Kings of the Party
"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."
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