Q&A: Duff McKagan and Jack White Talk Happy Accidents, Lanegan, and Growing Up With GNR

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Q&A: Duff McKagan and Jack White Talk Happy Accidents, Lanegan, and Growing Up With GNR

  • Q&A: Duff McKagan and Jack White Talk Happy Accidents, Lanegan, and Growing Up With GNR

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    Alex Fine
    Duff McKagan (left) is the founding bassist of Guns N' Roses and a columnist at Seattle Weekly. Jack White (right) brings his solo debut, Blunderbuss, to Seattle's WaMu Theater on Tuesday, August 14.
    Having the freedom to do what you want in a creative venture without the constraints and pressures of mandated commercial success can be the most freeing and self-releasing experience. Twinned with natural gifts and a driven spirit, an environment emerges where truly great things can happen.

    Steve Jobs is a great example of this.

    Prince always has done what he wants, and done it well.

    Clint Eastwood has always been able to create things at will, onscreen and behind the camera.

    John Lennon had the freedom to create and the resources to play with whomever he chose.

    Jack White is one of those guys.

    Creativity knows no boundaries with him. And while the rest of us may think that the guy just can't sit still (what, eight different band projects in the last dozen years?), success in pretty much all that he does has afforded him the opportunity to have healthy outlets for his growing creativity.

    Think of that cartoon snowball going down a mountainside getting bigger and bigger as it picks up speed, taking down trees as it catapults headlong. Jack White is today's musical equivalent.

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    Renee McMahon
    His unchecked creativity allows him to do stuff on records--hanging out in the studio at length with some of Earth's best session players, just waiting for creativity to strike? Wow!--that few others can afford. Guys like Jack White and Prince set the bar for what becomes standard, but they are always one step ahead.

    The Information Age and the disposability of digital files has made new music seem so transient. You have to really go hunting for the good current stuff, or you just go backwards and listen to Zeppelin or the Stones.

    Blunderbuss, Jack White's first true solo venture, is one of those records that makes you feel like you are in the same room as the players. The sounds and riffs are authentic and hearken back to some Levon Helm/Band-isms, sounding current and urgent at the same time.

    If you delve into the word choices, rhyme schemes, and subject matter of the lyrics for Blunderbuss, you will find a smart, dark, and hip trip into the blackness of love found, lost, and finally disposed of. White says he doesn't like to set out to write about himself, but turns to universal truths of heartbreak and human wreckage as a foundation to get some anger and emotion out. It's only after a song gets made that Jack sees his characters clearly.

    "The funny thing is, I always think I'm writing about a couple of characters," Jack told me, "but by the end I'm mixing the song and listening to it back and thinking, 'Oh, now I know exactly what this song is about. I'm the only one who's going to know.' "

    White has joined the ranks of Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen as anomalies in the rock-and-roll game. He sells records (and a lot of them). He sells tickets to shows (again, lots). He can afford to tour with two complete bands (one all-male, one all-female. What!?), choosing daily which one will play that night. He can choose who he wants to work with, and those people seemingly jump at the chance (the Stones, Loretta Lynn, Jimmy Page, The Edge, etc.).

    We need dudes like White. We need people to show us that you can be an individual who indulges the whims of your creative spirit and still be commercially successful. Pushing boundaries and selling records makes other bands and artists stray to the outer edges, away from what's safe, familiar, and popular--and that is great for music.

    Here's what happened when I jumped on the phone with Jack:

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    Renee McMahon
    Jack White: Hello.

    McKagan: Hey, Jack.

    Hey.

    It's Duff.

    Hey, Duff, how are you doing?

    Good, how are you doing, dude?

    Great. We met one time in a hotel lobby in New York, I think.

    We did. We did some hanging out there. I've never done an interview per se, but I've been interviewed a million times, and you probably have too. They thought it would be interesting if you and I just kind of talked.

    Yeah.

    I really like the new record a lot. The sounds are kick-ass. I read the lyrics away from the music, which is something I don't always do, but I don't always interview somebody. Can you tell me about the path that you went on for this record, lyric-wise?

    It was sort of different writing ideas I was trying out every day. Each song was a new way of writing that I had never tried before. I was writing backwards and writing with people in the room . . . One time I had all the session musicians in and they were all waiting for me, and I sat down at the piano and I absolutely had no song at all.

    I forced myself to write one right in front of them without them knowing it, and I was trying a lot of ideas like that out to really make things different for me, because I didn't realize what I was doing until four or five songs in, what this was going to be. I had no plans to make a quote-unquote solo record.

    There's pain in this record. A lot of people use different things to help them write lyrics. Sometimes it's politics, and sometimes it's pain. It's hurt love, relationship pain. Was there a theme here with this record that struck a common chord?

