Interview with Whitehorse : Commitment and Freedom to Be Yourself Win

Whitehorse at l'Astral Feb 21 2015. Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon Whitehorse at l'Astral Feb 21 2015. Photo by Jean-Frederic Vachon

What’s the best way to show commitment to the one you love? Send a letter? Buy flowers? For Hamilton musical duo Whitehorse, this commitment culminated not only in marriage and children, but also in the form of four studio albums, a Juno win and song after heartfelt song, detailing the life and times of various vivid characters. Getting ready for his long Canadian and American tour, I got hold of Luke Doucet, the most male half of Whitehorse. We discussed their upcoming record, “Panther In The Dollhouse,” as well as superhero prostitutes and his love for his wife, co-worker and bandmate, Melissa McClelland.

Kyle Lapointe: Your new record “Panther In The Dollhouse” will be coming out on July 7th. Tell me a bit about the significance of the title of this record. What is the panther, and what is the dollhouse?

Luke Doucet: I think we’re kind of riffing on the metaphor of the bull in the China shop. But instead, the panther is more feminine and the dollhouse is symbolic of domesticity. Some of the stories on this record are about upending or upsetting the perceived domestic bliss of the housewife. Some of the stories, almost all of which are fictional, are kind of addressing different perspectives from people who are not like us. We’re not the protagonists or the stars on this album. Melissa’s not the so-called “trophy wife” we mention in a song. In this record, we’re trying to get across a de-stigmatization of people living lives in less predictable ways, and that being the panther in the dollhouse is a good and desirable thing. Shaking it up is a good thing. When people are living lives that may be perceived as different, dangerous or immoral, in a lot of cases, the perception is unfounded.

On our last record there’s a song called “Evangelina”, about a kind of fictional superhero prostitute. The idea was to dignify, if at all possible, the fact that some people choose work that a lot of the world looks down upon. Yet it’s been common forever, and it’s not going away. The worst thing about this work is that it’s illegal, and this is damaging to people, pushing them into back alleys and underground where bad shit happens to them. A lot of the violence and hardship that accompanies a life like that probably has to do with the fact that it’s illegal. I have a daughter. If she came up to me tomorrow and said, “I want to be a sex worker,” I wouldn’t be happy. The reason it would be sad is because of the black market, and because she would have to engage with people in a very vulnerable situation.

On this new record, there’s a song called “Night Hawks,” which is kind of a sequel to that story. “Night Hawks” shows the seedier underbelly of the narrative whereas “Evangelina” was almost tongue-in-cheek proposing a superhero heroine sex worker.

I just want to be careful not to emphasize the moral imperative of some of the songs on the record too much, because, at the end of the day, these are just pop songs and the characters involved are fictional. It’s always a fine line. The darkness and philosophical weight that may be part of some of the songs on this record is still just one part of it, and I’m still begrudgingly convinced that the music is more important than the lyrics. If Melissa were here we’d be having a big debate about this; we don’t necessarily agree. But when I listen to my favorite songs off of The Beatles’ White Album, which are all John Lennon songs, I don’t know what “Looking Through A Glass Onion” means, and I don’t necessarily care. It sounds really cool, and that’s the most important thing to me.

K.L.: How do you walk that fine line between writing pop songs, as you had said, and giving an important message? How do you avoid isolating listeners who maybe don’t politically agree or who may not be interested in a political angle?

L.D.: I don’t know. I’m not even sure if we’ve succeeded in doing that. I sure hope we have. I think again, write fictionally. When people write autobiographically they get caught up in the need to tell truth. It’s like the old Irish proverb, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” I’ve heard it said that you’re not a good writer if all you can write is a memoir. You’re a good writer when you can write fiction. In writing fiction, the sound of words and poetry become important. “But what if it’s not true?” Who cares? It’s a song. At the end of the day, if you can imbue a story that has a philosophical backbone, then a “message,” (I hate that word) becomes more tolerable.

On this record, “Kicking Down Your Door” is a good example. This story is about class struggle, money, and about how people are living and not able to live. You know, that’s a pretty magnetic story. We hear a lot about them in the media these days; we see the outrage generators on social media using these kinds of stories as clickbait to galvanize people to follow. On one hand we want to tell these stories because they coincide with some of our philosophical or political perspectives, but on the other hand, I think the fact that these discussions are happening the way they’re happening is in itself a story. I mentioned social media as an outrage generator, and it’s been a bit of a eureka moment for me this year realizing how much I’ve gotten played. I was pretty engaged in Facebook for a while and I realized, that’s the whole point of the algorithms on these sites and apps, to get you to spend as much time on them as possible. The best way to do that is to make you feel angry and make you feel like you’re a warrior for a just cause. Everyone on social media is a warrior, and a righteous defender of whatever. It’s amazing clickbait, and it’s also kind of silly. I hope that story comes across on this record too. I hope it doesn’t come off as too earnest an attempt at telling people what to think, because that’s not the point.

