Telling tales at 140 decibels

Luke Doucet describes ‘the vainest of all pursuits’

“If Michael Ondaatje were to do a book reading,” says Luke Doucet, “and you walked into a place and everybody was drunk, and there were 80 large, multicoloured lights flashing, and it was 140 decibels, it would be absolutely absurd.”

The line that separates Doucet and Ondaatje is a surprisingly fine one. Both are storytellers in the truest sense, driven by nothing more than a desire to communicate. Where Ondaatje sets his stories down in type, Doucet weaves his between the clattering of drums and the wail of his beloved Gretsch White Falcon; the lights and the noise are really just byproducts.

Despite taking up a career in what he describes as “one of the vainest of all pursuits,” though, Doucet harbours few typical rock star ambitions. It might be because he’s already lived that life. A session man and hired gun since his mid-teens (he joined Sarah McLachan’s band when he was just 19), the 33-year-old has already experienced a lifetime’s worth of spotlights and stage speakers. The novelty of rock-star indulgence and larger-than-life personas has long since worn off.

“We [musicians] enshroud ourselves in this kind of chaos, and it is a charade, absolutely,” he says. “It’s pretty easy for us to develop these delusions of grandeur about where we’re supposed to end up. And because we have role models, people who are famous and who are celebrated and who are rich, and are the closest thing to royalty that exists in North American culture, it’s easy for young, ambitious musicians to think that they can achieve grandiose things.”

Doucet himself seems far less interested in reaching for the grandiose than in exploring its dingy underside. Since 1999’s Tilt-a-whirl, the second release from his cult-favourite, surf-inflected indie band Veal, his music has been populated by a particularly motley crew. The junkie from Leduc who swore “I’ll never shoot again if you lend me 20 bucks,” (off that album’s “Spiderman”) and the young transvestite who longs to move to a place where he can “blend in with the scenery, the martyrs and the barflies” in “New York,” (from Doucet’s folk and country-tinged solo debut, Aloha Manitoba) are two of the more memorable, but the songwriter’s general affinity towards outlaws and deviants crops up throughout his career.

Things took a turn with 2005’s Broken (And Other Rogue States), his sophomore effort as a solo artist. While Doucet has never been averse to drawing inspiration from his life (“Spiderman” and “New York” are both based on people the songwriter knew), Broken was unabashed autobiography, a chronicle of a particularly nasty breakup that alternated between bitter invectives and odes to substance abuse. As dour as that sounds, Doucet’s insightful songwriting and caustic wit set the album a far sight above the average breakup record. Still, when it came time to record a followup, Broken left Doucet in a bit of a tight spot. The songs had flowed out when his life took a downturn. Three years later, his career was in an upswing, he’d met (and married) the girl of his dreams, and he was genuinely content — how do you write about that?

“It’s a bit of a cliché to say it’s hard to write songs when you’re happy, because sad songs are more fun to listen to,” he says. “That’s probably true, but I’ve heard that cliché bandied about so many times that I’m loathe to fall back on it. I just think that, I’ve written 80 or 90 songs that have been released in my life, and I think people kind of run out of steam. That’s why a lot of artists, once they reach the point where they’ve released six or seven albums in their lifetime, they start writing about fictional characters. They start writing about literature, or about politics, because you realize that you can no longer be the sole subject of your work. I’m getting pretty sick and tired of hearing my own stories — there comes a point where that gets a little bit embarrassing.”

Even a cursory listen to Blood’s Too Rich, the latest addition to Doucet’s catalogue (and the first to be credited to Luke Doucet and the White Falcon, his crack backing band) reveals that the songwriter has nothing to be embarrassed about. For one, the music is a step forward in confidence and style, blending Veal’s hard rock with the country roots of his other solo work. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to call Doucet a casual virtuoso, and Blood sees him letting loose with some licks that could compete with anything in the classic rock canon. The revolving cast of blue-collars has returned, too — “Cleveland,” with its roller-coaster enthusiast who buys two tickets each time he rides, saving a seat for his jail-bound wife, stands with Doucet’s best character sketches. It’s also based on a real character the songwriter encountered — he may be sick of his own stories, but he has no problem drawing from others’.

“I don’t necessarily think you need to make stuff up,” explains Doucet. “There are enough interesting people and scenarios all around us that if you’re even mildly observant, you can find something inspiring to chronicle. If you look at writers like Tom Waits or Elvis Costello, they’re verbose writers. They write a lot, and the stories they write are really fantastic — or fantastical is probably the word.

“I don’t think it’s because their lives are all that interesting,” he continues. “In the case of both of those guys, they’ve been living very domestic lives for the past two decades. I mean, Tom Waits stopped drinking in the early ’80s; his life has basically been a homebody and a farmer. If you read his lyrics, he’s not writing about looking after his kids and raising cattle, he’s writing about interesting people. There’s a diner in the town near where he lives where I’m sure the waitress’s name is Flo, and he hangs out, and he just gleans stories off of people. You kind of have to do that.”

And that’s what Doucet does. Despite the stage lights and Marshal stacks, he’s more storyteller than rock star, chronicling (and embellishing) the lives of the characters he encounters on the road. Some might call it observation and interpretation rather than straight-up creation, but according to Doucet, those things are all one and the same.

“I think that [interpretation] can be construed as building as well,” he says. “It’s just that the building blocks, the materials you’re using, you don’t have to invent them. You just have to remove them. It’s like building an igloo — you don’t invent the snow, you just cut chunks of it out and stack them up.”

THE RETURN OF THE GUITAR SOLO

Fast Forward: Wilco were pretty widely criticized for the extended guitar solos on Sky Blue Sky. Critics labelled it “dad-rock” and wrote it off as too dated, or too classic rock-influenced. Are you worried about having the same reaction with Blood’s Too Rich?

Luke Doucet: I say bring it on. For one thing, it’s not out of date. We’re so obsessed with retro culture… people have been proclaiming the death of rock ’n’ roll ever since it started in the ’50s. It’s not going to go away, and those things are going to ebb and flow.

I think the indie rock community is so obsessed with trying to create something that’s fresh and new, that they’re always saying that something is dead and something’s coming back. It’s just a question of trends. Just like the new wave thing came back this year or last year or whenever it came back, classic rock approaches to playing certain things are going to come back. I mean, the Strokes had guitar solos on Is This It, and that was, what, five years ago? I think it’ll be funny in a couple of years if all of a sudden the hair metal guitar solos are a factor again. That’ll be humorous.

They already are back, to some extent. At least, some bands are using them in an ironic way.

Irony in art to me is very shortsighted. It’s like telling a joke. A joke has a punchline, a punchline’s only funny once. I hope that the art that I make or that I like has more durability than simply one shot.

Is it odd to you that indulging in hair metal is allowed, at least as a joke, but you’re not allowed to admit that the ending to “Hotel California” is maybe the most perfect guitar solo ever recorded?

It’s absolutely stunning. It’s funny that you should mention how embarrassing it is to admit it, but you’re right. It conjures up such strange emotional feelings, but as a piece of music, it’s gorgeous. Even Sufjan Stevens would admit that.



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