Pull out those faded t-shirts because The Smalls are back

by Craig Silliphant

musicThe Smalls
Wednesday 22/Friday 24
The Lazy Owl

Anyone who was into music in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in Western Canada probably saw Alberta underground heroes The Smalls blast the roof off venues. Now, over a decade after they called it quits, the band is back with a reunion tour.

Perhaps you’ve heard of their bass player, alt-country star Corb Lund. But back in the day, The Smalls were an unsigned band that sold over 40,000 albums. At the height of their legacy, they made national news for being in the centre of a riot in Kamloops.

“The promoter had oversold the hall, so the cops and fire marshals came in to stop it,” says drummer Terry Johnson. “Instead of doing it the smart way and getting the promoter to come up and talk to the crowd, [the police] came up on stage and started trying to take our instruments away.

“The crowd just went crazy — [they] started throwing beer cans, spitting at them, and they responded by macing the whole crowd. Everybody stampeding out of the place, nearly killing each other, when that was what [the police] were there to prevent.”

The Smalls always defied categorization, delving into metal, jazz, country and beyond — a function of where they came from, says Johnson.

“[We] all had somewhat of a rural background — it limited what we listened to,” he says. “We all grew up on old-school metal, but our parents were listening to old-school country, so eventually that seeped in.

“We didn’t have an agenda to make it sound like this or that, it was just whatever we liked. It probably damaged our chances of getting a record deal back in the day, because we couldn’t be pigeon-holed into one kind of music.”

Near the end of the ’90s there was talk of the band moving to Austin to pursue the American market, but not everyone wanted to go, so they broke up.

“[It] was a question of, were we willing to keep doing it at this level for longer,” says Johnson. “Living in the van as we were, and starving, or [should we] do something else? It was sad, but it was amicable.”

The Smalls recently spent over a month in rehearsal to do some festival dates, and then more time learning more songs for their longer club set. Johnson says he hadn’t even heard some of these songs in years, so it was like starting from scratch.

“We used to rehearse those songs so much before we recorded them,” he says. “Then we’d record them and immediately go out on tour and be playing them endlessly, so you’d be so sick of them. I’d even be at friends’ parties and request that they not play The Smalls because I was sick of it.

“But when I started listening to them again, it brought me back into the headspace I was in back then, and brought back some of the muscle memory and all that.”

The band doesn’t have plans to record new material, although they never say never. For now, it’s just gratifying to see the fans — and the old t-shirts — coming back out.

“Mostly at shows, people like to pull them out,” says Johnson. “You know, it’s like they save them up and only wear them for their favourite shows. It’s not as often that I see them when I’m walking down the street in Edmonton the way I used to, because most people’s have worn right out and we haven’t sold merchandise in 14 years.

“But no matter where I’m at, I’m always running into someone that knows the band, so that always feels good — feels like you’ve accomplished something, you know?”