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A Rational Conversation: Jack White's Third Man Records Returns To Detroit

Customers line up outside the Detroit location of Jack White's Third Man Records store on opening day, Nov. 27. Third Man's plans for Detroit also include a record pressing plant.
Scott Legato
Getty Images
Customers line up outside the Detroit location of Jack White's Third Man Records store on opening day, Nov. 27. Third Man's plans for Detroit also include a record pressing plant.

" A Rational Conversation " is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on instant messenger or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.

, the company owned by Jack White, recently and unexpectedly opened a new outpost in Detroit's Cass Corridor, a poverty-marked part of the city that once attracted the local creative community and that has now been targeted for redevelopment and rebranding. A key component of this location will be the forthcoming Third Man Vinyl Pressing Plant , where it will use eight brand new presses to hopefully help alleviate the current worldwide gridlock of music waiting to be pressed.

White is originally from Detroit, and the breakthrough of his duo The White Stripes in the early aughts helped bring international attention to the city's long vibrant garage rock scene. But Third Man has become known primarily as a Nashville entity, especially since the opening of a fantastical storefront/performance space/label office in 2009, and White's relocation was the biggest symbol of the mutually antagonistic relationship that had developed between him and his hometown's music community. But to observers, Third Man's release of new albums from valued and prolific Michigan weirdos Timmy Lampinen (via Timmy's Organism ) and on the same day in October indicated that the relationship may be thawing. Then came the announcement of Third Man Cass Corridor. To check in on the current relationship status between White and Detroit, as well as to understand what the new space may mean for the city, Ducker got in touch with Mike McGonigal , the music editor at theDetroit Metro Times .

Were you surprised when you learned that Third Man was putting out albums from Wolf Eyes and Timmy's Organism?

Yes, I think everyone was surprised. Third Man is good at keeping a lid on their plans, so there might be a few rumors around things, but that's it. That was such a great one-two punch. Timmy's Organism makes sense because it's not [Lampinen's] most out-there music, and the White Stripes had taken his tremendous, crazed punk band Clone Defects out on tour with them before. But Wolf Eyes? On Third Man? There are all these kids buying everything Third Man does. [White] has this Pied Piper role, so he got the more rich ones to listen to these 78s of blues and gospel, and now the kings of Michigan noise.

What place do those two bands in particular have for music listeners in Detroit in 2015?

What's cool is how Wolf Eyes really met the project halfway, turning in a record that's solidly a weird, post- Funhouse sort of dirge-y punk record. When they were on Sub Pop it seemed like their aesthetic was maybe to try to be as not Sub Pop as possible. On Third Man they just clearly gave a f***. And Timmy is really well respected here, and has been doing his own thing and making a living from it. Timmy is a visual artist, he's always in more than one band, he is clearly compelled to create. My favorite Timmy story is about a Christmas tree. He might have been a teenager, and he went to some friend's house. There was a tree in the yard in the snow and he proceeded to eat it and then take a crap in front of the friend's house. This is third hand, but if you spend more than one minute in person with him, you understand it's more than him being a "rock and roll wild man." I was just talking to my coworkers earlier about why Detroit is so great, and part of the reason I moved here, is that everyone is kind of out of their minds. Sorry, I'm not sure I answered your question.

You did answer the question, and kind of confirmed what I thought: These are bands that have a level of national/international notoriety, but they remain beloved local characters.

Oh, good. And yes, well stated. Detroit is so packed with musicians who have international profiles, but guys like Derrick May and Terrence Parker, you can just meet them at a record store. They make nothing next to the money they make in Germany, but they'll still put on club events here.

Prior to these new developments, how was Third Man perceived locally? The establishment of Third Man as a major entity in Nashville has often been portrayed as the sign of Jack White turning his back or washing his hands of Detroit.

I wasn't here [when he left]. I saw the White Stripes in a small club in Seattle in 2000 opening, then never saw them again, as I don't like huge venues, but I always liked their music. When I first visited here six years ago, there was clearly bad blood.

From both sides?

White had done a lot for other bands in Detroit — [putting together the compilation] Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit in 2001 being chief among them. He did get in that fight with the guy from Von Bondies. And for anyone to go from being a local talented dude to one of the biggest stars on the planet can never be easy. I think he freaked out on Detroit and had to leave. And I think a lot of Detroiters resented his success. I mean, if your music sounds really the same and you're close to as good as this kid, and he gets huge and you're still washing up the restaurant after it closes, it's easy to make this one person the focus of your resentment. This is a dozen years ago, of course. But as soon as Third Man the label got big, [White] continued to work with Detroit artists and release their music. It all just took time.

A big change was definitely in 2009 when White gave a bunch of money to Clark Park, which is the heart of where many people in bands live, in a largely Hispanic neighborhood in Southwest Detroit. He later paid the back taxes on the lovely Masonic Temple so it could stay open. Between those two things, that's I believe $300,000. Maybe he got his name on the building, but I don't think he asked for it, he's not David Geffen, or that Quicken Loans guy.

So he had built up enough goodwill that people are willing to let bygones be bygones, especially if he's helping the city and the arts community?

In terms of local feelings, when I heard that David Buick was one of the first people to get hired by Third Man Cass Corridor, I knew enough of the backstory to recognize that's a huge thing in and of itself. Buick (yes, of the Detroit Buicks) had , and later they were both in that band the Go, but they had a falling out that was tough. I'm friends with Dave and never asked for specifics, but to me that [hiring] meant, "Oh, this guy is really mending fences and coming home," even if he's not physically moving here, as clearly he and his kids have a life in Nashville.

