Spending Record Store Day With Jack White, the Holiday’s Living Embodiment

The black and yellow paint, the tin ceilings, the interior archway with a phonograph for a keystone, the taxidermied elephant head in the blue room and full-sized bongo stalking the kitchen, the offices lined up as seedy motel rooms above a factory floor bathed in barely-not-nauseating yellow light, the lab coats the engineers wear while they’re cutting, probably even the bidet that hangs bat-like from the ceiling of one bathroom stall… everything in Third Man Records’ Nashville headquarters was born in Jack White’s head. Established in 2001, Third Man has put out a seemingly endless stream of vinyl releases, from Americana and country acts to scuzz punks to comedians to Neil freaking Young since opening this high-profile Nashville hub in ’09. If you’re a music lover, it’s nothing short of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory in here.

Autonomy is the charm of any independent label, but Third Man has taken it to eccentric extremes. The operation is run almost entirely in-house, from studio to store, and the Nashville HQ gives off the vibe of never being not busy. The men wear black pants, black shirts, a yellow tie and/or yellow shoes; the women wear black dresses and black, yellow and white blouses. They plan future recording sessions, splatter paint on one-of-a-kind posters. Some pack records for shipping, others work the front counter at the store, hoping one of the kitschy machines Jack’s collected — like the Record Booth or the 16mm Scopitone (a prehistoric music video jukebox) — don’t go on the fritz. The place is a collector’s paradise — the label doesn’t shy from broadcasting the uniqueness and rarity of their products, although this doesn’t meant to diminish the genuine affection its fans have for the music itself. “We do things here that aren’t done anywhere else,” boasts Ben Blackwell, who oversees vinyl production at the label.

Third Man on Record Store Day 2014. (photo by Wrenne Evans for Flavorwire)
Third Man on Record Store Day 2014. (Wrenne Evans for Flavorwire)

Last Friday, it was business as usual, but even more frantic, with everyone scurrying around hoping, and wishing, and praying that the upcoming attempt to break the world record for the Fastest Released Record goes as smoothly as possible. Record Store Day, started in 2007, and Third Man have had an almost side-by-side rise — White was the event’s official ambassador last year, and they’re kindred spirits in the battle to promote the cultural value of physical music in the age of streaming.

So it comes as little surprise that White’s world record attempt would align with this year’s Record Store Day, simultaneously encapsulating the label’s in-house ethos and doubling as a neat way to promote White’s upcoming solo album, Lazaretto (out June 10). The bid for the record involved White and his band recording the song (and a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Power of My Love”), both of which were cut live-to-acetate, then sped over to one of the country’s few remaining record pressing plants, United Record Pressing. Three hours, 55 minutes and 22 seconds after being recorded, boxes of the “Lazaretto”/”Power of My Love” 7-inch were sped back to Third Man and sold on the spot. They went for $30 and are already being flipped on eBay for about $500.

"Lazaretto" single art.
“Lazaretto” single art.

The record was only available for purchase at a single booth located outside the store. The line started forming early in the morning, hours before White took the stage to record, and as the day went on it only grew, snaking well down the street and around the block. While fans waited they were given complimentary slices of an exclusive new creation: the Third Man Coney Dog Pizza, courtesy of Two Boots Nashville. Third Man’s Record Store Day celebration was a veritable block party, complete with the Rolling Record Store, artisanal popsicles and performances from two local upstart punk acts, Waxed and Jawws. While people milled around, rocked out and waited in line, intrepid photographer Wrenne Evans ignored my hangry whining to field texts from friends offering $50 to nab them a copy of the 7-inch.

Nashville band Waxed performs outside Third Man on Record Store Day 2014. (photo by Wrenne Evans for Flavorwire)
Nashville band Waxed performs outside Third Man on Record Store Day 2014. (Wrenne Evans for Flavorwire)

A few hours earlier, after White’s right-hand man Ben Swank had explained the day’s proceedings and reiterated the day’s strict no photo or video policy — if caught you would be shamed and ejected from the premises —  White himself took the stage a little after 10 a.m. He emerged “like Lazarus rising from the tomb,” as Swank put it, flanked by two guys dressed like 1970s motorcycle cops. With the recording light on, White warmed up with “High Ball Stepper,” but the real show began when engineer Vance Powell and master cutter George Ingram hit a switch and every sound in that room — from “Lazaretto” itself to the screams of the 50 or so people packed in the blue room — was captured and etched into acetate. By the time White and co. had finished blasting through “Power of My Love,” they were about seven minutes into their world record attempt.

