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LEFT: Paul Lacques wailing onstage with his 1953 Fender lap steel. RIGHT: Marcus Watkins’ main Spy guitar is a ’62 Strat reissue from 1986. Photos by Greg Allen
“Sometimes the audience at our shows is nearly half musicians,” laughs Double Naught Spy Car guitarist and lap-steel player Paul Lacques. “I mean, when someone starts laughing at something you snuck into the middle of a phrase, you know that’s gotta be a guitar player!”
The all-instrumental L.A. quartet’s exceptional new album, Western Violence, boasts amusing titles like “Halliburton Snowboard,” “Two Bones from Skeletor,” and the instant classic “Journey to the Center of Guitar Center”—a rollicking cacophony of spaghetti Western/surfabilly/spy-movie sounds that the band describes as “an interpretation of a Saturday afternoon noodle-fest at the Sherman Oaks Guitar Center, punctuated by tasteless simultaneous wanking by our guitarists.”
Double Naught’s jazz-noir artrock certainly contains enough harmonic in-jokes and snippets of old TV themes and “cheesy listening” references to keep any guitar nerd chuckling for hours. But that hardly diminishes (pun intended!) the seriousness of Lacques and co-guitarist Marcus Watkins’ inventive, richly seasoned playing and the coolness of their compositions—which evoke the angular licks and interplay of bands like Television, Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and King Crimson alongside nods to Ennio Morricone and Dick Dale. The two well-traveled guitarists have done stints with 311, the Dust Brothers, Bo Diddley and many more. These Spy Cars get around.
Double Naught Spy Car (left to right): Lacques, drummer Joe Berardi, bassist Marc Doten, and Watkins, who’s playing a Tele through a Top Hat combo. Photo by Greg Allen
Despite all those influences, perhaps the biggest throughline in the Double Naught sound is the mighty harmonic minor scale, which suffuses their tunes with its spirit of Eastern European intrigue. But Lacques’ and Watkins’ approaches to harmonic minor—essentially a natural minor scale with a raised seventh degree—come from very different perspectives.
“I’m a pretty self-taught, seat-of-your-pants player,” says Lacques, “and I got into it from playing with a group called the Aman Folk Ensemble, where I had to learn lots of Turkish and Eastern European material. But Marcus comes to it more from Gypsy jazz and from a background in theory and reading. But yeah, it’s really at the core of our music. I mean, we’ll lead with a major seventh over a minor chord!”
Another unifying principle is what Watkins calls the band’s “uncensored” creative process. “We spend a lot of time saying ‘Wouldn’t it be great if … ’ and since there’s no one telling us ‘No, you can’t,’ we do!”
Lacques—a righteous lapsteel and Telecaster player with a background in classic country, Afro-pop, and roots rock—agrees. “The spirit is that there are no rules, so you can be as atonal and avant-garde as you like.”
Watkins’ ’62 Strat reissue, Lacques’ ’53 Fender lap steel, and Watkins’ Johnson resonator.
According to Lacques, Double Naught Spy Car came to life in the mid ’90s under the influence of Chris Isaak guitarist Jimmy Wilsey, whose cavernous Fender clean tones and dreamy articulation cast a powerful neo-surf spell.
“It was in that approach to using the harmonic minor scale and the blues scale—with that gorgeous tone and reverb— and I thought, ‘I want to play like that.’” That set Lacques off into using Fender Super Reverb amps (though he uses a 1969 Fender Princeton Reverb with Double Naught), running them clean with ample spring reverb—a pretty big change for a guy whose “gurus” include country pickers like James Burton, Albert Lee, and Clarence White.
“Clarence White is amazing because he pushed both acoustic bluegrass and electric country guitar so far forward,” Lacques notes. “It’s unusual to be that influential on both acoustic and electric music.” Lacques studied White’s trademark half- and wholestep bends in detail, though he attempted to approximate them on his ’68 Fender Telecaster without the aid of a B-Bender.
Ironically, Lacques’ technique on the lap steel comes more from trying to mimic the Nigerian Afro-pop sounds of King Sunny Ade than anything out of Nashville or the California country scene. He tunes his 1953 Fender lap steel to A–C–D G#–B–D (low to high), what he describes as a “D13 tuning,” one inspired by Hawaiian guitarist Sol Hoopii. “It’s not like those [resonator] tunings where you’ve got this big, fat major chord,” says Lacques. “But it’s really good at minor chords and 13 chords, and just puts all these dense jazz voicings at your fingertips. It’s a bit tricky to learn, but it’s a rich palette.” As a nod to the pickand- fingers technique of country, Lacques wears metal fingerpicks on his middle and ring fingers, and a plastic one on his thumb, when playing steel.
Watkins, who cut his teeth as a precocious teenager playing Randy Travis and ZZ Top in the bars of Northern California’s San Joaquin Valley, also plays Teles, but is more likely to be seen with his 1985 Fender ’62 Stratocaster reissue, which is loaded with DiMarzio Virtual Vintage pickups and plugged into a Matchless Spitfire combo. “Perhaps [the DiMarzios] aren’t the purest Strat sound, in one sense, but I gotta say, when you’re playing in all these different clubs, with all their different wiring and grounding issues, it’s awful nice to show up and know you aren’t going to get any buzz at all from your guitar— benefits of a humbucker, sound of a Strat.”
As demonstrated by their choice of amps, both players find low-wattage amps key to their tones. “Low stage volume is the better way to go,” says Lacques. “When I first switched from my old ’55 Deluxe to the Princeton, I didn’t think it would be loud enough, but after a few gigs I got used to it, and now I can’t imagine going back to a bigger amp.” He says another secret is to not use monitors. “As soon as you start using the big drum wedge in the drummer’s face, you’re dead—because that thing floods the stage with extraneous sound. You’re doubling the onstage volume and getting all sorts of phasing and noise. The house guy can make you sound huge if he wants, but onstage it’s like you’re playing in your living room.”
One assumes that is worlds better than what it sounds like in the middle of Guitar Center on a Saturday afternoon in Sherman Oaks.