Getting your band back together again is as bittersweet as having an affair with your ex. After all, you’ll probably just have to break up all over again.
“But the sex is really fun in the meantime,” points out Corby Lund, who will be back playing bass for the smalls – small “s” on “the smalls” – for what they can’t call the Goodbye Forever Tour because they already did that in 2001.
One of the top indie rock bands Edmonton has ever spawned will perform for the first time in 13 years at X-Fest in Calgary on Saturday, Aug. 30, and at Edmonton’s Sonic Boom festival on Sunday, Aug. 31. They’re calling it “the smalls (Slight Return)”.
They also just announced an October 18th stop @ The Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto and November 7th stop at The Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver. More dates coming soon!
After this, who knows? It’s complicated, like any broken marriage. The band – Lund, singer Mike Caldwell, guitarist Dug Bevans, and drummer Terry Johnson –went their separate ways when they split up in 2001.
Since then, they’ve been busy.
Lund found success in the field of alt-country music with Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans. They won a Juno award in 2006. The Mayor of Edmonton declared it “Corb Lund Day” when the band played the Interstellar Rodeo in July.
Bevans now lives in Vancouver, B.C. with his two-year-old daughter, runs a school tour company, and works in experimental electronic music and visual art. He was awarded a three month composer’s residency at the Banff Centre in 2011, and built a five-story Trojan horse that was burned at Burning Man a few years back.
Caldwell, the wailing lead singer with the brooding demeanour, is definitely the most enigmatic member of the band. He had a daughter, too, and played in a cover bands with friends for eight years before stopping music professionally, living between Victoria, Lethbridge, and Taber, Alberta.
Johnson has been in Edmonton the whole time, working for the City of Edmonton, and playing and writing with an original hardcore metal band, Secret Rivals.
The exact details of the smalls’ break-up are known only to a few. A married couple are the only ones who understand exactly what goes on inside the relationship; everyone else can only speculate. A few facts about the smalls’ tumultuous courtship are already out there: The band was dealt a $40,000 kick in the balls when its label, Cargo Records, went under and took the band’s master tapes with it. The smalls persevered and made another record on their own, 1999’s My Dear Little Angle, and even contemplated moving the band to Austin, Texas, or a similar, more happening market, but when push came to shove, not everyone was on board. Meanwhile, Lund’s country career was starting to take off and he was touring more than ever.
The decision to break up was unfortunate, but unanimous. To be the smalls, it had to be everyone or no one.
“In the smalls we always worked on everything and hashed it out together,” Caldwell says. “It was a drawn out process, but that’s the way we did it. We each had specific talents, and I think it helped all of us to put each other’s ideas into the music. After the smalls broke up, I wasn’t able to dedicate myself to write many full songs after that.”
“I think we were pretty good at what we did, and it wasn’t just based on songwriting,” Bevans says. “It was based on us all coming together collectively and just playing together and feeding off of each other. We felt that this strength of ours would not be present if one of us wasn’t there.”
From their sound – a ferocious, inventive fusion of heavy metal, punk, jazz, and country music that caused riotous excitement at gigs, and in one case an actual riot – to the way they ran their career, the smalls never compromised. They made deliberate efforts to not to burn out any markets, and tried their best to make every gig seem special.
They also refused to edit out the word “bitch” in the video for their song “Pity the Man with the Fast Right Hand” (“She burned him alive with his own .45. She’s a bad little bitch with a bad burning itch…”) and lost out on valuable MuchMusic airplay as a result. (This, of course, was back when the network was still playing music videos.) Shortly before Nickelback became a household name, Chad Kroeger took an interest in the band and did a remix of My Dear Little Angle’s title track – but the smalls rejected it.
“I hated it,” Bevans recalls.
“None of us liked it,” Caldwell says.
“Our music was important to us,” Bevans explains. “We spent a lot of time making and playing it and writing it. It took us forever to write an album.”
They were an unlikely group of musicians with one thing in common: All four were rural Alberta boys who fell in love with Edmonton, aka “the Big City.” Johnson hails from the farming hamlet of La Glace near Grande Prairie; Lund and Caldwell were raised among ranchers and rodeos in Taber; and Bevans grew up in a small town just outside of Edmonton, which somehow made it worse.
“I hated it,” Bevans says when asked about living in Leduc. “Edmonton was the place we’d escape to.”
In an ironic twist, one of Lund’s country songs, “The Roughest Neck Around,” was the official launch song for Leduc’s first FM radio station, The One.
The smalls all rebelled in typical teenage fashion: By getting into bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Slayer. All four were intrigued by Edmonton’s burgeoning music scene, which is where they all saw live punk rock for the first time.
