Published Jun 09, 2016Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland met just before Doucet produced McClelland's 2004 album Stranded In Suburbia, married in 2006 and became Whitehorse in 2011. The loop-loving space cowboy duo have been on quite a ride since, releasing three albums and three EPs, including 2012's Polaris-shortlisted The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss, 2015's Juno-winning Leave No Bridge Unburned and The Northern South Vol. 1, a brand-new EP of blues songs re-imagined as psychedelic rock tunes. They are currently at work on a new record of originals.
Whitehorse spoke to Exclaim! twice over Victoria Day Weekend: once while at a truck stop on their way to the Hayloft in Prince Edward County, and also as they were about to sit down to a Sunday barbecue in their backyard.
What are you up to?
Doucet: We just released The Northern South Vol. 1, we've changed the show a little bit to reflect some of that music. That's been challenging and fun. Rehearsal is — I hate it, I'd rather poke my eyes out with a hot skewer than rehearse but especially a band like ours, where it's just the two of us making loops and stuff, our rehearsal process is really important, it's more like modern dance blocking rehearsal. It's not like we jam. It's like, "Okay, how are we going to play this." Very technical and very frustrating. For the first eight or ten passes of the song we sound like rank amateurs. And then eventually we figure it out.
That record is all covers. We are in the process of finishing another album of songs we have written. Another week of recording in July and then they are done. Won't come out for a year. We are in the studio.
[The Northern South] doesn't sound like a blues record. Other than the fact that lyrics and some the chord changes will be familiar. We've really tried to pull what you would expect from a blues sound and tried to get away from that a little bit, or sort of re-imagine it so there are moments on the record that sound more like Portishead than Robert Johnson, even though some of the songs are actually Robert Johnson.
What are your current fixations?
Doucet: My current fixations, musically, are very specific and this is the first time in probably a decade that I can say that (usually I'm just like, I don't know, I like the Beatles and that's really boring). I've been listening to Andy Shauf a lot, and really digging, especially that song, "Jenny Come Home," but then he released "The Magician," and it's spectacular. So I'm kind of fixated on him, because I'm having a similar reaction to his music that I had to Elliott Smith and I think he's probably really tired of hearing that, cause he might get compared to Elliott Smith a fair bit. But he's such a good writer, he's such an unusual writer and he's such a committed writer that I'm a bit gobsmacked. I'm like, "What the fuck! Where did you come from?" He's from Regina. I find his music really inspiring, really stimulating. Cause I've been getting into songs again, as opposed to just listening in a more passive way. digging into lyrics. He has a really strange way of delivering his lyrics, he has a strange way of speaking - don't know if he has a speech impediment. I've met him a few times and he's a sweet guy. He's really kind of mellow and chill and doesn't speak really loud. I don't know much about him. But I think he's really cool.
Also, late to the Father John Misty thing cause there's something about him that's so easy — you want to dislike him so badly, 'cause it's so fucking hipster smug you want to stab him, but I saw him at Massey Hall a few weeks ago and his show was amazing.
That song, which he didn't play at the show, "The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment," it's got the most incredible narrative and lyric that I've heard in a very long time. It's just him talking about a girl he's hanging out with and he's got this sort of love/hate thing going on with her he's obviously into her and attracted to her and you get that sense by the end of the song but at the same time he's listing all the things he doesn't like about her. As a mission statement or a political manifesto or socio-political manifesto, it would almost come across as misogynist, although I'm sure if he was involved in this conversation he would explain exactly why it is not. But it's just such a beautiful piece of writing. The word play is mind blowing to me.
My last and continued obsession musically — I'm still listening to Commonwealth, by Sloan. That record came out over a year ago, and I still think it's one of their best. I think Chris Murphy is at his very, very best. "So Far So Good" is a song off that record that I've been listening to for a long time and it still kills me. I also think it's Andrew's best work. Great. Killer, record.
