Ian Bain details the origin of his awesome jazzy pop project and how to not spoil the mood
I think I met Ian Bain in my very first week at the University of Guelph, at an open jam for first-year music students (I was a trespassing English major). Six years later, Ian’s making the best music he’s ever made with his slick new project, Softside. He dropped the heady, passionate Lower Hands EP last year, and now he’s promoting a lush, accomplished full-length: Luxury Lounge. Both records were performed and recorded solely by Bain, although he’s joined live by Jake Cadieux, Dan Loughrin, and Adrien Potvin. I sat down with Ian at my apartment in Guelph to get the Softside story.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Will Wellington: You’re a year and a half into this project. It was “Ferne” before it was Softside…. I just want to know what the origin story of Softside is.
Ian Bain: Ok, yeah. There’s a very clear origin story. I had done like a year out of school, working at a cafe forty-four hours a week, feeling shitty because I was working so much and not having the money to show for it, and not having any time or energy to make music. I remember in that year I tried several times with several groups of people to get bands together — I was desperately trying to play and was very upset. It was a very bad year.
I was going to go to Humber. I applied, I auditioned, and I got accepted. And around that same time I just decided I had to record a song. I sat down and I wrote “Over.” And I recorded it right away.
WW: Do you mean you recorded a short demo?
IB: No, what you hear when you listen to that song — I went upstairs and recorded that in an afternoon. I thought it was good, which was unusual for me. [Laughter] I decided I wanted to release it, and I got such a good response — and the reason why the name changed to Softside is that there’s a band from Montreal called Phern.
After I had put out the video, I was working on the EP, which came out at about this time last year.
WW: You did a video for “Over” with Emma Welch.
IB: Emma Welch and Ethan Hawksworth. Ethan was the camera guy, he did all the editing — it was very much Ethan, and then Emma and I were eyes, “directing” or whatever. It was a really nice time. I love Emma and Ethan so much, and it was just a wonderful day of going around and seeing nice things. I really like that video — I was watching it the other day and, wow, there’s some beautiful stuff in that video. It’s just a collage of nice things.
[Note: Emma Welch is a Guelph artist best known for her work with the collective SADSADDERDAZE. Ethan Hawksworth is a cool guy Ian used to work with at The Beat Goes On in Guelph who is now studying filmmaking at Emily Carr University.]
WW: What do you think set “Over” apart from other songs you’d be recording? What made it good?
IB: I think it was real, it was raw. By no means when I was writing that song was I “over it,” you know? I was very upset about everything at that point. I guess it was a hopeful kind of thing, like “Maybe I’ll get over it!” [Laughter] I mean, the first line is “It’s been a bad year” — but the whole chorus is “But I’m over it.” I remember at that point I still hadn’t decided that I wasn’t going to Humber — I was thinking “Maybe this will fix everything.” And then I ended up not going to Humber, which was absolutely the right decision for me. It’s just so much nicer making music than studying it. [Laughter] And I feel like I’ve improved so much as a player and arranger and composer just by doing that more.
It’s fucked! It’s really weird how people go to school — so many people I know — for music or art or whatever and then they just stop doing the thing that brought them to that institution. It’s so backwards and fucked. It doesn’t make any sense. There were a lot of good things and bad things about my experience going to school for music, but one thing that is just a fact is that I produced less music, I put less music out, in that period of time than in any other period in my life. Prior to that, I was making so much music — it was shit, it was the stuff you do in high school, but it was still a nice outlet.
WW: Do you feel like the experience made the music you’re making now better?
IB: There are a lot of things that made the music I’m making now better. My experience with my guitar teacher Ken Aldcroft was amazing. That dude was the greatest part of my entire university experience, and definitely the most important mentor I’ve ever had in my life. But a lot of the other aspects of going to school were not super useful to me. Mostly I stayed in it because I loved seeing Ken every week. And Joe Sorbara — doing the Contemporary Music Ensemble and opening your ears. I know Ken and Joe did a lot of weird improvised music, and [Softside] is pop music, and but I don’t think Softside would be the way it is if it wasn’t for my experience with them. I like to think that it’s not just a straightforward pop project. There’s stuff to dig into. [Laughter]
WW: How did you take what you had with “Over” and stretch it into an EP?
IB: I had shown a few people, and the response was pretty good. I was like “Oh, wow, maybe I should make more in this vein.” [So] by the time I put out the song I had already been working on some other stuff. That EP was weird to do. It took a long time for me to get that music together. And because I wrote and recorded it all myself, it was a very introspective, in-the-box experience. I just locked myself away for a while and fiddled around on my computer. It was also my first foray into recording and producing a fully fledged thing. I had done a beat tape before, so I had got some producing stuff. I just kind of figured it out as I went along. Every track I would learn new shit, and then I would go back and apply it. I didn’t spend a lot of time looking up stuff. For some reason, I didn’t want to do that, and I still don’t want to do that. I’d have a problem, and I would figure out a way around my problem. It was a ton of trial and error. Usually I came up with a main guitar idea, or maybe a verse-chorus kind of thing, and then I built everything around it, which is sometimes good and sometimes very bad. But it is what it was.