Bevans, Lund, and Caldwell still remember the night they saw SNFU for the first time.
“It was like seeing someone being shot out of a cannon,” Bevans recalls. “It was my transition from metal to punk rock. They were such charismatic band members. I’ve never been a huge fan of the music of SNFU, but in my mind, there’s never been a frontman who has the charisma – or integrity, really – of Chi Pig. He oozes art and fuck-you-ness.”
Is “fuck-you-ness” even a word? It should be. The smalls had a little of that, too.
They were misfits from the start. They didn’t fit into Edmonton’s music scene: They didn’t fit in with the punks or the roots guys, and they certainly didn’t fit in at Grant MacEwan College, where they met as music students in 1989.
They never did get their diplomas.
It wasn’t long before the band became more important than their studies.
The smalls released their self-titled, self-produced debut album – a cassette – in 1990, which was re-mastered for CD release in 1993.
But people didn’t really know what to think of the smalls. They were weird and exciting, unlike any other band on the scene.
“We were coming from somewhere else, and people could see that,” says Johnson. “We didn’t fit in with everybody in the scene because we didn’t grow up with it. We just walked into it as a band and started doing our thing.”
The guys from SNFU invited the smalls to open their “Last of the Big Time Suspenders” reunion tour through Alberta and B.C. in 1991.
“It really kicked off our career,” Lund says.
Then the recording-touring cycle began. Releasing To Each a Zone in 1992, and Waste and Tragedy three years later, the smalls quickly became one of the most popular alternative rock bands in Western Canada.
Listening to them now, you might say they sounded like Queens of the Stone Age before art-metal took off.
After the Cargo Records debacle, the smalls focused their eclectic fusion of styles on My Dear Little Angle, which contains an unusual version of “Natural Woman” (the Carole King song that Aretha Franklin made famous).
Bevans didn’t change the pronouns.
Meanwhile, Lund’s nascent country chops came through in the mournful ode, “My Saddlehorse Has Died.” A stripped-down version of the song was later featured on his 2007 solo debut, Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!
The smalls’ buzz soon became a roar. Gigs started getting somewhat… dangerous. Riot police were called to a show in Kamloops – mostly because the promoter overcrowded the venue – but, as Bevans points out, “There was always the potential for that stuff to go down at our shows.”
“With aggressive music and drinking, there’s an energy to it, there’s a tension that exists,” he says.
The smalls played to rabid fans across North America, and in 1999 they were the first Western band to play the Balkans after the Bosnian war.
“We weren’t playing for the troops. We played for regular folks trying to return to normalcy,” Bevans notes. “It was really good. It was one of the best tours I can recall. People were desperate for it.”
Lund began rallying his troops for a smalls reunion in 2013. For him, the timing was perfect, since he and the Hurtin’ Albertans were between albums and tours. Meanwhile, Johnson had given the smalls an online presence that they never had before, and he knew fans would be excited for reunion news.
“I started the Facebook page out of boredom a while back, and I was surprised how many fans we got,” he says. “For an unsigned band it was pretty good. We were most popular in Western Canada, but we toured everywhere. There are fans on that Facebook page from everywhere.”
“As soon as I put it up, people were talking: Reunion, reunion, reunion!” he says. “I’m not really surprised by the reaction, but it still feels great.”
Another smalls album is unlikely, considering their busy schedules and the amount of time it takes to write, record, and a produce a record. Just getting the old material ready for the upcoming live shows was a huge undertaking.
“It scared the shit out of me, actually,” Bevans admits. “Knowing there are that many people who are into it, and are excited to a quality show.”
Even Lund, who’s been playing music full time for the last 13 years, felt the pressure.
“This is pretty complex, intense music,” he says. “I forgot how hard it was to remember all the parts. And not only that – you have to build up your stamina, too.”
Adopting a “never say never” attitude, the band isn’t opposed to the idea of doing more shows if the opportunity presents itself.
A lot of marriages end in divorce, but some divorces end in remarriage.
And a lot of their old baggage isn’t such a big deal anymore.
“It’s funny when you’re in a rock band when you’re young, everything is so dramatic, every little thing is so important,” Lund explains. “You’re interdependent four ways and what one guy does affects everybody else, but it’s your future and it’s your big dream.”
“Now, just hanging out with these guys again, it’s not weird at all,” he says. “So far, all the good parts are still there, and all the tensions that seemed to there in the past are gone. Now it just seems like a fun thing to do.”
Mike Caldwell – vocals
Corb Lund – bass
Dug Bevans – guitar
Terry Johnson – drums