McClelland: I seem to be drawn to autobiographies of women that I love recently. I finished the Chrissie Hynde book [Reckless: My Life as a Pretender], I finished the Patti Smith, M Train, and I just started last night Candice Bergen, Murphy Brown, the '90s sitcom feminist icon [A Fine Romance].
Why do you live where you do?
Doucet: Oh, that's so easy. I've lived in Halifax, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Hamilton, Toronto, Nashville, New York City, lots of places. The music industry is centred around Toronto and it makes my life easy in a practical sense, cause I have to spend so much time there anyway, but I live there, it's actually the city that I like. I might even like it for a lot of reasons people don't: I like all the people, I like the exchange of ideas, I think people generally get along really well despite the extreme diversity the city has to offer, I like being in a place that is really busy but also has a lot of culture and I like my neighbourhood, the Junction Triangle.
McClelland: Toronto just feels like home. Home is an ever-changing idea for us, we are constantly taking home on the road. We planted our roots here officially a couple years ago and we don't have plans to leave anytime soon.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
Doucet: I think MDMA is the answer I want to give, cause I do think that science, when somebody stumbles upon something interesting, is akin to a work of art. I don't take class A drugs. I actually sat with a bunch of friends and did that drug a few weeks ago. We were about four or five couples hanging out together at one point or other during the course of the evening I remember very distinctly and clearly thinking how much I enjoyed everybody's company, individually. I know that ecstasy is the love drug, but it was a pretty mind-altering (in the literal sense) experience in a very positive way. Just realizing that your mind is a muscle and your behaviour is a result of that muscle and when you can alter it in such a positive way, that's a pretty beautiful thing and I think we're finding more and more that psychedelic drugs and drugs like MDMA are very powerful tools in trying to manage mental illness or depression and I think we're just beginning to look at those things in a candid way.
McClelland: The last time that something shook me really to the core was David Bowie's final set of videos and songs, specifically Blackstar and the accompanying short film. That really affected me. The video coming out after he died and how he kind of orchestrated that whole thing — it's really powerful, vulnerable, epic performance and song of a living legend who was facing the end of his life and has this whole body of work behind him. That's the last time I experienced that feeling of experiencing art and having it shake you to the core.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
Doucet: The last gig we played before our son Jimi was born. We played the Home County festival in London, ON. Melissa was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and you know it was one of those outdoor, free shows, and the free shows are so much different than a ticketed show because all the downtown people — the homeless people, or not, hangers on or hanger outers — come down to see the free show so it's always a real mixed bag.
Melissa was very, very pregnant and she was playing a gigantic Fender bass that looks huge and she just looked super badass and it was a really fun show to be looking at our lives and acknowledging how much they were about to change.
McClelland: About five years ago I traveled to Abu Dhabi with Sarah McLachlan and Butterfly Boucher; the two of us were playing in her band. Prince was doing the final concert of the week. Sarah's manager got a call from Prince's manager and invited us to sit side-stage and watch the show. We were only in Abu Dhabi for 48 hours and we were delirious with jet lag but of course we were like, "We can't miss this for the world."
He played for something like three hours and we sat side-stage not even 20 feet from him and watched this spectacular performance. And then halfway through the set, he leaves the stage and his backup singers come to the front of the stage, and they start singing Sarah McLachlan's song "Angel." We were all like, "Oh my God! I can't believe this." Her jaw dropped to the floor. We left right before the end — we were exhausted. The next day Sarah's manager said, "Oh yeah, I got a call from Prince's manager and he invited you girls out for drinks, but I told him you were sleeping." I just like fell to the ground, "No! Why didn't you wake us up?"
What have been your career highs and lows?
Doucet: A career high: the first time we played Massey Hall. I'm sure you've heard this from everybody who's had a chance to play a show there, it's pretty special. My mom came out from Winnipeg to see that show. Paradoxically, I would say that the career low would be the very next night in Cleveland, when we played to fewer than ten people. We were riding this high, feeling like rock stars, and then we got to Cleveland and realized, "Oh, no, we're not."
