The White Stripes on Coffee and Cigarettes


Detroit rock duo Jack and Meg White-known collectively as The White Stripes-have been around since 1999, but they only started making waves in the last few years, going from a little known local garage band to being darlings of the press and MTV. Their 2003 album, “Elephant,” recorded in ten days, was certified platinum after selling over a million copies, and they have won two Grammys and an MTV Video Music Award for their work. Their newfound fame has allowed them some interesting opportunities including Jack White being able to produce the latest record from one of his idols, country legend Loretta Lynn. They’ve also been finding their way onto the big screen with Jack White supplying songs and appearing in Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain. The duo appear as themselves in a segment from Jim Jarmusch’s short film anthology, Coffee and Cigarettes, in which Jack shows a rather unimpressed Meg the Tesla coil he has built. Recently, the Stripes sat down with to discuss their work with Jarmusch, Minghella, director Michel Gondry, Loretta Lynn, and of course, Nicolas Tesla. Meg said one or two things, too.

CS!: How did you first meet Jim Jarmusch?

Jack White: We played a free live show in Union Square, and we saw him out in the audience. We met that day and became fast friends.

CS!: How close is the interplay on screen to real life?

Jack: Almost completely untrue. It was mostly Jim’s script and there were a couple things we added in. We met and then we began talking about Tesla, and then he came up with the idea. At that point, he didn’t really know what he was going to do with all these short films. He just said, “I’m doing these if you want to do one.”

CS!: So you knew about Tesla before doing this? Whose idea was it to use an actual Tesla coil in the piece?

Jack: I knew what one was, since I wanted to build one since I was a little kid. When we first met Jim, he had a book about Tesla on his desk, and I started saying how much of an admirer of Tesla’s I was. We started talking, and we were eventually going to make a video for our last album in which I was going to play Tesla. We were going to reenact Edison’s electrocution of an elephant that he did to disprove Tesla’s theory, and I was going to turn Edison’s head into an incandescent light pulp at the end to pay him back for his murder of the elephant. It didn’t work out because it got too expensive. The next thing, Jim came over and said he had a script for a short film about a Tesla coil. I was so excited about it, because we wanted to do something creative with Jim, and also, to bring people some more knowledge of someone who is really underrated and misunderstood.

CS!: What is it about Tesla that fascinates you?

Jack: He’s extremely important because he was robbed of the fact that he invented radio, and Marconi gets all the credit for it. His ideas could be used today to provide everybody with wireless electricity that we wouldn’t have to pay for. Those two alone are extremely important. Just to know him as the genius that he was. After that big power outage that we just had, no one talks about it, but the only power plant that didn’t go down was the one in Niagara Falls that he designed and constructed. There’s something interesting about that. You can go through a list of inventions that nobody knows that he invented, like the fluorescent light, radio remote control, and the alternating current motor. It just goes on and on. He’s just so much more important than Edison, I think, he was a true genius, and Edison had a lot of really good inventors working for him and he was taking their ideas.

CS!: What is it about Jarmusch’s films that you find appealing?

Jack: I really like his use of silence and empty space. It’s just as powerful as dialogue, at times. Orson Wilson said something interesting once about when you watch a film, you should be able to watch it with the sound turned completely off, and still recognize the relationships between people. I think his silence is really powerful. A lot of times in Hollywood films, it’s really difficult for people to get away with all that dead air. You can’t get away with that dead air in radio or in music and he’s getting away with it. It shows people how important that is, just to see people sitting there. In the beginning of our segment, there are twenty seconds of nothing being said, and that’s my favorite part.

CS!: What was the biggest difference working on a big budget movie like “Cold Mountain” compared to working with an independent director like Jarmusch?

I think the most appealing thing of working with both of them is that their egos are not vocalized, by barking out orders and saying “this is what I want to do”. They’re very sweet and generous individuals. I could see it in ‘Cold Mountain’, in that Anthony Minghella’s attitude towards what was going on trickled all the way down. I remember when I worked on a couple commercials, those people were such jerks and so mean and everyone had an attitude. It was the most important thing in the world that we get a shot of a hand on a steering wheel. Something that really was $100 million dollar film, the relaxed attitude taken to it was very pleasant.

CS!: You’ve also worked with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” director Michel Gondry on three of your videos. What was that experience like?

Meg: He’s like a brilliant six-year-old.
Jack: He’s got his set of crayons, which for him is working with cameras and editing equipment.
Meg: Everything’s very mathematical, and every tiniest little detail is worked out. And you would see him with his little papers that every second mapped out, but at the same time, he’s got a total childlike fascination with color and shapes and sequences.
Jack: With Michel, you just stay out of his way. You can’t make it any better, because he’s brilliant right off the bat. There were going to be a couple White Stripes songs in his latest movie but they didn’t end up working with the scene in the end.

CS!: Why did you originally decide to do your music as a duo?

