“It had been a minute, so we tried to take baby steps,” says White. “The first step for any act in that position would be to have some kind of meeting with a manager and plan out your whole year, like, ‘Hey, we’re going to make an album and tour and start booking festival dates,’ and you haven’t even recorded a song yet. You could very easily fall into those traps in the music business if you’re not careful. So we just got together a couple times and said, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ ” They considered releasing a 7-inch or a live record taped at Third Man’s Blue Room venue, “but the songs came out really fast,” says White, “and that was a great sign.”
In April, The Raconteurs debuted a handful of those new songs at Third Man Records’ daylong 10th-anniversary event in Nashville’s Pie Town. “It was a little rough,” says Benson, remembering their return to the stage -- which was also his first time performing sober with the band. “But it felt good. It was just one of those moments where afterward, we were all very exhilarated and stoked about the future.”
They followed it with the band’s first-ever tour of New Zealand and Australia. (In the latter country, they tour as The Saboteurs because there’s a Queensland band called The Raconteurs.) On July 12, they’ll kick off the North American leg with a hometown Detroit show. “We don’t sit around and discuss a plan,” says Benson. “We just roll with it.” Live, they don’t even use a set list, tossing in an occasional cover of anything from “A House Is Not a Motel” by Love to “Send Me a Postcard” by Shocking Blue.
It’s how they’ve always operated, largely out of necessity. In the early 2000s, White says the general consensus among Detroit-area creatives was that one might be able to play a few shows, then spend the rest of his or her life back at their 9-7 day job. “We didn’t really have high hopes,” he says. And now? They still don’t. “There’s nothing we’re trying to achieve,” says White. Adds Benson: “We just do what we do -- for better or for worse.”
Pen to Paper
White and Benson on the importance of writing without ego -- and how songwriters are like security guards.
Jack White says that he and Brendan Benson, who began writing together in 2004, mix things up to avoid patterns that could stifle their creativity. “It has been very fruitful that way, where some things are 50/50 and some are 90/10, and we just keep hacking away at it,” he says. “The good thing about it -- why I think we’re still writing together -- is it never got to a point of being shallow or competitive or selfish.” White compares a “songwriter” (he uses air quotes around the word) to a security guard: “You are not in control of the song very much. You’re just helping move it along” -- an understanding he and Benson share. Similarly, Benson believes he and White write so easily together because of their mutual admiration. “I’m a huge fan of his,” says Benson, “so it’s easy for me to let go of things or lob the ball onto his side of the court because I know something great will happen.” But for White, the best thing of all is that they wrote and produced Help Us Stranger without any collaborators -- a contrast to how many of today’s pop artists land a hit. “They have 17 songwriters on their album and nine producers, and everyone is exhausted trying to make this humongous success,” says White. “That scares the hell out of me.”