How Third Man’s giant Detroit location is becoming the ultimate D.I.Y. ecosystem

The house that Jack built

How Third Man’s giant Detroit location is becoming the ultimate D.I.Y.  ecosystem
Photo by Kelley ONeill

Step inside the immaculately designed Third Man Cass Corridor on a weekday morning. Strong, art deco lines frame the bold and packed space. A few shoppers stroll about inside. Everything is black and yellow. This gives it the immediate feel of a college gift shop. Enclosed wood-paneled booths — which look like large, overgrown classic radio consoles mixed with the Dr. Who phone box — are peppered throughout the back of the store. Upfront, it's racks of clothing, displays of turntables, beer mugs, Frisbees, and keychains. Hackey sacks? I don't think they have hackey sacks. There's a large bin of records alphabetized by artists' first names. There's a giant, blown-up photo of a rock band on the wall, from the 1980s or '70s. A clerk asks if you need help, and you importantly declare that no, you are there for an appointment.

In the back office, David Buick quickly scuttles out of view of his boss to throw on a black dress shirt over his black tee, and then adjust a yellow tie. Buick pretty much always looks like he just told a great joke to himself. And you want to make him laugh because he has an infectious chortle. "This isn't even my shirt; mine are at the cleaners," he mumbles to no one in particular. There's a dress code here. And even though that boss is hundreds of miles away at the main office in Nashville — his image flickers briefly on a large, wall-mounted monitor for a video conference meeting — the look on Buick's face changes to a fleeting "oh, fuck." It's that choir boy-late-for-church look. Nobody's in trouble here, though. This isn't James Brown's backing band. Managing to dress sharp in record time, Buick is not about to get fined. He was hired last year to help with Detroit operations and the reissue side of the label. The first two White Stripes 7-inch 45s were released on Buick's label, Italy, in 1998.

And yes, the boss in question is Jack White, co-founder of that innovative, two-person, stripped-down, color-coded, husband-and-wife duo who started here in Detroit in the late 1990s, became impossibly famous, played arenas, sold millions, and then broke up. And today White is a solo artist, a member of the Dead Weather and Raconteurs, a record producer, a family man, and the overseer of an increasingly sprawling empire.

The prodigal son

When Third Man Cass Corridor opened on Black Friday, the general narrative in the media was of label head White "returning home." This narrative was repeated over and over, and reinforced by the opening of the store in the new retail mecca of Canfield Street between Cass and Second in the former location of Willy's. The store is about seven blocks from the Gold Dollar, where the White Stripes played their first show. It was also reinforced by the unexpected signing of beloved local weirdos Timmy's Organism and Wolf Eyes. Third Man's staff talks of a "renewed interest in and commitment to Detroit music." And they plan to reissue the cream of the crop of Detroit's decades-old garage scene.

The coverage of Third Man also gave the impression that White was moving back to Detroit. He remains in Nashville with his family and much of the Third Man operation.

While most reporters discussed the fact that Third Man is opening a record plant, they failed to grasp the true import of this. By the time that record plant is operating this summer, White will have taken control of the means of production for his preferred method of releasing music, and in the process become perhaps the most self-sufficient label head/artist in history. And this is all happening at the same moment when his label has gone from an interesting curio for fans of folksy blues-garage music (and its constituent parts) to one of the most important labels for new and archival music on the planet. Recent releases include transcendent experimental noise from Michigan noise kings Wolf Eyes; a killer double album of weird old Greek music 78s that's eerie and beautiful, compiled by the brilliant Chris King; and the deluxe soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, scored by 87-year-old Ennio Morricone, who won the first non-honorary Oscar of his long career for the thing.

Oh man, there's so much to tell you about the true importance of this radical DIY-on-steroids venture! Maybe we can touch briefly on the label's history, how they obsessively cater to different levels of vinyl nerds and sell thousands of records direct to fans, and discuss a bit how records are made in the first place.

The shop's multimedia venue has already hosted Melvin van Peebles and Negative Approach (though not together); and while we touched on the branded tchotchkes for sale in their store, some of them are not even lame. Like, did you know they have their own brand of Polaroid-compatible film, which outputs images in the Third Man color scheme?

