The Smalls go out big

By Liam Dynes
Originally published on Oct. 16, 2001, in The Brock Press

“Yeah, this is for real. Goodbye forever, like it says on the jackets. RIP 1989-2001.”

Terry Johnson, drummer for the Smalls, confirms what indie rock fans have been dreading. One of Canada’s most diverse and eclectic rock acts is calling it quits after 12 years of rocking across Canada, as well and the United States and Europe. The Smalls have built a rabid fan base, particularly in western Canada, probably owing to the fact that they are based out of Edmonton, Alberta.

But why after so long do these four musicians pick now to call it quits? This is only months after a planned transplant from Alberta to Texas, where they hoped to shift musically and crack open a whole new market.

“Well,” says Johnson, “we’d planned the move to Texas last January, but I decided I needed to take some time off, but didn’t really know how to put it to the band, and I said that I didn’t feel I could make that move right now. So, long story short, we got together, put it to a vote, and decided to make this our farewell tour.”

Bassist Corb Lund agrees with Johnson.

“I think the underlying reason, and we’d all agree, is that we’d been doing this for 10 years at the same level, and [our career] hasn’t really progressed in the last four or five, so it was really just a feeling of plateauing.

“Without support from major labels, we’re just doing this all for ourselves, touring out of the van, and you just get kind of burnt out after a while.”

This isn’t to say that they are disappointed with where the last 10 years have taken them.

“It’s been awesome, for the most part,” says Lund. “We’ve been able to travel, and play some really awesome shows, and see some really awesome places.”

Fate has not been unkind to the Smalls, who also feature vocalist Mike Caldwell and guitarist Dug Bevans, and even if they never made it “big,” they have certainly been blessed with the adoration of an incredibly loyal fan base. Mostly situated in Alberta and British Columbia, the fans thin the farther east they go, but those fans who are loyal stick to it no matter what.

The atmosphere at Raven in Hamilton was intimate, giving the show a more personal feel than a larger venue.

“Little shows can be just as good as some of the big crazy ones,” says Johnson. Indeed, the band’s fondest memories come from varied places.

“There were these big indie rock festivals back in 1992-93, back near the beginning of our career, called In-fest; they were big outdoor festivals, and those were always really fun, playing to such great crowds and playing alongside out friends from the same area,” says Lund. “And places like Alberta, where most of our fans are, and interior B.C., those shows would get pretty crazy.”

The Smalls have maintained a solid reputation, and have managed to outlive three or four separate “scenes” in Canadian music.

“[The climate in music] changes, I guess,” says Lund. “It changes, but it stays the same, if that makes any sense. We’ve outlived a bunch of different scenes that people have tried to lump us into, but we’ve never seen ourselves as part of a ‘scene;’ we’ve never been really into the punk scene, or the speed-metal scene, or the rap-metal scene. People just try to fit us into whatever music happens to be playing at the time, but we’ve never really paid too much attention to that. It’s just about us, and what we want to write, and the people who like our music, and beyond that it’s pretty much out of our control.”

While the Smalls almost unclassifiable nature is in fact a drawing point for some fans, it has made their career harder.

“There are bands we know,” explains Lund, “who do better in other parts of the country, or even the States, because they can be classified into a certain genre, and if you have an area you can be put into, your shows will probably do a little better, because they’ll draw fans for each specific genre on that basis alone.”

But would they ever consider “selling out,” or writing their music to fit the style people want in any given moment?

“I don’t think we would,” muses Lund, “and I don’t even think I could. I don’t think I, or any of us, really have the ability to put aside whatever enjoyment or love for music that I have in order to write a ‘hit.’ I suppose you could go out and buy the top 10 albums on the radio, study them and write a song to fit that style. But as it stands, I don’t think I could, or would want to, do that.”

Lund isn’t completely against mass appeal, however.

“It might have been nice to have seen ourselves promoted to the mass media, to see how we could have done on a higher level,” he said. “Because I think our stuff is good enough to have done really well, but that didn’t happen, so it’s still really nice to have reached as many people as we have doing things the way we do, on a very personal, more intimate level.”

But, this is a ‘farewell’ tour, and the feelings of melancholy are definitely starting to be felt.

“It’s sad,” says Johnson. “These shows in Ontario haven’t been as bad, but even last night in Toronto, it’s just kind of hard to realize that this is the last time you’ll ever be playing there as the Smalls, but the final shows next weekend, in our hometown, will be the toughest.

“There are a lot of friends there who will be upset to see us go, and we’ll be upset to leave, but feeling that sort of reception is also kind of warming, to know that you’ve made that kind of an impact on people’s lives.”

Looking back, Lund and Johnson both agree about the last ten years.

“It’s been great. We don’t feel we’ve had to sell out either personally, or as a band. We’ve always done things our way,” says Johnson. “Everything is worth it, even when there are people out there who have never heard of us.

“It’s all put into perspective when you get people who walk up to us and tell us that we are the best — that we’re they’re favourite band ever. I mean, that feels better than anything.”

Most importantly, they’re proud of what they’ve accomplished. Johnson puts it best:

“Hell, yeah. I wouldn’t trade these past 10 years for anything.”

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