K.L.: I guess there’s a big difference between preaching what to think to someone, and giving them a story and having them form their own opinion on it.

L.D.: Yeah, it is a tough one. When I look at the record, I think, “It’s a political record,” and I kind of shrug, slink into the corner, hold my hat over my eyes and think, “Shit, what have we done?” Sure, I have my political perspectives. Do I think everyone should think what I think? Of course, because my opinions are my opinions. If they weren’t my opinions, they’d be someone else’s. But I never want this to be perceived as our core message. I don’t want it to be perceived that Whitehorse thinks they’re going to change the world with political songs.

K.L.: How does writing songs as a married couple modify the songwriting process? How does it change how you approach important emotional and political topics of discussion?

L.D.: That’s an interesting question… One of the things that I think is so interesting in terms of that is that Melissa and I don’t always agree. I’ll write a song with a certain story or perspective, and Melissa will read it in her way. She’ll jump in and add a third verse and I’ll ask, “What are you talking about? That’s not what my character’s thinking!” It really forces us to have interesting dialogue in the process of being creative. We each have a built-in editor; for a lot of people the editor’s the producer. For every line that makes it into a song, there are six lines that don’t make it. On this record there were thousands of paragraphs that didn’t get used, with some songs being completely re-written five or six times.

K.L.: People talk about separating family from work, as well as artistic expression from business. For you guys it seems to be all mixed up together. What are some challenges that come with that?

L.D.: The main challenge is that there’s only so much time and energy you can have with one connection in your life, and then you need an outlet somewhere else. So for example, we vacation together, being a family with kids, but we also vacation apart sometimes. I’m a runner, and go out and run an hour each day as well. We’re really careful to not crowd each other out because our work is so intimate. While we’re working, we stand three inches apart. We whisper really intimate things, sometimes about each other, with sometimes a thousand people watching. It’s a really weird existence and it’s our job. And yet, somehow after fourteen years together, we’re still best friends and I love her to bits. As you’ve probably noticed, she’s insanely sexy. I feel I’ve won the lottery by the fact that she’d ever be within a block of me.

K.L.: That’s quite the image, of you two whispering intimate things to each other onstage in front of thousands of people watching.

L.D.: It feels really voyeuristic sometimes. I feel like Melissa and I are standing naked onstage together and everybody’s watching. Like, “Hang on everybody, you’re not supposed to be here.”

K.L.: You have played some pretty big shows together. When was the first time, for you as a musician, you looked down at and audience, and were awestruck and the sheer size and intensity of the crowd, venue, the lights, and the whole package?

L.D.: We’ve had some great shows in Massey Hall in Toronto that have been really mind-blowing. It’s such a big room and I remember seeing Neil Young there. Melissa saw Paul Simon there when she was a little kid. Just walking out onto that stage and seeing the people out to hear your songs is very humbling.

I would also say that from the time I was nineteen years old I was playing guitar with Sarah McLauchlan so before I was legal drinking age in the USA I was playing Madison Square Garden and the Grammy’s. I kind of got a little bit of that star-struck redlight fever out of my system then, when I was twenty-one, twenty-two. It’s gotten to the point where walking out and playing music to a couple thousand people is comfortable. I’m glad I got that shit out of my system. It’s hard to make good art while you’re overwhelmed by your physical surroundings. I think that’s a big challenge in the studio, too.

K.L.: You’ll be playing Massey Hall on this upcoming tour. Any left hooks or surprises you have in store for the audience?

L.D.: Yes, actually we do. Up until this point, on all our tours, Melissa and I would use drums, keys, bass, whatever we could find, to build crazy loops to play along with. On this tour, we decided to hire a band and have musicians. I couldn’t be more excited.

K.L.: It’s interesting you’d say that. The single, “Boys Like You” from this upcoming record has a very loop-able beat to it.

L.D.: It is a loop. The drummer went into the studio and smash up the groove from “Boys Like You” and put it in the computer, cut it up, edited it, and brought it back completed. Later, we were in New York working on television stuff and we needed a drummer to play live. We asked our friend Jesse to play the part. He says, “I can’t play that.” It was too chopped and looped and edited. So we kind of approached the production of this record inspired by our live show. Then, we ironically found a real band to help us pull it off. We just wanted to shake it up.

K.L.: It’s interesting, because I’ve heard you guys be described as a folk band, but when listening to that song in particular, I couldn’t help thinking, “There are no folk elements in here at all.”

L.D.: It was deliberate. We’ve made folk music, we’ve made roots Americana. We wanted to get pushed into a different place for this one. We don’t want to be redundant and there are a lot of sonic palettes out there. People get stuck thinking, “Well, I’m part of this community, so I have to do this and this. I’m playing heavy metal so we can’t use acoustic guitars. We’re a folk group so I have to have a moustache and my drums have to be old.” Maybe not. Maybe you can just do whatever the fuck you want.

Whitehorse play at Métropolis on July 6 with the Strumbellas as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Tickets HERE.