Dressing for success

But first, we have to get back to the uniforms. It's more than just a dress code. You get dressed up to go to work, but you also get dressed up to go onstage. It could be argued that these clothes belie four forces at work: a strong sense of branding, but also an earnest philosophy, some badass showmanship (which might actually be the same as the first item), and the lure of the cult — a close-knit family that you're not quite a part of who all dress the same. In Detroit, Anna Sui designed flowing, 1970s-style dresses for the shop employees. For men and women who work in the office as full-time employees —a number close to three dozen at this point — there are three levels of dress, from the shirt and tie on up to a full suit, with a vest in-between. At the flagship Nashville store, the female staff wears uniforms that are more akin to 1960s stewardesses. "[The uniforms are] a detail that adds to the overall visitor experience," says shop clerk Sarah Stawski, of Metro Times favorites the Pretty Ghouls. "A majority of my jobs have required uniforms, though none of the others were designer dresses."

Roe Peterhans, another Detroit hire who's known White since the mid-1990s, says the uniform supports the idea that simplifying some areas of the operation actually allows more creativity.

"Jack's original flagship upholstery company just used black and yellow," he says. "It reminds me of when the furniture designer Eames wrote that infamous letter to Henry Ford looking for an all-black, no brand, no badging, just a simple black vehicle; of course he was turned down, but it's that kind of idea. When you wear a yellow tie and yellow shoes, it's a little flashy, but it's that idea of just freeing up your mind to focus on other, more creative endeavors."

The family

Ben Blackwell and Ben Swank were contacted within the same week to start the label. Swank, a member of the excellent Soledad Brothers, to this day sometimes operates the Rolling Record Store, a sort of ice cream van for records. "The Dirtbombs were on tour, and we were outside of Arthur Bryant's Barbecue in Kansas City, one of my favorite restaurants in the country," Blackwell says. "[White] calls me on my cellphone, Halloween 2008. He just says, 'Hey, let's do Third Man Records. I bought a building in Nashville; I own the White Stripes back catalog. Let's just put that out. That should be enough to run a record label.' So my then-girlfriend and current wife and I moved to Nashville!"

Blackwell is White's nephew, has been a devoted fan from their first show, and helped Buick and White assemble the first run of Italy records, which White produced and/or played on. But that's not why he was hired.

"What I brought to the table was that I'd run my own label, Cass, out of my bedroom in my mom's house," Blackwell says. "I'd done 40-some releases in five years, almost exclusively vinyl. It was a one-man operation, except for when I was on tour. Then my mom would do the mail order. I brought in the knowledge of how the vinyl process works, the terminology, who the players are." Blackwell oversaw the first reissues of archival material, learning how to negotiate with labels and artists in the process.

Sometimes the fact that it was White's label made all the difference, as with Blackwell's pet project: to reissue the anthemic psychedelic garage band Public Nuisance. "I contact those guys, and they say, 'We get people asking us all the time to do this, but we're going to say yes to you only because White Stripes played a show in California and you guys put us on the list and we were there backstage and everyone was so nice and Jack covered a Public Nuisance song for us. You're by no means the first person to ask us for this, but thank you for how nice you guys have been over the past few years,'" Blackwell says.

Nearly everyone surrounding White at Third Man knew him before he was famous: high school friends, old band mates, Gold Dollar compatriots, family, and a slowly growing circle of people they each bring on board. Really, it's a family-run business, if that's not too cheesy to say. I ask Blackwell if this is some sort of policy, and he says: "You know so many people in your life, and really anyone can design a record cover — but who do you really want to also just hang out with, you know? It's as simple as that."

These aren't just cool, middle-aged folks who've known each other for years and are now working at their successful friends' place. These are people who believed in vinyl when no one else did, 15-plus years ago. They played on garage bands to release small label 7-inch records when audiences and pocketbooks were both super tiny.

Josh Gillis, another White nephew who works with Swank in Nashville, is partly responsible for the Wolf Eyes signing.

Peterhans says the signing shows Gillis' influence. "He knows a lot about that genre," he says. "That generation and that kind of aesthetic sensibility is coming out of the company, and broadening some of the artists that we're working with."

Power plant

Record pressing plants are maxed out beyond capacity, everywhere, thanks to the demand for both new records and specialty reissue product. Events like Record Store Day, which push the majors to repackage dollar-bin classic rock on 180-gram vinyl, have helped increase the bottleneck to the point where pressing delays of four months or more are not uncommon.

