The What of Whom, LLC

An independent record company focused on vinyl and other physical manufacturing

Third Man Records: Pressing Toward the Future

Walking into the Third Man Records storefront in Detroit, you're struck by design and detail. Large murals on the walls of Detroit music legends The MC5, The Gories, and owner Jack White's own The White Stripes canvas the walls. Exposed brick, oriental rugs, and his signature primary color scheme are prominent throughout the building. In a recent interview with Detroit's Metro Times, local artist Robert Sestok, who contributed to the artwork of the plant, points out the significance of these colors. The pillars throughout the building are red and white because The White Stripes are the foundation supporting it all, and black and yellow represents the Third Man Records working environment. The longer you stay, the more details you find. In addition to the record bins filled with Third Man releases from the likes of Loretta Lynn, Beck, and Wanda Jackson, along with all of Jack's bands; you'll also find a number of the novelty machines similar to what is found in their original brick and mortar in Nashville, TN.

When the new storefront opened in Detroit, a large blacked out window at the end of a hallway hid a pressing plant in progress. Then, in February of this year, they held their Grand Opening celebration for plant with live performances and special pressings of classic albums from Detroit artists The Stooges and The MC5. This plant is the first of its kind in decades. Archer Pressing has been the sole manufacturer of vinyl in Detroit since the mid 1960's, and has manufactured plenty of Detroit's classics. Similarly, Nashville is home to United Record Pressing, which is the largest plant in the US. Third Man has historically used United, but with the continued growth of vinyl worldwide, the limited number of operational plants, and the steady line-up of artists coming out of Third Man, it made sense for them to bring the process in-house.

I was to meet David Buick in the early afternoon. When I notified the gentleman at the counter that I was there to meet Dave, he disappeared into the hallway to track him down. Upon his return he informed me that Dave would be right out. "I just saw him pounding a handful of chips".

As I waited for Dave, I glanced around the shop. In the quick look around I see a record booth similar to an old phone booth where visitors can record themselves directly to vinyl, an isolated record listening booth, various instruments and guitar peddles, and a stage for live performances.

When Dave emerges from the hallway, he waves me over, still dusting off his hands. "Hey, sorry. I was just finishing up some lunch". He is welcoming and friendly, as I have found to be the case with everyone I've talked to responsible for running Third Man. After some brief introductions, he invites me on a tour. He leads me down the hallway from which he emerged.. It's lined with framed copies of some of Third Man's biggest releases.

We start looking through the once covered back window leading to the new plant. "You want some coffee?" he asks.

He takes me first to their shared office space. The design is similar to that of the main storefront. A record player at the entrance and on the opposite wall is another mural. It's an atlas with some markings of significance to Third Man, and some unusual and humorous labeling. There are also framed Rob Jones posters hang on two walls. We don't spend too much time there before heading to the kitchen.

This is one of the most comfortable employee "break rooms" I have been in. It feels more like a family kitchen from the 1950s. I pour coffee into a black mug and stir in cream and sugar using a yellow spoon.

Dave and I talk about times passed in the Detroit music scene, for him it goes back to the Gold Dollar. This venue saw the birth of many great Detroit acts through the late 1990s and early 2000s, including The White Stripes. It was open for a short 5 years, but is a thing of legend to Third Man fans, and the label released a set of records of performances there, available only to their subscription Vault members.

He launched Italy Records in 1997, a year later releasing The White Stripes' first single "Let's Shake Hands". He continued releasing albums sporadically throughout the following 10 years. Dave was also a member of The Go, one of the prominent Detroit Rock & Roll bands of that era . During that time he owned and operated a record store called Young Soul Rebels, whose first paying customer was Third Man Records Co-Founder Ben Blackwell.

Blackwell would later be one of the people who brought Dave into the Third Man family officially. Buick always stayed in touch with Jack and his old friends at Third Man. He tells me when he first heard Third Man was planning to open a second location in Detroit, he immediately emailed Jack. Not long after, he was visited by "the Bens", Ben Blackwell and Ben Swank, who run operations out of Nashville, TN. They officially offered him a spot on the team to help run the Detroit location.

