“Jack’s really a renaissance person,” said Recording Academy president Neil Portnow on the red carpet outside the Village Studios in West L.A., awaiting the arrival of Jack White, the honoree at the 10th annual Producers & Engineers Wing’s pre-Grammy gathering. As if to prove it, White spent his brief speech invoking figures as seemingly unrelated as the Stooges, Michael Jackson and Bing Crosby.
And, for comic effect, a couple of others too. “I had a speech prepared by Kellyanne Conway and Bob Lefsetz,” he said at the outset of his address, “but I dropped it in the bar on the way here, so I’m just going to wing it, if that’s OK.”
The honoree gave his own honors first “to Les Paul and his techniques in recording, and the inventions that he came up with double tracking. He was pretty good at that,” White smiled. He also gave “a lot of gratitude to Don Gallucci, who produced the Stooges’ second album, Fun House. He also was in the Kingsmen and recorded ‘Louie Louie’ with three microphones. I don’t know what else he ever produced, but I’m glad he did that record.” And he saved some of his biggest props for Bing Crosby, who “took money out of his own wallet and contributed to the production of making analog tape machines, to progress this entire industry forward. It’s about building bridges and carrying on for the next generation. I think we should build bridges instead of walls, especially now.”
The Producers & Engineers Wing could not have found a more au courant producer to fete in year 10, with White following in the footsteps of previous tributees from Quincy Jones to T Bone Burnett. But there was a slightly ironic, insurgent element to having this fervent a proponent of lo-fi technique honored inside the massive Village complex, home to some of the world’s most expensive rooms and biggest boards, and the former host to legendary perfectionists like Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac.
“When I was about 14 or so,” White told a couple hundred attendees who managed to squeeze into the former Masonic hall’s live performance space, “my brother Joe was kind enough to set me up with a four-track reel-to-reel and Tascam mixer in my bedroom. He was the first to start showing me mixing techniques, which at that time consisted of bass and treble. In that bedroom I learned a lot about how to do things under restrictions — do things on four-track and bounce back and forth, record something and erase it. If it wasn’t good enough and you erased it, it was gone forever, which is something I think that is becoming few and far between in the new generation, where you can record a million times and just keep all the tracks. I still work that way, and that kind of restriction I think is really important.”
He offered an example of creative spark under fire… or under burglary. “Recording under duress is an interesting art. The second album we made with the White Stripes, we recorded in my living room on an 8-track reel-to-reel. I was setting up the microphones and had the mixers going and we were also performing at the same time. At one point we were doing a cover of Son House’s ‘Death Letter’… and we’re playing for about a minute and Meg stops and has this fear of God look on her face. She’s completely frozen and I’m still playing and I don’t understand what’s going on… I turned around and there was a 300-pound drunk man standing behind me in my living room who had just been walking down the street and walked in. When you record under that kind of duress, you really learn a lot about constriction.”
But it’s not just about letting intruders in the room. “I agree with something that Michael Jackson once said: He said you’re an antenna, and it’s all about letting God in the room. And I also believe personally that you let the music tell you what to do,” White said. “You don’t tell the music what to do. It’s not an ego trip. You’re not in control. You sit there and you set up a scenario, and the music tells you what your actions should be. Especially when you’re helping other people — producers are not just supposed to tell people what to do… If you can’t bring out anything in them, if there’s nothing you can add to it, then you shouldn’t take the job.”
White did not perform himself, but perhaps fittingly, he turned the stage over to one of his production clients and Third Man label signees Lillie Mae for five full-band numbers. A former member of the country family band Jypsi, Lillie Mae has been a frequent presence in White’s post-White Stripes bands for about seven years, primarily on fiddle. “I’ve been begging her for years to record an album and we finally got her to do it,” White said.
Portnow knew they had a good score in snagging White to succeed the likes of Nile Rodgers and Neil Young as an honoree. “We know about his songwriting and producing; we know he’s an entrepreneur; and he’s an aficionado and a fan of vinyl and vintage and cares about archiving and preserving our recorded history. So if you think about the mission of the Producers and Engineers Wing, all of that is in the wheelhouse of what we value. And the fact is, he’s still a very young artist and a young man.” If maybe an even older soul than some of the Mason ghosts still hanging around the Village.