    I always find it kind of boring to write about myself. But whatever happens to you, if you've gone through anything--sort of a literal train wreck in your life, for example--you have to have that inside of you in some way; even if you choose not to write about being involved in a train wreck, it would come out of you no matter what choice you have. So whatever characters I was writing about during the record, I'm giving them these problems. But the problems are only things that I probably have seen or experienced sometime along the way.

    The funny thing is, I always think I'm writing about, you know, a couple of characters, but by the end I'm mixing the song and listening to it back and thinking, "Oh, now I know exactly what this song is about. I'm the only one who's going to know." It's very funny.

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    Duff McKagan's regular column runs every Thursday on Reverb.
    I told Brian Ray from Paul McCartney's band that I'm going to interview Jack, and what do I talk about, and he brought up a very interesting thing. He said you two were talking at some point, and you were a fan of Hunt Sales and that old Iggy band, that Berlin-era Iggy band. You're a fan of Hunt?

    Hunt's amazing.

    How was it that you came onto him?

    I had seen old footage of Iggy Pop when I started to get into the Stooges, and then I started getting into Iggy Pop's solo music later and I saw footage of his rhythm section, and I thought they were playing amazingly and they looked really cool. I didn't know who they were, and someone said they were Soupy Sales' kids.

    In Detroit, Soupy Sales was such a famous star. That was an amazing thing to hear as a Detroiter, that they were from Soupy Sales. It was even more appealing, and I started to read more about them and learn more about what they had been doing. Hunt was a punk rocker 10 years before punk. I love his drummer style, too.

    You are touring with two different bands. That's kind of like a dream setup--to have a different band every night.

    Yeah. Well, I was just trying to think of ways to break things up for me, because a lot of times you see somebody you know from a band and they play under their own name and they just have to find four or five people to stand behind them and play the songs off their old album, and it's a nostalgia trip, and I don't really want to do that. And a lot of the stuff--if it's a White Stripes song, for example, that people are hearing, I don't want to recreate something that a two-piece band did with six people in some really regular, perfunctory way, or a nostalgic way. So it's a way for me to shake things up for myself so it stays really alive onstage, not just trying to recreate some moment from 10 years ago.

    Also, the new songs of mine were done with these new musicians, so that was the lucky part. I could take all of them with me on the road. It's very expensive, but I'm getting a lot out of it.

    Do you have a normal way of writing riffs and musical beds for your songs?

    This one was a lot of accidents. We had this song on the record called "16 Saltines" and the riff was [written while] sort of checking the reverb unit and seeing how long the reverb would last. I said record this real quick, and we'll come back to it later.

    These things would not have happened years ago in the studio. I used to really force myself to go in there like, oh, a White Stripes album, or Raconteurs, we got to record this, and we have eight days to do it, and we're going to do it for only $5,000, and have all these limitations to myself. But now that I have my own studio, I can take advantage of those things right now--actually record something off the fly and come back to it. I never would have done something like that back in the day.

    Do you remember what you have when you get all those happy accidents?

    Yeah, I used to let them go, or say, "Oh, just go on." I said from now on I'm not doing that anymore, and I also made a rule for myself that when I wake up in the middle of the night and have some melody coming out . . . I told myself to write them down--which is probably the hardest thing I've done, to write something down at 4 in the morning. Songs on the album came from that--"Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boys" came from that, 4 o'clock in the morning, forcing myself to write down a melody and some words.

    How did you get into making Wanda Jackson's record?

    I had been producing a lot of 45s for Third Man Records over the last three years, and she called up. But she wanted to do one of those albums that I never can get into, which is those where every song's a duet with somebody or collaboration. And I said, "Well, you know, I don't even really know who buys those records, Wanda, and maybe it works for Santana once, or something, but I just don't know if it works for anybody." And I said "Why don't we go and just do a single, just do a 45, and if something happens, something inspiring, and we need to do more songs, we'll do it."

    We did that Amy Winehouse track, and it turned out great, and we ended up having about six songs the first day--and I said, "Wanda, why don't we just make a whole album and finish it," and she was really up for it. I've had a lot of experience working with septuagenarians. It worked out good.

    Are you a fan of Mark Lanegan?

    Yeah, yeah. In fact, I met Mark Lanegan at the side of the stage at a Queens of the Stone Age [performance] a while ago. I started talking to him--I didn't even know it was him I was talking to. I was really funny. I felt really rude and ignorant, but he has such a beautiful voice. I love that he . . . is working on music because he needs to and can't help himself. That really appeals to me.

    That's probably why I brought him up. You two remind me of each other in terms of how you roll in your career. Personally, I could see a kick-ass collaboration at some point. But listen, Jack, I'll come and see ya when you're here in Seattle.

    It was great to talk with you, Duff. I listened to so much of your music when I was younger, by the way, and [it was] a really big influence on me. Thank you for all of that, I appreciate it.

    Thanks, Jack, man. I dig what you're doing, I really do. This new record's really great and authentic, and I appreciate getting snippets of authentic music here and there. It's kind of rare these days. So thanks.

     
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