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Luke Doucet

February 1, 2011
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BY KEN EISNER

Some people were meant to play certain guitars. Whenever and wherever Luke Doucet hits the stage, he wrestles every last ounce of Neil Young-battles-Brian Setzer twang out of his gleaming cream-and-gold companion. The aviary part of Luke Doucet and the White Falcon is the name of his current touring band, but it’s first and foremost the fabled Gretsch hollowbody this hardworking Canadian singer-songwriter, producer, and sideman favors above all others.

Arriving 37 years ago in Nova Scotia to nomadic, arts-minded parents, and mostly raised in Manitoba, the self-taught guitar wiz hit Vancouver at 19, and was quickly hired by Sarah McLachlan. He blazed a jagged path through the angelic singer’s otherwise contemplative musical landscapes (and continues to do so), meanwhile launching his own edgier outfit, called Veal. That band stamped out three sardonic, surf-punk CDs, although these gave little hint of the authoritative singing, Bert Jansch-level acoustic playing, and carved-in-granite melodies to come.

Doucet subsequently moved to Toronto, released a folky solo debut and a raucous live set backed by members of Blue Rodeo, then recorded his real first studio outing, a heart-sore breakup album called Broken (and Other Rogue States). Doucet lived in Nashville long enough to nail down the more upbeat Blood’s Too Rich (emblematic track: “The Day Rick Danko Died”), still finding time to produce rootsy colleagues such as Dustin Bentall, Oh Susannah, and Melissa McClelland. A superb singer and guitarist in her own right, McClelland married Doucet in 2009, and the duo began anchoring McLachlan’s travel band. Since then, the versatile guitar slinger hired Sloan drummer Andrew Scott to produce a new collection of catchy White Falcon originals, Steel City Trawler. Heavier on punchy ’70s rock and lighter on ornate arrangements, the change-of-pace CD comes with a nifty comic book depicting Doucet’s life in Hamilton, Ontario, the gritty industrial town a number of cash-strapped Canadian musicians now call home.

What was your first really good electric?

At 13, I got an Ariana, a crappy plywood guitar that I bashed out Kinks, Beatles, and Dylan songs on. In the ’80s, everyone wanted a Fender Strat and a Twin Reverb, and I finally bought myself an American Standard Stratocaster in 1988. That began my love-hate relationship with the Strat. When I moved to Vancouver, I didn’t want to get stuck in the blues ghetto—much as I love the blues— sounding like everyone I grew up listening to. After 20 years, I got interested again and just ordered one from the Fender Custom Shop. It’s a Mary Kaye with a ’56 “V” neck profile, and I asked for the lightest possible swamp ash body.

For a long time you used cheap Harmonys on stage, and an old Stella parlor guitar is still your go-to acoustic. What attracted you to those guitars?

In the mid-’90s, when I decided to find a more unpredictable tone, I bought two Harmony H-77s from the early ’60s, with three DeArmond-type pickups in them. I’ve actually had five of these over the years. When I started with Sarah [McLachlan], she was playing Kays, and they sounded fantastic.

How did the White Falcon come into the picture?

I’d been playing those Harmonys and a couple of old Teles on the road, and Sarah’s guitar tech, Ron Johnson, finally said, ‘Can you please get a couple of new guitars? You’re making me look bad when you don’t stay in tune.’ Being from the Neil Young school of wild emotion and random intonation, I’m okay with those things swimming a bit. I’m always moving the Bigsby to create that natural chorusing and vibrato. Of course, when you’re playing in an eight-piece band, everyone’s trying to play their own part, and if your intonation’s a bit funky, it does start to hurt. So, we ordered a Falcon straight from Gretsch, and I’ve played that guitar on every gig I’ve done for the past eight years.

What else do you bring?

I have a ’66 Telecaster—a hippie refinish with a super-skinny neck—that my dad bought in Winnipeg. We sold it back and forth over the years, and it’s now my wife Melissa’s main electric guitar. These days, I gravitate towards the Shyboy Tele that Brad Keogan at Capsule Music in Toronto built for me—an Inca Silver Tele that’s six-and-ahalf pounds. I got to play that with James Burton and Albert Lee in Memphis a couple years back. I asked Albert to hold it a few minutes, just so I could say he did.

You’ve done lots of accompaniment over the years. Is there a difference in attitude and gear?

