Depending on your perspective, the story of The Smugglers is either a grassroots triumph of the independent spirit…or a half-baked allegory about five guys in cheap suits hell-bent on smashing the state, or at least taking a tinkle on it. Either way, vocalist Grant Lawrence and his crew have done a fine job of taking no prisoners and staying within their means.
"Don't fool yourself—we're fringe in all the countries we tour in," he says. "But my advice to bands has always been to just put…your record out! Even if you have next to zero distribution, records somehow manage to travel and change hands. For us, we've always been very opportunistic and have made friends all over the place. We'll play with a Japanese band in Seattle or California and next thing you know, they'll ask us to come play with them in Japan. It's who you knows, not what you know…that's a really important lesson we learned early on. The Smugglers have toured places like Australia and New Zealand and it's all amazingly affordable; we actually get by doing it and we don't end up losing our shirts. It's like when we come to Toronto: we play the Horseshoe and then we end up playing the equivalent of the Horseshoe all over the world."
The Smugglers were formed in West Vancouver circa 1988 by Lawrence and guitarists Nick Thomas and David Carswell. Since that time, they've been spreading their motherly glow in boozecans and basements worldwide. Bassist Beez and drummer Graham Watson round out the fivesome and collectively, the band has become renowned for their incredibly energetic live set and jocular mod-infused pop/punk zingers. The band's latest album is 2004's Mutiny in Stereo—their first since 2000's Rosie.
"Maybe it's because we have been fairly prolific in the past but I just don't think it's that long of a wait between albums," says Lawrence. "Our friends The Hives and The Weakerthans both took four years between records so why should we be any different? I think that a campaign of a successful record takes a while. And Rosie was a really successful record for us; it took us all over the world. When that happens, an album takes on a life of its own. And when you're touring the album, you're really not working on anything else so before you know it, four years have gone by."
While the new disc is packed to the gills with spoonfuls of savvy Smugglers' originals, a couple of tracks that made the cut that have a bit more history than the others. One is "Don't Mess with Beez"; a lament to The Smugglers' fop-haired bassist that has infected the band's live set for the past few years. The other is "Mach 1", an uncommonly-mellow number for a band otherwise known for their break-neck pacing. "Mach 1" is a remake and it's probably my favourite Smugglers song ever," says Lawrence. "The incredibly-talented Dave Carswell originally sang this song on a Spanish album of ours called Wet Pants Club that originally came out in 1994, and he did a beautiful job on it. So essentially, no one ever heard it except for some Spaniards. So I started pushing Dave to re-record it but he didn't want any part of it. So I begged him and begged him and finally, he agreed but the catch was I had to sing it. Now, I don't think I'm as good a singer as Dave but I reluctantly agreed. I hit a few bum notes but did pretty well considering. Now, since we've put it out, sure enough, everybody wants to talk to me about that song."
When asked whether the tune's leisurely pace was by design, Lawrence confirms, "I really believe that rock and roll should be loud but it shouldn't be unbearable. A lot of time, the clubs have their PA systems so loud that it does become unbearable even if you like the band. You find yourselves wishing their set was just over and done with. So we always try to toss in these tempo variations—like "Mach 1"—and everyone always remembers them without fail."
Still, The Smugglers bread and butter—or margarine for our health conscious readers—has always been their ability to zone in on the loud and the snotty. Yet the challenge of translating the manic energy of the band's performances to CD has taught Lawrence the unsung importance of the subtlety. "After many years of battling that problem, I really think it's a case of apples and oranges. If you try and go 100,000 miles an hour in the studio, a lot of the time, it will just sound crappy. I'm a big New Bomb Turks fan but sometimes, I have trouble listening to their records for that very reason. I think in the studio, you should concentrate on melodies and listenability; make sure the hook comes out and the pacing is right. Now live, it's totally different animal. You've got the crowd, you've got the intensity and the sweat. A good friend of mine who lives in Hawaii now—he used to be in a band called the High Fives—used to say 'If you don't sweat, it's not rock and roll.' When things click and things are right, it just feels like a party and everyone's on the same wavelength. And that's why the show ignites."
Like a jug of lighter fluid to an insurance scam, the infamous Smugglers dance contests have long been the band's igniter-de-choix. The first contest took place back in 1996 and since that time, the sight of Smugglers' fans attempting to "cut a rug" in support their heroes has been a staple of the band's live set. "We've tried to ditch the dance contests a few times, figuring it had run its course," says Lawrence. "But now, if we don't do it, inevitably we'll infuriate our fans. One kid was so livid because he said he had learned a whole bunch of moves from the Riverdance stage production. He confronted us after the show, told us he would never come see us again and basically said we could all go fuck ourselves. So yeah, we've had kids re-enact all the moves from Grease, we've had kids do one-armed push-ups 'til they puke, some kids have done some really great break dancing. It's pretty scary how seriously they take it."
Indeed, Lawrence remembers one such incident where the contest meant far more than merely an opportunity to break out a vintage foxtrot. "One of the greatest moments in the history of The Smugglers happened in Dallas, Texas. This quite-heavy young girl was really shaking it—a punk rock girl. She got up on stage, we awarded her the trophy and she just started bawling her eyes out. It's was really strange. So I asked her, 'What's going on with you? Did you hurt yourself in the dance?' And she replied, 'No, my dad told me that I'd never win anything in my life and now, I've finally won a trophy.' It was quite a moment and we still keep in touch with her. It was then we realized that we were actually having profound effects on people's lives."
The Smugglers have already played a number of Canadian and US dates in support of Mutiny in Stereo and will be especially active on the festival circuit for the remainder of 2004. They've already delivering an atomizing set during Canadian Music Week in Toronto and ran amuck in Austin, Texas during the South By Southwest. At press time, they were slated to appear at the Pop Montreal Festival, Halifax Pop Explosion and the massive CMJ convention in New York City later this fall. What looms as a career crossroads for most bands is for The Smugglers, merely a chance to extend the party for another year. "A lot of people really don't like those festivals but we always have a lot of fun with them," says Lawrence. "I guess some bands get the bad timeslots or whatever but I'm going to lack any sense of modesty and say that after all this time, The Smugglers deserve those good time slots. How's that for modesty?"
For more information on The Smugglers, visit their official website at www.thesmugglers.com
Writer: Cameron Gordon