In March of 2004, the four members of Halifax rock combo In-Flight Safety flew across this vast country of ours, fully expecting to capture their hopes and dreams on tape. Spending four weeks in a Vancouver recording studio with a renowned producer at the helm, the band had no idea that this month-long endeavour would be but the beginning of an epic journey that would see their world change dramatically, in more ways than one.
Their story begins in Sackville, New Brunswick, where five Mount Allison University students teamed up to share their love of music in 2002. All musically inclined, yet relatively inexperienced in a band setting, John Mullane joined alt-country fan Ian MacDonald on guitar, Brad Goodsell on bass, keyboardist Jon Sheen and classically trained pianist Glen Nicholson on drums. It wasn’t long before the members started taking the band seriously.
While MacDonald would not remain in the fold for long, the remainder of the group spent the next three years solidifying their Maritme fanbase. Amid all of the time spent commuting between New Brunswick and Halifax, and each member’s eventual migration towards the region’s musical hub, In-Flight Safety released the critically acclaimed Vacation Land EP, which was recorded predominantly in a bedroom, in 2002.
On the strength of their perpetual touring throughout the region, along with a stellar performance at the 2003 North by Northeast conference—their first ever show in Toronto, which helped them to nab the festival’s Fan Choice Award as Best Unsigned Band—hopes and expectations for the mellow, melodic rock act had been set very high.
The award gave the band a nationwide distribution deal with Universal Music Canada, and allowed Mullane to head to Vancouver to re-mix and master Vacation Land with veteran producer Warne Livesey (54-40, Matt Good, Midnight Oil). This opportunity also provided the band with the drive to head back to Vancouver a few months later to work with Livesey on their full-length follow-up.
“We were a bit misguided when we went to Vancouver,” says Mullane. “We went there on an adventure, and I think we thought we could get a whole album out of it, or we could go back two months later. But, we realized very quickly that we spent all of our money and there was no way we could go back—we spent enough money to last an average band a whole year. We spent all of our money in the first month of a 20-month process.”
During their stint on the west coast, it gradually became evident that the recording sessions were not producing what the band was looking for.
“I think we realized at different times,” says Mullane. “I think I realized relatively early on—they didn’t have that layer of ornamentation that makes us, us. We all found out at our own pace and came to terms with it at our own pace that those were not going to be the final masters.”
“They were really straight ahead,” adds Nicholson. “With Vacation Land, we sat in a bedroom, trying millions of different ideas. In Vancouver, that kind of process speaks a lot more to a Matt Good record, or any other popular band who goes into a studio for a few weeks and walks away with an album. That’s not us.”
And so, the band returned to Halifax at month’s end with five songs and a recording session that didn’t quite meet their expectations. Unfortunately, that was the least of their worries. In the months leading up to the Vancouver sessions, things started to go awry in the In-Flight Safety camp. Slowly, but surely, it became evident that Sheen’s days in the band were numbered.
“Jon loves music, he just didn’t like being in a band and performing any of the tasks that a band has to do,” says Nicholson. “He didn’t want to be in a touring band, and it got bigger than he ever thought that it would.”
“It was gradual,” recalls Mullane. “It was the acceptance of it that was a mind game. We knew. We knew that something was wrong; that he wasn’t happy and we didn’t want to see our friend unhappy, but we didn’t want to let him go.”
“He was one of my best friends for five years, and still is, but I think what scared Jon off was the music industry. That wasn’t a game that he was willing to play. The rest of us were interested in getting to a bigger audience—we wanted to bring it to Canada. He wasn’t sure at first, but as we started to become a bit more popular, it was more challenging for him to stay in the shadows.”
With an unfinished record, no money and an uncertain future, In-Flight Safety went through a trying time in the spring of 2004. However, as firm believers in fate, they realized that it was happening for a reason and opted to keep the band alive. Sheen continued to tour with IFS for the next three months as they pursued his replacement. There was only one possible successor: another close friend from Mount Allison, Daniel Ledwell.
“I’d been playing music with Danny for years before this band even started,” says Goodsell. “When Jon said that he was ready to do other things, even though that I knew that Danny couldn’t play piano, I figured how hard could it be? He has ten fingers. He was the first person we called and we basically gave him no option.”
“Brad said ‘I’m not going to let you not do this,’” recalls Ledwell. “So, I joined the band. Then, John called me up and kind of asked ‘Do you...play keyboard?’ There was a piano in our home, and sometimes I’d sit down and learn something, but piano was never my strength. But, when the band started, Glen wasn’t a drummer. He started playing drums when they started the band. We’ve all learned our instruments through the band, me later than the others. Brad learned to play bass because of the band, as John learned guitar, as I learned the keyboard. Because we all have the same sensibility, it’s less about crazy moves and more about hearing what fits. We all play together—we’re not all waiting for our solos. Although I wasn’t a piano player, I am now.”
“Even though Danny couldn’t play keyboard, it was a natural transition,” adds Goodsell. “We could get some prodigy, but during the downtime, we’d rather have someone we could spend 40 hours a week in a van with. Whether they’re a virtuoso or not doesn’t really matter.”
After introducing Ledwell into the fold and spending countless hours in rehearsal, the band started working on the album again in January of 2005, in makeshift home studios in Halifax and Moncton, and at a pair of Halifax studios with local legend Laurence Currie. Finally, almost two years after they started, In-Flight Safety found a way to piece together an album they were happy with, blending the Maritime sessions with bits and pieces of the Vancouver material.
“It’s almost like we made three albums, if you think about it,” says Nicholson. “We made one out in Vancouver, one out here and then with those two, we made a record. We’re all thrilled with how it turned out, but there were times spent with our faces in our hands when we weren’t sure how we were going to do it. There were some things that John and his computer science degree couldn’t master. We weren’t even sure if Warne was going to give us the stuff from out there. How were we going to pull a full-length record out of our asses in a timely fashion with quality sound, the way we wanted it?”
“We bit off more than we could chew, logistically,” adds Mullane. “Next time we make a record, we’ll keep it more simple.”
Although the album includes portions from many different recording sessions, one would be hard-pressed to locate any inconsistencies. Flowing together in a smooth progression, the disc’s 10 songs include a combination of staples from their live show (“Fear,” “The World Won’t”), tasty new cuts (“The Coast is Clear”) and the standout “Surround,” which could become the band’s first major radio hit.
Despite the unexpected delays and complications, the album is finally ready to be unleashed. The Coast is Clear will be released next week on Dead Daisy Records, an indie label headed by their mentor, Emm Gryner, and distributed nationally by Outside Music. (The Universal distro deal was for the EP only.) Not only is the disc’s title (and cover art) a play on the geography involved with the record, but it also symbolizes the band members’ new outlook on life as In-Flight Safety.
“The album has been the centrepiece of our lives for the past two years,” says Mullane. “Now that we have a plan and we’re writing the next record, it feels like we’re on another track that we’ve wanted to be on for so long.”
“There was a chance that if things didn’t go the way that all of us wanted, we would never have put out a record and that would have been it. We weren’t going to put out a shit record. It was only if we had a great record that we would continue. People are expecting great things from us, and for whatever reason, it was our destiny to take the time to make sure that we delivered. I think we did that and that’s why we’re happy again.”
In-Flight Safety w/Jill Barber, The Audiens, Their Majesties and Digging for Bones at The Pavilion, central common, 7pm, $8; w/Emm Gryner and Mardeen at Stage Nine, Grafton at Blowers, 10pm, $8 (or free with purchase of The Coast is Clear for $15).