McClelland: It's really hard to pinpoint one high because there have been so many cool moments to celebrate along the way and the lows... I mean, I'd say the road is just filled with a lot of highs and lows and that's what I love about it. I like the ebb and flow, you know everything's intensified when you're on the road, you play really spectacular gigs, and you end up in these really exciting, magical places, and unexpected things happen and you meet cool people and you discover places you would never have ever gone to otherwise, and then you have really shitty days on the road as well, days when you're sick or you're not getting along with your spouse or you're trapped in a van. It's hard to pinpoint. I think it is the ups and downs, the ebb and flow, that make this really gratifying for me.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
Doucet: I used to hang out at the Blue Note Café, in Winnipeg, in the late '80s when I was a young teenager. In fact, I stole my mom's car one night to go drop off a demo tape for Curtis Riddell cause I wanted to play there. So he was like, "Okay, you can play" so I would play there once a week with my band from junior high school.
There were these guys who were probably, well, my age now —they were in their early 40s and they were musicians, and they would hang out there. They were people we all looked up to. One night, coming off stage, one of them said to me, "You know, you should really focus on being a songwriter; guitar playing's not really your thing." About five minutes later, his buddy turned to me and said, "You know, don't worry about being a songwriter, cause it's not really your thing. You should focus on being a guitar player." There are two ways you could have taken that: you could have taken it as "Hey, that's really great. Between these two people, they think I'm great at a lot of things." But I took it as a backhanded compliment from two people I looked up to.
I've had this conversation with both of them since, and they had a laugh and said, "Oh if you'd have known how much coke we were doing back then, you would have forgiven us."
McClelland: The horrible thing about putting yourself out into the public is that it is kind of like being back in high school in the bathroom and you accidentally hear two girls talking about you. Some things you just don't want to hear about yourself. This is a mean question!
A couple months ago a girl just wrote a kind of personal, scathing review of one of our shows. She's not a journalist. She wrote it on my Facebook wall. And I thought that was mean. You know, she's entitled to her opinion, but I felt like posting it on my wall for me and my friends and family to read was not necessary. Just cutting up the show.
One thing that has gotten under my skin before is sometimes, and this has happened with journalists, is where they will credit a lyric of a song to Luke that I wrote. It shouldn't totally bother me, cause as soon as we formed Whitehorse what's mine is his, what's his is mine, it's a marriage of sorts. But you know sometimes that gets under my skin, because I don't know if it's a sexist thing sometimes, or I don't know where it's coming from, but in those moments I do have a flash of protectiveness of being acknowledged for what I have put out.
What should everyone shut up about?
Doucet: This Trudeau "Elbowgate" thing. I'm just not buying it. I've read some analysis that says, "Okay, It was a kind of non-event but it's a pretty good glimpse into the entitlement that might be following Trudeau around," and even that… I didn't vote for him and I think there's lots to criticize and I still scratch my head at how he ended up at the job he's got, but nonetheless, that's not a story. He didn't deliberately elbow her, I don't think it was a gender-based thing. I know a couple of NDP MPs have come out and compared it to violence against women and I don't see that. He got in a huff and stormed across the floor. That might be a glimpse into the entitlement of the party or him as an individual but I see this as a non-story.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
Doucet: It's probably the same thing actually. I feel like the dogmatic commitment that I've had to figure things out, is the only reason I've accomplished anything in my life — being almost pedantically committed to trying to get my 10,000 hours in.
The thing I dislike about myself is probably that very thing cause I think one of the only things a person can control in their lives is how much they work or how hard they work. I think it's possible to cling too tightly to that way of looking at the world, and I might be guilty of that.
I run marathons and I think that one of the reasons I do that is there is no grey area: your time is your time. And it's almost impossible to be good at that unless you've simply put the time in. You have to do the work. The reason I'm drawn to it is it's so unlike being an artist.
McClelland: What I like about myself: I have kind of a quiet determination. I'd say there's a flip side to that: I approach that in a really kind of private, quiet way, kind of unassuming and solitary and I can close myself off to others.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Doucet: I sleep in a little bit. Then I go for a long run, like a 25K run, which starts off really cathartic and really wonderful but then ends up being really painful and horrible and then I have a bath. And then I have a nap with my son Jimi. Then maybe barbecue with the family.