Many plants are not taking any new customers, either. As favored customers at their local Nashville plant, United, Third Man benefits from faster turnaround than most customers. But as they're able to get the funding together for the pressing plant, it makes perfect sense for them to make their own records. This is partly because they have such a large direct fan base — many thousands of customers who regularly subscribe to their Fan Club and Vault series.

Another reason to have a pressing plant, of course, is to allow others in on it. Third Man predicts that in the future, when a trained team is in place and they are running the presses on a three-shift, 24-hour-a-day basis, as much as 40 percent of the records pressed will be outside orders. Priority will be given to small acts, and everyone I speak to is careful to emphasize they're not trying to take away any business from local plant Archer Records. In fact, Third Man initially offered to purchase Archer, but was turned down, and later called to seek owner/operator Mike Archer's blessing for bringing in the new machines.

Eric Isaacson, who owns and operates the reissue-oriented record store and label Mississippi Records in Portland, Ore., was brought in to do a presentation on vernacular American sounds at the Nashville store, and he is super jealous. "Every record label is jealous of Jack's intense ability to realize these dreams of his," he says. "He's one of the few guys with money in this world that does bona fide cool shit with it. Most millionaires spend their dough on stupid status symbols like cars and fancy clothes. But Jack knows that it's way cooler to buy things like brand-new record presses."

Until now, running a record press has been a bit like having a car in Cuba; if anything goes wrong, folks are forced to spend countless hours fabricating parts themselves. The number of people who even know how to operate these things, let alone set them up and get them running, is dwindling.

"It doesn't matter if the record presses are brand new or 40 years old," David Mendoza, the chief press operator for Portland's Cascade Press, says. "You're still using the same old process of steam, hydraulics, air, and water to produce a piece of plastic with music on it — pretty much ancient technology in 2016. Don't get me wrong, I believe in vinyl as the incomparable medium for listening to music. But the pressing process is super delicate, and it is difficult to attain a high quality product unless you really know what you're doing."

So these eight machines en route right now are the first new record-making machines produced in decades, designed and constructed by a German consortium called Newbuilt, which already has decades of experience refurbishing old record presses. And these machines will be right here, in Detroit. As it begins to coalesce in the back room at Third Man, the whole setup looks more complex than the giant meth lab set up by the Pollos Hermanos guy in season three of Breaking Bad. Detroiter Randy Cholewa has 32 years of experience as an automotive manufacturing supplier. He's overseeing the build of the plant and will continue to operate it. "It's a lot of stuff in one place: a close-looped, high tech system of steam generator, chiller, and HVAC to operate the presses and control the atmospheric conditions of the plant," he says. "It's really starting to shape up."

It's also because of those loyal collector-type customers that these new record presses, which are manual, are ideal. Many Third Man releases receive limited edition versions — say, where an LP is sorted into a handful of 45s, then housed in a special box, with crazily colored vinyl. There are also special shapes, and records pressed into other records. There are records that play at different speeds on the same record. With White's 2014 Lazaretto, which set a record for vinyl units shipped at the time, every copy pressed contained not just hidden songs, and not only secret grooves, but friggin' holographic images that materialize when the record is spun. With these new machines, there will be even more ability to control everything, because the operator controls each press for every record. That means more picture discs, more craziness. "The colored vinyl, the limited edition, the hard to find, only available in one location, shit like that — we're record collectors, so that's why we make these things," Blackwell says.

The store

The plant will dovetail with bringing people into the store itself, as large windows that are already in place will look out onto the factory floor. Buses no longer line up outside of car manufacturers for schoolkids to witness the miracle of modern automotive assembly. Perhaps they can queue up here, to witness a record being born, and then ask, "What's a record?"

Third Man Cass Corridor isn't the first Third Man store, of course. The one in Nashville has been there since 2009. Mississippi Record's Isaacson flipped over that spot. "I've never seen a store more aesthetically focused. Every piece of trim on the wall and floorboard and employee uniform is there to reflect the aesthetics of the label. It is a total trip. I think Jack loves Orson Welles (hence the name of the label) and really tried to create his own Xanadu, à la Citizen Kane, there. It's a mix between Xanadu and Willy Wonka's chocolate factory."

