Interview: Whitehorse

Even in an age when genre seems to matter less and less as a result of technological advancement, the sounds of Canada’s Whitehorse are somewhat of an anomaly. On many of the songs in their catalogue, the band manages to blend traditional country music with electronic sounds. And guess what: it’s really damn good. But don’t just take our word for it, have a listen to their latest release, The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss (Six Shooter Records). The album is a fantastic follow-up to last year’s self-titled debut LP, another collection of songs that are sure to win the duo many fans when they hit the road this.

Spindle sat down with Whitehorse’s Luke Doucet at the release party for The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss at The Dakota Tavern in Toronto to discuss what it’s like to be married to your bandmate, the impact of technology on music, and how instruments influence a musician’s identity.

Why do you think the marriage between you two is important to critics and fans of your music? And what came first, did you get married first and then starting play music or did you start playing music and then get married?

Well, to answer your first question: Why do people care? Because people are fascinated by anything that resembles gossip whatsoever. And with a husband and wife that make music together, it just seems like an obvious first question that everybody asks. At some point that will probably become annoying. So far it doesn’t bother me. It’s a just little bit odd. To me the answer is as obvious as the question. You know, we work together a lot. We’re together ninety-five percent of the time, unlike most people who are together forty percent of the time. So, as far as people’s fascination with that question, people are sort of ambulance chasers in general and this is a good ambulance – so they hope, I suppose. As to the second question, we were playing music before anything else. That’s probably why it works. We didn’t decide to try to work together after being a couple after a few years. Being a couple came after being musical compatriots.

Whitehorse uses traditional, organic, acoustic instruments but you also have these loops and electronic sounds. I want to ask: how do songs get written when you use such traditional instruments and also these funky electronic things that no one who comes to your shows really knows what’s going on?

I think we write traditionally. We write country songs, or blues songs, or classic – like the Everly Brothers, or the Beatles, or the Stones. That’s kind of how we write. Then what we do on stage as far as presenting the music live – because there are the two of us and the limitations that come from that – we invoke technology and involve juggling kittens and certain bells and whistles, but it’s more just a matter of trying to find a way to present the music live. We could do a Gillian Welch-David Rawlings thing, but it’s kind of been done. We want Whitehorse to be a rock and roll band, but we still just want to try and be two people. But initially the songs are written like country songs or like blues songs.

Is genre even an important thing at all anymore?

You know, it used to be that there were only a hundred bands releasing records in a year – if that. Now there are – I don’t know what the number is – hundreds of thousands of albums that come out in a year. I don’t know if genres matter. We’ve always struggled with genre. “Oh, it’s blues! No, it’s country! No, it’s rock and roll! No it’s experimental! No, it’s electronic! No, it’s who knows – folk music!” It really almost depends on what part of the world we’re in. When we’re in the north, we’re considered a country band. When we’re in the south, we’re considered an indie band. It just depends on where we are. When we’re in Britain, they think we’re folk music. We get people coming out who know more about our music than we do, who know more about Bob Dylan than I ever will. That seems to be where they are coming from.

You’re doing your CD release party [for The Fate of This World Depends on This Kiss] at the Dakota Tavern, which holds maybe a hundred people. Next March you have a date at Massey Hall, which is sort of the pinnacle of Toronto in terms of venues. Is doing the Dakota and then Massey Hall later – are you used to playing the contrast of these venues or is this a strange experience for you?

No, this is perfectly natural for us. Again, geography plays a big role. When we play in the north of England, we play in venues like this. When we play in Toronto, sometimes we get to play in places like Massey Hall. We’re really comfortable in both [settings]. It really runs the spectrum.

Is there any anxiety having such a huge show booked months in advance at probably the most prestigious venue in Toronto?

Yes! Lots and lots of anxiety. We’ve sold a thousand tickets in Toronto at the Winter Garden and there was a pretty good demand. The rumor was that we could have sold considerably more tickets than that. You know, Massey Hall is more than a place with twenty-eight-hundred seats to fill. It’s also a building with a crazy history. You go up on that stage and you are metaphorically standing beside Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. That’s almost as intimidating as having so many tickets to sell.

