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Published on October 21st, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant

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Interview: Terry Johnson – The Smalls

The Smalls join the list of bands from back in the day that are playing together again; Craig Silliphant sits down with drummer Terry Johnson.

Anyone who was into music in the late 80s and early 90s in Western Canada would have witnessed Alberta underground heroes The Smalls blast the roof off a series of venues and lay waste to audience expectations. They were an unsigned band that that had sold over 40,000 albums and you couldn’t walk down the street on the prairie without seeing one of the iconic Smalls t-shirts.  I sat down with The Smalls’ drummer Terry Johnson to talk about why The Smalls broke up, why they got back together for the new tour, and the famous Kamloops riots.

THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY:  So, how did the reunion come about?

TERRY JOHNSON:  We’ve been talking about doing a reunion show for about the last five years now.  That’s when the buzz kind of started in our crew.  But you know, mostly it was working around Corby’s schedule, and everybody’s got lives and jobs — none of us live in the same city, you know?  Dug’s [Bevans] in Vancouver, Mike’s [Caldwell] in Victoria, I’m still in Edmonton, and Corby’s [Lund] well, all over the place.  So it was kind of hard to get the logistics sorted out of when we could possibly do it.  But then all of a sudden things started coming together and we decided, well hey, let’s do a couple of festivals, kind of warm up.

That was a good and bad choice; I think it made the fans think that’s all we were coming back for, was the fests, cause we couldn’t announce the tour at that point.  So we booked the fest and we were in the process of booking dates for the tour, but we couldn’t release anything because of the proximity clauses on the contracts for the festivals.  So, a lot of fans were pretty upset about that, but we couldn’t really do anything about it.  Then when we announced it, a lot of the stress and negativity was gone off the Facebook page.

TFS:  How have you seen the music world change in the last 12 years?

TJ:  It’s like massive change, you know?  Like, even in the band that I’m in now, we just play locally and stuff.  Like for this Smalls tour, we don’t really need to do all the postering and all the advertising that we used to do.  A lot of it’s just through the net.  I mean, I just started that Facebook page a few years ago for fun, just to keep the name alive, because we didn’t have a website.  And you know, right away, we got a couple of thousand fans, so that’s pretty cool, and now after all this stuff, we’re close to 11,000 fans on there, right?  The social media thing is the way to go these days.  Especially if you’re a rock band.  It’s the easiest way to get your name out there.  We never had that back when we were touring, you know, computers, wi-fi, laptops, all that stuff was just in its infancy.  That’s probably the biggest change for us, is technology and how much easier it is to get things out there.  It’s a different world, but it’s still kind of the same, you know?  You still gotta go out there and play for the fans.

TFS:  I’ve found that is good and bad.  It can mean that it’s easier for a band to get their music out, but it also means bands that maybe aren’t ready for public consumption yet are inundating the Internet with shittier music.  Just because hey happen to be more PR savvy than a better band.

TJ:  The whole business has changed over the years.  There’s a lot of negative things I see about the business now.  Social media’s a good thing, but it can be a bad thing too.  Like you said, there’s a lot of bands that have a friend who knows how to make a web page, knows how to promote them, and they may not be that good.  But they’ll be getting the gigs, over another band who deserves them, and maybe is better.  And then, like I say, you got the whole American Idol thing and all that bullshit, right? It’s changed the face of music, for sure. But it doesn’t really affect us, I guess.  In the scenes we’re in, people are still in it for the right reasons and have the same mentality as the old days, which is cool.

TFS:  It’s been over a decade since you played The Smalls’ songs — how much rehearsal did you have to do for this tour?

TJ:  We took a whole month off in August to rehearse for the festivals.  Now we’re in Vancouver, we’ve been here since the beginning of October, pretty much, learning the rest of the set.  We just learned 60 minutes worth of music for the festival, ‘cause that’s all we had to do.

Plus, endless hours of relearning on our own, right?  Luckily, with technology these days, you know, I got a Roland V drum kit in my kitchen, so I can just plug in my iPod and play along to the Smalls songs.  I spent many hours relearning on my own and then we got together.  It actually wasn’t as bad as we thought.  We were expecting train wrecks, and not remembering parts, and having to hack through them or whatever, but by the time we actually got together, it was pretty smooth.  But it still took a good, solid month of, you know, five hours a day, four hours a days of jamming to get it back to where it was.

TFS: How did it feel to reacquaint yourself with the actual music?

TJ:  For me, I had to go back and listen to the music. I hadn’t even listened to those albums in years.  We used to rehearse those songs so much before we recorded em’, you know, and then we’d record them and immediately go out on tour and be playing them endlessly, so you’d be so sick of them.  I’d even be at friends’ parties and request that they not play The Smalls because I was sick of it.  But when I started listening to them again, it brought me back into the headspace I was in back then, and brought back some of the muscle memory and all that.  It was a tough process.  It was some very strange music.

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TFS:  One of the things that set The Smalls apart was the mixture of a diverse blend of styles; jazz, hardcore, rock, country.  That’s not as strange now, as the kids discover new styles online and create different permeatations of the different genres.  But how did you guys come to that sound back in the day?

