The Smugglers Kings of the Party
Published Jan 01, 2006"Ambition, good times, and denial" are the holy trinity of rock'n'roll essentials that have kept Vancouver's Smugglers a symbol of longevity and irreverent entertainment for the past 12 years. Each record and tour brings their garage punk-pop to even more international fans, and they've surpassed most of their peers and slid easily into the role of rock ambassadors destined "to serve, protect and entertain," as the song goes. Singer Grant Lawrence walks us through their illustrious history.
Grant Lawrence, Nick Thomas and David Carswell, three ambitious 16-year-olds, gather on the Lawrence family porch in West Vancouver and learn three songs apiece by the Velvet Underground, the Cramps and the Sonics. Adam Woodall on harmonica and Paul Preminger round out the line-up. They're given their name by high school friend Nardwuar the Human Serviette, who claims he meant to say "The Snugglers." The band's second gig is opening for their heroes, Montreal's Gruesomes, at a rather dubious gig. "It was at St. David's United Church, it was a Nardwuar show, and it was a total disaster," recalls Lawrence. "Like Altamont, Nardwuar hired the wrong force to do security - skinheads. They stole the door money and one of them was found having sex in the pews upstairs. The next morning, the Gruesomes stayed at my house, and John Knoll the drummer was on the phone with the church secretary taking notes, completely deadpan. I look down at the notes and it says, 'Washroom: blood, vomit, diarrhea smeared on walls.' The church was hysterical because Nardwuar told them we were having a community talent show with jugglers. Even the altar got damaged! People ran amok through God's house!"
Record first tracks in Seattle with hero Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows, who later signs them to PopLlama. Enter Vancouver's annual battle of the bands, Shindig, and "sucked really hard," admits Lawrence. "One [comment] card was particularly harsh - the person drew each member of the band and put a checkmark beside Dave, because he's always been the virtuoso, an X beside everyone else, and a big circle around me and drew an X that went right through the paper." In 1996, Lawrence tells Bill Baker, owner of Mint Records, that he'll be using some of the Shindig comments in liner notes, at which point Baker admits that he drew the X through Lawrence's caricature.
Nick Thomas switches to second guitar and the man known as Beez is drafted on bass. A Toronto immigrant, Beez is known as the King of the Vancouver scene for his participation in jazz-punk local sensation the Sarcastic Mannequins and his role as booze can impresario. Starstruck young Smugglers gawk at members of Slow, the Pointed Sticks, SNFU, and Bob's Your Uncle at Beez parties. They draft him for a weeklong tour of the prairies, which involves highly treacherous winter driving with a broken heater in a VW van with no seats. Beez spends his 27th birthday broken down at a truck stop in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Lawrence claims that the band's knack for oral sex at a Regina gig intrigued Beez enough to stay with the band. "We gained a welcome reputation for that," he boasts.
Play Calvin Johnson's infamous International Pop Underground festival in Olympia, Washington, alongside Fugazi, Beat Happening, Shadowy Men, Bratmobile, Mudhoney, etc. Despite Lawrence's decision to don a goofy mohawk for the show, they make quite an impression on audience members who include Molly XX of Bratmobile, who would later manage The Smugglers' American label Lookout, and Rose Melberg of Tiger Trap and The Softies, who duets with Lawrence on their 2000 release. "At the time we were still a really young band, and we thought this was just an inclusion into the coolest group of musicians," says Lawrence. Adam Woodall leaves the band to pursue "freedom rock."
Release first two albums, At Marineland and Atlanta Whiskey Flats , in one year span. Drummer Paul Preminger leaves to become a chef; he's currently a gourmet on Gabriola Island. Replaced by Bryce Dunn of Calgary's the Vindicators. Sarcastic Mannequins break up, freeing the Beez to become a full-time Smuggler. Because Lawrence, Thomas and Carswell are still 19, the band somehow snags a "Youth Achievement Award" from YTV and play the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on national television, alongside "bravery award" winners and baton champions from Regina. The show is hosted by Alan Thicke, the only celebrity Carswell does an impression of. Thicke pogos across the stage during their set, but is less than impressed with them later, when Carswell decides to entertain Thicke with his impression; the scenario involves Thicke's father character on Growing Pains walking in on an incest scene between his son and daughter. "I think Alan was a little upset," laughs Lawrence, "He was just deadpan, but all the other kids were in hysterics."
Further controversy erupts when it's discovered that Beez is 29. YTV officials sniffed something suspicious when they realised the Smugglers' bassist was in the hotel bar regaling the winners' parents with dirty jokes. "The YTV people have swept that one under the rug," says Lawrence, "But now apparently you have to show your passport, your birth certificate, etc."
Best of first two albums compiled on In the Hall of Fame , and the video for "Vancouver B.C." gets played to this day. EPs and singles are released on labels in Spain, Germany, and Italy. Smugglers offer an opening slot on a Canadian tour to a young, green band called Cub. Crowds go crazy for Cub and snap up all their merchandise, leading to some ugly jealousy and a much-regretted drunken confrontation. Early Cub drummer Neko Case "wanted to pound all of us," writes Lawrence in a history of the Smugglers found in the live album Growing Up Smuggl er. Time has healed all wounds.
