Photo credit: Olivia Jean
Jack White And Brendan Benson Talk The Raconteurs’ Return And Why "No One’s Stepping Out" In Guitar Music
Jack White was in a fit of mania while making his last solo album, 2018’s Boarding House Reach. Ever the mad scientist, he recorded through electronic instruments with his teenage recording equipment in an empty Nashville apartment. He blasted Kanye West and Nicki Minaj for inspiration and slept on an army cot on the floor. The album was White's most severe detour in a career already full of them.
One song stood out from those sessions: "Shine the Light on Me," a sweet, straightforward soul song that sounded nothing like his gonzo experiments. "It’s strange to think of a song that couldn’t fit on Boarding House Reach," he tells The Recording Academy with a chuckle. "But I just couldn’t make it work."
To his surprise, the song reminded him of the Raconteurs, a project of his that hadn’t put out music since 2008. He called up its co-leader, Brendan Benson, who caught the same vibe from the rejected solo song, and, just like that, the Raconteurs were back.
White and Benson, along with bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler, jumped back into the studio and cranked out an entire new album: Help Us Stranger, out Friday, June 21 via White's Third Man Records. After time off and experiments galore, the album marks White's return to simple, heartfelt rock 'n' roll.
"It’s such a good thing when you get together for the right reasons for any project," White says. "And you’re working on it for the love of it, for the fact that you want to write music and express it and share it with other people."
White and Benson first met in 1997, when the White Stripes were playing their first shows at a club in Detroit called the Gold Dollar. Benson, who had recently signed to Virgin Records and was working with L.A. whiz-kids like producer Ethan Johns and guitarist Jason Falkner, had begun to fancy himself a sophisticated pop-rock pro. The White Stripes’ racket blew that notion right out of his brain.
“I was in the songwriting-as-craft school of thought, writing the ultimate pop music, the Beatles, the Beach Boys,” Benson says. "I thought that was cool. Then I saw the White Stripes, and I was like, 'No, that’s what's cool." Suddenly, he longed to make music that was more like a charcoal sketch than the Mona Lisa.
Benson and White ended up jamming that week and, years later, their collaboration resulted in two inspired albums, 2006’s Broken Boy Soldiers and 2008’s Consolers Of The Lonely. Soon after, the band fell silent for 11 years — not because of any acrimony or creative differences. All four members kept in touch; they were simply occupied with other things.
White and Benson each made solo albums; both raised children. Drummer Patrick Keeler moved from Nashville to L.A. and joined alternative rockers the Afghan Whigs. Bassist Jack Lawrence collaborated with artists like Karen O, JEFF the Brotherhood and City And Colour.
Still, when the Raconteurs got back together, they didn’t sound like an amalgam of all these side gigs; they returned to their initial sound and played imperfectly on real instruments. Highlights like "Help Me Stranger," "Don’t Bother Me" and "Sunday Driver" signal that all four members find common ground in an earthy, kick-the-tires approach.
In this regard, Benson feels like a stranger in a strange land when it comes to modern music. "No one’s really stepping out with guitar music — with people playing instruments," he says. "It's almost played too well. It's boring."
In 2019, music feels like it’s either hewing very traditional or very far-out: the minimal Black Keys or studio-glossed Panic! At The Disco sparring with the provocative Billie Eilish. The Raconteurs are somewhere in between. Help Us Stranger has futuristic flourishes and rich, boomy production, but at its core, it could have been made in any decade.
"Our record is full of mistakes," Benson says. "Bad notes. Pitchy singing. Pitchy harmonies. Tempos are going all over the place. I love that sh*t. It’s kind of bucking the system a little bit." In an over-processed, focus-grouped era of music, Help Us Stranger proves there's still room for music shot from the hip rather than conceptualized with the brain.
It couldn't have been done if every member wasn't on the same page. "We’re all lucky in this band," White says. "We have multiple things going on in our musical worlds, but we could take that much time off and come right back to where we started."
In an era when the guitar is becoming an anachronism or an afterthought, Help Us Stranger proves there’s still treasure in simply plugging in and playing.