Ever since I learned of Grant Lawrence‘s third book, Dirty Windshields (Douglas & McIntyre, 2017), which offers readers a sort of behind-the-scenes look at The Smugglers, I have been eagerly awaiting its release, and finally had the opportunity to read it this past spring. A couple of weeks ago, I had opportunity to speak with Grant about his engaging new book. Read on to see what he had to say about his inspiration for this, his latest book, touring with the band, and much, much more.
Andrew DeCanniere (AD): To begin at the beginning, what was the origin for this particular book? How did you come up with the idea to write about your time touring with The Smugglers?
Grant Lawrence (GL): As usual, it wasn’t my idea. As you see in the book, I had been keeping tour diaries for a very long time — ever since the first Smugglers gig. Even before that, in our first band, The One-Eyed Jacks, I kept a diary. So, I’ve always had these entries, and I wrote them constantly throughout my time in the band, and then once I started putting them online some fans started to notice them and were getting into them. Then I had a music journalist friend who suggested that I write a book about the band, based on the diaries, and that was about twenty years ago. So, that’s what sort of put the first little kernel of an idea into my brain — this idea that these diaries could actually be a book. So, I always had that kind of percolating in my head, but the band was still active and I didn’t want to write a book when the band was still active.
When we finally stopped playing regularly, in 2004, I thought I would write about it, but we kind of stumbled to a finish and I was a bit sick of it all. I was sick of clubs and of the smell of urinal pucks and cigarettes and vans. I was burnt out on all of it. When I sat down to compile the tour diaries, I just wasn’t into it and ended up writing my first book [Adventures in Solitude] about something completely different — about the wilderness escape where my cabin is located, in Desolation Sound, BC. That was about as far away from the rock ’n’ roll story as I could get. That was just kind of my path to get to the rock ’n’ roll book. I’d probably stopped and started on the Smugglers book about three or four times over the past 12 years. I can’t believe it’s been that long, so I’m happy to finally get it out.
AD: And I think it should be a really interesting read — particularly for those looking for that sort of insider’s perspective. I know that I certainly found it interesting and entertaining.
GL: Yeah. You know, I mean the funny thing about our band is that we never had a hit. In rock ’n’ roll you’re remembered for your hits. I guess some bands are remembered for their live shows. I think bands like Nation of Ulysses will always be remembered for their live show, and Seaweed and the New Bomb Turks. They’re really, really great bands. But, you know, we never had that lasting hit, and in music that’s what really sustains you, because that’s what continues to be played on the radio for years and years after you finish. The Ramones actually had hits. Their music lives on on the radio. Radio still plays The Ramones. It’s funny, but I don’t think that radio played The Ramones when they actually were a band, but now you can turn on the radio and you can hear Ramones songs. So, that’s what sustains and we didn’t have that, and so this is a story of a band that never really broke through, that always remained kind of DIY, that always remained underground and always remained in a van. We never graduated to a tour bus or anything like that. We graduated to airplanes, but once we landed we were always straight back into vans, whether it be in Japan or Europe, we’d always have this beautiful jet to get us there, but then we were straight back into a little crowded van. So, that’s what this story is about. It’s about the survival of an independent band on the road for 17 years.
AD: You also talk a bit about how you seemed to feel as though the band really fell in-between movements, or in-between periods.
GL: We were. We were in-between movements. When we formed, the punk and new wave wave had kind of died out in the late eighties. The late eighties was kind of this dead zone for music in many ways, because it was in-between punk and grunge, essentially. So, that was where we formed — in this dead zone for music. The mid-eighties were pretty exciting. The late seventies were certainly exciting. The early eighties were exciting and the mid-eighties were cool. Then, in the late eighties, things kind of ground out, but it was percolating. Mudhoney’s first single Touch Me I’m Sick came out in ’88, and I think Nirvana’s Bleach came out in ’89 or ’90, so things were percolating. Then, by 1991, things totally exploded with grunge — not only with the Mudhoney records, but also with the Sub-Pop label and, of course, the biggest band in the world at the time, Nirvana, with Nevermind coming out in the fall of 1991.
It’s funny, but there are a couple of bands in the history of music where it’s kind of like — not to make a biblical allusion, but you know how there’s the time Before Christ and then A.D., the way we sort of measure time in our Christian calendar? I don’t know why I’m making these references, because I’m not religious in any way, but it’s just a way of measuring time. We say ‘500 B.C.’ or ‘500 A.D.’ and, in rock ’n’ roll, there were a couple of pivotal moments.
