Five Weird Instruments Used by Whitehorse

Photo: Paul Wright

“It is a tightrope walk for sure,” says Luke Doucet of the tricky onstage modus operandi he and Melissa McClelland employ in their husband-and-wife duo, Whitehorse. Each member of the Canadian couple has enjoyed acclaim as a solo singer/songwriter, but they first joined forces under the Whitehorse moniker for their self-titled 2011 debut, and now they’ve come galloping back into action on The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss. “We didn’t want people to mistake it for a side project,” says Doucet, “so we thought we’d better smash out as much music as possible.” Describing the duo’s unorthodox approach to live performance, Doucet explains, “it’s just the two of us, but we’ve got a lot more instruments onstage than you would expect for two people. We try to play them simultaneously at times, and use a looping device to make that more practical. For about half the set I’ve got the kick drum and floor tom and a bunch of percussion instruments, and Melissa’s got a keyboard and a bass rig set up and she’s standing on a plywood box, and we have these weird sort of telephone receivers that we use, and all of those instruments go into a mixer and a looper, and we can build basically a whole band with just the two of us. We’re kind of like a two-headed one-man or one-woman band.” Looking over both their live show and their latest album, Doucet detailed some of Whitehorse’s more unexpected sound sources.

1. 1980s Telephone Receiver Microphones

We use telephone receivers as secondary microphones …these sort of ‘80s telephone receivers that, when you connect a proper audio cable into them and plug them into a DI [direct input], they basically sound as you would expect them to sound, which is not unlike a taxicab dispatch microphone, or an actual telephone receiver. In the studio, or even live, you’re often asking your soundman or engineer, “Can you make it sound lo-fi, can you make it sound kind of garbled?” You can spend a half hour trying to make a high fidelity microphone sound like a piece of crap, and we thought, “Well, why don’t we just get a piece of crap, and make it work?”

2. The Kitchenware Kit

Because we’re building a lot of percussion loops and we don’t have a full drum set, we’re using a lot of thrift-store kitchenware, like muffin tins and skillets, and saucepans and big pots and stuff like that. Whenever we’re in a city and we think we need some new stuff, we’ll find a thrift store or some junky hardware store and find things to hit. But kitchenware seems to work really well, because they’re all different sizes and they have different tones, different notes. A song like “Jane” on the record, there’s a fair bit of that percussion …it doesn’t sound like a cowbell and it doesn’t sound like a woodblock, it’s just usually a piece of junk made of tin or made of copper.

3. Plywood Stomp Box

Melissa uses a plywood box — it’s six or eight ply and it’s about four inches tall and we put a microphone underneath it. She has to wear a pair of boots with heels — that seems to mean cowboy boots these days — and she stomps on it. She’s basically the snare drum. So when I play the kick drum I’m using a real kick drum and then she responds with this box that she stomps on. It gets a little bit precarious but we’ve sort of got it down to a science.

4. Vice Grip & Oxygen Tank

We use an oxygen tank, that’s just a percussion instrument. It almost sounds like a sledgehammer on a railway track. If you take a vice grip or any kind of piece of metal and you hit it against an oxygen tank you’re gonna get a fairly reverberant sound. If you’re walking down a flight of steps in a parking garage and there’s an iron handrail and you hit that, you’re gonna get a sound that’s pretty cool, and we find that in a studio an oxygen tank is the best way to get that sound.

5. Leather La-Z-Boy Recliner

There’s actually another spot on the record …I think it’s on “Wisconsin”…where I was trying to replicate some of the percussion sounds you hear on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours — those galloping, muted percussion sounds. I know that when Mick Fleetwood did it, he used drumsticks on a pillow. But what I did on one of the tracks, I used my hands against the back of a leather La-Z-Boy chair. On its own it doesn’t sound like very much, but when you mix it in with the rest of the band it supports the sound really well; it does something really cool to the rhythm.

The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss is out January 15 on Six Shooter Records.

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