You know how it is: you get together with your musician friends, form a band, make two hit albums, win a Grammy for one of them and then forget all about it for a decade or so. If you ask Jack White and Brendan Benson, that's pretty much what happened with The Raconteurs.
"I think we were probably assuming that we were going to come back in a year or two," says White. "The big thing that caused a lot of my time to get swallowed up was Third Man Records, because we built it a year after the Raconteurs' second album. That took up a lot of my time and energy . . . and," he says, "a lot of my money".
The pair are at home in Nashville to talk about The Raconteurs’ long-awaited follow-up to 2008’s Consolers of the Lonely. Help Us Stranger sees Benson (the underrated tunesmith and creator of outstanding power-pop albums since 1996) and modern blues-rock god White (who has since launched both that aforementioned Third Man label as well as his own solo career since the last Raconteurs album) combine their impressive powers for another album bursting at the seams with melody, vibrant rock riffs and catchy tunes.
White admits that his solo career inevitably contributed to Help Us Stranger's sound, even if it was on a subconscious level
Thirteen years since their debut Broken Boy Soldiers, it’s clear from the way White and Benson talk and crack jokes together that they have an easy rapport – the result of longstanding friendships, as well as a musical kinship.
Alongside the band's other two members, Jack 'LJ' Lawrence and Patrick Keeler, they came up together on the Detroit scene of the late 1990s; White as a member of The White Stripes, Benson as the solo indie-rocker with a pop sensibility. Neither can remember whose idea it was to get The Raconteurs back together after such a long hiatus, but the starting point was arguably Shine the Light on Me, a song left over from White's eclectic last solo album, 2018's Boarding House Reach.
“None of us can recall the specifics,” says the chatty, upbeat White. “Patrick is the only one that doesn’t live in Nashville, he lives in LA – so when he was in town, we said ‘Hey, why don’t we get together and record that Raconteurs song?’ Brendan had a song called Only Child, and I think those were the first couple we did. We just got into the studio to record a little bit; no pressure, no big plans. It’s best to go in with baby steps when it’s been a while, and it turns out that it was ‘Wow, that was great. Holy hell.’ And it also only felt like it had been a month since we last played together; I forgot how much the band laughed together.
“When you’re doing your solo thing, you’re kind of like the boss, whether you like it or not – as much as you get along and you’re friends with everybody. It’s different when you’re in a band; you can just tell by the laughter that everyone’s in this thing together.”
White admits that his solo career inevitably contributed to Help Us Stranger’s sound, even if it was on a subconscious level.
“It’s kind of strange,” he muses. “Because in the White Stripes, for example, I wrote all the songs – and in The Raconteurs, me and Brendan write them together. In [his other band, formed in 2009] The Dead Weather, all four of us write; so there were all different scenarios. So to do any of the solo stuff, I was breaking away from that as much as I could, while also trying to do what came naturally for me. And all those experiences contribute to the next thing, whatever it’s going to be. If I’d done a Dead Weather album [now], for example, as the drummer in that band I would have taken a lot of the drumming from the last solo record I did. So it’s great to be doing it for 20, 25 years, and to be still learning new things. That’s exciting for me.”
Help Us Stranger also marked the first time that The Raconteurs recorded in Third Man Studios, which is situated in the grounds of White's estate in Nashville.
“It was amazing,” he agrees.”Brendan has had his own studio for the last decade – well, he’s had one since the 1990s, really. You’ve got to remember, Brendan was the first person to have nice equipment because he got signed to Virgin before any of the Detroit bands. I remember going over to his place and he had a U47 microphone and nobody else in town had a U47. He learned about all this stuff way before we did – so my studio is the culmination of playing and recording in everyone else’s studio for 10 years, and finally being settled enough to say ‘Okay, now I’m gonna put together all the mics and tape machines that I like in one place, and maybe it’ll be a dream scenario.’ It was definitely cool to have the band working together in there.”
“And it’s just a vibey place,” adds Benson. “It’s just small, and intimate, and you’re kind of thrown together; there’s no reception area, there’s no lounge, so you’re constantly just in a creative environment. And Jack’s got a really cool gear collection now, surpassing mine by far.”
“But if you take away the broken equipment, it probably evens out,” jokes White. “But at least it looks good on the shelf, right?”
Their technical set-up has changed over the past decade, but so has their perspective on certain things. Now both in their 40s, both White and Benson agree that age begets clarity. Benson, who regularly enjoyed a bottle of red wine as his on-stage refreshment, has given up alcohol and the band’s Record Store Day gig in Nashville in April was his first time playing sober with them. White jokes that he was asked to turn in his Irish passport (Benson’s mother is from Youghal) once he quit drinking.
“I was just doing too much of it,” chuckles Benson. “I have a son and a daughter now, so it was time to grow up and stop all that nonsense. And in fact, I also quit smoking recently. [But] I’m not completely sober; I do partake in marijuana and I enjoy that. That’s a new and different thing for me.
“I dunno, the jury’s out. I mean, I love performing, and in fact, I think I’m a little sharper and can really enjoy the moment and savour it, and take my time with it. In a lot of ways, it’s more fun. And in other ways, it’s not as fun. I don’t miss the hangovers on tour, that’s for sure.”
“You seem in amazing spirits all the time, compared to before,” says White encouragingly. “I’m quite proud of you, so it’s great to see.”
Unlike Consolers of the Lonely, which was famously recorded and surprise-released within three weeks in 2008, the sessions for Help Us Stranger were left more open-ended.
With another excellent album to their respective names, neither artist has any plans to put their solo careers on the backburner
“Well, when Brendan gave up alcohol, I started doing heroin, so that delayed things,” deadpans White. “It’s funny, I’m a big believer that things happen that are supposed to happen – not in any sort of religious or mystical way, but in a ‘human nature’ kind of way. Why didn’t we record an album five years ago? Well, it just wasn’t the right time – it wasn’t like we were all in a room together staring at each other, saying ‘What the hell? Why aren’t we recording?’. So at the moment that it does happen, you think ‘This is amazing! It feels perfect.’ Yeah, it would have been nice to do this a few years ago, but I think it’s better that it’s happened now.”
A post on the official Jack White Live Instagram account later clarified that the singer has never taken heroin. "I've never done heroin or any other illegal drug in my life and anyone close to me could confirm this," the post said, which is signed Jack White III.
With another excellent album to their respective names, neither artist has any plans to put their solo careers on the backburner, however. White still has a “plethora” of ideas left over from Boarding House Reach to work on, while Benson’s next album is already done and will be released on Third Man Records at some point, which he says he’s “really excited” about.
“I am too, because I get 90 per cent of the profits from that album,” jokes White, with Benson quickly adding “So that’ll make you the handsome sum of at least 200 bucks.”
Before that, they will see where Help Us Stranger takes them – and having written more than 30 songs for it, they agree that it should take less than 11 years to follow it up, this time around.
“I’m always proud when I don’t plan things ahead of time,” says White of his ever-expanding musical universe. “I look back on this pile of records, and every one of those records was not planned; they all happened just by circumstance. That’s what happened this time, too, and it’s a great way to do it. If you were an architect, you couldn’t live like that – but the kind of artist that I’m lucky to be, I’m lucky to run into these things that just happen by chance. And somehow, something beautiful comes out of it . . . hopefully.”
Help Us Stranger is out now
This article was amended on July 1st, 2019, to include a statement by Jack White in realtion to his comments about heroin use