Kevin Quain is one Mad Bastard.
That is, he’s the singer of the Toronto-based blues-jazz cabaret band The Mad Bastards, the resident band at that city’s landmark Cameron House for a remarkable 16 years.
As a singer-songwriter, Quain performs husky-voiced, alcohol-soaked lyrics, ranging from Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits crossed with Celtic folk (“Mr. Valentine’s Dead”), to Adam and Leonard Cohen-style torch songs (“If You Don’t Come Back to Me Now”).
And he’s bringing those songs to this year’s Frostbite Music Festival.
Quain has recorded three albums, Hangover Honeymoon, Tequila Vampire Matinee and Winter in Babylon, all available on iTunes, and has toured with The Mahones, who covered his “Market Song”.
The intimacy and theatricality of a cabaret show strongly appeals toQuain.
“I love the idea of a show,” he says. “I’m not interested in bands that just turn the amps up to 10, and belt out their hits for the whole show. I want to see people with stories, with characters and angst, not just robots cranking out hits.
“These are living, breathing, crying, bleeding people with moods and a story. It’s hard to do in a bar. It’s not what people expect,” he says.
“I still find a way to do a show; it’s my idea of a good time. Music, drama, theatre, comedy, absurdity feel to me more interesting than a loud rock band. There’s got to be more to life than that.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like loud rock bands. I’d just rather sit down and listen to a loud rock band.”
That love of the show led to Quain writing and performing in a Dora Award-winning musical, Tequila Vampire Matinee, based on his album and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera, Pagliacci.
“Rather than come up with a story out of whole cloth, I built the show around one that I know works. The show is about peeking around the curtain to see backstage. It’s good stuff, what happens offstage and backstage.”
In addition to writing and singing, Quain is a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, piano, accordion and musical saw.
“I don’t play any of them really well,” he modestly explains.
“We used to have a guy in the band, Gene Hardy, who’s a really good musical saw player. When he went on tour with another band, people who came to see us would ask, ‘Where’s the guy who played saw?’ I got so frustrated, I had to learn to play.
“It’s an odd thing,” he says of the humble musical saw, “but it’s a pure tone and it speaks to people.”
Having grown up with an Austrian mother and Irish father, accordion should have come naturally toQuain.
“I won’t claim I grew up listening to it, but that sound speaks to me. I saw someone playing one and I had to go up to him afterward and ask, ‘How are you doing that?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I push these buttons and hang on for dear life.'”
Quain will be playing Frostbite without The Mad Bastards.
“I’ll have to be as mad as I can by myself. I’ll be backed up for one gig by the Paul Lucas Trio. We haven’t met yet, but we’ll collaborate via email. Maybe, if we have time, we’ll rehearse.
“That’s part of the fun of festivals, meeting new people. Musicians all speak the same language and they all have similar experiences. You can walk into any rehearsal studio and it will smell funny, there’ll be brimming ashtrays…”