Raconteurs Bring Hit Record to the Bowl
Jack White and Brendan Benson Talk No Set Lists, Songwriting, and Mutual Respect
By Charles Donelan | Published July 24, 2019
At the core of the classic rock myth, there’s a kind of Platonic ideal of what a band should be, and it usually involves a partnership between two gifted songwriters. Think Lennon and McCartney, or Jagger and Richards, or Jack White and Brendan Benson, the team behind the Raconteurs, who will play the Santa Barbara Bowl on Saturday, July 27. Unlike the Beatles and the Stones, however, White and Benson did not start out together. White’s first band, the White Stripes, propelled him to mega-stardom before he and Benson ever met, and Benson’s solo career, while full of outstanding material, never approached the White Stripes’ level of recognition.
All that changed in 2006, when the pair of woodshedding friends from Michigan found they had generated enough material together to release the first Raconteurs album, Broken Boy Soldiers. A hit single, “Steady, As She Goes,” helped launch the project, and a powerful rhythm section, Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence, borrowed from Cincinnati garage rockers the Greenhornes, cemented the sense that this was a real band and not a studio one-off. Touring followed, as did a second, even better album, 2008’s Consolers of the Lonely. The band played the Santa Barbara Bowl that fall, on September 25, and it was one of the most memorable nights of the season.
Then, for a decade and a year, nothing. Well, not exactly nothing, as both artists continued to pursue their solo careers, and Jack White was in town last summer supporting his album Boarding House Reach, but as far as anyone could tell, the Raconteurs were on a deep hiatus.
At a time when the market domination of hip-hop over rock and streaming over CDs and vinyl seemed permanent, Help Us Stranger disrupted both paradigms, chalking up 95 percent of its first week’s numbers through sales of the tangible product.
Or so it seemed. In fact, White and Benson were both living in Nashville, keeping in touch, and even writing together, a song or two at a time. The stunning result, Help Us Stranger, outdid either of the previous Raconteurs releases, debuting at number one on Rolling Stone magazine’s new Top 200 albums chart for the week of June 21, beating out Lil Nas X’s EP 7 the old-fashioned way, by actual physical sales rather than today’s more common measure of times streamed. At a time when the market domination of hip-hop over rock and streaming over CDs and vinyl seemed permanent, Help Us Stranger disrupted both paradigms, chalking up 95 percent of its first week’s numbers through sales of the tangible product. Those numbers were helped by the way that CDs and albums were bundled with tickets for the band’s summer tour, but this did little to detract from a truly phenomenal result.
The music fulfills a lot of the promise not only of the Raconteurs as a group, but of Benson and White as individuals. For Benson, the meticulous attention he has always paid to the craft of writing power pop has bloomed into something wilder and more electrifying through the influence of White’s wayward, bluesy idiosyncrasies. And for White, whose elaborate notions of what was not appropriate for the White Stripes led the band to eschew even certain colors for years, the Raconteurs feels like a long-term hall pass to go new places and try things he might otherwise never have allowed himself. On songs such as “Sunday Driver” and “Now That You’re Gone,” the band sounds like a 21st-century answer to the Nuggets-era garage rock that enthralled both these men when they were growing up wild and hungry for the sound of electric guitars in suburban Michigan.
I spoke with Brendan Benson and Jack White last week by phone from one of their tour stop hotels in the Midwest. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed version of that conversation.
What has changed since the band was last together?
Jack White: Our lives are pretty different now. We both have kids, and that changes things. Also, we have done a lot of recording projects since then, for ourselves and for other artists, and if you are doing it right, the projects that you work on, they change you. Every session is a learning opportunity, and there have been a lot of sessions.
You did Help Us Stranger with a small team of people and released it entirely through your own label, Third Man. How does that approach affect the music?
JW: Yes, it was very DIY, the definition of DIY the whole project. Tracks that Brendan recorded in his studio, he brought to my studio for finishing, and the whole band was part of the mixing, which is not something we’ve done before. Even the pressing of the vinyl was done at a pressing plant that Third Man owns outside Detroit. The entire process was do-it-yourself. In an era when music is independent, you end up taking on all these things, and with them comes a lot of responsibility, but that way, the person who pushes you hardest has to be yourself. You have to keep on yourself so that it becomes something you are proud of.
Brendan Benson: And then our record went to number one, which says a lot about the value of this approach, and about the strength of Third Man as an independent label, and about the Raconteurs as a rock band at a time when rock is not what’s dominating the charts.
JW: It’s pretty cool. You know, what we did was definitely risky — the way we put this out, it was all on us — but then the record debuts at number one, and wow.
BB: Yeah, that’s like a big “Congratulations!”
“The entire process was do-it-yourself. In an era when music is independent, you end up taking on all these things, and with them comes a lot of responsibility, but that way, the person who pushes you hardest has to be yourself. ”
If somehow this opportunity to do the Raconteurs had come up earlier in your careers, when you were first starting out, do you think it would have worked? Could you imagine the Raconteurs as your first band?
JW: Very much so, and that’s a great question. I think it would have worked. With all my projects, whether it’s the White Stripes, my solo stuff, or the Raconteurs, what’s been a constant is that I know which songs belong to which group. Like if I’m writing something, I can tell you if it’s a White Stripes number or if it belongs with the Raconteurs. But coming back to your question, if it was my first band, I think it would have worked out exactly the same, because it’s just the four people in a room together making music without any thought of outside influence.
