Jack White brought an LP with him to his Q&A Friday afternoon at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Not the solo album "Blunderbuss" that he is touring in support of, but the Dead Weather's "Sea of Cowards." White set the needle at the end of the album to play a hidden track underneath the LP's paper label.
"We tried for three weeks to soak off the label but we couldn't get it off," White told a crowd of about 200 people gathered for the hourlong, lunchtime chat with the museum's executive director Robert Santelli. "It's pressed into the hot wax so there's no way to remove it."
His point was not the secretive tracks, but the joy of watching a record travel at 33-13 or 45 rpm, a ritual he likened to a caveman's bonfire that was taken away from fans when the revolutions were hidden by the CD player.
"(Using a turntable) is a good thing for parents to show their kids," White said. "It involves you immediately in the music. Your involvement in the media, romantically, can't be touched. If you said play a track and pushed a button on an iPod, there's absolutely nothing romantic about that. Pull out a record and are you not immediately more engaged? I relish the idea of showing a kid how to put a needle on a record."
White, forthcoming and humorous, discussed songwriting, his Detroit youth, his beginnings as a "Bob Dylan jukebox," and how his idea to produce a Stooges album took Iggy Pop aback. "I called him and said I've got an idea -- what if you guys lived together in a house? There was a pause. For 10 seconds. Then Iggy says 'I'm gonna have to think about that.'"
White, who prefers audio tape over digital for recording and vinyl over everything for reproduction, said his love of vintage gear has nothing to do with his quest to capture a vintage sound: It all owes to the fact that the guitar has not been improved on since the early 1960s and amps have not gotten better since the '70s.
Specifics were not too common in his answers, but he certainly provided a picture of how he evolved as a young artist.
"Blunderbuss" had its origins in a session that the rapper RZA failed to show up for. White figured he might as well record the musicians he had on hand for the session and a few weeks later, after reviewing the three or four songs they cut, decided to bring them back to the studio.
With the musicians assembled, he came up with different ways to challenge himself. On two songs he chose to make them up on the spot, telling the musicians to start with a C even though he had no idea what the next chord would be.
"It was my first time working with hired guns -- eight people in the room I don't know very well," he said, noting that he needs to challenge himself in any setting. "If someone says they like a song, I know where it comes from. You attack yourself. It's fulfilling but wouldn't call it fun."
For White, his teen years and early 20s were a constant transition, from drummer to guitarist, cover band to writer, full-time upholsterer to full-time musician. When he put his tools down and decided to concentrate on music at the age of 21, White said he saw it as a job, a responsibility. Songwriting, he said in so many words, was a mystical process that happens only because the artists have given themselves over to an unknown muse.
"I feel that I'm always playing catch up to an idea I had the other day," he said about songwriting. When he returns to Nashville in a week, "I'm going to play catch up with an idea I had three weeks ago. That's much better than standing there and wondering what should I do?"