McClelland: Today is the perfect Sunday. We are having a barbecue in the backyard. We invited family and friends and we are home, which is nice, and the weather is beautiful.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Doucet: I'm still making this mistake: Shut up. That was the best advice I've ever been given and I've never really been good at taking it. I wake up in a hot sweat or a cold sweat (whichever one's most uncomfortable) about once a month revisiting some of my less dignified moments that usually have to do with things I've said.
McClelland: I remember my dad kind of looking at me saying "Are you sure you want to do this music thing? Maybe you should take a computer course." I'm glad I didn't take his advice, but I also think that I got lucky. There are a lot of insanely talented, hard-working people out there, who are not making a living at this, so I feel like I got really lucky that this is my career and I am doing it and I am paying the bills. I didn't take his advice, but I think it was probably good advice.
There's no security, there's no retirement plan. Yes we're paying the bills right now playing music but we don't know what it's going to be like in five or ten years, we don't know. You do it cause you love the adventure and the uncertainty.
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
Doucet: Out of my band: too much booze and drugs. And it's not that I'm against people doing those, but I'm against when people can't be decent to one another. And it has happened a few times where I've had to part with people, cause people weren't getting along and it usually had to do with that. Some shockingly good musicians where I had to say, "Sorry guys, we can't work together."
Bed: I kind of think like never. I mean, if they're there in the first place, I must have found them attractive enough and almost any transgression thereafter is forgivable I think. If you made it that far.
McClelland: It's kind of like a family on the road, you live in close quarters. If you're not gonna laugh at a good dirty joke, you're probably not gonna have a good time with us on the road. And maybe the same can be said for my bed — if you're not gonna have that kind of attitude, then you're probably not the person to get into my bed.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Doucet: I guess I think about home, mostly. And I travel a lot. And because I'm a runner, I stare at maps a lot. I'm quite a map junkie. I've memorized most Canadian cities. Anywhere I've been to play I have a pretty clear sense of, so I have a pretty intimate visual understanding of places that I go to in this country. I love geography and I love maps, but I'm not really answering the question, am I?
One of my favourite things to do is to look down from a plane and figure out where I am exactly. Like oh that's that river and that's that town and that's that lake way over there.
McClelland: I think home. I think of space, lots of open space. I think of clean and warm and all good things.
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
Doucet: When I was seven, I wanted to buy my parents a Christmas present, and as seven-year-olds are wont to do when they buy someone else a present, it's really what they want. And I bought them the Beatles Greatest Hits. So that was the first piece of music that I ever bought.
McClelland: It was probably something really horrible like Milli Vanilli, but the first record that I remember obsessing over was Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual. I just remember listening to that record over and over and over again. It would have been just when it came out. Don't even put Milli Vanilli.
What was your most memorable day job?
Doucet: I haven't had many day jobs. I worked at Greenpeace for a few months and that was probably the most memorable. If you think busking is soul-destroying, try knocking on people's doors and asking them for money when you work for Greenpeace when you are 16.
If my 15-year-old self knocked on my door now and started delivering the Greenpeace spiel, I think I would send him away with a smack on the back of the head. And I would probably initially applaud him for his commitment to cleaning up our world.
McClelland: I packed Hustler magazines into boxes in a factory in Oakville. It was the most entertaining/boring job of all time. It was actually right before I met Luke, right before he produced my first record, Stranded In Suburbia. That was my last day job.
How do you spoil yourself?
Doucet: I don't eat a lot of red meat, I don't eat a lot of meat at all, but I do enjoy a steak once in a while. I would find myself a really good place to have steak.
McClelland: At the end of every tour, as we're driving home, we'll stop at a gas station and I'll buy a giant bag of salt and vinegar chips. It's been my lifelong addiction. They kind of strip away your taste buds and dry out your throat and it's the worst thing to have if you're singing every night.
