BY ALEX J MACPHERS
In October 2001, the smalls played their final shows. Dubbed the Goodbye Forever Tour, the punk-metal outfit’s last stand was a monumental weekend of cheap beer and loud music. After blowing the roof off a Calgary bar on the Friday, the four musicians drove north, to Edmonton, their spiritual home and scene of their most memorable exploits. By all accounts, their last show was unhinged: a massive night of debauchery and rock and roll, sweat and tears. Sometime after the sun crested the horizon, the smalls — with a lowercase “s” — passed into history. Their innovative albums, chaotic live performances, and absolute refusal to play by anybody else’s rules made the them the stuff of legend. For more than a decade, Canadian music fans swapped stories and reminisced about seeing the smalls blast the doors off some dive bar in some small town. Everybody wondered whether they would get back together, but no one really expected it would happen. Forever means forever, after all. Except when it doesn’t.
“Three or four years ago we started talking about it, lightly and loosely,” Corb Lund, who played bass in the band before going on to establish himself as a country songwriter of uncommon talent, said of the group’s reunion. “I don’t think anyone in particular was driving it. We’d just mention it once in awhile and think, ‘Yeah, that would be fun.’” After a pause he added, “It just seemed like a better and better idea.”
In 2013, the smalls’ drummer, Terry Johnson, started a Facebook page for the long-defunct band. Almost immediately, fans started signing up in droves. After 13 years, they were scattered all over the world. But they remembered the smalls. For a band that hadn’t played music together in more than a decade, it was an overwhelming response. A reunion seemed inevitable, but details were slow to emerge. Then, in late May 2014, the four band members confirmed a pair of reunion shows, at large outdoor festivals in Calgary and Edmonton. Then they started rehearsing.
When the band broke up in 2001, the smalls went in four different directions. Lund, who had already released a pair of country albums, concentrated on his solo career. Since the smalls disbanded, he has released several critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums, including the Polaris Music Prize-longlisted Cabin Fever. Johnson, on the other hand, remained in Edmonton, splitting his time between a job with the city and a hardcore metal band, the Secret Rivals. Guitarist Dug Bevans decamped to Vancouver and got a job running school tours; when he wasn’t working, he made avant garde art and electronic music. Mike Caldwell, “the wailing lead singer with the brooding demeanour,” played in cover bands for several years before quitting music entirely. He has lived in cities across western Canada, from Edmonton to Victoria.
Little is known about the smalls’ breakup. The band compares it to a marriage, explaining that a “couple are the only ones who understand exactly what goes on inside the relationship.” As it turned out, getting back together was easy. The passage of time lightened old baggage, and the four musicians were eager to resurrect their band. Learning to play together again was a different story, however. “It’s weird,” Lund said. “I had to go back and re-learn all of it. I hadn’t listened to the records for years. It was like learning someone else’s songs.” Eventually, muscle memory kicked in and the band started rehearsals. Lund’s description of the first few practice sessions — “rough but optimistic” — is as good a summary as any of the smalls’ career.
The smalls have always been outsiders. All four men grew up in rural Alberta. Johnson spent his childhood in La Glace, Bevans was raised in Leduc,
I and both Lund and Caldwell grew up in Taber. “We were isolated during our formative musical period,” Lund said. “We definitely weren’t up to speed with all the latest stuff, the indie stuff in the city. We had no idea what was going on there. I think we developed in our own little world.” That world was dominated by metal and punk acts, but also elements of country, rock and roll, and even jazz — anything that happened to be on the radio, really. Although they saw punk rock shows in Edmonton — the “big city” — it was clear they didn’t fit in. But they recognized something in each other, and after meeting at Grant MacEwan Community College in 1989, they decided to start a band.
Making music quickly took precedence over going to school. None of the four earned a diploma; instead, they recorded their debut album, which was released on cassette, in 1990. From the beginning, the smalls had a different perspective. “We didn’t think about it much at the time,” Lund said, “but we discussed [it] and, when you go back and look at the lyrics, there’s a lot of stuff that you probably wouldn’t come up with if you were an urban kid.” They didn’t do it on purpose, but it happened anyway.
The same thing happened with the music. Although the smalls are regularly referred to as either a punk band or a metal band, the truth is more complicated. The four band members grew up outside the music industry, and had little regard for its conventions. They were more interested in writing good songs and making exhilarating, inventive music. This reached its apex on their last album, My Dear Little Angle, which the band cut in 1999 after their record label tanked.
Cuts like the hazy “Murdering Me” and the brooding “VCR” hinted at the band’s punk rock pedigree. “My Saddle Horse Has Died,” on the other hand, blended metal aesthetics with Lund’s emerging country sensibility. (He later released it on his 2007 solo album, Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!) “Tell Us About It” unfolds in similar fashion, juxtaposing a ragged banjo lick with a series of punishing power chords and smart, incisive lyrics. “What I Need To Carry On” found Caldwell sing-speaking over a wobbly funk riff. There was also a straightforward cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman,” complete with original pronouns. It was unusual, and it worked.
“We just did what we did,” Lund said. “I think most of it has a pretty heavy vibe. Ninety-five percent of it is pretty heavy. But we liked to mix in different things, and we were always trying to find new sounds to blend in with the heavy stuff. A little blues, a little jazz, a little country.” In other words, they did what they wanted — and fans loved it.
By 1991, the smalls were touring western Canada regularly. They released albums in 1992 and 1995, and reissued their homebrew debut, this time on CD, in 1993. But while they were ostensibly doing the same thing as countless other bands, the smalls weren’t interested in conforming to music industry’s standards, or anyone else’s, for that matter. According to Lund, he and his bandmates were “militantly artistic” and concluded that help from the music industry — which had yet to be gutted by the internet, and could more or less do as it pleased — would not be forthcoming. As it turned out, they were right.
In 1995, the smalls shot a music video for “I Pity The Man With The Strong Right Hand,” the lead single off Waste and Tragedy. Their subsequent refusal to edit out the word “bitch” meant that MuchMusic wouldn’t play it, and the band was denied a great deal of publicity. They also turned down a potentially lucrative offer to collaborate with Chad Kroeger, who later rocketed to fame with his band, Nickelback. Although there was a fair amount of what Lund calls “horse-trading” within the band, bargaining stopped at the door. Outside the confines of the rehearsal room, everything had to be done on the band’s terms. “There were no compromises, that’s for sure,” he said.
After 13 years apart, the band’s resolve does not seem to have softened. Instead of easing into their reunion, the smalls elected to play a pair of large festivals; this is not an easy thing to do. The band’s songs aren’t simple blues jams. The parts are complex and intertwined; if one collapses, the whole song goes down with it. But, after three weeks of hard work in the rehearsal room, the smalls felt comfortable enough to get back onstage. “It was zero to 60 after 13 years,” Lund said. “We actually did a couple of house parties, to get our legs back. But still, it was kind of intense.”
Playing alongside acts like Jack White and Tegan and Sara was a thrill, and the smalls decided to add more shows. They announced gigs in Toronto and Vancouver, and then a slew of other Canadian cities. When those shows sold out, they added even more. After so much time away, Lund is not sure who is buying all the tickets. It could be old fans of the band, or maybe their kids. It could also be a new generation of rock and roll fanatics, raised on stories of the smalls’ heroics and eager to taste the fury for themselves. It doesn’t matter, really. All that matters is the music. Lund, ever the pragmatist, just wants people to enjoy the songs, which haven’t been heard coming off a stage in more than a decade. “We want to enhance the legacy of the band,” he said. “I think we always put a lot of pride in the quality of the music. It was all about the music.” Forever means forever. Except if you happen to be in the smalls.