The Mad Bastard
Kevin Quain, the Quintessential, Original Garage Jazz Musician
Sunday in downtown Toronto, Queen Street West; it’s late but no one in the Cameron House is thinking about what time it is anymore. The bar’s Front Lounge is small, and its ceiling is painted like the Sistine Chapel. From the couch at the back, looking over tables lined with pints, whiskey and martini glasses, Kevin Quain is visible standing in the yellow spotlight with two black eyes painted on and roses wrapped around his microphones. With him stand the Mad Bastards all wielding an assortment of instruments: guitar, violin, mandolin, drums, bass, and at one time or another, a harp, piano, accordion and saw. Yes—a saw.
“This next song is about a bank robber who wants to be in show business,” Quain says, his lips close against the mic. The music Quain and the Mad Bastards play is difficult to define. Quain has called it “garage jazz cabaret noir” and that sums it up about as well as anything can.
Kevin Quain started pursuing music 16 years ago, in his early 30s. Before that he worked office jobs, living under “fluorescent lights and fax machines.” He has three albums: Hangover Honeymoon, Tequila Vampire Matinée and Winter in Babylon; he has played with various bands including The Mahones, with whom he travelled to Eastern Europe, as well as writing and performing in a musical called Tequila Vampire Matinée. He travels sometimes for shows, but not as much as he used to. “You get tired of having hangovers in different cities,” he says. “Eventually it’s good enough to have a hangover in just one city.” Today Quain spends most of his time and plays most of his shows in Toronto. He has played on Sunday nights at the Cameron House for over 10 years.
Quain is working on a new album and hopes to start recording in the spring. He records most of his music in a small studio upstairs in the Cameron House; everything except the drums, which he does elsewhere. “I can record any time,” he says. “This means I can take myself by surprise. It’s nice to be able to do that, especially with vocals. It’s easier to record vocals without working myself up first.”
The songs pause and the music drops to a quiet accompaniment. “I don’t support drinking,” Quain says as the violin whines slowly, “but I do support buying drinks. Buying a lot of drinks is good for the arts community,” and the Bastards start the cool bobbing chords that open Quain’s song “Let’s Get Loaded.” Every table is lined with drinks and empty glasses, and the traffic to the bar and back is constant. Monday is Family Day so nobody is worried about having to go to work with a hangover tomorrow.
Quain is not married so he is free to chat with bar-girls, stay out all night or tour Eastern Europe. He spends five or six nights a week in bars, playing shows in the Cameron House or the bar piano at Graffiti’s or The Paddock. His days and mornings are free so he doesn’t fear hangovers as much as a work-a-day man. He spends most days at the piano, pulling together whatever song pieces he has jumbled in the toolbox. “A song is Frankenstein,” Quain says. “When you put all the pieces together it comes alive.” But no-one fires him if he doesn’t get up before nine…or noon…or two…so how does a musician come home from the bar every night and still get up to work? “It is easy to ruin your health doing this, and it’s easy to turn this life into a non-stop party,” Quain says, “but most people get a lot of the partying out early. Most do it because they like to play music, not because they like to party.”
But the musical world is not all stars, shows, and song writing; there is hard work to be done as well—office work. Getting new songs and albums on iTunes for example, or selling CDs. “I sell most of my music off the bandstand; that’s the best way to connect with people, that’s an example of the business aspect. Most times on my break I am tired and want to sit and talk to the pretty girl at the bar, but I have to be up selling CDs.” It’s a rough life. Having a system in place to maintain this business work is helpful. Falling behind on it is bad for any musician’s career; do that for too long and he or she will be back in the office eight hours a day. It is probably easier for those with a steady band because members can divide the work, but Quain doesn’t have that.
Quain gets up from the piano. Back on stage he picks up the guitar again and strums a soft accompaniment. Having just bribed the crowd with a piano solo, it is now time for his requital. “You know,” he says slowly, “there is something that I think about a lot…it’s your money and how I can get some of it.” As the Mad Bastards play their next song, an empty pitcher is passed around the room for the audience to drop money into. “I don’t want any of your pocket change,” Quain says, “I want bills—real money.”
Music is a job for Quain; it’s his only job and it is what he lives on. “This means I’m poor,” Quain says, but he has no family to support. “There is very little glamour in doing this. It’s a grind. Getting yourself to gigs is hard.” He has never signed with any record label and has always had to do everything himself: he sets up lights and sound for his shows and he mixes all his music together himself. Most musicians Quain knows either give up or just do it as a hobby. He claims “pure stubbornness” is what carried him to where he is. “I always tell people ‘don’t do it.’ Every time someone quits this business I think ‘good, there’s a little more for me.’” It is a good idea to have something else up your sleeve or in your back pocket, if you want to be a musician. Not all make it far enough to support themselves, and if they do, they may not last long.
But it’s not all bad. “Getting yourself to gigs is hard, but once you’re there you are still getting together with people you love and making a racket.” Sitting at the bottom of the musical ladder also has some benefits. Music encourages experimentation; maybe aspiring musicians shouldn’t dream of being stars because at a certain level a musician loses the freedom to explore all aspects of music. Midway through the evening, Quain sat at the piano bench and pulled out a ragged violin bow and a saw—the kind used for cutting down trees except this one is a musical saw. He stuck the handle between his legs, held the tip with his fingers and started to play. He ran the bow along the back of the saw-blade as you would along the strings of a violin and bent the blade to change the pitch; it creates a haunting mournful metal hum. Quain can do what he wants.
It is long into the night now—long into the show. The crowd claps for the accordion, or the harp, and as the music keeps building Quain sits at the piano. With his right hand rolling across the keys, and the hammers dancing back and forth across the exposed strings, Kevin reaches up his left hand to the accordion sitting on top of the piano. He starts squeezing toots and whistles out of it and the crowd claps and cheers—entranced. Then he lets the accordion lay and switches his left hand to the piano strings, plucking and pulling at them with his fingers—all the while his right hand still playing the keys. More applause and cheering follow, of course, and Quain plays the show to a close. Most people don’t get applause at the end of their shift. After the cheering subsides it is quiet for a moment, and then the onlookers start to recover. Some stand to leave and some stay to talk with the people around them, but everything starts moving on. Outside the snow falls slowly in big fat flakes, drifting down between tall buildings and piling in thick white fluff on the sidewalk. Sometime later that night Quain will walk home in the snow; he’s got songs to write tomorrow and another show to play—six o’clock at Graffiti’s, every Monday night.