What’s in an entrance? Five minutes separate the arrival of Brendan Benson from that of Jack White. In theory, the two frontmen of The Raconteurs should have a lot in common. Both hail from Detroit. Both have amassed bodies of work that attract intense devotion from their fans – White, of course, with The White Stripes; and Benson as a solo practitioner of febrile powerpop. If this afternoon is anything to go by, both share a fondness for grenadine and Coke. For all of that though, one important difference remains. While White, 31, has sold rather a lot of records, 36 year-old Benson remains something of a cult. To reference a song by XTC, one of his favourite bands, Benson’s senses are working overtime in a bid to get comfy with all this. His old record company sure never used to book him into the Gramercy Park Hotel. “Man! Am I the first here?” he half jokes, “That’s not cool.” Eschewing small-talk, he promptly disappears.
By the time he returns, the sometime rhythm section with Chicago garage-rockers The Greenhornes, Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence have appeared. Finally, Jack White arrives, which is when you really start to feel for the perpetually self-conscious Benson. Perhaps we’re witnessing the results of new fatherhood – White’s supermodel wife Karen Elson recently gave birth to a baby girl – but today, alpha-male charm billows off White in alarming quantities. Barely any time passes without him unleashing a high little machine-gun laugh, both at his own jokes and other people’s. Flipping open his laptop, he plays the just-finished video to the title track of the band’s Broken Boy Soldiers album, before a conversation about the relative merits of Cheers and Frasier ensues. “Frasier,” says Benson, only for the rest of the band to opt for Cheers. “No, you’re right,” he says, “Of course, it’s Cheers. What was I thinking?” White, Keeler and the otherwise silent Lawrence find this hilarious.
If I want this air of jovial bonhomie to continue, it has been suggested that I proceed with caution on the S-words – supergroup and side-project. Which, as it happens, is fine. I have a theory about The Raconteurs album which bucks the cliché that this is Jack White’s side-project. “Really?” says White, “Well, let’s hear it!” So I point out that The White Stripes – with their strict dress code and esoteric blues-rock shoutings – sound far more like the side-project of a famous frontman than The Raconteurs do. It’s effectively as though time’s arrow is going backwards and this is actually jack White’s first band.
In precisely the duration it takes for White to point out that Time’s Arrow happens to be one of his favourite books, a tiny cloud of distress descends upon Benson. “But do you realise what you’re doing? You’re thinking in terms of Raconteurs and White Stripes! You’re forgetting the two other main components of the band!”
That’s exactly what I’m [ital] not [ital] doing, I counter. I’m saying that this is the proper band! But Benson frowns sceptically. “I think that everyone thinks this is a Jack White side-project.” Mercifully, White attempts to mollify him. “But don’t you think that idea is going away now? When people see us live, that idea is in retreat. People get what we are. I mean, I would agree that it was people’s first inclination, and I can’t really blame them for thinking any of those sorts of things because I would have definitely had preconceptions.”
The night before our rendez-vous, the band played their first New York show together at The Roseland Ballroom. As befits four friends who have all moved to Nashville just so they can be near each other, the joyous synergy was palpable from the sustained opening chord of Intimate Secretary. White takes the compliment, albeit with reservations. He is concerned that people might read too much into the fact that he seems happy on stage. “People are putting two and two together and assuming that The White Stripes is somehow painful for me, or too great a burden. But I [ital] love [ital] the constriction of The White Stripes. It really makes my brain do what I want my brain to do. If you see me laugh at a Raconteurs show, it’s because I’ve got time to laugh – because someone else is playing second guitar, and I can watch him play.”
“There you go,” interjects Keeler impishly, “He’s laughing at Brendan.”
“He’s been laughing at me for years,” intones Benson drily.
Certainly, the two go back a long time. Benson and White were both familiar faces on the Detroit indie scene, before the promise of a major label deal with prompted Benson to up sticks for Los Angeles. In the six years that it took him to extricate himself from his Virgin contract and follow-up his One Mississippi debut, Benson had seen Jack and Meg White soar to universal acclaim without even having to leave Detroit. Frustrating? “You wonder whether you should have chosen a different route, sure…” concedes Benson. “But, the bottom line is that The White Stripes were famous because they wrote good songs. You can’t take that away from them.”
Not least because it might dissipate his perpetual air of consternation, you point out to Benson that his songs were good too. “Oh yeah,” he says, as though the thought genuinely hadn’t occurred to him.
