The Raconteurs Mark Its Return: 'We Have This Chemistry'

Jun 23, 2019
Originally published on June 24, 2019 10:32 am

Jack White of The White Stripes, Brendan Benson, Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler, known to fans as The Raconteurs, have carved out a spot as one of rock's most formidable supergroups. In 2006, the band's album Broken Boy Soldiers was nominated for a Grammy for best rock album. But what was once just a side project for everyone is back more than a decade later.

For Help Us, Stranger, the band's first album in 11 years, the players let the songs guide the way, writing and recording only the music that felt like The Raconteurs. Even after time away, they knew what worked. "We have this chemistry," Benson says. "I don't notice too many other bands that have any sort of internal chemistry. I think that's what makes The Raconteurs special."

Jack White and Brendan Benson joined NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro to talk about making Help Us, Stranger after a hiatus, hipsters, loving Nashville and more. Listen to the story at the audio link and read on for interview highlights, including some conversation that didn't make the broadcast.


Interview Highlights

On deciding to reunite for a new album

Benson: I was over at Jack's house one day during the making of his solo record, and he had recorded a song called "Shine the Light" ... And he said, "You know, it sounds like a Raconteurs song." And so I think that got me thinking. You know, it had been several years since that name was even uttered. So I was like, "Oh, yeah, wow. A new Raconteurs song. OK."

And I started to put songs that I was writing to the side for The Raconteurs, and we took it in baby steps, though. It was kind of important to us that we didn't force anything or do it just to, kind of, because there was a demand or something.

White: It came from a natural place, too, you know? The song "Shine the Light on Me" was very much, to me, saying, "this feels like Raconteurs track" — which I hadn't had a song like that over the years say that to me. Brendan thought so too when he heard it, and maybe there's something to that.

YouTube

On the influence of living in Nashville

White: When I first moved there, I thought it was the perfect spot for me, because I thought: Well, this whole town is so based in country and Western that I'll be able to be here, off on the side, and no one will bother me. I won't have to deal with any of that, sort of, hipster dumb thing. Like, the worst place I would ever move [is] to Brooklyn, for example, to try to do what I do for a living, and just, you know, people just eat you alive. And that was happening in Detroit, where we were from. They were eating the White Stripes alive. We couldn't go out to shows anymore. So I needed to be in a place where I could still do what I need to do. And that was the perfect spot for me.

I've been there for 15 years, and it still feels perfect for me. ... If you're recording a song, you just have such an amazing plethora of musicians from all different genres that you can play with. It's really inspiring.

Hipsters — they might like you this week, but next week they won't, and then...

Benson: They chew you up and spit you out.

White: Fickle, yeah. And, you know, the garage rock scene we came out of in Detroit was incredibly cynical like that. And it worked out really well for years, but once it broke into the mainstream, it was very confusing for everybody. And I don't blame a lot of them either, you know, they were just trying to figure it out themselves. But as far as I was concerned, I needed a new environment to be inspired. And Brendan and the rest of the band, they moved to Nashville soon after I did, and that was really doubly inspiring.

On trusting each other and their talent

Benson: I'm not trying to make any personal statement on this record at all. But I think it is nice that we kind of showcase, in our little band and in our little corner of the world, where we do something that involves a lot of talent and skill.

I'm proud of that and I want to show that to people. I want to hold that up and say, "look what I've done." I think too often... I've noticed a lot of mediocrity. And, you know, I don't want to sound conceited here, but things that become so-called viral or popular or whatever just seem to me to be so insubstantial or kind of talentless. So, I'm proud of being on this earth and making music, and I'm proud of this record, too.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE RACONTEURS SONG, "SUNDAY DRIVER")

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The Raconteurs is Jack White from the White Stripes, Brendan Benson, Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler. In 2006, their album "Broken Boy Soldiers" was nominated for a Grammy. But what was once just a side project for everyone is back more than a decade later. Their new album is "Help Us Stranger."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNDAY DRIVER")

THE RACONTEURS: (Singing) Ain't it wrong? It's a fact. Sing my song.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And joining us is Jack White and Brendan Benson at our NPR New York City studios. Welcome.

JACK WHITE: Oh, thank you for having us.

BRENDAN BENSON: Thank you. Hello.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So your last collaboration was an album in 2008, but you still have such a loyal fan base. I've even seen pictures on social media of people waiting outside stores to buy this album. What's the reaction?

WHITE: It's - wow. This is Jack speaking. Over the years - I've, you know, been touring for the last few years on solo projects. And everywhere I go, there's, you know, White Stripes fans, Dead Weather fans. And there's a lot of Raconteurs fans. I mean, it was always interesting to see what a gigantic following. I would play a very, like, sort of obscure Raconteurs song live in my set, and people would know all the words to it. And it was just funny. When we would get together, we'd talk about that because it's, like, we got get back in the studio some time. But it just kept getting pushed back and pushed back.

