In the ripping new documentary 'It Might Get Loud,' Jack White, the Edge, and Jimmy Page hold forth on the electric guitar--what it's like to rock, and how it saved their lives. Will Welch talks to two of the three about struggles, inspiration, and the rebellion that made them want to shred. Warning: You'll feel silly for playing Guitar Hero
By Will Welch, GQ Magazine
UNLESS YOU'RE a long-haired hesher who spends Saturday afternoons riffing at the local Guitar Center, "electric-guitar documentary" might sound like a wildly dubious premise for a feature-length film. Not so, though, when the film's subjects are Jack White, the Edge, and Jimmy Page, and the man behind the camera is An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim. It Might Get Loud surges with the electricity of a cranked-up amp as it rambles from the mansion where Led Zeppelin created "Stairway to Heaven," to Jack White's Tennessee farm, to the school where U2 was born, collecting intimate, inspiring stories from three of rock's most accomplished and enigmatic shredders. To find out more, we plugged in with Jack and the Edge and hit "record."
GQ: In It Might Get Loud, creativity is portrayed as a reaction against one's surroundings. Jack, when you were growing up in Detroit, you didn't exactly fit in?
WHITE: I grew up in a rough neighborhood. I went to an all-Mexican grade school and an all-black high school. I'd find a couple people here and there that liked the same music as me for a minute, but it was tough to feel supported. People would make a wrinkled-up face when I would mention different things I was interested in. Even music teachers. It's not like I went to high school in the '50s. I went to high school in the '90s, you know? But that still happens. I was not encouraged musically at all. I was discouraged. It can leave a bad taste in your mouth.
You say in the film that when you don't have anything to react against, you make it up.
WHITE: Oh yeah. I don't like making my job easier. How are you accomplishing anything if there's no struggle? If I have to create a struggle that doesn't exist, I'll do that. Time and money constraints are a great way to do it. Or if you're in the studio, record on four tracks instead of twenty-four. Onstage it's like, I don't know the lyrics to half this song, but I'm not going to write 'em down. When you finish playing the song, you almost wish you could tell people, "You know, I sang half of that off the top of my head." You can't, of course, but I think they can smell it.
Edge, the movie presents the writing of the U2 song "Sunday Bloody Sunday" as a creative reaction to the ongoing violence in Northern Ireland.
EDGE: When you're writing a song, it can't just be a nice idea; it's got to be something that's important to you at a gut level.
Even when "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was in its rough, early stage, it was cathartic for me. As a band, we decided not to release it as the first single on War, not because we didn't think it was a great tune but because it would've been embarrassing for it to have become a commercial object to be exploited. The first time we played it live, we were in Northern Ireland, and without telling the rest of us, Bono goes, "We've got a song about what's going on up here. If you don't like it, we'll never play it again. Ever." [laughs]
What were you thinking in that moment?
EDGE: "Oh shit. Oh shit." Then Bono said, "This song is called 'Sunday Bloody Sunday,' " and the place went nuts. Two or three people headed to the exits, because from the title alone, you might think it's a nationalist anthem. But of course, it's just the opposite: It's a pacifist anthem. My hands were shaking as I played the guitar.
Jack, is it hard to step out of the spotlight to sit behind the drums in your new band, the Dead Weather?
WHITE: Whether it's the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather, or whatever, I have to find a zone that makes sense to me and, more importantly, that makes sense to the music. There are a lot of traps: Star power, celebrity, and showmanship can all do a disservice to the songs. But I tend to be that guy, you know? When me and four friends walk into a restaurant and nobody else talks to the host, I say, "Yeah, it's a table for five." I don't want to be that guy; I wish someone else would say something. But it always ends up being me, and I hate what comes with that. There's a lot of baggage--ego and narcissism--that comes with leadership. It's difficult to cope with at times.
What's the worst thing about being a guitar player?
WHITE: It's like a scarlet letter, you know? If I was playing bingo or drinking a cup of coffee next to someone who's 75 years old and they asked me what I do, I wouldn't tell them I'm a guitar player. I'd be ashamed.
WHITE: It's like saying to your grandmother, "I'm in a heavy-metal band." She'd be like, "Oh, you're one of those." And guitar is so predominant! If you drive by a huge chain music store, it's scary to think, Wow, I have to go in there to get my materials. Whereas I wouldn't be ashamed to go into a mom-and-pop hardware store at all. You end up in this ocean of guitar players, yet in your own brain you're supposed to be different and exceptional. That's a very difficult thing. On my passport, in the section marked "occupation," I write, "Songwriter."
The movie culminates with you two and Jimmy Page all playing guitar on an L.A. soundstage. Edge, what did you think of that footage when you saw it?
EDGE: I think the three of us all reverted to type. Jack is the showman--the brassy frontman and the snake-oil trader.
Jimmy is the sartorially elegant guitar god. And I'm the sideman. That's my gig. The sideman has to make it all happen and make everyone else look good.
WILL WELCH is a GQ associate editor.
Â© 2009 CondÃ© Nast Digital. All rights reserved.