WW: Was it very bad on certain songs on that EP?
IB: You just run into trouble. When you just have one little part, and you’re trying to build this whole thing around it, you hit points where it just doesn’t want to work — especially lyrically, trying to write melodies I can actually perform after the fact. There are a couple of songs where I had to practice so much to be able to do what I was doing on the guitar [and sing] for performance. Also you run into that issue with things sounding slapped together. When someone writes a beautiful song and they have all the words and all the parts, there’s this fullness and completeness to it, you know? You can almost always tell when it’s done the other way, when it’s done the way I did it. On the stuff I’ve been doing now, I’ve been trying to work more on my songwriting before I actually go into the recording process. With that EP, it was all at once. The production was the songwriting.
WW: I don’t listen to a lot of music that sounds like Softside. I’m wondering what your sonic inspiration is, if there’s a tradition you see Softside fitting into?
IB: I take from so much. I went to school for music. Before that I was into the hardcore punk and pop-punk scene. I’ve spent the last year working at a record store, being exposed to so much more music than I ever was before. I feel like in the last couple years my musical knowledge has grown so much. That’s all filtered in there.
And I don’t think about a particular niche. There’s stuff that I think is very apparent. Like I really like Steely Dan, I really like a lot of this Japanese vacation music that came out of the ‘70s and ‘80s. But I also really like country music. I studied jazz guitar, and I love modern R&B and hip hop. All of that stuff gets in there. It’s definitely [heavier on] the pop/R&B thing. But then again, I’m not a killer R&B singer. I just do what I can and have auto-tune to help me out. I want to make the music that comes to me and I don’t want anything to be in the way of that.
WW: You mentioned you want to focus more on songwriting. What are your lyrical goals, or what kind of song do you want to write?
IB: This is weird, because for so long I didn’t give a shit about lyrics. [Some of] my favourite songs in the world, I don’t know all the words to. I’ve always listened to the music and melody first, and the lyrics were an afterthought. I would have no idea what people were saying. [Laughter] On the EP, some songs have decent lyrics, and on other songs I was just like “I need to put together some words.” There’s a song on there that’s just about Bob Ross.
WW: Is that “Boss Boss?”
IB: That’s “Boss Boss.”
WW: One of my questions is “Why don’t you play ‘Boss Boss?’”
IB: Oh, because it’s hard to play live.
WW: It’s quite over the top.
IB: The production’s fucked on that one. I just went overboard. It’s the classic case of “you’ve got Logic, you’ve got unlimited soft synths, and plug-ins, and processors….” And that’s cool if you’re Bruno Mars or whatever, because if you are playing with a live band it’s probably insane, or you’re just playing with a track. I didn’t want to play with a track. I didn’t want to just have a laptop up on stage.
WW: So you’ve started caring about lyrics.
IB: I started caring about lyrics a lot more in the last six months, when I was finishing a lot of the songs and recording the vocals. And it’s largely because I got heavy into country music and Americana, rootsy rock like Springsteen, and Jackson Browne, and Neil Young. Something clicked and I just started paying attention to lyrics. It made me not want to write just banal stuff. Because it’s easy to do that — actually, it’s pretty fucking hard to write some bullshit and not have it be too obviously bullshit. Some people don’t care. There are plenty of artists who have made careers singing absolute garbage. Like look at the fucking Red Hot Chili Peppers.
IB: I also had more material to draw from.
WW: In what sense?
IB: I went through a breakup, and it was in a weird sort of situation.
WW: So Lower Hands was pre-breakup?
WW: That’s weird, because it sounds like a breakup record.
IB: Lower Hands does?
WW: I think so.
IB: It’s anticipating a breakup.
WW: Luxury Lounge sounds more like you’re over the breakup.
IB: Really? That’s funny. Ok.
WW: I mean, there’s clearly a breakup going through it.
IB: Oh yeah.
WW: On Lower Hands, it sounds like you’re really deep in a tumultuous relationship. But there’s a lot more on this record that’s sunny and light. Lower Hands feels very heavy and dark.
IB: But you’re talking as far as music goes, not lyrical content.
WW: I have to confess I haven’t transcribed the lyrics.
IB: No, that’s fair. You’re right. Musically, it is sunnier, I guess.
WW: Like on “Uxbridge,” for instance….
IB: That’s one of the few songs that’s not a breakup song.
WW: But you include a couple lines about missing a girl at the very end. It feels like the musical tone gives it this air of sadness, but acceptance?