BENSON: This is Brendan. Of course, being asked, like, how did this reunion happen? - and I was over at Jack's house one day when he was - during the making of his solo record. And he had recorded a song called "Shine The Light" with his solo band. And he said, you know, it sounds like a Raconteurs song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHINE THE LIGHT ON ME")

THE RACONTEURS: (Singing) Ooh, what can you do, love? Ooh, if only we knew. Ooh, what does it prove, love? New love comes, so what can you do?

BENSON: And so I think that got me thinking. You know, it had been several years since that name was even uttered, you know? So I was like, oh, yeah. Wow - a new Raconteurs song, OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHINE THE LIGHT ON ME")

THE RACONTEURS: (Singing) But we don't need to know why the flowers grow. Let's just be happy they can.

BENSON: And I started to put songs that I was writing to the side for The Raconteurs, and we took it in baby steps, though. You know, it was kind of important to us that we didn't force anything or do it just because there was a demand or something.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: God forbid you should give the fans what they want.

(LAUGHTER)

BENSON: Well, you know, we didn't want to make a record just to make a record or something.

WHITE: Yeah, it felt...

BENSON: You know, it had to be special. People were waiting for a long time.

WHITE: And it felt real. It came from a natural place, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE RACONTEURS SONG, "DON'T BOTHER ME")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You both live in Nashville. So tell me about the impact on your music.

WHITE: This is Jack. When I first moved there, I thought it was the perfect spot for me because I thought, well, this whole town is so based in country and western that I'll be able to be here off on the side. And no one will bother me. I won't have to deal with any of that sort of hipster, dumb thing. Like, I mean, like, the worst place I would ever move to - Brooklyn, for example - you know, to try to do what I do for a living. And you're just - you know, people just eat you alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T BOTHER ME")

THE RACONTEURS: (Singing) Don't bother me. The surplus of your apathy, it don't bother me. It's all nothing new to me. It don't bother me.

WHITE: And that was happening in Detroit, where we were from. It was - they were eating the White Stripes alive. We couldn't go out to shows anymore, so I needed to be in a place where I could just still do what I need to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you say that they were eating you alive in Detroit, what do you mean?

WHITE: I could say if you're a Garth Brooks fan for one day in the South, you're a Garth Brooks fan till the day you die, OK? Hipsters - they might like you this week. But, you know, next week, they won't. And then...

BENSON: They'll chew you up and spit you out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ah, OK.

WHITE: Yeah. And it just - that became a point there. Like...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They're fickle.

BENSON: Yeah.

WHITE: Fickle, fickle, yeah. So - and the garage rock scene we came out of in Detroit was incredibly cynical like that, and it worked out really well for years. But once it broke to the mainstream, it was very confusing for everybody. And I don't blame a lot of them either, you know? They were just trying to figure it out themselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jack, you recently received an honorary doctorate from Wayne State University for your philanthropy in Detroit. And I want to play a little bit of your speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WHITE: I had an epiphany that has stayed with me to this day that not all of art and creation was by happy accident, that much of it was done with purpose. And it was not only OK to do this - but the fulfillment of creativity to be able to convey ideas and metaphors at every possible moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I have to ask. What's the metaphor you're trying to convey with The Raconteurs, Jack?

WHITE: (Laughter) There's many, maybe hundreds. It's - you know, like, we were talking about environments before, like Detroit or Nashville Brooklyn. Wherever you are, you need support in your environment and to the people you're working with. And like what Brendan said, we were very lucky in this band to have a band where everyone is inspiring to one another. And we trust one another. And so all those things start to pour out of it after you have that scenario set up, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELP ME STRANGER")

THE RACONTEURS: (Singing) If you call me, I'll come running. You can call me anytime.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brendan, last word to you. What do you want the fans to get out of this record since, you know, you said it wasn't really for them, so...

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to let you make up for it now.

WHITE: Oh, no.

(LAUGHTER)

BENSON: I'm not trying to make any personal statement on this record at all, but I think it is nice that we kind of showcase - in our little band and in our little corner of the world, we do something that involves a lot of talent and skill. So I'm proud of being on this Earth and making music, and I'm proud of this record too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Brendan Benson and Jack White of The Raconteurs. Their new album is out now. Thank you both very much.

BENSON: Thank you.

WHITE: Thank you - great to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELP ME STRANGER")

THE RACONTEURS: (Singing) Help me, stranger. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.