Stage dives, daunting drives: a decade with Reuben and the Dark
After almost a decade of touring, Shea Alain found the call of his home on the Ingraham Trail impossible to resist.
Last month, the Yellowknifer announced he was stepping away from his band of the past decade, Reuben and the Dark.
While he’s not sure that’ll last forever, he won’t miss the grind of touring across Canada vast highways – wearing out van after van – for the time being.
Earlier this month, Shea stopped in at Cabin Radio to look back on his years with the band and explain more about why he decided to take time away.
Here’s how he told that story, in his words.
As told to Ollie Williams on May 12, 2019.
I don’t want to say it’s a definite, forever thing. You know? Timing-wise, right now, I want to do some other things. But I never want to say, ‘Hey, I’m never going to be involved.’
I’m still hoping to be part of some of the recordings from home, here at my home studio in Yellowknife. They’re working on a new record right now in Montreal, so it’s a little bit painful being away from that, but it’s a huge time commitment.
Touring from Yellowknife was not that easy. Most of the guys are located in Montreal and Toronto, so it’s six hours of flight time for a one-off gig in Orillia or something. That’s 12 hours being in the air each way. It adds up. And I do really like being at home.
Even so, it’s been a really amazing experience. Playing in a touring band was never something I sought out, but looking back is fun, going through eight years of touring photos. The places we’ve seen, the funny shows, the really good shows… the really bad shows.
I was thinking about all the vans we’ve had. We’ve probably had five vans up till now. Not long ago, there was a crash – luckily, everyone was fine, but two of our band members and Kris Harper, from the band nêhiyawak, were driving back from BC when the van hit black ice, rolled, and ended up on the side of the road.
They had to be cut out of the window. That sounded crazy. And four days later, we had to play a show in Toronto. Our guitar player had to play the rest of the tour in a neck brace, sitting down.
It’s a lot of driving. You start entering all the tour dates in Google Maps and it seems a little daunting.
Canada isn’t the easiest country to tour. You talk to a lot of bands that are used to touring in Europe and England and it’s an hour between gigs. To be a touring band in Canada? It takes a lot.
Financially – how much gas you need, how much time you have to take – you try to get as many shows in back to back, but then you’re putting on eight hours between gigs and then you run into some issues. And you’re still not getting paid anything, you’re just making money off your merch sales.
We still had a lot of great moments.
Reuben and the Dark preparing to open for Vance Joy at the Calgary Jubilee in 2015.
The first big moment for us was the first time we played Calgary Folk Fest. Calgary was where Reuben and I met, and where we started the band. That was the first time we felt like people really connected to the songs.
Calgary has kind-of been the home base for this band. This year, we were one of the co-headliners on the Folk Fest main stage. We were slowly playing for bigger and bigger audiences, and that was the biggest audience we’ve played for – 10,000 people.
We also had a lot of success opening for bands. I feel like we really liked that opportunity of no-one knowing us. I think we have a sound where a young kid could like the music, but your grandma could also like the music, and I think that really played in our favour as an opening band.
Folk on the Rocks was my first big influence in music, growing up here. The first profound moment I had, connecting to live music, was the year the Great Lake Swimmers came up. I remember listening to them and feeling more of a connection.
We played Folk on the Rocks in 2014. It’s the only time I have ever stage-dived. The weekend before we played a big folk festival with The Strumbellas and they said, ‘For Yellowknife, let’s do something.’
We went out and joined them on the main stage with acoustic guitars when they were headlining. Reuben looked at me like, ‘This is your time, man. You’ve got it. You’ve got to jump.’
I had heard stories of people getting injured doing that. I really wanted to make sure everyone was ready! That was an amazing moment for me, playing Folk that summer. (I think I got some pretty good air, too.)
When we started playing, it blew my bandmates’ minds how many cities Yellowknifers live in. All my friends were spread out across the country going to university, so we had this built-in audience from Yellowknife coming out to our shows across every major city. There was always this Yellowknife connection to our band – people I didn’t even personally know, coming out of the woodwork.
One of the first times we were playing in New York City, we were staying on Madison Avenue – four guys, one king bed. We were sitting on the bed watching the Space channel. It was kind-of like a Sharknado-themed evening, all these Sharknado rip-offs.
We’re watching this episode and I notice this actor. I said, ‘That guy’s from Yellowknife.’ The other guys are like, ‘No way.’ So we put some money on it… looked it up… Jesse Wheeler. Cabin Radio’s own.
Listen to the full interview on the Lunchtime News podcast for May 13, 2019.
Now, I’m writing a lot. I’ve set up a little home studio at the house we’ve bought. I’m trying to write some new stuff – not for anything in particular, although I’d like to get into scoring some video. Maybe a Dead North is in the works. I feel like I’ve had a lot of live gigs, it’s not something I’m seeking out. I want time to start honing some skills.
My partner and I are getting married this summer. When you’re 24 and single, it’s fine being on the road for four to six weeks, driving wherever, sleeping in the van.
Now, if you’re sleeping in the van or sharing a bed with the bass player, you start thinking: ‘I could just be home now, with my partner.’ (And our drummer always thought you were his wife. It would be midnight, everyone is asleep, and he would start to cuddle up.)
We live out on the Ingraham Trail right now. I like being at home and being in Yellowknife, that has a lot of value to me, as well as being around friends and family and having a little more routine. That’s a big part.
Any high-school kid growing up anywhere wants to leave. I think, the more I have been away, the more value I’ve seen in living in a place like Yellowknife, as far as community goes and being connected to the outdoors. It’s really given me perspective on the North.
It was always non-negotiable for me. I could have moved to Montreal or Toronto… but it was important to me to be living here.