Jacob Bain remembers the nights when he had to stand outside in the cold between sets because he was 17 — too young to be admitted to the bars where his band got its first gigs.
As a member of Trolls Cottage, Bain came of age on Vashon, spending endless hours of practice with the band in a secret spot in the woods that was actually called Trolls Cottage. The music was fun and danceable, and Bain — a gifted guitarist, singer and songwriter — stood center stage when the band performed, wowing countless islanders who not only loved Trolls Cottage but who also literally watched this young man grow up.
Now 32, Bain still plays with Trolls Cottage as well as another band, Publish the Quest. He still stands center stage, playing a rhythmic acoustic guitar before throngs of swaying fans. But he’s grown a lot since those early days; the music he now plays with Publish the Quest is more fully instrumented and textured, complex and innovative. Indeed, it seems, he’s pushed the boundaries of his music, both figuratively and geographically, traveling with Publish the Quest to countries in Europe and Africa and finding in his musical journey a remarkable sense of purpose.
Bain sat down at the Red Bicycle Bistro last week, on a rain-soaked April afternoon, to talk about the twists and turns of his musical career and the meaning he’s found with Publish the Quest, which will perform at the Red Bike Saturday night.
“I always knew that I was super passionate about songwriting and telling stories,” he said. “But it wasn’t until I started Publish the Quest that I made a conscious decision that I’d try to make a career of it.”
Bain has a gentle and yet charismatic presence, complete with a piercing gaze and a flashing smile that makes a companion feel nicely rewarded for asking a good question. He’s also handsome, in the scruffy way that guys in bands are sometimes handsome, with hair of indeterminate length cinched back in a knot, a strong jawline and cool, casual clothes — in Bain’s case, a T-shirt, hoodie and baggy corduroy jeans — that seem perfectly mismatched.
But Bain’s charm is only part of the package — he’s also resourceful, ambitious and determined to make a difference through his work with Publish the Quest.
He’s funded his music career by making money “any way I can,” he said. He’s traded carpentry for time in a recording studio and also signed on for four two-month fishing trips to Alaska in recent years. He’s also lived simply, returning from Seattle a couple of years ago to settle on island property his family owns, in a house he built by himself.
“I dump every single penny I make back into the band,” he said.
The hard work is paying off.
Working with a nonprofit called Learn Africa, Publish the Quest has made several recent trips to Cape Verde, Zimbabwe, Mali, Poland, Portugal and Spain, where band members have played in festivals and music halls, recorded with local artists, and conducted music workshops and jam sessions with underprivileged children. On their most recent trip to Zimbabwe, last summer, the band brought along a trove of donated instruments and soccer balls to give to kids in Harare and Hatcliffe Extension, a slum just outside the city. He’s also collected instruments from islanders to deliver to a music school in Cape Verde.
An impressive roster of international stars has collaborated with the band — Femi Kuti, Nneka Lucia Egbuna, Matt Chamberlain, Eyvind Kang, Radioactive, Oliver Mtukudzi and Vieux Farka Touré have all joined forces with the group on recordings and in concert. A recent single, “Sodade,” was recorded with Cape Verdean vocalist Laise Sanches, with all proceeds from the sale of the song going to the music school in Cape Verde.
Bain said he has found great inspiration in working with kids and musicians in Africa — people he said had “an insatiable appetite for music.” To simply spend time with children in Africa, he said, has been a joy. But Bain is also helping young people here at home, by serving as a musician mentor to several island teens set to perform in an upcoming Sharing the Stage show at the Open Space for Arts & Community.
It’s a busy time: Bain is currently working on a new Publish the Quest album as well as a short film that will document the band’s work in Africa.
The film, called “The Truth About 99 Cents” — a reference to the cost of buying a song on iTunes — is about the international cooperation required in the making of Bain’s new song “Shine,” a recording made with Zimbabwean stars Edith Weutonga, Mtukudzi and a seven-member children’s chorus of girls from an orphanage in Zimbabwe. The title also references Bain’s intention to give all the proceeds from the sale of the song back to the orphanage.
And at the end of the month, Bain will head back to Zimbabwe to play once again at the country’s largest festival, in Harare, this time joining forces with a renowned Spanish and classical guitarist, Samuel Diz, and Publish the Quest’s drummer, Caleb Cunningham. He’s also looking forward to heading back to Hatcliffe Extension to hang out, play music and give a few more guitars to the kids he has gotten to know on his past two trips to Africa.
“We’ll get to see all our buddies again,” he said with a brilliant, big smile. “Some of the kids there live in a pretty hard way, so we bring food out and we are just total goofballs with them — we play soccer and put on shows.”
He’s looking forward too, he said, to hearing how their musicianship has improved in the past year, since Publish the Quest has been funding twice-monthly music lessons for a group of children in the slum.
Bain has Seattle shows lined up for Publish the Quest when he returns, and for islanders, a special treat is in store: Trolls Cottage and Publish the Quest will play back-to-back concerts on two nights during this summer’s Strawberry Festival.
Bain’s ultimate goal, he said, is to “bounce back and forth between Europe and the West Coast” with Publish the Quest. To do that, he’ll no doubt call on what he said were defining aspects of his personality.
“I have that spirit of not having fear to go for things,” he said. “I’ve always felt adventurous and wanted to push the limits.”