Some 25+ years ago began the early reckoning of some sinister emergence from a youthful Alberta mind. In a landscape windswept and irregularly dotted with sub zero abrasions and heat sealed sweaty brows of it’s inhabitants; in a seemingly vacant vacuum of what would become the newest appreciated style of independent music were the seeds of the Smalls. Since early days in Northern and Southern Alberta, each mind was crafting their individual addition to the collective which under the common thread and roof of the Grant McEwan Music School would create a critical mass which would carry them onto brighter days. As bleak as the banner of the Smalls, so too is the prologue and somewhat vague in purposeful directive; a stark white background with limitless white space – a canvas to create and only 4 borders to swim within. This was and always has been what truly defined the Smalls where little else did; this band consisting of Mike Caldwell (vocals), Corb Lund (Bass), Dug Bevans (Guitar) and Terry Johnson (Drums) have never yielded in the face of expectation but rather accelerated through the norm and burst forth with nothing heard before.
It was hard to walk down the streets of Edmonton, Calgary or any number of prairie towns in the early 90’s and not see someone wearing the iconic smalls t-shirt. Formed in 1989, the smalls were to Alberta what Nirvana was to Seattle. They sold over 40,000 albums independently and built a voracious fan base that has mourned their break up ever since they played their last show together in Edmonton on October 20, 2001. Evidenced by overflowing shows at legendary clubs across the west (including a riot in Kamloops that the RCMP were called in for and subsequently made the CBC evening news), the smalls were extremely prominent in the underground scene in Western Canada and have cropped up in countless other bands’ bios as an influence and driving force in the evolution of the prairie music scene.
Complete with reverberating lyrics and searing guitar tracks a bass line that is akin to a galloping saddlehorse across an open winter prairie, the cadence of the band is unmatched, each song is a fevered pitch of epic vocal highs and peculiar haunting melodies and oddly what seems like a dentists drill. Through years on the road, the Smalls cut their teeth on relentless prairie tours in support of masterful audio selections such as their Self Titled Album, Waste & Tragedy, To Each A Zone and My Dear Little Angle. Years of cross Canada tours in the blazing heat of summer and burning cold of winter in their trademark white tour van held true to the vision of success. The Smalls have packed rooms from coast to coast and beyond for years, fans adorned in simple colored shirts with a single white box at waist height for men, and two smaller breast height white boxes denoting the Smalls territory. This was the case for years and years and years in the Independent Canadian Music Scene.
Rather abruptly, this schedule as with any musician took it’s toll and it was announced that the Smalls were embarking on their “Goodbye Forever” tour – this was a bitter pill to swallow for many die hard fans, but all things must have a life and inevitably they must return to the soil from which they sprang. As quickly as the engine was built, the final show in Mac Hall in Calgary pushed the block to it’s limits, a fiendish moshpit and all members of the band pushing to their limits and like that it was over.
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.”
Years passed with each member moving on to different projects and with the passing of 2014, it was rumored that a partial reunion may be in the works. As rumor gave way to truth, the Smalls were back and set to perform several cross Canada dates to give back rightfully what needed to be done. When asked about the potential for the return for what some are describing as a small reunion Corb Lund had this to say.
“We’ve been tossing around the idea of doing some shows together for a few years now, and the time felt right. Feels good to be relevant enough 13 years later to be playing with some of the other bands on the bill. Jack White, the Pornographers, etc. We got together to rehearse a little last week and it felt really good to just hang out and play that stuff. It brings up a lot of good memories. Hopefully it will for the audience, too. Very satisfying to play fast and heavy again. I’m genuinely looking forward to this, it’s gonna be intense.”