Jack White works fast. So does his label, Third Man Records. Founded in 2001, when White was still best known for leading the garage rock revival with his band The White Stripes, Third Man moved into its modern era with the 2009 opening in Nashville of a one-stop rock n' roll shop that houses a record store (selling only Third Man and Jack White-related merchandise), the label, a live venue, a recording studio, a photo studio and darkroom, a production office and a distribution center. It's all about vertical integration at Third Man: "With our unique set-up we can have an artist recorded and photographed in one day and have records for sale in our store within weeks," reads a mission statement posted to thirdmanrecords.com. "In this way we are bringing a spontaneous and immediate aesthetic back into the record business."
We Are Hex, they work pretty fast too, having released two full-lengths and a passel of EPs and cassettes during their four years of life. But the local rock four-piece hadn't worked with an outside producer before Jack White called them up in December 2010, impressed by online concert footage he saw of performances at the Melody Inn and Radio Radio. He asked if they might make a trip down to Third Man in the near future to record a track or two with him. The band, naturally, accepted. White recorded two songs by We Are Hex during one afternoon in mid-January; the next day, the band posed for a photo shoot and White played them the rough tracks.
This week, a little more than three months since White first contacted the band, Third Man will put out a seven-inch by We Are Hex on its Blue Series of 45s. The label will sell it on the streets of Austin during the SXSW music festival, where much of the Third Man's catalog will be available for purchase from their Rolling Record Shop, a sort of musical bookmobile. We Are Hex will also make the trip to Austin, playing at least eight showcases during their first year at the festival, as well as a DJ set from the Rolling Record Shop. The local album release show, scheduled for March 25 at Luna Music, will await We Are Hex's return from Austin.
We Are Hex's seven-inch will become one of the loudest records ever released by Third Man, whose records tend to have a little twang (see Wanda Jackson, Drakkar Sauna, even Conan O'Brien's rockabilly effort) or to at least stick towards the pre-punk side of garage rock, like most of Jack White's bands. The A-side, "Twist the Witch's Titty," is a heavy, oppressive dirge, weighted down by Trevor Wathen's swampy, thudding bass, lifted by Matt Hagan's sharp, echoing guitar riffs played a la The Cure, complicated by drummer Brandon Beaver's muted fills, made even more demonic by singer Jill Weiss's mannered screams. If that track exemplifies We Are Hex's goth-rock side, the flip-side, "Through the Doldrums to the Dum Dums," gestures more towards White's garage-rock background, a few off-key "doo-doo-doos" opening a distorted, frantic, upbeat song that's closer to pop than noise. Weiss, who can take on several personalities during the course of a record, opts for a hands-on-hip, flippant tone on the B-side, asking "Who do you think you know here? Who do you think you see?"
With representatives from Third Man unavailable for comment while preparing for a trip to SXSW, it's up to the members of We Are Hex to talk about their new seven-inch and their relationship with the label. The story starts in the key of awe, with Weiss calling Third Man "its own Willy Wonka world" where "you can tell that Jack has his hands in everything because it's immaculately designed."
Beaver, seated beside Weiss on a slow weekday night at near-Northside bar The Red Key, adds: "That whole place is put together on rock and roll; that's the only reason it exists. You're not going to find that in Indianapolis. To me, it was so foreign." Weiss: "We would have to build it. Our studio is the closest thing and it's just our house."
Once romantically aligned, now best friends and roommates, Weiss and Beaver finish each other's thoughts and sentences, comfortable with each other to the point to which, as Weiss jokes,"He could tell me to eat shit and die, and it might hurt right then, but tomorrow I'd be like, "Hey, want to get some coffee." Both have their quirks: Beaver is aloof in conversation, tending to stare at a fixed point ninety degrees to the left of his questioner while talking, only occasionally punctuating his points with eye contact; Weiss jokes that she only leaves the house for work and when loved ones absolutely demand her presence at a social occasion, although her cheerful, engaging presence tonight doesn't necessarily jive with her image of herself as a homebody, not to mention her aggressively outgoing stage persona.
Weiss and Beaver stress that, above all, their music is sincere, and they tend to be honest, open and excited when they talk about their band as well, only restraining themselves in order to preserve another's privacy, for instance by refraining from chatting too much about hanging out with Jack White or by revealing the name of the band's behind-the-scenes manager, who e-mailed Third Man the videos that would inspire White to work with the band. Even their tattoos and fashion accessories are honest: Beaver's knuckles spell out "SELF MADE"; Weiss wears a button that reads, "OCD AOK."
The two say they're satisfied with the 7-inch, noting that White didn't meddle with anything essential to We Are Hex's sound. "He definitely knows what he wants, and couldn't respect more the songs as they were," Weiss explains. "He just dived right in with ideas, as if he had been listening to them for months. There were a few things he surprised us with — even things we weren't sure we would like — but he was right on. We figured, we'll trust him because he's Jack White."
Weiss says that about "15 minutes of awkwardness" went by before the band felt comfortable being around White, before "it was like we had always known him." She elaborates on those few ideas that surprised the band: White suggested that Weiss's vocals be recorded at half-speed for part of one song, to give them a high-pitched, Chipmunks effect when played back at normal speed; he pulled out an African drum for another passage. The songs were recorded in two or three takes; the band showed up at noon and was done by 5 p.m. White works with vintage equipment — an analog console, two-inch reel-to-reel tape — and all music was tracked live, and even some of the vocals.