Steve Palen just loves to sing.
The Nanaimo musician and songwriter has been a professional musician for decades, and after going through many ups and downs and some major health issues, he can’t imagine doing anything else.
And, these days, he’s very happy to be where he is — writing and singing original music with two close friends as part of the Herbicidal Maniacs. The band plays original folk/rock, and the Herbicidal Maniacs are coming to Ladysmith May 4 to play In the Beantime Café.
Palen has been working with keyboardist/singer Dan Dubé for about 10 years on different projects, but about six years ago, they had a pretty big falling out and stopped talking to each other.
“Unbeknownst to both of us, we both had health issues we weren’t letting each other know about, and they were getting in the way,” said Palen, who had a liver transplant in December. “Dan and I didn’t talk for about a year.”
Eventually, they decided to try again, and they formed the Herbicidal Maniacs, bringing bass player Brent Redberger on board.
“Dan insisted it had to be all original music,” said Palen, who has played in The Soul Sharks, Chevy Ray and the Fins, and Tanglewood Band in the past few decades in Nanaimo. “When you’ve been doing it as long as we have, the only way you can make any real good money is original music. You can play cover tunes in bars all your life and only go so far. Dan has always been my biggest supporter, and he said ‘your music’s really good.’”
The Herbicidal Maniacs refer to their music as West Coast original folk/rock, and in their promotional materials, they promise “an evening of foot tapping, finger snapping, really good original music — and yes, we also play the blues!”
“It’s all original music,” said Palen. “You’re not going to hear any Van Morrison or Cat Stevens, but these are all people who inspired me in my songwriting. We’re trying to recapture that feel.”
Palen writes all the Herbicidal Maniacs’ songs, but he says Dubé and Redberger play a huge part in making them come alive.
“They just add so much to it with their vocals,” he said. “Dan is like our musical director. I’m self-taught and never took a lesson, so I don’t know anything about theory, but Dan is well-versed in it, and so is Brent. I just know what feels right and fly by the seat of my pants.”
“It’s really hard to find a group of guys who are totally into what you are doing,” he added. “We play my music, and I call it mine, but it’s really ours because they add so much to it. We have such great harmonies. It blows me away sometimes. Sometimes, I find myself listening so much that I forget to play — that happens; you’re in the moment. Both other guys are real seasoned guys. I write it, but they interpret it and make it sound so good.”
Palen turned 60 when he was in the hospital over Christmas recovering from his liver transplant, and he has four grandchildren.
“It’s music that goes to that generation,” he says, describing the songs on the Herbicidal Maniacs’ self-titled CD. “There are a few songs that kind of reflect on my age and being a grandpa. A lot of my songs are reflective on things I’ve done and been through, and it’s imagination too.”
For Palen, the lyrics are always really important.
“The music is great, but it’s the poetry too,” he said. “That’s one thing Dan has always said to me — he loves the words. They have really true meaning, and if you listen to them, you understand.”
The Herbicidal Maniacs have released one self-titled album, and Palen is eager to record another one.
“I have so many songs,” he said. “It costs money, but it’s going to happen. In the end, whether or not you make it, here’s a legacy that’s left.”
Besides singing, Palen paints and sculpts, but he says “it’s not enough.”
“You just have to sing,” he said. “Songs keep coming out. I’ve always done it since I can remember. I remember being in Grade 1 and them taking me aside and giving me special singing lessons. Not that I have a special voice … but I just love to sing.”
The Herbicidal Maniacs perform Saturday, May 4 at 7 p.m. at In the Beantime Café. Tickets are $10 and are available now at the café. For more about the Herbicidal Maniacs, visit the band's website.