There was the time before The Beatles, and then there was the time after The Beatles. For us, it was kind of like there was the time before Nirvana, and then there was the time after Nirvana. It can’t be overstated that Nirvana just changed everything, because Nirvana made alternative music and punk music acceptable. There was a big trickle-down effect. Before Nirvana came along, we were in the bar band circuit, and we were expected to play three sets of 45 minutes or an hour each. It was absolutely brutal. Then, when Nirvana came along, they had the power to say ‘F—k that. We play for an hour. That’s the set. There’s no first set. There’s no second set. There’s one set and it’s an hour and that’s all you get.’ That was amazing for us, because we were like ‘Okay, finally.’ We only had a really short set, and so to be put into a situation where we had to play three of them was completely and brutally painful. Anyway, that’s the importance of Nirvana, not only on the Smugglers but on the entire world of music.
AD: As far as the formation of the band itself, goes, you say it was kind of as a result of watching others perform — specifically, as the result of watching a Gruesomes performance — where you sort of had this ‘aha moment’ and realized you can do something of the sort yourselves.
GL: I think that’s a universal moment most musicians go through. I think the biggest ‘aha moment’ in the history of rock ’n’ roll was when The Beatles played on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. That essentially started a massive movement of garage bands in North America. Some of them became big, and some of them not so much, but those guys playing on Ed Sullivan just changed the world of rock ’n’ roll in North America. I think that’s the biggest example, but I think that for all musicians — we’ve all seen someone that has inspired us to do what we do. It’s just the way the world works. When an astronaut visits a little kid’s school, one of those kids says ‘That’s what I’m going to be.’ That’s just how it works, but it really wasn’t until I saw The Gruesomes play that I thought ‘I think this is possible. I think we could actually do this. I think we could pull this off an have our own band.’ That was the moment. I think a big part of it was just being up close. It was a club and the stage was maybe about three feet high, so we could get right up close. I could touch the lead singer if I wanted to. The sweat from his chin was dripping onto me. I think those visceral, tangible experiences, being so close to blaring rock ’n’ roll, was what really put me over the edge. It’s funny, because I thought I was going to have a career in film and movies — writing screenplays, maybe acting — but that gig took me on a completely different artistic path.
AD: It really seems to have driven home the point that it’s more doable than you may have thought.
GL: I think so. It just seemed possible. It seemed that if they could drive around in a van and do this, we should be able to do it, too. So we did. We were pretty much on our way soon after that. It didn’t take much longer.
AD: And I think that much like in every job, regardless of what you do or how old you may be or any of that, there was something of a learning curve. I mean, maybe at first you are on the outside looking in — more of a spectator — and then when you actually get involved, there are things that may come up that you may not have anticipated when you were just kind of looking on. For instance, it seems like there was a bit of a learning curve for you guys when it came to trying to get into shows — to be a part of them — or to promote the band.
GL: Oh yeah. There were a million details to take care of, but it’s kind of like the cliché, ‘fake it till you make it.’ That’s definitely what the Smugglers did for years. I’m pretty sure Touch Me I’m Sick was Mudhoney’s debut single and it was instantly good and totally classic. The Muffs are another example. Their first album was just amazing. When we started, we sucked. We were really bad and didn’t get good for several years. We weren’t good until — I don’t know, we didn’t get to be a good band until maybe three or four years into it or something. Luckily, we were pretty good by the time we put out our first album, a very, very limited edition 10-inch on Nardwuar Records called At Marineland and it’s alright. We really didn’t hit our stride until about 1994 or ’95. We had been a band for eight years by then, and our most popular record, Selling the Sizzle, came out in 1996. We formed in ’88. So, it took us that long to be good and, basically, to be popular. You know what I mean?
AD: And I guess some of it really does come down to experience, I suppose, too. At least, so it seems.
GL: I think so. You’re right. Those people in The Muffs and Mudhoney were in bands prior to forming those bands. We just came in kind of green. We didn’t exactly have the experience, so that’s a really good point.
AD: And I sort of feel that whether it’s acting or music or writing or whatever you may be talking about, it just goes to show that this idea of the ‘overnight success’ is almost more of a myth than an actual thing. At any rate, it certainly is exceedingly rare.
