Many supergroups don't really warrant the "super" appellation, but The Raconteurs—Brendan Benson, The White Stripes' Jack White, and The Greenhornes' Patrick Keeler and "Little" Jack Lawrence—have, somewhat surprisingly, lived up to the massive hype on record and in concert. Maybe that's because they've known each other for years, even though they're quartered in different cities and they make different kinds of music on their own. But on The Raconteurs' debut full-length, Broken Boy Soldiers—recorded last year in Benson's sweltering attic—they found a sweet spot where their styles merged perfectly, inspiring a spirited sound that would justify them dropping their day jobs to concentrate on The Raconteurs full time. (Don't worry, Stripes fans. It won't happen.)
During the group's San Francisco stop on its first North American tour, The A.V. Club sat down with the jocular band members (and a handler, who went out of his way to say that there would be "no autographs") to talk about their new record, their next record, and their recent move to Nashville.
The A.V. Club: How are things going on the road?
Jack White: The band is just changing so much—we're really trying to figure out what we are. Every night's been great, and it's nice that while we're learning what we are and what we're going to be, the crowd is liking what they see already. I like that. [Laughs.]
AVC: How does playing with The Raconteurs compare to your other projects?
Brendan Benson: It's completely different for me, since I'm a solo artist, and now I'm part of a band, which I always wanted to do. It's easier to brainstorm, and it's fun—you're encouraged and inspired by the others. In this band, it's especially that way for me, because they're my favorite musicians—they've been my favorite musicians for so long, and I get to play with them now. A lot of times onstage, I'm overcome with admiration or something, which also means that you need to step up, you need to really bear down to match the level of musicianship or artistry. It's really challenging.
Patrick Keeler: It's nice to be in a band with different guys. Like my other band—say, the bass player in my other band, it was just like so hard, like, we had a difficult time working together—
JW: Whoa, whoa, slow down, slow down. [Motions to Jack Lawrence.] Same guy…
PK: Next question. [General laughter.]
AVC: You've all worked together before, and onstage, it seems like you're already pretty locked in.
JW: Given our history, I suppose you could have thrown us all onstage a year ago and something interesting might have happened, just off the cuff. We didn't rehearse for the album—we just went in and wrote songs and recorded immediately. The whole album is just a time capsule of that first week. So even when we first got together to rehearse to start touring, it sounded really good right off the bat. So that was a good sign. But it takes a long time to trust everybody around you and know exactly where you're headed, and what are the possibilities, and what are the things we're going to avoid, and all that. Also, it's good to remember that we're all using real instruments. It's different than playing to a DAT machine or a click track or all those things that most modern bands—like when we're playing festivals now, I've seen a lot of bands doing that, a lot of bands not using stage monitors and all that.
BB: This band is almost the antithesis of that. Not only are we not using any programmed loops or computers onstage, we're also improvising with our instruments. We're playing our instruments probably more so than most people that I see play their instruments. I think we all sort of strive for that—we all want magical things to happen onstage. We don't say "mistakes" in this band, we call them "highlights."
PK: You had a couple highlights last night.
BB: I did have some highlights. [General laughter.]
Jack Lawrence: Doing that keeps it very interesting for us, but I think it also keeps it interesting for the audience, giving them something different.
AVC: You've all known each other for a long time, so why do you think The Raconteurs happened now?
JW: We talked about it for years: "We should make a record together," or "Wouldn't it be great if we were in a band?" But with all our other bands, and how busy we've all been over the years, the only way for it to actually happen is by accident. It never would have been a planned thing—like, "In September, we will all get together and we will start this band." You can't do that. It was by accident, 'cause "Steady As She Goes" happened by accident, and [Keeler and Lawrence] happened to be coming to Detroit around that time.
BB: But it's interesting, 'cause it was predicted by Nostradamus.
AVC: How do your other bandmates feel about the time you're committing to The Raconteurs? Is there any tension?
JW: Last night, it looked like Meg White was staring at Little Jack for like 10 minutes, and it wasn't a good stare.
PK: It was awkward. [General laughter.] Like [Greenhornes singer-guitarist] Craig Fox, for instance, we had worked really hard the last, you know, 10 years, and he likes the record a lot, and he was just happy for us. He's working on stuff, and I think it was a way for him to just lay low for a little bit and maybe try out some other avenues for his music. 'Cause our band is kind of one-directional, but not in a bad way. I love it.
AVC: This band could energize your other projects.
JL: Hopefully, you will always learn from playing with different people. I think I've learned a lot from this band already, just different approaches to ways of playing.
AVC: You've already written songs for another album—does that mean you'll continue focusing on The Raconteurs for now, or do you plan to sit on it for a while?
JW: We haven't planned that far ahead. We know we're touring until the end of the year. I've said a couple times, "Yeah, we're probably going into the studio as soon as we can," and then it's been a headline the next day. I'm afraid to even answer the question any more, because I have White Stripes songs that I'm working on, too, so that could easily be the next thing. But I've never planned that far ahead—I don't think any of us have.
PK: Sometimes you've got to let the timing lead you. Or the music, or whatever.
AVC: Jack and Brendan, when you're writing songs, how do you know which ones will go to The Raconteurs and which ones will go to your other projects?