When asked about the mass amount of tchotchkes and knickknacks for sale, Blackwell says it's because Third Man only sells its own records. That's in part because the Nashville location is a mile away from the classic and beloved local store Grimey's. And they didn't want to compete with a local indie store. More to the point, he says, "if you come in and the only thing we've got for sale is Dead Weather singles, that's not much of an experience. We want to be able to have stuff for people to buy, so merchandising makes sense and there's kind of something for everyone that comes in the shop. You know, dads want a baseball cap, and some people want shot glasses, and that's what people buy."

Isaacson singles out the children's record player they sell as the highest quality portable player on the market. Blackwell cautions us to not forget that all this goes back to the White Stripes era. "The White Stripes made cameras and they made theremins and they made record players with three-inch records, you know," he says. "It's not new to us; it's just a different color scheme, a different banner over it. The White Stripes were doing slip mats [for turntables] in 2003."

All this branded merchandise is a bit much to take in at first. Peterhans acknowledges the fine line they walk in trying to tweak the record store experience by including other "lost" and "lo-fi" technology, and that it puts them at the risk of feeling touristy. But if you have to take your grandmother someplace, it might be just as good as a store that sells $5,000 bicycles or $20 handmade pencils. If you can coax her to recite some poems that she had to recite in third grade and still remembers — and you end up with an acetate recording of grandma from the refurbished, 75-year-old "Record a Voice" machine that was the very same model used to record Neil Young for his excellent, funky 2014 Third Man covers album A Letter Home? Well, so much the better.

There's a photobooth that uses the Polaroid-style branded Third Man film, which was created just for them by the Impossible Project. You can also plop a token into another machine and watch as a wax injection mold of the Third Man van forms in front of your eyes, and nose.

And of course, it is a music-based store, with records, and stuff. I was curious if the shop staff had to pass any music trivia test to work there. "I think what mattered most about my experience with music, and the other ladies as well, was passion, more so than knowing historical facts or reciting catalog numbers," Stawski says. "And yes, now I know the catalog numbers and all the nitty-gritty, but going in, that was not required."

How confused is the average punter wandering into the shop for the first time, and what percentage of people there are super rabid fans?

"Talking to longtime fans on release days is great," Stawski says. "They know more than me. At live events and shows, we see a mix of everyone, people from out of state, and longtime locals too. My favorite is the high traffic we get from shoppers who haven't seen a 45 adapter in 20-plus years. They can't believe it when I tell them that people DJ with 45s today. We are turning people on to unpacking their old collections and getting their record players out of the basement. It's exciting!"

The enchilada

The Detroit venue has held several beyond-capacity freebie shows, notably the Gories and Negative Approach, which have gone off without a hitch. They're just beginning to project rare 16mm films regularly. Third Man Books head Chet Weise has overseen packed literary events there already. At least some aspects of the upcoming Memorial Day Trip Metal Fest will go down at Third Man's space. Among other projects, Third Man will imminently reissue the first 12 Italy releases, all 7-inch singles with the exception of one Hentchmen 12".

It's important to remember that White owns his buildings in Detroit and Nashville. In Nashville, acts playing their venue can even record directly to a lathe that cuts the sound right as it's made; it doesn't go through tape or any other medium before getting etched onto vinyl. That's also how records were cut back in the Paramount days. At a certain level, the only way to get more DIY would be for Third Man to go solar, creating its own energy.

Struggling to find a similar scope in terms of this level of label/production/store all in one place, I offer up Coxsone Dodd and his Kingston, Jamaica-based Studio One label. Blackwell suggests Cincinnati's storied 1950s indie label King "because King had a label, had a studio, had a pressing plant, and had a mobile record store, which I'm dying for a photo of," he says. "I've been told by multiple sources that King had like a fuckin' van they sent around Cincinnati and you could buy King records out of the van, at block parties and stuff."

Richard Branson infamously took proceeds from bong-ripping ambient records on his own record label Virgin to start up an airline. When I joke that White might be doing the same thing, Buick deadpans, "How do you know he hasn't already?" And there's just a one-percent chance he does know something, and isn't saying.

Read our interview with Chet Weise about the evolution of Third Man Books here.

About The Author

Mike McGonigal

Metro Times music editor Mike McGonigal has written about music since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance at age sixteen with money saved from mowing lawns in Florida. He's since written for Spin, Pitchfork, the Village VOICE and Artforum. He's been a museum guard, a financial reporter, a bicycle...
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