone.com (accessed on August 17, 2004).