IB: I can tell you more about that song. That’s one of my favourite songs on the record. It was one of the most compelling songwriting experiences I’ve ever had. This was pre-breakup, which doesn’t really matter for the song. I had a dream that turned into a nightmare, and then woke up and wrote a song about it immediately. The first line is “I saw my old house, it was covered in flies / Drifting out the drains, going straight for the lights.” My dad was in the military, so we moved every two or three years my entire life. But I was in Uxbridge for five and a half or six years, grade seven through high school, [so it] has always felt like my home town. I’ve been in Guelph longer than that now, so I’ve lived in Guelph longer than anywhere, which is weird too. That song deals with all of that, but it was brought on by that crazy nightmare. I had this dream that I was in my house, and it was so vivid and exact. I was in my room watching a movie on this little TV I had. And then I went out to go to the bathroom, and everything was falling apart, dilapidated, and just covered in flies — they were coming out of the drains. I woke up feeling super fucked up and super homesick, I went into the other room, and I wrote the whole song. So that one’s a special one. I feel something when I sing that song.
WW: So when you talked about having more material for this record, is the breakup the main thing you’re referring to?
IB: It’s not all directly breakup-related. It’s also the stuff around that.
WW: You tend to reevaluate everything in a breakup.
IB: Absolutely. I feel like a lot of people write better when they’re sad or angry. When I have an honest, real thought, I always have this notebook in my back pocket. And I try to write it down immediately or else I forget it. There’s some shit that’s just garbage in there. But some of it is really good! And at least you’re capturing that moment and that feeling. With a song, I just want to capture a moment and a feeling very honestly. It’s very hard, and very risky, and very dangerous to do that — you’re really opening yourself up to some shit. There’s a song, “A Lot Like Her” — that’s one of my favourite songs on the record. I think that’s a very strong song, lyrically. Musically, it’s very simple. That’s a song about being with someone for four years and all of a sudden having someone new in your life and the weirdness of that. While so much is so different, there can be all these similarities, which are really hard to deal with for both parties involved. I wrote that song in a moment when I was just starting to see my current girlfriend and I was very unsure of everything. Then I played a show and I had to sing that song in front of her. And before we played, I was like “There’s going to be a song that’s going to upset you.” And it very much did. But she understands that it’s a real thing. It’s a snapshot. And that’s what I want these songs to be, a snapshot of a place and a time and a feeling. As honest as possible.
WW: I think of Softside as a pretty sexy band. Do you feel any trepidation about being sexy in music, in performing?
IB: It’s so funny. I didn’t start Softside to be a sexy band. I didn’t at all. You know me! [Laughter] I’m not that guy. But I guess it is! I like R&B and soul and slow, jazzy, sexy shit. And it just became that. And I don’t feel nervous about it being sexy music, but I have been trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do about that. I’ve started to think about trying to construct a performance that doesn’t ruin that feeling. We played in Montreal last August at Poisson Noir, a really cool DIY space. After we played, one of the guys who was putting it on came up and said “I looked around the room at one point and I saw five different couples making out during your set.” And I was just like “What the fuck!” Like that’s so insane! But also it’s pretty amazing! And I’ve had a bunch of people be like “I got misty-eyed at that song, I was crying.” That’s incredible. I never thought I would make music that affected people that much. So one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is trying to have a performance that doesn’t ruin that. I’m kind of sick of the funny, endearing, unprofessional, slacker-y type of stage presence. I think there was a very good time and place where that was reacting against the whole rockstar mentality. And I still think that anyone who has a rockstar mentality can go fuck off. But having a performance that doesn’t take people out of their experience is important to me now. I never gave a shit about [that] before. I was like “I’m just going to play these songs!” But now, we don’t stop between songs. We have two stops in our set. We dress all in black. We keep banter to a minimum. I don’t want to just be some dude who’s got these songs, and then goes “Oh fuck! Oh jeez!” between every song. And it’s hard because I am that guy. I’m not a cool, sexy dude. It’s really easy to goof and just laugh a bunch, especially because my band is my best friends. [But] people go to see music to have an experience, trying to escape and be entertained. I think as a performer you owe that to a crowd.
WW: Bonus question: What the heck is a “night train?”
IB: “Nighttrain” is a song about sleeping pills. I have a very bad time sleeping a lot of the time, and my dad is a doctor and, like, can get these things. [Laughter] If I go home and I haven’t slept in like two or three days, he’s like “Have a couple of these.” And he’ll give me a little bottle with two of these things in it, this certain type of sleeping pill, zopiclone. And one time he gave me a little bit more…. Like most sleeping pills, it’s highly addictive. It’s just crazy how good you sleep. I didn’t get addicted to sleeping pills, but I was very, very aware of how easy it would be to be addicted.
WW: But what is the “night train?”
IB: The night train is the sleeping pill.
WW: Like a train … through the night.
IB: Yeah, it’s just a shitty metaphor [Laughter], but it sounds kind of cool. We talked about banal bullshit? It’s more about what it sounds like. It’s a carrier for the melody. I hope you don’t put some of this shit in the article. [Laughter]
Photos by Will Wellington