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
Doucet: I don't know maybe law? Not that I'd ever want to be a lawyer, but I like the idea of learning about the law and I like the idea of studying philosophy or thinking about philosophical things.
McClelland: I would be doing something that would allow me to continue to travel. If my life didn't include music it would include something else that would allow me to wonder and explore. Or I would pick something totally solid and predictable and just go to school and focus on something and have an actual job.
What do you fear most?
Doucet: Not having bothered to do things that I cared about, cause I just didn't. Waking up and realizing "Oh shit, I had this opportunity, I just didn't bother to take it and now it's gone."
When I was growing up the one thing that was absolutely verboten in our home, was to complain about being bored. There were too many things to do: books to read, records to listen to, bikes to ride, sports to play, and people to talk to and things to do, you do not get to be bored. I think I took that to heart.
McClelland: The simple answer is spiders.
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
Doucet: It is a particularly difficult question considering my partner in my band is my wife. I'm going to discard that for one second. I think more than a person's body shape or the way they smell or the colour of their hair, what I find sexy is when somebody is being very deliberately sexy. Like the intention of being sexy, I think, is very sexy, and sometimes that can look like slutty. I find that intention to be very attractive; there's a certain candour in saying "I am being sexy now and I'm not afraid to be and I'm not apologizing for that sexiness." I applaud that, like a seal — both hands.
McClelland: What I find sexy in someone: humour, confidence, with, dare I say, a little bit of cockiness, but with the humour and intelligence and depth to back it up. I have high standards. If it's gonna do it for me, it has to be more than just a hot guy.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
Doucet: Maybe 2004, I played the Grammy Awards with Sarah McLachlan; I was playing guitar. Afterwards we were sitting at one of the music label parties. Weird Al and Slash are heads together deep in conversation. And those two guys look identical — you take off Slash's hat, and Weird Al and Slash are like long-lost separated-at-birth identical twins.
I went into the bathroom and I'm standing at a urinal between Tony Bennett and Kim Thayil from Soundgarden and that was the third time in a week that I was standing at a urinal beside Kim Thayil and not all in Los Angeles. One of them was in Seattle, and then twice in two different places in L.A., just by coincidence. He gave me this look like, "Dude, I don't know if I should I be afraid or if I should call security?" and I'm like, "No, just ignore me."
McClelland: I shared an elevator with Dennis Rodman in New York. It was just the two of us standing there — he was in full basketball gear and I was just standing there with my guitar. We just nodded to each other and said hello. I am way too shy to approach anyone. I have been in the same vicinity of celebrities or people I admire and I would never even dream of walking up to them. I just kind of cower in a corner and try to catch a glimpse. But I was trapped on an elevator with Dennis Rodman.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
McClelland: The first person off the top of my head was Dan Savage, whom we both adore, and we listen to his podcast all the time, but I might have to choose Dolly Parton. Dan Savage would be amazing, so he can come too, but I just think Dolly would just be so much fun and she'd have great stories and she'd make you laugh and make you feel good and she has this long life behind her of all these adventures and I would love to have dinner with her.
[We'd have] bourbon shots and lemon meringue pie — that's it, dessert and booze.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Doucet: Nothing. Honestly, my mother — this is a quote: "I don't care if you want to suck latex as long as you're good at it and you like it."
McClelland: She's completely supportive and happy for what I'm doing. They used to drive me to the open mic night in Hamilton every Monday when I was 16 and I'd play my new songs that I'd written that week. When Luke and I played the Junos in Calgary last month, my parents and my sister flew out and they were there for that. They are 100 percent behind us.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
Doucet: Probably George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." If I did give it some more thought I would think of something more creative.
McClelland: The first one that pops into my head is Tom Waits' "Dirt in the Ground," 'cause I think that's the most beautifully written song about death, but I don't know if it's appropriate to play something morbid at your funeral. I don't know if that's the right approach. You know what? I'm gonna go with that, 'cause it's not strictly morbid, it's a fact of life: we're all gonna be dirt in the ground, and how you look at that is up to you.