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Pop Music: A Q&A with the White Stripes singer

Friday, March 29, 2002

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

What effect, if any, do you think the avalanche of year-end praise is gonna have on this tour?

I don't know. The last time we toured in America, it was just kind of starting with this standing-still kind of crowd. I don't know what was bringing that on, some sort of hipster thing was happening. It was the hip show to go to that week in that town and people were too cool for school. They couldn't even move their heads. We'd get on stage and play, like, three or four songs and be like, "Let's just leave." Hopefully, that's not gonna happen this time. We had toured so much in America before anyone had even heard of us and we never had crowds like that. It's just a drag to go on stage and feel like "OK, I'm just gonna have to ignore the crowd tonight."

What do you think it is about this album that made it such a hit with critics?

I think our touring had just built up to that point. We had gone on tour with Sleater-Kinney after the second album and I guess a lot of press happened to be at those shows because of them, and they started writing about us. It's kind of funny, 'cause since the first album, it had just been word of mouth. We never had anybody working on it until this one got lots of attention. Then, I just couldn't answer the phone anymore.

So hold on, you were doing it yourself?

Uh-huh. Until a few months after we released "White Blood Cells."

Do you have any thoughts on why the British press seemed to really get behind you first?

I'm really not sure. It was really unbelievable to go over there. It seemed like they were waiting for that or something. They'd already had the Strokes a few months before and they're always looking for something new in England, that's for sure. And, I mean, I don't understand why a two-piece band would blow up over there.

So you mentioned the Strokes. Do you feel a connection at all to them?

I feel it just because we're both playing rock 'n' roll.

You're among those bands that are being positioned as the only hope for rock 'n' roll at a time when the top of the charts are filled with really awful stuff. Do you feel like you could really make that sort of difference?

It's not like we wanted to change rock 'n' roll or anything. We never had those goals when we started. We just wanted to make records. I don't think anybody starts a two-piece band thinking it's some sort of recipe for success. But I don't know, we don't really have the teen-age appeal of a lot of things -- new metal or mixing rap and heavy metal together, all those kind of things that are really supposedly cutting-edge music. So it's hard to say. I can't say what's good about us because it just feels weird. It feels egotistical.

There's something that's almost classic rock about the sound to some of the songs on the album. Are you into stuff like that? Led Zeppelin?

Those bands, everybody kind of knows those things by heart, the Who and Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. It seems like any musician has those things in his brain, you know. When we're making music and writing songs, all the things we stay away from -- dance or electronic equipment or metal -- you're left with only folk music, blues and rock 'n' roll. Those are the only things I really cared about. So maybe Led Zeppelin was looking at Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters just like I love Robert Johnson and Son House and Blind Willie McTell. We never sat down and said we want to write songs like Led Zeppelin. Or the Who. These songs just kind of come out.

What do you think the advantages are to being just a two-piece?

It's very easy on stage to do whatever we want to do. We never have a set list. We never rehearse. So it's really spontaneous. If we had more than two people, my sister and I just couldn't communicate with the other person. We work together so much at just reading each other's minds that having someone else there would just mess it all up -- unless it was someone who could follow along very well.

How would you say the live show compares to the records?

I think it's better. Way better. It's really exhausting, I think, and a lot more manic. We have so much material -- three albums -- and we have, like, 20 songs for our new album we'll be doing next month. And we've done, like, over 50 covers through the last few years. We could play for a long time, but, you know, we don't usually play for a long time. Just enough to exhaust everybody, I guess.

In "Little Room," you sing about the dangers of finding yourself in a bigger room. Now that you're in a bigger room, is it as weird as you'd imagined?

I suppose some elements of it are. I don't think the writing is gonna change at all. But yeah, you know, you wake up every day and someone is telling you something, like yesterday, someone says, "You just moved up, like, 60 places on the Billboard 200. You're 121 on the charts now." For people who all we wanted to do was make 7-inch vinyl, it's really hilarious to get to the point where people are telling you news like that. Or "They're playing you on the radio in South America." It's always something funny every day now.

Is there a level of success you wouldn't want to go beyond?

That's a good question. The thing that I don't really like is the way some people will expose themselves on MTV. You'll see people talking about their personal relationships or taking MTV cameras into their house to meet their parents and show them around their kitchen and stuff like that. I don't understand why everybody does that. Do they think that's cool? Do they think that's success or something? I would never do that. It's like people just get so much success that they don't know what else to do to have a vehicle to talk about themselves. It's pretty funny.

So we won't be seeing you on MTV "Cribs" anytime soon?

I don't think so.

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