The Raconteurs: A Sacred Mission

Photo by David James Swanson

Jack White has a trick he uses whenever he starts a recording session. “I like to take a song, any song, and cover it in the studio,” he says. “That gets our brains working, and then we’ll move on to one of our own songs. It’s a way to get the train moving. You’re starting with something that’s already proven itself, and you’re adding to it and putting a new spin on it. So there’s a good recipe for success with cover songs.”

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That’s how he ended up covering Rudy Toombs’ “I’m Shakin’” on his 2012 solo album Blunderbuss and Bob Dylan’s “New Pony” on the Dead Weather’s Horehound from 2009. If you recognize those songs, you understand that his trick usually backfires in the best way possible: Rather than just being a means of jumpstarting a session, the cover becomes an integral part of the session and the resulting album.

That’s exactly what happened when the Raconteurs reconvened recently after a decade-long hiatus. On the drive to the studio for a second round of sessions with guitarist and vocalist Brendan Benson and the world-class rhythm section of bass player Jack “LJ” Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler, White happened to hear Donovan’s bluesy 1965 hit “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness).” The song is a Frankenstein blues built off of “Can I Do It For You,” made famous by Memphis Minnie in the early 1930s and covered by the Animals, Jim Kweskin & His Jug Band, and the disco group Santa Esmeralda.

White suggested the Raconteurs tackle it as a train-moving cover. “We started playing it, and Brendan pulls a harmonica out of the closet. I didn’t even know he played the harmonica! Everybody killed it.”

The song is a standout on the band’s long-awaited third album, Help Me Stranger, their first in more than a decade. It explodes with Keeler playing a chugging snare drum pattern and Benson blowing that mouth harp like it’s the whistle on a runaway train. Lawrence’s bass bounces around the room like a hyperactive kid hopped up on Pop Rocks, and White nails some gnarly blues rock riffs like he’s trying to outrun them all. It’s a perfect demonstration of the power of the Raconteurs, the unholy alchemy of these four musicians playing together. They had no intention of putting the song on Help Me Stranger, but it did end up on the album. “Everybody got really excited about it,” says White. “We couldn’t resist. Had to do it.”

This is how the Raconteurs operate. Largely by feel, leaning on spontaneity, serendipity, and gut decisions. What feels right is usually what gets done. “Everything this band does is like that,” says Benson. “That’s why the Raconteurs work so well. We don’t take it so seriously. When it’s time, it’s time.” That strategy — or, more accurately, that lack of strategy — created two albums of vital rock and roll, drawing on several decades and generations of sounds and influences but sounding very much of their postmillennial moment. Their 2006 debut, Broken Boy Soldiers, produced an honest-to-God hit with “Steady, As She Goes” at a time when rock songs weren’t supposed to be hits, and 2008’s Consolers Of The Lonely further developed the band as a standalone entity among the members’ day-job concerns.

To build on the success of those two records, the Raconteurs did … nothing? They all settled back into their lives. White ran Third Man Records and released a handful of exceptional solo albums. Benson had a few records under his own name, but spent most of his time working with a range of Nashville artists, including Ashley Monroe, Cory Chisel, and the Howling Brothers. Lawrence moved out to Los Angeles and toured with City and Colour. Keeler played drums for Nikki Lane and Wanda Jackson and in 2015 joined the reunited Afghan Whigs. But, says Benson, “we never really broke up. It was just a matter of timing.”

Instead, they simply waited for the right moment. And then they kept on waiting. And then they waited some more.

In 2018 the four Raconteurs all found themselves in Nashville at the same time, so they got together to jam. Nothing major, and certainly nothing they considered a reunion. It was more like a reignition. “We did it for fun,” Benson says, “but it felt really cool.” It’s a cliché to say a band is more than the sum of its parts, but the Raconteurs live up to that cliché: Something unique happens when the four of them are playing together. Benson chalks it up to the rhythm section as much as to the two frontmen. “Jack and I write the songs, but shit, those two bring the energy and power to the songs. Patrick is one of my favorite drummers, and LJ is a mind reader. He might actually be a witch.”

Says White, “I’ve never said, I’m going to do a BLANK record next. I hope to try that one day. Every single record I’ve made is some sort of happenstance scenario where I just find myself in the middle of a situation: Oh, I guess I’m doing a Wanda Jackson record! I guess I made a new band called the Dead Weather! I think some people probably think that I’m controlling and a perfectionist and I have everything planned out three years in advance, but that’s actually not true. I never have any idea what I’m doing next. I try to let the music tell me what to do.”