“Hey now, let’s not make this a White Stripes bashing,” deadpans Keeler.
Momentarily failing to register the joke, Benson seems mortified. “No, no, I…”
“Jack’s sitting right here,” says Keeler.
“Hey now, remember,” urges White, “You guys made a pact – never when I’m around.”
Finally, Benson regains his thread, “At the time, I thought was going to be huge. I thought I was going to be the next big thing.”
“But you know, he wasn’t the only one,” adds White, “Everyone in Detroit used to sit around wondering why it was taking so long for Brendan to get famous? From the punk rockers to the Brendan wannabes.” White is unashamed to admit that – as a self-employed upholsterer in the mid-90s – he once used to number himself among the latter. Though you would struggle to locate a single bluesy note in Benson’s lysergic pop canon (think more Mr Blue Sky rather than Mr Blues Guy), the feeling has been mutual. In 1999, the two even played a Detroit gig where they covered each other’s songs. “I had actually forgotten about that,” says White, “until recently, when a fan gave me a video recording of the show.”
It was only six years later, with the addition of The Greenhornes’ rhythm section that this formative alliance blossomed into something more formal. Having used Keeler and Lawrence on Van Lear Rose – the album he co-wrote and recorded for country superstar Loretta Lynn – White tracked down Benson. Within minutes of their first session together, the group had written Steady As She Goes – the top five hit which sounded like Nirvana covering Joe Jackson’s Is She Really Going Out With Him. The rest of Broken Boy Soldiers swiftly followed. With passing nods to early Deep Purple, Wings, The Raspberries and Led Zeppelin, the zeal with which The Raconteurs plunder their sources has resulted in the most straight-up enjoyable album any of them have played on. The only thing is, you have to be careful how you tell them.
“That Deep Purple thing,” frets Benson, “Do people think that we sit there in the studio, thinking, ‘Hey, let’s use a Hammond B-3 because it sounds like Deep Purple’? Everyone assumes that this stuff is thought-out and premeditated, and that when you present something to the public, you have considered all the theories and options.”
Do we, the pubic, think that bands really do that? Surely, we don’t?! “I think they do,” insists White, “On the last White Stripes album, I didn’t end up playing much electric guitar. And it was a big deal to some people. But I honestly didn’t notice until it was out and people pointed it out to me.”
Well, it’s all just part of rock discourse, I suggest. No-one imagines The Raconteurs were lifting bits of records by, say, Deep Purple for inspiration. It’s just that maybe on unconscious level…
“The truth is,” explains White, “If a person comes up to you and says, ‘You guys are great, man. You just got that Deep Purple sound down to a tee’ – you’re not gonna like it. Because, at the end of the day, no-one wants to sound like anyone else. But what are you gonna do? You write a song and you play it back and you think, ‘Wow! That guitar solo sounds like Thin Lizzy!’ So now, do I [ital] not [ital] release it to the public because people are going to say it sounds like Thin Lizzy’?’”
Well, no. People like the fact that it sounds like Thin Lizzy. It gives them something to talk about.
White is unconvinced. “But then the story becomes that we were in a room with a Thin Lizzy recording, trying to emulate that.”
In a commercially-successful, critically-acclaimed, internally harmonious band with no real problems to report, mere niggles expand to fill the void. It feels like something bordering upon civic duty to tell The Raconteurs as much – but then an odd thing happens. Benson, who has been quiet for several minutes, finally speaks up: “Wai-wai-wai-wait! You say it’s all part of the discourse and it’s all in fun? You’re totally right. I agree. That’s what I talk about with my friends when I listen to Wings records, and I’m thinking of how Paul McCartney was influenced by The Everly Brothers. But when you do it in public, and you’re already up against this retro thing, it’s a touchy subject.”
“And then you have people who are really retro,” adds White, “In hip-hop, you use a drum machine, and that instantly makes it cutting edge. They’ve been doing that for twenty-five fucking years. I mean, that shit is fucking [ital] old. [ital]”
“There’s retro and there’s retro,” ponders Keeler, who throughout this entire conversation has been grinning like an indie rock Cheshire cat, “Logistically, it’s difficult to steal from the future.”
So, what’s the next Raconteurs album going to sound like?
“Deep Purple,” says White, quick as a flash, “Mixed with a little Cat Stevens. But using drum machines.” This time, Benson laughs as well.