By Alex Hudson
VANCOUVER – Grant Lawrence is not your typical rocker. Never mind the fact that he spent 16-odd years touring as the frontman of Vancouver garage-punk band The Smugglers. Never mind that the group was signed to Lookout Records (the label behind Green Day and Operation Ivy). When the singer-turned-author shows up for an interview at the downtown branch of the Vancouver Public Library, he’s wearing a pink-flecked flannel shirt and has a Canada flag watch strapped to his wrist, looking and acting every bit the part of the affable CBC radio host that he is today.
This isn’t a criticism, mind you, since Grant Lawrence makes no claims to punk rock cred, and is self-deprecating whenever the subject of The Smugglers comes up. “I was a bit more of a game-show host than I was a lead singer,” the 45-year-old remembers, referring in a roundabout way to the band’s mid-concert dance contests. “I was a little bit more Monty Hall than Mick Jagger.”
Nor does he attempt to suggest that The Smugglers were a particularly good band. In fact, he has spent most of the past couple of decades thinking that their albums were, in his words, “throwaway.” It wasn’t until recently that he re-listened to their discography and discovered that the albums weren’t completely terrible. “They’re actually better than we remembered. We thought they were shittier,” he admits.
During his years in the band, Lawrence recorded these highlights from the road in his personal journals. “I kept tour diaries with The Smugglers since day one,” he explains. “Since the very first gig in 1988 over at the corner of Homer and Nelson. Every gig, just wrote it down, wrote it down, wrote it down.”
These tour diaries were initially private, but as the band’s popularity grew (albeit modestly), some were reproduced as zines. As the Internet took over as a promotional tool, the band’s Canadian label, Mint Records, encouraged Lawrence to publish his diaries online. After the group disbanded, Lawrence shifted into a full-time job at CBC Radio, and friends encouraged him to compile his journals into a book. He first sat down to write a Smugglers memoir in 2005, but was unable to find the inspiration.
“I was still burnt out on music, especially because I was working with music all day, every day at the CBC,” he says. “It was kind of like if you work at Burger King Monday to Friday, chances are on Saturday you don’t want to eat a Whopper. In my after-hours, did I want to write about music?”
While on a lengthy paternity leave spent raising two children with his wife, singer-songwriter Jill Barber, Lawrence finally devoted himself to his long-gestating tour memoir. When he dug into his old journals, however, he was dismayed. “It was just disastrous. Just horrible,” he says with a cringe. “I’m going through all these diaries, and they’re just so embarrassing. They’re inappropriate. They’re rude. They’re not the way my forty-something brain thinks.”
He continues, “In the early diaries, I’d be like, ‘That promoter was such an idiot. What a stupid loser and what stupid dreadlocks he had.’ I would never say that now. I would never make a string of derogatory remarks about what someone looked like.”
Eventually, Lawrence wrote the book as a novel, peppering his narrative with photos, concert flyers and the occasional (epithet-free) page from his diary. The hilarious, inspiring and occasionally gross result is Dirty Windshields: The Best and Worst of the Smugglers Tour Diaries, due out in May through Douglas & McIntyre. (Sidebar)
The riveting story begins when Lawrence was a teenager growing up in the ‘80s in the least punk rock neighbourhood imaginable, West Vancouver. It was there he met an older schoolmate named John Ruskin, who later became celebrity journalist Nardwuar the Human Serviette. “He kind of rescued me from total nerd-dom and bullying,” Lawrence remembers.
Nardwuar was a burgeoning concert promoter who hired cool Vancouver bands to play school dances, and this got Lawrence involved in the world of underground rock.
Local shows led to tours, which led to record deals, which led to more tours. And so it went until The Smugglers finally ended up going on a permanent hiatus in 2004. Lawrence became a full-time CBC host, spearheading the indie-focused Radio 3 and helping to champion a golden age of Canadian independent rock.
“It was a great time to do it, because this Canadian indie rock revolution occurred right as we started the Radio 3 podcast and right when we started broadcasting every day on Radio 3 online,“ Lawrence remembers fondly. “It was Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade and the New Pornographers and Broken Social Scene and Metric and Said the Whale. It was all happening, all at once.” Lawrence also hosted the Polaris Music Prize Gala six times.
Sadly, those glory days are over. Now, Lawrence is only minimally involved in Radio 3, he has dropped off the Polaris jury, and much of the excitement surrounding Canadian indie rock has diminished. “It was amazing to be part of that vortex,” Lawrence says with a hint of wistfulness. “It feels like that decade of glory has faded. It’s done.”
Then again, it’s never too late to try to recapture the glory days. After 13 years of silence, The Smugglers reunited for a one-off show this past January in California, and they’re playing the Commodore Ballroom for Lawrence’s book launch on May 13. They will then play Toronto and possibly one additional city before disappearing once again.
The singer and his bandmates may never have been particularly popular, but they’re counting on the fact that they accrued enough friends and fans to fill the Commodore for one night only. And don’t worry, all you aging parents: the show will be over by midnight at the latest. “The babysitter factor is very important, because so many of our fans are now parents that if they’re both coming to the show, they’ve got to get home to relieve the babysitter,” Lawrence says. “The babysitter is a 14-year-old and she’s not working till 2. She’s got to go home.”
How rock ‘n’ roll is that?
The Smugglers play May 13 at the Commodore Ballroom.Commodore Ballroom, Grant Lawrence, The Smugglers