And was the record plant a surprise?

The news was a total surprise to many, yes. But it's such a great, weird spot. It's seriously like if Willy Wonka had his own record store. Buying your own pressing machines is very, very smart. At in Nashville, Third Man is going to get good treatment because they give them so much business, but they don't own the plant. Record plants everywhere are insanely backed up now because of the increased demand and the fact that working on these machines is the same as working on a '55 Chevy in Cuba — people have to make their own parts. I first heard that Third Man had made a generous offer to buy , a local plant that's been in the business for a long time. They declined and then Third Man actually found a company that is making new machines. New pressing plants, that hasn't been done in like 40 years. Sorry to geek on this but I'm so excited, personally and for Detroit.

That says a lot about the topic at hand, that this is a cause for celebration in the city.

It's really some next level s*** to have, I believe, eight machines in there, and for them to be new. I spoke to friends who were skeptical at first, but then they went to the opening party and were like, "I'm not going to argue, this is really cool. I just hope I can get a bit of time on those record presses when they get online."

Why were they skeptical at first?

Because it's super weird to have a record store that only sells your own s***. On paper it seems like hubris and self-aggrandizement, but then you see the place and you see he's made it so inviting. And you realize that this guy is using his platform to turn people on to all kinds of cool stuff. It's one thing to have your own label after being on both majors and indies, and sell direct, but to follow this model that is pretty much exclusive to other forms of retail with records is not something that's been done otherwise. It's f****** weird, but it works. If you love Detroit, you want to see it succeed. You're willing to deal with the fact that there is corporate-type sponsorship of all kinds of things because it looks like positive change, but here you have a local artist returning and just doing all this with his own money, as I understand it.

Being that this is in Detroit and Detroit's economic health has become a national fixation, in the media at least, do you think this move will have an actual impact on the city's economy?

I think this is a great step. It certainly is already employing some people I care about a lot. Detroit's problems are really systemic and deep and based on so many years of graft and shenanigans at the local and state government level, but anything that is done with love is always super appreciated here. If it has both love and money, people will be skeptical at first, but I hope they see that it's really a good thing. A weird thing, but a good thing. Jack White isn't going to fix the potholes and streetlights and get water turned back on, but he might help get some kids from Columbus to come here and check the place out and spend some money. And those kids might hit up some other places, obviously. This is a tourist attraction that's also a functioning business, which constantly produces stuff. It can be sort of like in Nashville, which has made show posters using wooden type for over a hundred years. It's a bit of a museum, a gift shop and just a place where people are honing the craft of letterpress.

Detroit does seem to be on the upswing, for real. I sure hope it is. There is way too much poverty around here. I used to love the look of abandoned buildings and want to go explore in them, but since moving here I just feel the pain of the people who owned those places and had to move or close their businesses.

I am entirely on board with Third Man Cass Corridor. Just the name alone is an attempt to bring people back in line with what that area was initially called, and how it used to be a thriving creative area, with the amazing Fortune Records in the 1950s and 1960s on up through the Cass Corridor visual artists who made it their home in the 1970s. The entire region is trying to get re-branded as "Midtown" now by [businessman] Dan Gilbert and his cronies. He is almost exactly the same as the villain from RoboCop 2, if you ask me. The views and opinions I have just stated in no way reflect those of my employer, of course.

Are local bands already booking time to do projects at Third Man Cass Corridor or planning to press records there?

My understanding is that the initial plans are to get a slew of local releases together, of both older and new music. And as they have a great stage to get people to perform, I imagine those performances might be recorded. The machines at the record pressing plant, they say spring on that, but my guess is there will be delays. I'm confident the pressing plant will be up and running this coming year, for sure.

There are certain genres that Jack White and Third Man have been associated with (garage rock, blues and so on). Do you get the sense that there might be some outreach to some of the other music that's come out of Detroit that also has a history with vinyl, most notably, techno.

I sure hope so. Also, Detroit jazz. Obviously Third Man has reissued classic blues, and there is a lot to work from here in Detroit. A concise history of Detroit techno on Third Man would be super rad. The fact that Wolf Eyes is on Third Man really would seem to open things up.

Do you think it's crucial that the Third Man plant focuses on or prioritizes releases from Detroit artists?

I think it's cool that they now have people helping to run the label from here. My understanding is there are three new employees each running the publishing side, new artists and reissues. I can't wait to see what reissues they do, whether they're from Detroit or not. There is a lot of excellent under-recognized music from these parts, some of which has never been properly reissued or reissued at all — look at the Fortune Records catalog. Hopefully with the clout and backing of Jack White, some of that logjam could be turned loose. That Richard Brothers record, it's entirely unreissued and is so wild, man.

From what I understand, there is a definite impetus to release Detroit area records from this new Detroit branch of the label, but I hope they don't only stick to that and that projects along the same lines (if not scope) as the giant, deluxe Paramount reissue set might also originate from here.

Third Man probably could have made this plant in any American city they wanted. How much of a public relations move do you think it was to do it in Detroit? And should that matter?

Even where the Third Man/Shinola building is, real estate in Detroit is affordable. Part of why I myself moved here is because of how affordable it is. I'm not sure even Jack White could have set this up and be able to run it in Brooklyn, even with all of his resources (also, ew). He has so much history here, legitimately, and he is able now to employ some old friends of his, and really genuinely give back to this community. I don't know if that's PR or just doing something awesome when you have the resources to do so. It kind of makes every single other person with the same level of fame and access to money — whether a business or a foundation, whatever — who doesn't do something along similar lines look like a bit of an a****** to me.

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Eric Ducker