JW: It tells you where it wants to be. You just let the song tell you. "Store Bought Bones" on this album, that was a riff I was playing with Meg, and I just knew it wasn't a White Stripes song. You just go with it.
BB: I agree.
AVC: Musically, it seems like you have a lot of momentum with this band—are you worried that an interruption might throw it off?
JW: Bands nowadays who take three years between albums—which seems to be par for the course—how come they're not losing momentum? That's what I always want to know. It seems they're getting away with it—
BB: It might even be a good thing, to let it settle and then let people sort of—
JW: All these things enhance each other; all the bands are going to enhance each other.
BB: I guess it would be the opposite of being sort of overexposed. If we just keep making records and we're always—
PK: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
BB: Yeah, I like that. Sometimes it's "out of sight, out of mind," but when the next Raconteurs record comes out, whenever that is, I think we'll probably pick up right where we left off.
AVC: You're all living in Nashville now—was moving there a band decision?
JW: No—we all trickled down there one by one somehow.
BB: It's definitely convenient, but for me, there were bigger things at play. I really didn't like where I was living. I got robbed a couple times. I was visiting Jack down in Nashville quite a bit, and I really started to like it. Sort of fell in love with it—
JW: Neither of us could function in the Detroit music scene any more. It was just not healthy.
BB: The music or any other scene. It's really negative in so many ways.
AVC: So are you guys gone for good? JW: Oh yeah. Because of our involvement, even The Greenhornes' involvement in the Detroit garage-rock scene—or whatever you want to call it—I don't think we want to be involved in any more scenes ever again. We've had that experience, and it was a good one, and we've learned a lot from it, and I don't have any need to join into that ever again. It's too counterproductive to writing music and performing to the best of your abilities. It's okay when you're 20 years old—you're getting out there and you're learning—but not when you're 30 years old.
AVC: And Nashville is giving you that freedom?
JW: I'm extremely anti-hipster now, and I really hate the thought of it, being surrounding by them, and Nashville definitely is not in that neighborhood of their relation to music. In Nashville, those people want to sell songs, and they want to make hit records, and I don't see anything wrong with that. I'm so tired of playing the cool game with all those people, and just trying to go and have lunch and having to play that cool game with everybody, about what you're supposed to do, what's cool and what's not. It's a fucking minefield, you know? [Laughs.] You can't keep up. It's not healthy to write music that way, and I'd rather be in a town where they want to write hits.
BB: That's just not a nurturing environment. As an artist, I think it's really important to surround yourself with other artists—
JW: In Nashville, self-sabotage is not on the menu, and in hipster culture, self-sabotage is definitely one of the entrées.
JL: And that stuff is a virus, too—it's easy to hate something.
AVC: Did the adverse recording conditions affect Broken Boy Soldiers?
BB: Very much.
JW: Every album I've done pretty much has been not in a pleasant, quote-unquote, environment—it's freezing cold, or it was somebody's house with not-that-great equipment. It's always something that spurs on to get the job done. At ToeRag, we did Elephant—you couldn't even stand up, and it was freezing cold. And this one, blistering hot. We had to turn the fans off between takes to record. [Laughs.]
BB: There's something about working in adverse conditions. It keeps it interesting. I always notice if I ever sit down with a pen and piece of paper and a guitar, and I have a beverage and an ashtray and I'm comfortable on the couch, I fall asleep.
AVC: Are you worried that you might lose energy if you make yourselves too comfortable?
JW: No. It depends on how everyone wants to do the next record.
PK: I think we're going to be in the same situation as we were on the last record, where we're nine songs in and it's like, "Shit, we're making a record." We didn't even really think about it—we didn't have a band name or song titles.
AVC: It looks like you guys have been beaten up on the album artwork. What does that signify?
JW: It was that photographer Autumn de Wilde's idea. We did about 30 shoots that day—it was one of those things where, "Let's take as many photos as we can today, and as many different setups and situations." When we got the photo back, it just seemed to fit. We had a song, "Broken Boy Soldier," so we just made it plural, Broken Boy Soldiers, and that seemed to—we've been on the road with our other bands forever, and you can put in whatever metaphors you want, or we've all beaten each other up. The one thing I like about it is, it looks like we're all on the same page. We're together, whatever the situation and circumstances—it looks like these four guys are in the same spot right now.
PK: I like the idea, too, you always see old portraits of families or something, and maybe before, they were all wrestling around in the yard. It's kind of like the four brothers or something.
AVC: Since there's already a Raconteurs in Australia, you're The Saboteurs down there. Other than the fact that the name sounds similar, why did you choose something with such a different meaning?
BB: That ties into the album artwork—you were asking, "What does it signify?" Well, in actuality, that was the end result of a fight we had with the Australian Raconteurs. [General laughter.]
JW: The funny thing was, a guy in France we did an interview with, he was like, [Adopts French accent.] "So, you named your band The Raconteurs—that's a stupid name." To him, that's like naming an American band Storytellers. Good Storyteller. We should have called ourselves Saboteurs in France, too. So there you have it. We wanted to give them their own band, too—we didn't want to give them the second-rate version, like the U.S. Raconteurs or American Raconteurs. Although "Americanteurs" is kind of cool. [Laughs.]