Jack: The whole concept of the band from the beginning was all that we were all about what not to do. Why be repetitive? Why have two guitar players? Why have a bass player playing the same thing as the guitars are playing? Let’s break this down as much as possible and still be rock and roll. Let’s show what two people can do, yet revolving everything around the number three: Vocals, guitar, drums. Melody, storytelling, and rhythm. Red, white and black. Let’s confine and constrict ourselves, and live inside of a box and have there be rules. A lot of time in modern music, there have been no rules. I think people just enjoy the opportunity of having no rules and can do whatever they want to do. Having a huge budget or unlimited time or tracks to make an album, all that opportunity robs you of a lot of creativity, because you’re not focused or confined. We purposely confined ourselves to help us be more focused.

CS!: And you haven’t had the desire to expand now that you have become more successful? How does that success affect that focus?

Jack: When we were going to play the Glastonbury and Reading Festivals with 50 to 80,000 people, we thought there was no way that a two-piece band can relate to this size crowd. It makes sense in a room of a hundred people where we can get something going and people can feel it. But it worked there, too. It surprised us. I don’t know why it works on the radio or on MTV or on a stage in front of 80,000 people. It seems like there should be more going on. We’ve always gotten along really well, and the important part of a two-piece band is that there isn’t a third person to take sides and cause dissension.

CS!: Do you see any parallels between your music and what Jarmusch does with film?

Jack: Absolutely. He’s very minimalistic, and this film is a great example. Coffee and cigarettes. Black and white. Two people at a table. It’s a really simple notion: Let’s see what happens when you put these two people together. It’s not very complex at all.

CS!: Is there a logical connection between being a rock star and being an actor?

Jack: Anthony Minghella said something about that to me. He said that all musicians who perform on stage really are acting, and he’s right. As natural and soulful as we’ve always tried to be, there’s still a prefabrication to the fact that people have paid for tickets and there are lights on us and people are all locked in this room and we’re playing through electrical instruments, which is not exactly natural. It all relates to a theory I have that everything other than the story itself is a trick. The melody, the rhythm in the song, the electricity, the volume its being played at, the way its presented on stage, the way it looks and the way the lights are on, those are all tricks that are supposed to lead you back to relating to the story.

CS!: Do you have any interest in being a filmmaker yourself?

Jack: I wanted to be a filmmaker when I was a teenager, and I started to work as an assistant on commercials just to get some quick money in Detroit. I started to realize, especially having been in a couple films now, it’s the most difficult art form of all. To make a good film is next to impossible, because there are so many people involved and so much money and the studio on your back. So many people to weed your vision through, to keep it pure, is so hard. I don’t know how these people do it. I lost my dream of that a long time.

CS!: How did you end up working with Loretta Lynn?

Jack: We had dedicated our third album to her, and her new manager told her about it. She sent me a thank you letter and invited us down for dinner. She made us chicken and dumplings. We played a show together in New York. They said she was thinking of making another album, and I just threw my name out as a producer and I couldn’t believe they let me do it. It was a big honor. We got really, really close to the real Loretta.

CS!: How did it feel to be listed in the Rolling Stone Top 100 Guitarists?

Jack: I’ve never had much faith in lists. I found the lists in Mojo Magazine to be a little more interesting and realistic, but a lot of them are just popularity contests. If it’s about important guitar players, then Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson should be on there. I’m not a technically proficient guitar player. I’m about what it means at the moment, the attack of it and the attitude. I don’t sit at home trying to learn how to play scales and try to be as fast as I can. I just care about the emotion that comes out of it, I suppose. They can take it anyway they want to.

CS!: So how has the fame and celebrity changed your life?

Jack: I hate the word celebrity, but this has been the best year of my life. The most amazing things have happened to me and the most amazing opportunities have come up. I’ve gotten a chance to play or be on the same stage with Bob Dylan, Loretta Lynn, Beck, Jeff Beck, David Bowie and Iggy Pop.
Meg: Yeah, getting to meet your idols and getting to travel. Those things are kind of neat.
Jack: These are things that would never have occurred to us. It would never have been possible to be in the same room with any of those people, let alone to have my creative aspect be acknowledged by them. As things go, I’m not at all about celebrity or fame. After “White Blood Cells” came out, we were on the covers of all these magazines, but we didn’t have a manager or a lawyer. We were not a signed band, and we never sent our demos to a record label to try to get signed. It was never our goal to expand. I think people misinterpret some things like me being in Cold Mountain because of how much I love Southern American folk music. That was my relation to that, not a step in a direction to more fame or celebrity. I mean, there have been five books written about this band already. It’s ridiculous. Wait ten, fifteen or twenty years before writing one book or even a paragraph in a book about a band like us.

CS!: What’s next for the band?

Meg: Right now, we’ll be working on a new album in the next few months, and we’ll be taking a lot of time off because we’ve been touring continuously for three years.

Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 14, and expands elsewhere over the summer.