On Record & Road: Jack White’s Band Share Their Stories

Of the thousands of live acts we’ve seen conquer stages throughout the years, Third Man Records nucleus Jack White stands far and above the rest in showmanship, musical versatility and the trick-up-his-sleeve essence of exhilarating unpredictability. Having crafted a legacy as a phenomenal performer in the White Stripes era, White’s time with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather expressed an unlimited potential for musical endeavors. So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when he launched a solo career with an accompanying tour, and it went everywhere that was humanely possible. Following both of his solo records – 2012’s Blunderbuss (review) and 2014’s Lazaretto (review) – were two intense touring cycles with two tandem bands, where material from his entire career was performed in a variety of settings – never the same setlist each night.

When White released his record Blunderbuss, he surprised fans by touring and performing with two separate bands – the all-male Buzzards, and the all-female Peacocks. In a rather unique format, each night Jack would choose one of the bands to perform with, or sometimes take turns with each during a single concert, with no prior indication or warning (Jack notoriously refuses to use a setlist, letting the energy of the moment guide his selections). It was a revolutionary approach, a unique spectacle to witness every night, and often the concert experience of a lifetime. When it came time for 2014’s Lazaretto and its accompanying tour, White distilled the two bands down to one, but maintained the unpredictability and arguably made the band even more powerful.

Now that White has shifted his focus to his other bands (for now), we thought it was time to gain some perspective from the musicians who toured with him, in order to shed some light on the whole process. We were happy to speak to members Dominic John Davis (bass), Daru Jones (drums), Fats Kaplin (lap steel / theremin), Lillie Mae Rische (violin / vocals), and Cory Younts (mandolin / harmonica) all of which were featured on both of Jack White’s solo LPs and accompanying tours, and singer Ruby Amanfu, who was around for the first tour cycle but is now about to launch a solo record of her own. 

What follows is the first installment of our four-part conversation.

  • RECORDING THE ALBUMS

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When the time came to record Blunderbuss, Jack White didn’t stick to a single band setting, nor did he choose to record all instruments himself. Instead he used over a dozen musicians to record the album in several different configurations. Later, Lazaretto was put to tape in similar fashion. We spoke to the musicians about the writing and recording process.

The way Jack tells it, you started recording the album with no solid idea of what Lazaretto would be? Just a few songs here and there.

Fats Kaplin: Yeah… I think so, because it was done in all these different bits and pieces, then Jack put it together. But it was probably a lot more obvious to him about what it was than to us. He’s great in the studio.

When I first started recording and working with Jack, he would do things… he’s very… what’s the right word… he’s very confident, he knows, he’ll just say, “let’s do that”, he’ll immediately pick up on something and go “ok, let’s go with that”. He was constructing the music. And in the early days of recording Blunderbuss, I’d sit there going, “really? Is this gonna work?”. Like, it would sound really strange for me. And then you’d hear it later after it was mixed, and it would be like, “ah, I couldn’t hear it, but it’s there now, it’s perfect”. A lot of that.

I think it sorta flows naturally, one of those cases where you don’t… he doesn’t really carefully explain it.

Dominic John Davis: And if you look at Lazaretto, the song, which is probably the most hip-hop thing he’s ever done, we did it and didn’t spend that long on it, and it didn’t even have lyrics. We finished it, and I kinda thought it was just an idea or an exercise, maybe he would chop the tape up later. It could’ve gone a million different ways without him doing what he did lyrically on it. It wasn’t until maybe a year later that he put the lyrics on it.

 

How long did you spend making Lazaretto? 

Dominic: About a year and a half. The thing is, we had both bands, during the Blunderbuss tour, and here and there, two days off, the girls went in. Two other days, the guys went in. A lot of the songs, like Temporary Ground or Just One Drink, those were finished when he came in. But a bunch of other ones were kind of experiments. But it was pieced together. When we recorded it, we recorded quick, but in the timeframe of it, it was about a year, a year and a half. 

Did you do any single takes?

Dominic: Not very many, probably three, tops. I think the first thing we did was Three Women. And that was pretty much done when Jack brought it in. The way he records though, there’s not a lot of multitracking, a lot of things are sharing tracks. So it kinda has to be quick, you can’t really change it.

Fats: You can’t really isolate certain things, everything is bleeding in.

Dominic: There’s no computer, we have 16 inputs to plug in, and only 8 tracks. They’ll master it there somehow. But more than that, the bass and the drums are sharing a track, and you can’t change either one. We do that a lot.

What about Would You Fight For My Love? Weren’t the Peacocks and the Buzzards playing on the same track in different spots of the song? 

Dominic: When it starts out, in the very beginning, it’s the Peacocks, but we wound up bowing, we were the string section. Basically the Peacocks had recorded it a long time ago, maybe even when Blunderbuss was being recorded. It was really old. Jack liked it, but it sorta had just one section. So we made a verse, I think, and it’s the big punch where the chorus starts, that’s where the Buzzards come in. But it’s amazing how you can do that, you would think you’d be able to hear the difference. We did a band punch, which could’ve gone really bad, because there’s nothing backed up. You’re playing along and you hit record in one spot, and if you mess it up, that’s it. We also did a tape splice in there, I can’t remember what. But it goes from the Peacocks to the Buzzards, and I think back to the Peacocks. 

I can’t notice the difference, even trying to hear for it. 

Dominic: Well the thing is, certain things are going through the whole song. So Ruby’s singing is going through everything, so I think that kinda ties it all together. So that was another one where we did all the edits, and we didn’t hear the lyrics for another year or so.

Is that how he usually writes, first the music then the lyrics? 

Dominic: No, this is new. This started with the Rome album, the Danger Mouse record. I think he had a little recorder and sang over the full tracks. He’s just kinda problem-solving like that. We had eight songs that were done, then four or five that were experiments. 

Fats: It’s not like a… he doesn’t do things “this way”, it’s not “a way”. It could be this or that.

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When you’re recording, how much does Jack direct the drum sound, versus you coming up with it yourself? What happens more often? 

Daru Jones: Well, you know, I don’t wanna give away his secrets of what he does. Basically, I think he hired me because he liked what I do, he wanted to bring my style to the table. Basically, when I go into the studio, I am allowed to have my creative vibe, but of course he has a certain way he likes to do things.

I’m a producer as well, so when I come into any situation, I come into it thinking as a producer, so I feel like he… I think my ideals are respected, and I think that’s why he hired me for this situation. That’s pretty much all I can say. 

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Next: Jack White’s band on translating the albums to the stage, rehearsing for tour & more…

 

Read the entire “On Road & Record” interview series with Jack White’s band.


Photos by David James Swanson via JackWhiteIII, except Jack/Fats by Johnny Firecloud.