In the Veal days, it was a Harmony into a Fender Tone-Master head, and a Celestion greenback-loaded 4x12 Marshall cabinet that I bought in Vancouver. With Sarah and sideguy gigs, out of responsibility to the singer, I’ve always tended to use a smaller amp— usually a Fender Deluxe Reverb. Playing with her, the main component of my tone is a compressor—either an MXR Dyna Comp or a Boss CS-3—going into a volume pedal and a long delay. The delay is usually a Line 6, but I’m not fussy about it.

I don’t like amplifiers that have a second gain stage. Lately, I’ve been using a Traynor rig, with two closed-back YGM-3s modified with Celestion Vintage 30s, in stereo, and a little DarkHorse, dry and dirty in mono, through a cab with a single Celestion 12. With Sarah, I use a custom-made board with a Radial Bones Twin-City line selector, a Boss TU-2 tuner, whatever delay is handy, and the Line 6 MM4 as a rotary cabinet simulator. For my White Falcon gigs, though, there is no pedal board. I go straight into a tuner and then a Radial Switchbone into two amplifiers—usually a real ’65 Deluxe Reverb modded to 30 watts with 6L6s for my clean tone. Stepping on the Switchbone allows me to add a Gibson GA-18, a little Explorer amp from 1961, I think. I have them about eight feet apart and about six feet behind me, diagonally. The only effects are the overdrive from the Gibson itself and the reverb from my Deluxe, on about 4, with no tremolo.

Is it the same for the new music?

Touring this record, I’m probably going to add a BYOC Octafuzz [Tycobrahe Octavia clone]. But honestly, I don’t even want to use a tuner. I don’t like to be overly swayed by the Johnny Greenwoods of the world. I like those sounds, but I’m far more into the Mike Campbell thing, where it’s really about the relationship between your fingers and strings, tubes, and speakers. That seems like a lot of variables already. I don’t travel with a guitar tech, either, so everything’s in standard tuning.

On the records you produced, you obviously paid special attention to guitar sounds.

For Blood’s Too Rich, I was trying to find that sound Neil Young got on “Ohio.” Turns out if you throw a Fender Deluxe in the crawl space under your house, with concrete walls and a graduating floor, the sound bounces forever. Sometimes the most exaggerated move is the right move. But having said that, a lot of what I do is simply reach for the obvious instrument and plug into one of three amplifiers. I do not spend five hours trying every combination and moving the mic two inches at a time from the amp, or swapping a Neumann U87 out for a U67 for the room tone.

The biggest part of my sound, though, is simply the way I play. I use relatively heavy strings—.011-.049 sets—plus very heavy picks, high action, and acrylic nails. What’s distinctive is my hybrid picking, which mixes fingerpicking with a very aggressive right hand. That makes it unlike the people I’ve stolen from, like Marc Ribot and Mark Knopfler. Also, the Falcon is not easy to play. It’s a huge guitar and I’m a small guy. I’m constantly fighting the instrument, and I’m using feedback all the time, not always by choice.

Your new album is the first under your own name that you didn’t produce. Why bring in an outsider?

Well, I wasn’t even sure what I was trying to get across. So, I fired myself as producer and hired Andrew Scott. I mean, I write the songs, sing them, and play guitar all the way through. That’s a lot of one person. Sometimes you need another perspective. Plus, Andrew has a very deep knowledge of rare Kinks B-sides, Velvet Underground, and a lot of stuff I’m just not very well versed in. What can I say? I’m a classic dad-rocker. Tom Petty still makes me all weak in the knees.

You put aside your usual twang for riff-rockin’ numbers like “Dusted” and “Dirty, Dirty Blonde.” And there’s a sparse, ’80s-style thing happening on “The Ballad of Ian Curtis.”

For guitar sounds, we were thinking early- ’70s Stones and even New York Dolls. A lot of that came from [bassist and studio owner] John Dinsmore’s ’57 Les Paul Junior, with one P-90, and my Shyboy Tele. On “You Gotta Get It,” I’m playing a ’62 Gibson ES-335 through a Deluxe, and Andrew played my Falcon through the Gibson GA-18. The upfront, super-dry tones are usually the Junior into the Gibson amp. And that’s Melissa playing a ’54 Goldtop on “Sundown.”

Has Gordon Lightfoot heard your version of “Sundown”?

I don’t know, but I don’t think he’s gonna like it [laughs]. Gordon Lightfoot is one of my heroes, and he did it as a folksong, built around mellow acoustic guitar. My memory of “Sundown” is more how Crazy Horse would have done it. It’s funny that you have important songs in your head, and sometimes you realize you are fundamentally wrong about them. Still, that memory is there for some reason.

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