It wasn’t the most auspicious live debut in music history.
Jet-lagged from a long trans-Atlantic flight earlier that day, the guitarist sits on a chair on stage, barely conscious enough to notice the small crowd in front of him.
The singer is in even worse shape. He’s unsteady on his feet, having drunk an entire $50 bar tab before his band mate showed up, and looks like he wants the stage to open up and swallow him.
He ends the evening by stumbling out of the venue, assisted by a bouncer.
“It was a starting point to put it positively,” says David Laing, lead singer and co-songwriter for lo-fi indie tunesmiths, Lab Coast.
Laing and Chris Dadge – now on drums – laugh as they recall that summer evening in 2009, when the pair opened for Montreal singer-songwriter Sean Nicholas Savage at Dickens Pub.
“The next day was my 24th birthday,” says Laing, still visibly embarrassed by the memory of Lab Coast’s first show.
“It was a rough night.”
Thankfully, their less-than-stellar premiere didn’t dissuade Dadge and Laing from continuing to create catchy pop hooks, and growing into one of the city’s most critically admired bands.
Almost five years after the pair formed Lab Coast, the two sit in the basement of Hot Wax Records in Kensington with longtime bassist Shawn Dicey discussing the band’s personnel changes, songwriting style and its latest full-length album, Walking On Ayr, released through Mammoth Cave in February.
Walking On Ayr was recorded in various band members’ basements and apartments in the same casual, DIY-style as Lab Coast’s previous two records, Wilding and Pictures on the Wall.
“Some bands rehearse and create songs and then go into a studio to cut the record as one specific event,” says Dadge of Lab Coast’s songwriting process. “Whereas we write the songs while making the recordings. In order to have the songs to perform, the recordings have to exist beforehand. It’s just the way it works for us. We just make sure the first time we record, it sounds as good as possible. And, once we accumulate 12 songs, we put them out.”
Lab Coast’s idea of a full-length is more akin to what The Ramones would have considered a long player. Altogether, Walking On Ayr’s 16 tracks just squeak past 30 minutes.
But as the saying goes, it’s about quality, not quantity. And Lab Coast is one of the best guitar pop bands Calgary has produced in a decade. Their fuzzy, lo-fi indie sound, which borrows lightly from the playbooks of Sebadoh, Guided by Voices, Wire and Teenage Fanclub, is buoyed by outrageously catchy melodies and Laing’s distinctly nasal but smoothly sweet vocals.
Laing also writes the lyrics and comes up with the main melodies, often while out on one of his long walks around the city.
“It’s become a ritual where I’ll just walk for hours,” he explains.
“Sometimes I’ll come up with something really quickly, but other times it’ll take weeks of me humming something to myself knowing that there’s something there.”
“He writes the melodies by themselves,” adds Dadge.
“He’s not necessarily writing them on a guitar or keyboard and I think there’s a certain amount of attention paid to them because there’s nothing else going on.”
While the local music press and fellow musicians in Calgary’s indie folk and pop scenes have appreciated Lab Coast for a while now, the band is starting to attract a larger audience across the country and abroad.
“It’s been a nice steady incline since we started taking it seriously,” says Dadge.
“At first, it was just kind of fun and then we realized it could be something good.
Then we’ve just taken little steps to make it bigger. Being on a label that has some visibility has definitely helped.”
The band is currently laying out a cross-Canada tour, on which they hope to embark at the end of March and into April.
“We haven’t really played anywhere east of Regina, where we played to eight people,” Dadge says. “So, we have a little bit of work to do.”
It will be the first major tour for the five-piece group – which is rounded out by guitarists Samantha Savage Smith and Henry Hsieh – since returning from a 12-day U.K. jaunt in May.
Last year, Lab Coast was invited to play The Great Escape music festival in the trendy seaside city of Brighton. It was an invitation they almost declined.
“Somebody from Alberta Music suggested us to The Great Escape and we got an invitation,” Dadge explains.
“But we didn’t really read it and just thought, ‘Oh, thanks for inviting us to your festival but we’re obviously not going to be in England then.’ I don’t think we even responded to the email. Then a few weeks later Alberta Music got in touch with us about it and explained that we could get money to go and we applied for all these grants. So, it worked out.”
The band was warmly received by The Great Escape audiences and, according to Dicey, Lab Coast‘s breezy melodies fit right in with the burgeoning Brighton music scene.
“They were really amazing to us,” says Dicey. “They were all big fans of (late, great Calgary quartet) Women, and you could hear it in their music. It was kind of mind-blowing. They were really nice to us.”
The positive reaction helped their confidence as they made their way up the country from London to Manchester, playing everywhere from dingy basements to popular music venues.
“One of our best shows was in this crazy, cave-like basement in Manchester,” says Laing.
“It was slightly terrifying. It was so small. I had to crouch over, so when you see the video of it, I just look really sad all the time. Even more than usual.”
Laing’s quip has some truth to it, as he tends to be more introverted onstage than off.
“We’re not really an aesthetic in terms of the way that dress or trying to do anything crazy on stage,” he admits.
“I’m the worst frontman ever, when it comes to trying to be a rock star. It’s just not how it works for me. I generally look pretty scared.”
But Dicey and Dadge defend their low-key performances.
“I think in the live setting, we feel more focused,” says Dicey.
“We’re not standing on our monitors and taking our shirts off or anything. We’re here and we want to play our songs just right.”
“There’s a lot of information in our songs,” adds Dadge. “It can be tricky and I think it just requires a certain amount of attention. “
Lab Coast will celebrate the release of their latest full-length, Walking on Ayr, at the Palomino on March 15. You can also catch them at the Palomino’s anniversary party on March 8.
By Lisa Wilton
Photos: Cody Oliver