The Raconteurs: A very likely story

Great things are predicted for Jack White's The Raconteurs, but they'd be just as happy playing for each other, hears Kevin Harley
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The Independent Culture

It's no secret that the Raconteurs make sweet music. Aside from their brash butch-rock debut, Broken Boy Soldiers, proof sits at the start of my interview tape. As recording starts, three Raconteurs - one is dawdling outside - lean into the microphone and hum in key with each other for a few seconds, as if tuning up for the questions. Minutes before, their main men, singer-songwriter Brendan Benson and the White Stripes giant Jack White, staged a mock stand-off for the photographer outside their record label's office. Back inside, though, harmony is the keynote.

And that's how White likes it. Sure, from a distance the Raconteurs do look like this arch-conceptualist's supergroup-cum-side-project. White is the main draw by dint of iconic stature, sartorial dash and the garage-blues tornado his other band whip up. To his left, there's the more pop-driven Benson, a good melody man to have on-team. And to White's right, there's the drummer Patrick Keeler and bassist "Little" Jack Lawrence, the knock-out rhythm section for the Ohio blues-rockers the Greenhornes.

But White hates the word "side-project," and the Raconteurs do have the rare air of a can't-fake-it, old-school gang of disparate buddies. Sure, White talks the most: words tumble from him at the same pace as he quivers and quakes across stage. Benson is happy not to talk much, enjoying having the solo artist's heat lifted. And Keeler and Lawrence play like a support act of straight man and comic, the band falling duly silent whenever the latter whispers some sly, waspish aside.

Between them, they're adamant that spontaneity is their band's bottom line. "I couldn't stress more that everything fell together naturally," White says. "There was never a day when I thought, 'Got a new idea, hey, Brendan, let's start a band.' It trickled in, and all of a sudden, we were making an album."

That trickle stretches back to late 1990s Detroit, when White and Benson became friends, when White was barely out of the upholstery business, and when Benson was signed to Virgin and had been tipped for fame. The Greenhornes stayed at White's place when they played in Detroit, and they also played on the same Loretta Lynn album, Van Lear Rose, that White featured on in 2004.

"I recorded the Greenhornes in my living room in 1998," says White. "We played shows together in 1997. It's funny now, with what's been happening with this band. We see old posters where we were all on the same bill. My favourite is a White Stripes and Greenhornes poster from a Nashville show, with Loretta Lynn's face on it. We ended up on her record, and now we all live in Nashville!"

In practice, the seemingly odd songwriting collaboration between Benson's brittle pop and White's blues-rock brawn does sound like it was meant to be. While the Stripes mine the blues, Soldiers seamlessly mixes Sixties mod-psych, Seventies Hammond-fired rock basics, and crunchy power-pop. The result is surprisingly seamless. "That's the part I like, because I've been typecast so much as a 'pop' singer, it gets annoying," says Benson. "This is a chance to clear out all of that, although it wasn't the conscious intention."

"Also," says White, "we made a decision not to put who played what on what song on the album. Now, I don't even want to know."

Did White not bring any strict regulations to the band, then? (In the unlikely event that anyone doesn't know, the Stripes operate to a dashing three-colour dress regime of red, black and white, and a band set-up of drums, vocals and guitars - no bass.) "No, I already have a band that does that," White says, chuckling at the idea of control freakery. "Don't need another one."

The Raconteurs' natural evolution kicked off in 2004, with writing and recording taking place in Benson's basement and attic. "The timing was right," Benson nods. "I was working on a song in my house, and Jack came by and wrote some lyrics. That was 'Steady, as She Goes'. Then we had some time off, and we said, 'OK, let's do it.'"

"We had a song that had nowhere to go," White says of the song that went into the top five, giving him his highest position in the UK singles chart. "Wasn't on a Stripes record, wasn't on a Brendan Benson record. Once they [the Greenhornes] played on it, it was like, well, what is this? So it became a band."

It's not just a band, either, but an ideal of a band, where songs emerge spontaneously and albums are pretty much recorded live. Indeed, the Raconteurs feel more like a "proper" nuts-and-bolts band than the Stripes do. "If I was making up a band, I wouldn't make up the White Stripes," White says. "A two-piece band who wear red and black and white, and play blues music, and use equipment that's ready to fall apart is not really a recipe for success. This is a more easy-going band, in the sense that we all share the load. We are all four-pistons, all-cylinders firing.

"All the songs were written within a week's time," he continues, ever-enthused. "No one said, 'Let's write this kind of song or that kind of song.' It was just playing. The album is mostly like, 'Here's us, just crashing into each other in a room with mikes in it'."