We talk about how Detroit seemed more lawless back then. He quickly points out that he has a fondness for the earlier days, as anyone would, but that doesn't mean that change is bad. He said it's great for Detroit to be going through a positive change. And Third Man is right in the middle of it.

After finishing our coffee, he led me through a series of doors, coming to two heavy red vault like doors which led to their studio. It's a smallish room, dominated by a large mixing board and multiple pieces of vintage analogue recording equipment. The design of the room follows the same color scheme as the rest, with all of the sound proofing tiles a bright yellow. In addition to the tape machines and other pieces of equipment, there stands an enormous vintage cutting machine. Dave says the machines used are incredibly difficult to find. In fact, in order to get their hands on this one, they had to wholesale purchase a studio's worth of equipment from one that had shut down.

Back in the storefront there is a live performance area, painted blue. The intent of the studio space is so that, like in Nashville, they will be able to cut live performances in their studio as they happen and have the music pressed in their plant. "We could have had the opening night ready to go, but it felt a little rushed in getting everything set-up so we did't". Dave says. They've recruited local Producer and Engineer Chris Koltay to mix their live sessions.

From there we wind our way back to the public hallway just outside the window where we started. As I look around I see another detail I hadn't noticed before. In the top corners of the window are two, what look like wood carved, Third Man logos with lightening bolts connecting them back to the frame like spiderwebs.

Hanging from the wall as you enter the plant is a chalkboard containing scheduled assignments for records and the employees responsible for them. Most are vague test pressing names, the color of the record, and the weight. It's something that surely piques fans interest as the look into the plant floor.

The machines themselves are separated into four pairs of two, one for the extrusion of the polyvinyl pellets, or Record Seeds as they are labeled, and one for pressing the extruded pucks into records. Currently there is one shift running which can press up to 5,000 records in a single shift. The hope is as both Third Man Records grows, along with the general increase in demand for vinyl, they will have all four stations running full-time.

As with the all other aspects of the building, the plant has details everywhere. The spindles where completed records are stacked have the Third Man logo etched on them. The work carts all have Third Man metalwork. All of the doors have hand painted lettering from local Detroit artists. As I talk more with Dave about how things came together, there is always mention of who in the local artist community worked on it. It makes sense that care went into having things made by hand given Jack himself was an upholsterer before to the popularity of The White Stripes and as I understand it, still does a lot of shop work.

The focal point of the plant is the mural on the large back wall by Robert Sestok, who is known for his mural work from the 1970s and more recent metal sculptures. Dave says when they were debating what to do with such a large space, Jack's first thought was to reach out to Robert whose work Jack had been a fan of for years. The mural he created was intended to represent the flow and process of working in the plant and creating records.

As we wrapped up the tour, I stopped to take one last glance around and as I looked up toward the ceiling, I notice another detail. Approximately 8 feet off the ground, with no evident way to access it, was a small green door. On the door is a hand painted sign for the "Complaint and Recruiting Department". Dave says the day before they were set to open, Jack looked at that door and told him to call the painter back in because he had an idea.

Although it's a new facility, there is a lot of history in it already; from the equipment they've pulled in for recording their live shows, the classic Detroit records they've gotten permission to release, and the stories of the people who work there. With the way Third Man has been expanding in the past few years, there's a lot more history to be made. And if you have an opportunity to visit either the Detroit or Nashville locations, be sure to schedule some extra time. Hidden details are everywhere.

As we walk back down the hallway leaving the plant, Dave gestures toward the rafters. "I worked here for months before I noticed that one." he says. There, high above the storefront floor, written in white on a red crossbeam, "Music Is Sacred".

Check out our playlist of tracks from the Third Man catalogue below along with a clip of Jack White cutting a live album while making the fastest record ever recorded.