BB: For me, I always dreamed about this band. It was what I wanted from the beginning, to be in a great band, so if I could have done this at the start of my career instead of going solo, I would have jumped at the chance.
Do you still get people calling you a “supergroup”? How do you feel about that?
BB: We haven’t been hearing that lately. The first year, we heard that a lot.
JW: I don’t think anyone likes hearing any kind of a label. I can’t even think of a label that any musician would like. I know it’s a necessary evil at times. To me, the worst one is “side project.” [Laughter.] It seems like you’re saying that no one really cared about it, or you didn’t work that hard. I don’t think the connotations of “side project” are very positive.
In some of the lyrics, and especially on the title track, “Help Me Stranger,” which opens with this verse, “If you call me, I’ll come running / And you can call me anytime / And these 16 strings we’re strumming / They will back up every line,” it seems like you might be writing about your collaboration. How close do you have to be to write and play together?
JW: Your personality is definitely in the room. The words that you put down have to come through your brain. The same is true for the other person. So what you are trying to do is fire each other up, and hopefully come up with something even better. That’s the goal. Some people may try to be one up, and then it becomes like you are trying to outdo each other. That’s the competitive side of it. And I have no problem with that. We really don’t do that, I don’t think….
BB: Speak for yourself. [Laughter.]
JW: Like with Lennon and McCartney, that’s how it was, and that’s what created a lot of those hits: them trying to outdo each other.
BB: But it doesn’t always work. I’ve been writing in Nashville with the country community — you know, trying to make a dent in that thing — and sometimes it doesn’t happen when you set out to collaborate. I’m spoiled from working with Jack. He was the first person I ever collaborated with, and in the beginning, it wasn’t even called that. It was just two guys hanging out and playing music. It’s like it was before we even knew what collaborating was. And I haven’t found another writing partner like Jack since, so I don’t know; it’s hard. I think it takes mutual respect and admiration.
And generosity. You guys give each other a lot to do.
JW: Yes, that’s right. Or you could say that we make room for each other.
Which songs give you the best opportunities to improvise when you tour? Are there certain tunes that are good for taking solos?
JW: Yes, there are certain songs like “Blue Veins” and “Broken Boy Soldiers” that work that way. I think it’s because we’ve been playing them for the longest time, but it also has to do with them not having too rigid a structure. There are some songs that when you record them, they have these harmonies that you then have to re-create live, like some of the songs on the new record.
BB: Like “Help Me Stranger” and “Somedays.”
JW: Yes, and we can do both; like on the end of “Help Me Stranger,” we can jam, but for those harmonies, we’ve got to be coordinated. You can do it, but you have to be watching each other and paying attention if you are going to nail it. This has to do with another thing about the way that the Raconteurs record, which is really fast. What that means is that what’s on the records can almost be seen as a draft. The songs change as we tour with them. It would be interesting sometime to tour first with the new material and then go into the studio with it. “Blue Veins,” for example, would probably sound a lot different on the record if we had done it that way. You know, a lot of bands don’t do it anymore. They don’t stretch out or improvise much when they tour because of the way their stage shows are set up.
BB: Yeah, in part it’s because they are constrained by other things in their shows, like lighting cues. And I think that audiences miss it [when bands don’t improvise]. At our shows, they definitely know when we are going off, and they are into it. They like it, they feel it, and even when things are kind of falling apart, they always respond.
It’s part of the excitement of going to a live show — not knowing what to expect. That brings up another question I wanted to ask, which is about set lists. Jack, I know you don’t like them. Brendan, are you okay with that?
BB: It’s funny you should ask, because yes, that does actually cause me some anxiety. You see, I could never do that in my solo career, because I’m always hiring bands and it just wouldn’t work. So I’m not used to it. It’s cool, though. I also have trouble sometimes remembering songs, so that makes it even more intense when something gets called out and you think, “What?”
Jack, maybe you want to weigh in on this since it’s your strategy. When did you stop making set lists, and why?
JW: It was back when I was with White Stripes, and at first, I just wanted to see if I could do it — play a good set without making a list first. Then it became part of a larger thing where I was trying to improve by moving around more and sort of thinking less when I was onstage. It was part of a whole group of things that I did to open up and become more free as a live performer. I was also responding to what I was seeing that I didn’t like with other bands whose shows were, like we were saying before, too tied into their video projections and pyrotechnics so that they became very predictable. It was not like it was in 1977, when you would see The Who in one place and it would be a certain way, and then maybe I saw them three weeks later in Pittsburgh, and it was an entirely different show with, like, a 22-minute drum solo. I love that kind of concert-going experience, and I think that’s one of the things that makes a tour interesting, to have that approach.
BB: When you put it this way, I have to agree — and I use a set list when I play! But you’re right, eventually what that means is that the shows become more the same, and that takes away from the reason that people go out to see you live.
So it sounds like you are sticking with this no-set-list approach for this tour; is that what I am hearing?
JW: Yeah, although we do communicate about what we’re planning to do. Like recently, I noticed that we did a show that was great but that left out a lot of the bigger songs, like “Steady, As She Goes.” And so I emailed everybody a list of the songs that we had left out of the last show, and I said, “Look, we could do an entire set tonight of just the stuff we left out.”
So we’re having fun.
BB: Yeah, we’re having fun.
4•1•1 | The Raconteurs will play the Santa Barbara Bowl with the Melvins on Saturday, July 27, at 7 p.m. For tickets and information, visit sbbowl.com or call 962-7411.