You’re about to embark on a big tour of the American South. Do you see your music as having any overlap with southern music? What bands from that region are you familiar with and what sounds are familiar with from that particular region?

Well, I’m a big fan of the Drive-By Truckers. I really like their music. But, there’s a lot of music that comes from that part of the world that I have always had a kinship with. I can hear Muddy Waters and Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf playing in the background here at The Dakota. That music all comes from down there, too. And I grew up listening to the blues. But I’ve been a big fan of classic country music, which comes from the south. Obviously, The Band being Canada’s contribution to Southern Rock, which is sort of funny because they are mostly Canadians. But, I think where genres still play a role – but maybe not as much as they used to, I think geography plays less and less of a role, because people access media whether it’s music or movies or whatever the same way in Chattanooga as they do in Wasilla, Alaska or Nunavut or Sweden. Because everyone’s hooked into the Internet. Regionalism doesn’t play as much of a role in music. It’s not such a stretch for a band from Canada to play country music. And it’s not a stretch from the southwestern states to sound like they’re from Bristol, England. Our influences are really just everywhere.

Whitehorse covered Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and really changed the entire tone of the song by making it a duet and completely rearranging the song. Can you talk a little bit about reworking such an iconic artist like Springsteen and reworking a song so radically?

 The point – other than it’s a beautiful song – is that we just did it the way it makes sense for us. The way we treated that song is the way we’ve treated a lot of songs. It really wasn’t a flash of brilliance in any way. It was just, “Hey! Let’s do that song the way we do a lot of songs!” So it came out sounding like that. With an artist that iconic, you’re just pointing out the fact that so many decisions are made when you’re making a record. We write a song – we write a country song, we write a blues song, and then we have to decide what we’re going to do with it. Are we going to add drums? Are we going to have loud guitars? Are we going to have a pedal steel? Are we going to make it a pop song? Are we going to have a banjo? Is it going to be fast with handclaps? Those are all production decisions and Bruce Springsteen made production decisions when he recorded that song. There’s not a gospel choir on that song. There’s not a pedal steel on that song. There’s no super-heavy metal guitar. Well, those are all production decisions that were made – whether by omission or by active decisions. And we just made different decisions. I think that every song has a million different renditions possible. Obviously, the artist associated with the famous one tends to be the one that sticks in people’s minds.

You mentioned the spectrum of instruments that you work with. It seems to me that it’s almost characteristic we identify musicians with a particular instrument. You’re doing so much more in a live performance – you’re playing guitar, but you’re also doing this weird a Geddy Lee [from Rush] thing. He was playing bass and also tapping his feet along and working some strange keyboard with his feet at the same time. What else besides guitars are you using and how does that change your identification as a musician?

 [Laughs] That’s a really good question. I’ve been associated with a particular instrument for a long time, which is the Gretsch guitar that I play. It’s funny how that happened. I just named the band after it. “I know! We’ll name the band after my guitar!” All of sudden people wanted to know: “What’s so special about this guitar?!” And there’s nothing really special about that guitar – except that it’s the same one Neil Young played in 1971. And it’s the same one that Brian Setzer currently plays sometimes. And it’s the same one that Billy Duffy from The Cult plays. And it’s the same one that Robert Smith from The Cure plays sometimes. So, the people that play that instrument – there’s a long legacy of them and I respect them quite a lot. The other instruments: I’m playing drums and percussion and bass. And Melissa [McClelland] has got some piano and some electric guitar. I think it reflects more on Melissa, to be honest. When she straps on the electric guitar and starts playing some pretty badass lead guitar. People don’t expect women to play lead guitar that way. It’s really rare. So, I don’t think it makes much difference what instrument I play, because people are used to seeing guys play so many instruments. That to me is a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun to look at people’s faces when she turns it up and really goes for it. I think that’s really fun.

Whitehorse can be found at whitehorsemusic.ca

Words: Dan Mistich