By B. Simm
CALGARY — The smalls were unquestionably a rare breed that seemed to have come out of nowhere: metal, jazz and punk all tucked under a John Deere hat. An unlikely combo that had a solid 10-year run that still remains fresh in the memories of legions of friends and fans. In 2014, 13 years after calling it quits, they brought the memory to life once more for a reunion tour across the country. Filmmaker Trevor Smith followed them and documented not just a series of shows, but also their history delving into the inner workings of what makes this band such a rare, enigmatic treasured force. BeatRoute asked the questions, Smith emptied his head:
BeatRoute: Your relationship with the smalls dates back to the ‘90s. Were you a friend or fan of the band? How did you get involved? What kind of low-to-no budget films were you making of them at that time?
Trevor Smith: I was a fan first, then came to know the guys in the Edmonton circle of bands, hockey buddies, and general bar community. My musical tastes were shifting from classic metal and into alternative sounds that defied convention. The smalls symbolized that transformation in me. I identified heavily with their sound—their origins were mysterious, and that added to the allure. They were like farmer metal from jazz hell. It was pre-Internet. You had so little good information; bands were bigger than life and full of mystery. All you had were liner notes, or a pirated cassette tape. Plus their live shows were simply insane.
I wasn’t even making films for them yet. I was figuring out Super 8 and 16mm. A friend in Molly’s Reach had two old cameras, and we were all experimenting with film, exposure, and lab processes. It was all magic. Eventually I helped out assisting on their “Pity The Man With The Fast Right Hand” video. I remember an Easter video we cut on tape in some guy’s home edit suite he had in his closet. That never saw the light of day, it had Corb [Lund]’s cousins on motorbikes, although some of the raw live material makes it into the feature film as archival material.
BR: Over the course of their 10-year history, what type of film footage was gathered and used for the documentary? From your perspective, what story or kinds of stories does that footage reveal about the band and the era they existed in?
TS: We had access to the band’s whole archive of stuff. Corb had it all in a stack of Rubbermaid containers. That included every VHS, BetaCam, DVD, and miniDV imaginable. There were over 300 posters and 150 handbills, plus stacks of handwritten fan mail. We scanned and photographed them all to consider as assets. Again, this was a “viral” band before the Internet existed. They lived in rumour, word of mouth, and their genius management of touring and brand. In the end, proportionally anyway, not much old footage makes the final cut. I became so interested in the guys as they are today, that the historical view became more of a technique to evaluate each character’s journey from the nineties to 2014. It was an act of comparison. The old degraded video footage and that handmade gig poster style informs the film in many ways though. When we do spend time to look at the band as younger men in those shitty clubs, we also take a similar journey back in our own memories. Images don’t get recorded like that any longer, so the archival material is in itself a trigger for memory, and a portal to the past we can never fully grasp again. That’s one of the themes of the film—the draw and peril of nostalgia—and the inevitable, mostly invisible act of growing up. In the end, these guys reunited for a very small window of time on their terms, killed it, and left their fans and themselves both with the full satisfaction of knowing that they accomplished a sound signature that is truly one of a kind.
BR: Musically, the smalls cut through a lot of different territory—country, blues, metal, jazz—creating their own brand of prog punk in the process. In addition to their music, what kind of personality or character do you think the band embodied? For instance, did they make any particular social statement, or was there anything specific that their audiences identified with?
TS: They were definitely difficult to categorize, and that may have been one of their long-term obstacles to any major record deal. Who knows? But your use of the term “personality” is important. That’s what made them special I think. It was a fundamental indifference to trends, and a sincere artistic desire to simply make music that meant something to them was key. Their writing process is discussed in the film. They agonized over every time change and riff for months and months. Nothing made the album without massive scrutiny. Plus, the fact that they went onstage in John Deere hats, winter boots and gloves, and hid under hoodies, only made their mystique and punk character richer. There were no typical shout-outs or pandering introductions, they simply stepped up and murdered it for one and a half hours. People often left the show in shock, still interpreting the experience… “What was that?!”
BR: How does the documentary unfold? Is it a linear narrative that depicts their development—beginning, trails/tribulations, the decline? What notable aspects of their history are drawn out?
TS: It is somewhat linear. We experimented with different narrative structures, but in the end we used the reunion tour, and its preparation, as the backbone. Over top of the six-month journey from rusty rehearsals to the cathartic finale in Edmonton, we walk the viewer through the band’s 10-year trajectory. We don’t pull any punches, and posit lots of ambiguity and questions. The band didn’t want a sugar-coated puff piece, and I sure as hell didn’t either. The band always had darkness. Let’s face it; it’s metal deep in there. So we always wanted some fearlessness core to the film. But we touch upon all the primary beats: the original members, the Grant MacEwan days, SNFU roots, endless touring, small town armies, the powerful brand, the signature merch, the grind of the Canadian road, the enigma of Ontario, the Cargo Records fuck-over, glass ceilings, the dissolution, and eventually Goodbye Forever and the end of the band. There are little nuggets that didn’t make the cut, like the Kamloops riot, but we hope to put them on the DVD extras.
BR: The reunion; that in itself was quite a milestone. What does the documentary capture that’s most significant about their coming together again?
TS: It was an amazing achievement. You continually see all these garbage reunions for money, when guys who clearly hate each other just put on a brave face for a year to rake in millions. This wasn’t that at all. Corb made room in his schedule, and they all very seriously dedicated themselves to getting back into that metal saddle and executing perfectly. None of them I don’t think ever really thought it would materialize—just the sheer force of putting four disparate mid-40 lives back into a van for 20+ dates is a feat in itself. But what was so magical was the connection with the fans. Every show sold out, and it was pandemonium. We talk about it in the film. That “conversation,” Corb called it, and fulfillment of a bond between the band and their loyal fans, was transcendent. It breathed life and humanity into the film. I think on this reunion tour certain guys opened their eyes for maybe the first time and without the pressures of the next album or money, simply took in the joy of a well oiled, shredding musical tour. They just freely expressed themselves as friends and artists and celebrated it. Every single night, people across Western Canada were able to reconcile their feelings for the band with a live marriage of that mutual adoration. The word we kept using in the interviews was “joy”. It was bittersweet though, for us all. It came and went so fast.
BR: Finally, as the members of the smalls reflect upon their history, what do they have to reveal?
TS: I think it becomes clear in the film that they were a huge success (despite the optics of failure). They maybe realized it through this reunion with new wisdom and fresh eyes. The lives they impacted, the people in Western Canada they carried, and the timeless music they made left an indelible imprint. That’s a huge accomplishment. That level of magic and independent courage, for 10 years, is impressive. In fact, it’s miraculous. As a fan and friend, I’m grateful for what they gave me one last time.
The smalls: forever is a long time starts officially at the Globe Cinema in Calgary February 19-24, in Saskatoon at the Broadway March 4-15, and then Edmonton at The Garneau/Metro Cinema March 18-24.AB, Alberta, Broadway Theatre, documentary, Globe Cinema, Metro Cinema, The Smalls, the smalls: forever is a long time, Trevor Smith