Following those casual jam sessions, Benson and White started writing together, sometimes creating new songs whole cloth and sometimes workshopping older fragments from other projects. “It’s been a while since I wrote a song with another person,” says White, “so writing songs with Brendan is really fulfilling for me. When you write a song by yourself, you don’t always know about the craft of songwriting, because you don’t have anyone to tell you what you’re accomplishing. When you do that with a partner, you can immediately see a reflection. You keep adding to each other’s creation and make it into something new.”

Despite having spent the last ten years writing songs with other people, Benson’s experience was similarly refreshing and revealing. “I was writing with a bunch of strangers, and that took a toll on me after a while. I was ready to be done with it. I tried doing the Nashville writing session thing, but I got burned out. Not to say there weren’t some great ones; I write really well with Ashley Monroe, for instance. But it was nice getting back into writing with someone who I know so well and respect. You don’t have to talk about shit a lot, and you don’t have to explain your ideas or yourself.”

Together, the quartet crafted an album of songs that sound timely but not political, engaged and extroverted and full of empathy but often hostile and bristling. “If you call me, I’ll come running, and you can call me anytime,” White and Benson sing together on the title track. “And these 16 strings we’re strumming, they will back up every line.” Rocking out isn’t an end in itself, as it is for many guitar bands, but a means of connecting — with each other, with strangers, with their listeners on headphones or at concerts. A few songs later, however, they’re decrying the caustic tone that defines so much discourse in the late 2010s. “The lack of your empathy!” White shouts over a prickly guitar riff. “Your ‘who me?’ fake apologies! … Don’t bother me, bother me!”

Its contradictions are what make the album so compelling, as the band understand that simply making music is a means of helping strangers. If you’re reading this magazine, no doubt you’ve found come comfort and solace in a song by someone you’ve never met. That’s the animating factor of Help Me Stranger, this idea that playing rock and roll is a sacred mission, a means of fellowship between these four musicians and the scores of fans all over the world. It’s a noble undertaking, but it does weigh heavily on them: “My hands are colder when you’re gone,” White sings on “Shine The Light On Me,” about as majestic and ambitious a song as the Raconteurs have ever attempted. “It makes it hard to play the notes I write to warm your mind. Nothing’s colder than a song that’s never played.”

That particular song was the first White and Benson wrote together for Help Me Stranger, and it’s not hard to see how it informs the tone and theme of the album. “I had tried to record it for my last solo record,” says White, “but it didn’t fit. It was more straightforward songwriting, but then I thought, it actually sounds like a Raconteurs song. So I played it in my car for Brendan, and he said yeah, it really does. He helped me finish that song, and then it was like, what else you got? That was one of the generators for us getting back together and writing again.”

Recording music is only one part of their project, of course — only one way they connect with each other and with their listeners. The other is playing live and transforming these sturdy songs into barnburners onstage. The Raconteurs gave their first show in eight years at Third Man in April 2018, to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the label’s founding, then launched a brief tour of Australia and Japan to road-test their new material. They discovered that they still had that same chemistry together, although Benson had to shake off the dust.

“I hadn’t been playing live for that whole 11 years. I was concentrating on writing and producing so I could be home with my kids. It never occurred to me that I wasn’t playing live. So I had to do some major catchup and get back into shape. Getting to those notes quickly was a little challenge for me. Things move very fast with the Raconteurs, so you have to be really quick to hang. After a half-dozen shows, I finally felt like I was back where I left off. I’m back in the saddle.”

Making that transition a little rockier for him is the fact that the Raconteurs don’t use setlists when they’re onstage. Planning out a show severely limits the possibilities and makes the audience beholden to the artist instead of the other way around. Says White, “I’m very needing the crowd to tell me what to do. Letting the crowd be in control, rather than me telling them what the show is — that’s a better way to go about it. It throws ego out the window, and you can get down to something really interesting.”

In other words, these songs can be living things, open to change over the years and to different interpretations by different listeners. “I love that,” says Benson. “I love that I can write a song that I’m convinced is about something in particular and then months later I’m like, oh yeah, it’s not about that at all. It’s about this other thing. The song evolves and changes and changes. You get to hear new things and new ideas. I love hearing other people’s interpretations, too. They tend to attach greater meaning to lyrics — really unusual and dramatic stuff. They’re usually way cooler than my own interpretations, and I’m the author!”

For the Raconteurs, that’s part of the excitement of recording and releasing new material: They get to watch how these songs grow and evolve with their fans. “We want to keep pushing the songs and make them grow,” says White. “By the end of the year, all the songs on this album are going to sound completely different. It’s funny — it’s almost like you should go back and re-record one last take, record every song one more time and re-release the album after the tour. At Third Man we have the ability to record direct to acetate live in front of a crowd. Maybe that’s something we could try with this record once we’re done touring.”

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