Full-length Wet Pants Club released on Radiation in Spain. Extensive American touring, capturing the attention of Lookout, who sign them in '95. Drummer Graham Watson of Bum, now a full-time Smuggler, fills in for temporarily absent Dunn.
Grant Lawrence has an epiphany. "I'm a huge Brady Bunch fan, and watching Live at the Hollywood Bowl I couldn't help noticing that their moves were spectacular." Choreographed dance moves begin to creep into Smugglers' shows, starting with a cover of Elvis's "Stop! Look! Listen!" Tour Spain for the first time, playing large venues to audiences with "a manic appreciation," says Lawrence, singing every word at the top of their lungs.
Selling the Sizzle is the band's first full-length Lookout release, which tops Canadian campus radio charts. Tour America with the Mr. T Experience, whose Dr. Frank will later write songs for this year's new Rosie album. The band introduces wildly popular kissing and dancing contests, with bowling trophies awarded to the winners in each town. In 1997, one Italian winner goes on a rampage in the club parking lot with her trophy; the club owner tries to hold the band liable. Japanese tour with the Queers and Supersnazz is a career highlight. "Playing Tokyo was like the Trouser Press review or Rolling Stone review," Lawrence swoons. "Our first show in Tokyo was packed, all these Japanese kids jostling to get in front, all singing along. It was a defining moment: 'Never would I have guessed that five friends from West Vancouver, BC would ever find themselves in a weird sex club in Tokyo with people singing along to songs that we wrote as a lark!'"
After triumphant tours of the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Texas, both Beez and Bryce Dunn announce their departure, recording the Buddy Holly Convention EP before they leave. "It was a strange reaction to the success we'd been having," says Lawrence. "The band was moving faster, touring to exotic ports around the world - like Glace Bay - and they couldn't really stand the heat. Beez essentially had a nervous breakdown." He would return in '98, after the band completed another European tour with a new rhythm section. "When it came to our 10th anniversary, Beez couldn't stand being anonymous. One of the biggest things for him would be when he'd walk down the street, and people would recognise him as the guy from the Smugglers, and it killed him to say, 'Actually, I'm not in that band anymore.' We welcomed him back with loving arms." Dunn now plays in a local, non-touring band in Vancouver called the Come-Ons.
The Smugglers encounter the rock'n'roll animal Danko Jones in an incident they will commemorate in the song "Danko Jones' Pants" from Rosie . "When we first met him, we thought, 'Who the fuck is this pimp ?'" laughs Lawrence. "At that time he was still spilling milk over himself and lap it with his tongue - totally over-the-top, posing, strutting. Then we ended up with his beautiful, absolutely crisp hot pants, oh man! There was a mess of suits at the back of the Horseshoe after a show with him and Duotang, and everybody's stuff got loaded into the different vans. Our next show was in Detroit, and we found these pants, and they were glowing, like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction . Slowly but surely, each Smuggler had to wear them, and our confidence levels shot through the roof, strutting around the clubs. I don't think Danko wants to know this, but I think we all got action in those pants. We took them to the dry cleaners, got all the cigarette burns and 'Clintons' off of it and now they're back in his possession." The band also celebrates tenth anniversary with live album recorded in Spain.
Hook up with teen sensations and Lookout label-mates the Donnas for an American tour, in which they discover that their old, married asses don't have the goods like they used to. "We tried in vain to sex up the Donnas with the Smugglers' charm, which did not work," reveals Lawrence. "They can get any action they want, anytime. We were staying in two motel rooms side by side, and we said, 'OK guys, let's show these Donnas what these Smugglers are made of.' So we called them and said, 'Hey Donnas, why don't you come over? I Know What You Did Last Summer is on, why don't we watch this great teen thriller?' They're like 'Uh, OK.' So we all stripped naked and got in the bed with the sheets down to our waist. They come in, stop, and started screaming at the top of their lungs: 'You bastards!' They threw whatever they had in their hands at us, ran out the door and down the hall screaming. The hotel manager comes over to see what the hell is going on, and finds five naked guys desperately trying to put on their clothes. It was very embarrassing." Egos in check, relations soon repaired and the two bands will be touring together again in 2000.
Rosie is released in February, their strongest full-length record to date. Like the previous two Smugglers releases, it's produced by the Fastbacks' Kurt Bloch, whom Lawrence credits with inspiring the band's longevity. "About six or seven years ago I hit a rare low point and was very close to breaking up the Smugglers, until I sat down in a bar with Kurt, who made a very inspirational speech about how important it is for a band to stay together, whether it means something to a million or a hundred fans. He also reminded me how lucky we were to be in band that some people actually liked, wanted to see, and sought the records of. With his band the Fastbacks being such a great example, he inspired me and the rest of the band to stick with it and be thankful for what we have - key word 'have' not 'had'!"