At the time, Benson was working on a song that didn’t yet have lyrics and asked White to write something. The spontaneous collaboration resulted in “Steady, As She Goes” and prompted the pair to keep working together. Before they knew it, they had a whole album.
With the addition of bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler, The Raconteurs were born. “If I had my pick of everybody I knew, these are the three guys I wanted to start a band with,” says White while calling from a London hotel. “We all came from nothing -- everyone was just passionate.”
“Steady, As She Goes,” which The Raconteurs included on their 2006 debut, Broken Boy Soldiers, hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart and was nominated for best rock performance by a duo or group with vocal at the 2007 Grammy Awards. The album was Grammy-nominated for best rock album the same year, and entered the Billboard 200’s top 10. The 2008 LP Consolers of the Lonely received similar acclaim. But instead of entering an endless cycle of releasing new music and touring, The Raconteurs went on hiatus. In 2009, White and Lawrence formed The Dead Weather with Dean Fertita and Alison Mosshart. And in 2012, White started his solo career.
Before The Raconteurs could plan the June 21 release of Help Us Stranger, their first album in 11 years, White had to once again find his place within a band after five-plus years touring on his own, even as that group was often described in headlines as his -- or, even worse, his side project. “There are these boxes that people mentally put things in,” says White. “It’s a strange concept. If I had called my solo albums The White Stripes, it would have angered some people, but it would have sold out arenas because that’s good enough for some, [while] for others it would be a total lie.” But with The Raconteurs, “I’m only 25% of the band. We’re all doing something together, and that feels really good.”
The new material seamlessly picks up where the band left off, though with a more polished and urgent sound, best heard on opening track “Bored and Razed” and “Don’t Bother Me” as Benson and White swap lead vocals and push each other’s electrifying guitar runs to the limit. The album is the first new Raconteurs material to be released on Third Man Records, the Nashville indie White formed in 2009. In May, Third Man signed a distribution deal with The Orchard. “Enough time has passed, and the label has grown big enough where it makes sense,” says White, explaining why the band chose not to partner with a major. (He released his third solo album, the experimental Boarding House Reach, in 2018 in conjunction with Columbia Records.) White points to the recent success of Third Man’s Margo Price. “There’s no major-label partner for her,” he says. “Why wouldn’t it work for us?”
Still, the album is arriving when the appetite for rock music is wildly different from when the band started in the early 2000s. “We do recognize that rock’n’roll is out of favor at the moment,” says Benson, who believes that hip-hop is the most exciting genre right now. “But it was more of a reason to make a rock’n’roll record -- it had to be done. It’s not like we would change everything up and make some sort of twenty one pilots record.” Says White: “It falls back to the idea of, ‘What’s the thing I don’t see on the record shelf that I want to? The thing I want to buy, the thing I want to listen to?’ That’s the record we made -- the thing we’re not hearing.”
Making a whole album was never an explicit goal. Neither Benson nor White can really remember how the band got back together -- the pair recently joked about making up a different story every time -- but one thing they can agree on is that a couple of years ago, White had Benson come over to play him a new song in his car. White was in the midst of recording Boarding House Reach and felt one song, a glitzier piano-rock track, didn’t fit. It sounded too much like a Raconteurs song. “Just the mention of it -- The Raconteurs -- jolted me a bit,” says Benson. (That song, “Shine the Light on Me,” appears on Help Us Stranger.) “And then a couple years passed.” But when Keeler came to Nashville last year, his visit prompted an informal jam session that led to laying down more tracks and a renewed excitement about the band.
“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.”