TJ:  We all grew up in rural parts of Alberta.  I grew up in Northern Alberta, by Grand Prairie and the other guys in Southern Alberta, Doug just outside of Edmonton, but we all had somewhat of a rural background.  It limited what we listened to.  I mean, my small town there was only one record store, they only knew of so much music.  You know, I’d never even heard SNFU until I moved to Edmonton in ’89.  You just couldn’t get their music where I grew up.  I think that influenced the way we wrote, because of what we listened to growing up.

Me and Dug especially gravitated to the more heavier music like Slayer and stuff at a young age.  Everybody else was kind of doing the same thing.  We all grew up on the old school metal, but our parents were listening to old school country, so eventually that seeped in.  Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, you know?  Kris Kristofferson, guys like that. We went to Grant MacEwan, all of us, so we all took a little bit of jazz there.  I’d done some in school, I was always school band drummer. It was our formative years of listening and we’d just write whatever sounded good.

We didn’t have an agenda to make it sound like this or that, it was just whatever we liked.  It probably damaged our chances of getting a record deal back in the day, because we couldn’t be pigeon-holed into one kind of music.  It’s good and it’s bad. It’s out there stuff, but it’s all coming from something.

TFS:  One of the biggest stories I remember from back then was the infamous Kamloops riot.

TJ:  The riots in Kamloops were probably the highlight of our career.  I guess we’ve got a gig in Kamloops, but I heard that we were banned in Kamloops, the city, for many, many years.

TFS:  For those that weren’t around back then, what happened?

TJ:  We made the papers all the way across the country, if you remember hearing about it.  The Montreal Gazette and everybody picked it up.  Long story short, the promoter had oversold the hall, so the cops and fire marshals came in to stop it.  Instead of doing it the smart way and getting the promoter to come up and talk to the crowd, they came up on stage, the police, and started trying to take our instruments away.  Shut our amps off.  The crowd just went crazy.  Started throwing beer cans at em’, spittin’ at em’.  And they responded with macing the whole crowd.  Everybody stampeding out of the place, nearly killing each other, when that was what [the police] were there to prevent. People went out into the street and were mad.  A lot of cop cars got damaged and a lot of people got arrested.  There were a lot of lawsuits, I hope, against the Kamloops RCMP, because they totally mishandled the situation.  That was probably one of our most famous and family-oriented stories.

TFS:  Now the million dollar question.  Why did the band call it quits?

TJ:  We talked about this a lot, how to handle this question, because, I dunno, you can go on forever about it and talk and talk, but really what it came down to was that it was a mutual decision.  We kind of hit a ceiling as far as touring in Canada.  A couple of the band members were talking about it — ‘we can maybe make a move to The States.’  We were talking about maybe moving to Austin, and a couple of us wanted to go and a couple of us didn’t, so we were kind of going back and forth on the idea.  In the end we decided, the two of us that didn’t want to go, that that was the final answer, so obviously the band wasn’t going to go on without two of the original members.

So we decided the next move was to plan a farewell tour and that was that.  There was lots of other things going on at the time — it wasn’t just the move, but that was probably the catalyst to it.  We weren’t getting a record deal, we weren’t getting any bigger, and it was a question of, were we willing to keep doing it at this level for longer, living in the van as we were, starving, or do something else?  There were no hard feelings about it.  It was sad, but it was amicable.  And it wasn’t over a bunch of infighting or a bunch of bullshit, otherwise that could have prevented this happening, this reunion tour.

TFS:  Has the band talked about life after this tour?  Maybe doing some new recordings?

TJ:  I would love to keep going, doing more stuff with this.  Seems like there’s a lot of bands out there now that are doing reunion tours and then just kind of staying together. I hinted to the other guys something about that a couple of weeks before our break last month.  I was like, “Would you guys consider doing any more gigs at all?”  Nobody really said no, but like I say, we’re all older now and we’ve got lives.  Everybody’s got jobs and kids and we all live in different cities.

With technology it’s not impossible to write and record music and live in different towns.  Next summer, you know, maybe we wouldn’t need a whole month of rehearsal to get the songs together to do some gigs.  I think we’re just kind of leaving the door open right now.  We’re not opposed to it, but we’re definitely not planning to sit down and write another album right now or anything.   For us it was a pretty big task.  It usually took us two to three years to write an album.  If we still write like we used to write, it could be a long process.

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TFS:  Do you still see those iconic Smalls t-shirts around?

TJ:  Oh, yeah, we still see the t-shirts around.  Mostly at shows, people like to pull them out.  You know, it’s like they save em’ up and only wear them for their favourite shows.  It’s not as often that I see them when I’m walking down the street in Edmonton the way I used to, cause most people’s have worn right out and we haven’t sold merchandise in 14 years.  But no matter where I’m at, I’m always running into someone that knows the band, so that always feels good.  Feels like you’ve accomplished something, you know?

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About the Author

Craig Silliphant

is a D-level celebrity with delusions of grandeur. A writer, critic, creative director, broadcaster, and occasional filmmaker, his thoughts have appeared on radio, television, in print, and on the web. He is a juror on the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards. He loves Saskatoon. He has horrible night terrors and apocalyptic dreams.



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