Instead of going straight back to bed, White gifted fans with an extended set comprising White Stripes favorites (“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” “Hotel Yorba,” “Hello Operator”), a handful of cuts from his solo debut Blunderbuss (“Freedom at 21,” “Love Interruption”), and three new tracks from Lazaretto (the lusting “Three Women,” the boozing “One More Drink,” and the pining “Fight For My Love”). Afterwards, White rushed over to United Record Pressing to oversee production of his World’s Fastest Record. His austere presence was probably necessary; more than a handful of local musicians told me that United Record is notorious for goofs and delays. No way in hell Jack White was going to let a dropped master plate deter him.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYF0LtfUvJs]

“Lazaretto” will be the first official single from Jack White’s upcoming solo album of the same name. This explains its presence on the A-side of the World’s Fastest Released Record 7-inch; it ain’t some grand metaphorical reasoning that ties Lazarus’ return from the grave to White’s artistic attempts to resurrect and recreate rock and roll, a genre that seems more dead than alive these days. “I just do what the radio guys [at the label] tell me [to do],” he said at press conference after I asked why “Lazaretto” for the first single and RSD tie-in. He’s not so concerned with the commercial success of the single, and it was strange to hear a man who exerts so much control over the tiniest details of his label and music admit that this was one part of the process he didn’t really care about.

Then again, White did choose to preview Lazaretto with an instrumental blues track, “High Ball Stepper,” which was released on April 1. The song shreds, don’t get me wrong — blown-out riffs for days and a psycho fiddle screech that drops out to for disarming piano interludes. As a guitarist, White’s developed a maddening, calloused tone perfect for his sharp, staccato strokes, a sound that create a nice bridge between Neil Young and Tom Morello. But it takes serious cojones to announce your album with a song like “High Ball Stepper.” It’s obviously not a hit single, not because it’s an instrumental (hit dance tracks have gotten by on instrumental hooks and minimal vocals for years) but because ballistic guitar solos that are, per an Onion article that reads like my perpetual inner monologue, “loud as hell” and “totally insane” just don’t capture the imaginations of wide swaths of kids as they once did.

 [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRbnAxrS3EM]

Not that White seems to care, but when “Lazaretto” (the single) sees its official release this Tuesday, it will probably fare well on the charts, at least in the alternative and rock corners of the Billboard world. But even there it will have to contend with the increasing monolith of synth- and electro-rock of Bastille, Capital Cities, and Imagine Dragons. Guitar rock is, for the most part, a niche market now, and that’s fine; it can, and will, exist and evolve as such, whether on the independent/DIY level, or in the arenas that artists like White or the Arctic Monkeys still manage to pack. Recently it’s been difficult to have any sort of conversation about rock and roll’s present and future, especially with regards to its current place in popular culture, without the discussion inevitably feeling framed by the often grumpy old white men who yearn for “real music,” the tragic belch of those who didn’t die before they got old. Rock music can seem like O’Connells, the Arab-owned Irish pool hall in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, where Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal go to escape their families, their present: “Nothing changes here, things are only retold, remembered. That’s why old men love it.”

At worst the past is a crutch, at best it’s a reference point, and somewhere in between it’s a fetish object. Jack White has built a tiny but miraculously relevant empire on this middle ground — Third Man’s vinyl sales have topped 1 million and White remains a big enough draw to earn top billing at Bonnaroo. No place better epitomizes Third Man’s temporal paradox than its Novelties Lounge, which houses the Record Booth, Scopitone, and Dip-N-Dunk Photo Booth. These old machines respectively pump out new recordings from fans, show new videos from Third Man acts, and develop pictures of visitors to this new Nashville mecca inside its mini-photo lab darkroom (this ain’t no digital schlock.)

(via Third Man Records Instagram)
(via Third Man Records Instagram)

The machines at United Record Pressing also represent the best in perpetually wonky mid-1960s technology, and just under 12 hours before the world record attempt, the cutting mechanism on Third Man’s 1953 Scully Lathe — which once carved the music of James Brown, Valerie Carr, Otis Williams and the Charms, and countless King Records artists in Cincinnati, Ohio — blew up. (They found a replacement mono cutter in time, and White was pleasantly surprised with the results.) White’s desire to protect the past may be tinged with some self-indulgence, but he ultimately comes across as a rather admirable archivist: “I’ve never been an actual record collector like a guy who hoards them or gets every digit, every serial number, all that stuff,” White explained at the press conference. “But I do appreciate the history of vinyl, certain Americana, the history of certain items, like blues records. If I come across one that seems to be at a price that makes sense, I’ll sometimes purchase an old blues 78 [rpm] not really for me to have it, to own it, I just sort of want it to not get broken or fall into the wrong hands, or get lost. I feel like protecting it.”

There’s certainly an intense fetishization of the past going on, but it’s respectful in a way that doesn’t put “the good ol’ days” up on a pedestal. White’s clearly fond of the past, and he finds ways to toy with it, mold it to fit his own weird ideas of what makes for good music and a good time, whether that means adding a pedal-steel solo to “Hotel Yorba,” tying a bunch of singles to balloons, or recording and releasing a new song in under four hours.

The whole thing went off without a hitch, by the way. And the songs rock, too.

(Lead image credit: Wrenne Evans for Flavorwire)