Stuttering slightly, leaning up and back, running a hand through his thick, inky spray of goth-teen hair, Jack White finds himself in an extremely unfamiliar situation -- at a loss for words. Perched on a black couch in the stylish sitting area of his Third Man Records compound in downtown Nashville, the 33-year-old empire-builder grasps to explain why a certain song by his new band, the Dead Weather, expresses a harsh honesty he's never before approached.
"It's a climax...of the last few years, of everything, it means so much more, um, I dunno," he says, his words running together. "I don't know whether to cry or laugh out loud when I think about it."
Confident, defensive, forceful, evasive, impassioned, standoffish, playful, anxious: An array of conflicting adjectives comes to mind when White holds forth -- but rarely baffled, let alone vulnerable. So it's a little unnerving when he seems on the verge of choking up as he discusses "I Cut Like a Buffalo," a relentless jerk-and-pulse of ominous organ, biting aphorisms, and undeniably funky percussion from the Dead Weather's debut album, Horehound. The song bears only a trace resemblance -- both in sound and attitude -- to his other projects, the White Stripes and the Raconteurs, even though the new band also consists of Raconteurs bassist-keyboardist "Little" Jack Lawrence, former Raconteurs touring guitarist Dean Fertita (who also plays keyboards with Queens of the Stone Age), and singer Alison Mosshart of the Kills. White, who plays drums and keyboards on the track, belts intense couplets: "You're a prick with a pin, woman / Push it into my skin, girl / I'm a prick when I sin / And I know I can't win." The music broods and swirls dramatically.
So, the next inevitable question: What the heck's the song about?
"Oh, I know what it's about," he says, looking away. Long pause. "It just feels like I'm being the most truthful I've ever been with myself," he continues, "especially the lyric 'You cut a record on my throat / But the record's not broken.' It's everything I'm about, the poetic side of me. I'm just obsessed with this song, but I'm scared to listen to it at the same time." Another pause.
A couple of days following, I'm chatting with Mosshart, 30, by phone from Melbourne, Australia, where the Kills are playing a gig, and she's obsessed as well. "We all are! It sounds new to him and it sounds new to me. I don't know how to describe that song to anybody, other than Jack is playing drums and singing at the same time, and you gotta watch it. I remember him doing the vocals and not being able to sit down. I was just standing there, jaw dropped, mesmerized. There was nothing written down on a piece of paper, it was all just stream of consciousness. It was one of those amazing things where I was like, 'God, I wish my mom could see this!' It was like a strange, mysterious act of nature."
I tell her White said he knew what the song was about, but he wouldn't explain further. "I wish he'd tell me!" she exclaims. "I'll find out, but I'm sure I won't be able to tell you." Did she think she knew what it was about when they recorded it? "No, well, I mean, yeah, but I don't wanna be wrong, because it's hard to read him sometimes, he moves so quickly. I don't know if he's referencing arguments or referencing specific instances.... I need to ask. I need to know the truth now!"
Here's the point where one has to state the patently obvious -- Alison Mosshart is the 180-degree hothouse opposite of Meg White. And though the Dead Weather aren't a duo and aren't trying to be the White Stripes' evil twin (that'd be the Kills), the comparison is impossible to ignore. Meg's practically wordless, effortlessly seductive repose and refusal to bend to anyone's expectations sets a certain tone, as does Mosshart's spontaneous, pop-and-finish-the-bottle vigor.
Here's how she describes her February 2009 conversation with Jack White about pursuing the Dead Weather as a legitimate group, not just a weekend lark. "I was standing at a Starbucks in Sheffield [England] outside a Mighty Boosh performance, and Jack called me, and I said, 'Who the fuck is this? You sound like a woman.' I immediately got into a fight with him on the phone." In fact, "I Cut Like a Buffalo" opens with White declaring, "I look like a woman." "He said, 'Why don't you come to Nashville tomorrow?' I was like, 'Okay, I got nothing to do, Jamie [Hince, her Kills partner] is on holiday, so fuck it!' "
"She's very emotionally inspiring," says White of the Florida emo-punk teen turned London gadfly. "She can just say out loud, almost magically, exactly what she likes and doesn't make any apologies. So when somebody's doing something interesting, she's clapping and is genuinely into it, which a lot of people are afraid, or too cool, to do." But that spontaneity is also inspiring because of its volatile edge. "There's a hostile side to the two of us," he continues, "and maybe we're trying to balance out our gentle and hostile sides. I was like, 'Okay, Alison, I'm your drummer now, what are you gonna do with that?' She definitely wants to be challenged."
So it's no coincidence that when you listen to clattery Horehound tracks like "So Far From Your Weapon" or "Treat Me Like Your Mother," which White and Mosshart sing (or wail) together, you imagine a sort of Tennessee Williams, kitchen- knife-wielding scenario, starring an unhinged Nick Cave and PJ Harvey circa "Henry Lee."
"Not a day went by that he didn't punch me in the face. No, not literally," says Mosshart, laughing, of the three weeks she spent in Nashville recording the album at White's never-before-used studio. "But we do kind of hit each other and make fun of each other and pick on each other quite a bit. That's our relationship, really. I don't think I'd ever forgive myself if suddenly he just stopped talking to me. But I feel like I've pushed it to that point every now and then."
Will any sane person ever invoke the phrase "voice of a generation" again without feeling the need to at least lightly mock the very idea? The body count alone over the past 40 years has left only the most narcissistic lunatics among us hazarding such ambitions.
Read the complete cover story on the Dead Weather in the June 2009 issue of SPIN, on newsstands now.