Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland Create Something New with Whitehorse

When Guitar Player last covered Luke Doucet in the February 2011 issue, the Canadian guitarist/singer/songwriter was fronting his own band, White Falcon, named for the legendary Gretsch model guitar he prefers.
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When Guitar Player last covered Luke Doucet in the February 2011 issue, the Canadian guitarist/singer/songwriter was fronting his own band, White Falcon, named for the legendary Gretsch model guitar he prefers. The band featured his wife, Melissa McClelland, on background vocals and rhythm guitar. Shortly after that interview, the two decided to join forces under one name—thus Whitehorse was foaled.

Over three records and constant touring, Doucet and McClelland have honed a unique sound that combines twangy guitars and traded vocals with elements of psychedelia and electronic music, culminating in Leave No Bridge Unburned [Six Shooter Records]. Deeply rooted in (North) Americana, the record offers a depth of musicianship and songcraft that makes some genre-mates seem like slackers.

Whitehorse’s live show also presents them as the hardest-working couple in show business. The duo is as likely to create live rhythm loops with a full kit and percussion as play along with a drum machine synced to their looper. Instruments are switched mid-song as Doucet goes from electric to acoustic and back, simultaneously singing and hybrid-picking jaw-dropping guitar parts, while McClelland moves from acoustic to bass to keyboards to electric—all while recording parts on the looper. It’s tiring just describing it, but neither the complexity of the choreography, nor the performers’ technical prowess gets in the way of their rocking, heartfelt, and thought-provoking music.

Why did you combine your careers?

Doucet: We’ve been a couple for 11 years. When we started working together, I was producing Melissa’s records. She ended up playing in my band and I was in her band. We would be on the road ten months a year, playing in our respective bands, or touring in Sarah McLachlan’s band. We finally realized it was ridiculous—we should just combine our efforts. We figured the music would stay pretty much the same. As it turned out, the music changed. We became a real band. It’s wonderful to realize we have a sound that we didn’t know we had.

Why did you decide to tour as a duo, with looping, as opposed to bringing a bass player and drummer?

Doucet: Initially, economics were a large part of it, but that changed. What we’re doing is kind of cool. We’re not storing loops. We have to create them organically every night. I sit down at the drum kit and bash out four bars of something and Melissa records it. If a loop sucks, that’s just the way it goes. Sometimes we actually stop and start again, but there’s something organic about the way that we’re doing it. We toyed with the idea of scrapping the loop thing and putting together a band, but we’ve worked so hard to build this with just the two of us, and it’s working. We come off stage every night and think, “Oh my god, we pulled it off!’’ There’s an endorphin rush we get from having to run from instrument to instrument. I don’t want to lose that.

What are you using for the looping?

Doucet: We’re using a DigiTech JamMan Stereo. All the different mics and lines on stage get funneled through their own direct boxes into the looper, and then out stereo left and right. We allocate top end and percussion to one side, and low end to the other. Because our front-of-house guy has left and right on two channels, if we want to drop all the bottom out at some point and just jam on the top-end sounds, we can do that, and then bring the bottom end in on cue. We can hit Undo to take things away, and then add them again later. We have the ability to build up to a huge pitch and bring it down to a really intimate place.

Has playing with loops helped your time?

Doucet: Melissa’s timing was there long before we got into loops. In the studio, we don’t use loops or a click. She started one song with an unaccompanied performance of eight bars, and then we all joined in. The first, second, third, and fourth takes all lined up exactly.

McClelland: I feel like my time is pretty consistent, but that can also work against me when someone tries to get me to change. Working with Sarah McLachlan has taught me a lot about rhythm-guitar playing, because everything has to be so precise. The way you strum your guitar is really important to her—the delicate moments, or the ones when you dig in. She has a real ear for that, and the timing has to be right on. I remember the first rehearsal with her, she kept saying, “You’re behind the beat.” It was the first time I had to just lock into it. Playing with her was a great exercise. It forced me to focus on a click track, but also try to get beyond that, make it musical, and relax into it so as not to feel like a robot playing.

Luke, what acoustic guitar are you using?

Doucet: Most of this record was done with a 1973 Martin D-18. It’s a sort of Darth Vader. It’s been crushed in airplanes so many times that it’s more plastic and glue than wood. We bring it to a place called Capsule Music in Toronto, or to Mike Spicer in Ontario, and they put it back together. It takes a week or two to settle in, and then it sounds even better. That guitar has magic in it. I also try to use my Harmony Stella whenever I can. Live, that guitar usually runs through my 1959 Gibson GA18 Explorer. I love the sound of an old, plywood acoustic guitar with a pickup through an amplifier.

What pickup are you using on the Stella?

Doucet: It’s an old Don Lace pickup. I could get all kinds of hipster, boutique vintage pickups—and they sound great—but the Don Lace pickup just rocks.

Melissa, what guitars are you playing live?

McClelland: I’m playing a Martin D-18, and for electric, I just changed from an old Harmony H77 to a Fender Custom Shop Jazzmaster.

Doucet: Our manager thought our guitar tones were too similar, because I’m playing the hollow Gretsch and Melissa was on the hollowbody Harmony.

McClelland: Tonight will be the first time I’m playing the Jazzmaster, but I’m mostly playing a Fender P-Bass and a Mustang bass.

What pickup are you using for your Martin?

McClelland: A Fishman Rare Earth blender with a magnetic pickup and a mic in it. I usually use a balance of both.

Are there any tricks for keeping the Bigsby in tune on the White Falcon?

Doucet: If I use a Bigsby aggressively, I intuitively grab the G string and pull it as hard as I can. The G string is the one that gets stuck the most. If I’ve got 12 or 16 bars where I’m not playing the guitar, I’ll pull on all the strings. I have the volume turned down so nobody can hear it. I tend to use the Bigsby fairly gently, though.

On the new record, what’s that lo-fi tone on “Dear Irony”?

Doucet: When I play a Gretsch, I almost always use the middle Tone position. It’s the clearest tone. I might have used a darkersounding position—which I almost never do, unless I’m trying to get Louis Jordan or Hollywood Fats tones.

On “The Walls Have Drunken Ears,” there’s a psychedelic section. How did you achieve that, and what are your thoughts on effects in general?

Doucet: I was probably using an Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man for the echo. It’s possible I was going through an actual Leslie, as well. There was a time in the late ’90s where I had the pedalboard with everything on it. My attitude toward that has changed. I’m more interested in turning my gaze upwards from my feet. All I use is a Radial Switchbone, which I typically use to toggle between a Fender Deluxe Reverb and my Gibson GA18. Right now, I’m just using the Gibson, and I use the Switchbone for its boost function.

I’m going through a Victoria Reverberato, which is a tremolo and reverb box. There is a build-your-own-clone-style bucket-brigade analog delay I used on two or three songs. Beyond that, I don’t really use anything else. I played almost the entire record on the Gretsch White Falcon, with a little bit of ’59 Les Paul and Telecaster. I played straight into a ’65 Fender Deluxe Reverb with lots of reverb cranked up and the occasional bit of tremolo. It’s important to me that the guitar on the record be a singular voice. My favorite guitar players—like Marc Ribot, Brian Setzer, and Mark Knopfler—are recognizable the minute you hear them.