Before the Raconteurs could crash into public view, White had business to attend to. In 2005, he took the Stripes' fifth album, Get Behind Me Satan, around the world on a mammoth, marimba-bothering promotional jaunt. (He got married along the way, too, to the model Karen Elson.) He's adamant, though, that he isn't putting the Stripes behind him.

"I've heard assumptions that I'm bored with the White Stripes, or that it's not fulfilling for me, which is very much not true," he says. "I find the White Stripes extremely fulfilling. It's extremely challenging. It's harder to be in the White Stripes than in this. I don't get to break for a second when the Stripes play live. But I do wish to dissuade people of the assumption that I've become bored with the White Stripes. And I would definitely admit it if it was the case.

"I've had a lot of changes in my life that affect everything. I'm a different person from what I was two years ago, which is about keeping out of negative environments and getting into positive environments. This band is a positive environment. It's about positive musicians, not negative musicians. Not negative hipsters, who are demons who prowl the Earth and used-record stores."

Does White want to put the circus that trails the Stripes behind him, then? "I don't mind whatever attention is paid to anything I do!" he laughs - but the only fly in the Raconteurs' ointment is that the internet and music press make it tough for them to be seen as a modest, homegrown band of brothers. For starters, as they gear up for their biggest tour, the slow-build option is ruled out on grounds of ferocious curiosity.

"We didn't have the luxury to tour in bars in America," says White (speaking freely, with what many bands might consider "luxury"). "We tried to play one secret show at a bar, but 200 people turned up, so we had to cancel it."

"That wasn't how the White Stripes or the Greenhornes started," deadpans Keeler.

"Yeah, where you have years to do your first record and work all the bugs out of your live show," White adds. "We just jumped right in."

The day before we meet, they headed straight from the plane to their first UK festival gig, at Wireless in Hyde Park. Like their first, smaller UK gigs, the show was a success, though not in terms of shaking off the Benson and White baggage. "It's hard for me," says Benson. "The fact that this got so popular so quickly doesn't help. It's no longer our fun little thing. At Wireless I had, like, a little moment. I'm supposed to be enjoying this, playing with friends, and I hit a bump. There were celebrities on the side of the stage... and moments before that we were just, you know, punching each other in the arm."

On top of such hangers-on, pre-album presumptions about what the band would sound like proliferated, two in particular. One claimed that Soldiers would be the Detroit equivalent of Nirvana's grunge-defining Nevermind. The other compared it with David Bowie's much-derided side-project, the band Tin Machine. The Raconteurs don't know much about Bowie's trad-rock folly, but they know what they think of the former.

"We hate," says White, with a mix of righteous passion and bemused resignation, "the Nevermind one. That was a big misunderstanding, a very NME-esque thing that happened. A friend of ours heard Nevermind six months before it came out, and I played him ours before it came out. He said it was the same feeling he got with Nevermind. You know, this is a really good record and it's going to be big [but] none of us ever said such a thing. It's ridiculous, who would ever make such a statement? We were really bummed that it got put out."

So much for the music press. And the demons that prowl the internet? "The internet is like an electronic rumour mill and it can be destructive," White says, "when you're talking about control over perception. Anyone has a worldwide audience. Journalists quote blogs. You wonder whether maybe there was a time when you had to have a degree in English, or creative writing, or even just a gift for the written word...."

White's beef with new-fangled ways of doing simple things is much documented, stretching back at least to the analogue recording of the Stripes' Elephant album. And as ever, he has a point. "When you're onstage, you look out to a sea of cell-phones filming you. How romantic is that?! We're writing songs, but we can't try them out live because you're blowing it. It's worldwide instantly, on YouTube or whatever.

"Maybe it's just about wanting things you're not supposed to have," he says. "Maybe things aren't broken. Maybe nothing needs to be fixed in the different realms of how music is produced and released. No one has ever really improved, say, on a Fender twin reverb amplifier from the 1960s. They've made other amps, and they turn on faster, and they're cleaner or whatever, but does it sound better? The first way to do things usually is the best way."

The Raconteurs are clearly the quartet's idea of a "first way" kind of band. As such, their frustrations with the internet and press are to be read as a statement of intent, rather than an admission of defeat. That already much-anticipated second Raconteurs album is in the pipeline, but it will only emerge when the band feel it's time.

"The songs will tell us when it's ready," says White.

"We'll record it," cracks Little Jack, "and then four years later we'll put it out on YouTube."

"We haven't written it yet," says Benson, "but I'm sure you can listen to it on the internet." The jocularity is genuine: there's nothing broken about these boy rockers.

'Broken Boy Soldiers' is out now on XL; the single 'Hands' is out on 31 July

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