GL: I agree. You know, anybody who has been called an ‘overnight success’ has usually been working on it for a long, long time. What people sometimes equate to overnight success in the music business is when an artist goes from being a relative unknown to a big star really quickly — usually because of a hit single or a hit song. So, they can seem like an ‘overnight success,’ but if you dig into their career, they’ve been toiling for a long time. Now, that’s not always the case. In our reality TV world, sometimes some of these artists that go on shows will become big stars, but I agree with you. The ‘overnight success’ story is usually a misnomer.
AD: I guess that really is a whole other discussion, but I also think that sites like YouTube and shows like American Idol or The Voice have certainly changed the landscape and maybe have democratized things a little more, especially compared to how things used to be. I think it may have been even harder to break into the business pre-YouTube and pre-American Idol or pre-The Voice and before all of those sorts of things. So, I guess there has also been a significant shift in the model.
GL: Yeah. There’ve been a lot of shifts in the model. That’s a good way of putting it. The Smugglers were one of the bands that overlapped the pre-Internet age and Internet age. When we started, the only means of communication was the telephone. I mean, people did write letters. I would get letters from The Gruesomes, and I would write to them. We’d write back to each other. Then, the fax machine came along in the late eighties or early nineties. That was very helpful and I used that all the time, because if the promoters weren’t answering the phone, I would send them a fax. Then, e-mail kind of changed everything. I think I got my first e-mail address around 1994. So, that changed a lot. Social media was the big one, and the Smugglers didn’t exist at all during the age of social media. Our reunion, which we’re doing right now, is the first time we’ve existed within the age of social media, so it’s constantly different. I have young bands reading the book now who are saying ‘How is it possible that you toured the U.S. so many times?’ or ‘How did you get signed to a great label like that?’ or ‘How did you play with all those bands that were so great?’ And it was mostly in the pre-Internet age. I look at these bands now and you have so many more tools at your disposal, but at the same time, we’re just flooded. There’s just so much easy access to music now, whereas I think that when we were a band, it was a little bit more exclusive. If you did want to get the record from the band, sometimes the only way was to go to the show. Now, you can do it any which way you want. You don’t even need to go to the show. You can hear the complete record for free many times — or at least full songs or whatever. That just didn’t exist at the time.
AD: I didn’t really think about it, but that’s sort of the irony of it. On the face of it, you have more tools and it looks like it might be easier to break through but then, as you say, because of this sort of onslaught of all of this music, conversely it might be at least just as hard as it was to break through then.
GL: I think so. There’s just more noise, right? It’s everywhere. On one side, in theory, it should be easier to promote yourself with the advent of social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all of that — but, on the flip side, there’s just so much more noise.
AD: I could see that.
GL: The other thing that exists now —which didn’t exist when we were playing as a band — are festivals. The only festivals we ever saw were in Europe — these huge, multi-band, multi-genre festivals. They were very specific for Europe. Then, that style of festival started crossing over into North America. At the tail end of the Smugglers we saw a little bit of it. We never took part. Now there are so many festivals in North America. They’re everywhere and are constantly competing with these crazy line-ups. So, that is something completely new and we’ve been invited to a couple in our reunion year, which is pretty exciting. We’re doing one called ‘The Ottawa Explosion’ in June. That’ll be our festival experience.
AD: Yeah. I know that here, in Chicago, there’s Lollapalooza. Obviously, that’s the big one around these parts. However, I know there also is Coachella out in California, and then there’s South by Southwest and North by Northeast, and then there’s Bonnaroo. There’s just a ton, as you say. I’m sure there are many I haven’t even mentioned.
GL: Yeah. It just goes on and on.
AD: When you set off on your first tour, it seems like parts of it made for a pretty harrowing experience — all of you cramped in this decrepit VW bus that is, to say the very least, ill-equipped for the weather.
GL: I think what we did was extremely risky. It was an adventure, and so when you’re young and dumb, you take risks like that. We were ignorant. What you’re referring to is the time we tackled the Rocky mountains in a really crappy VW van to get to a tiny Canadian prairie town, Regina. It was a hell of a lot of effort for a show nobody came to. It was extremely risky and we toured in that van for many years. I have kids of my own now, and I really hope they are smarter than I am when it comes to taking risks. You know, there’s risk in everything. There’s risk in walking out your door, but to live a life in a vehicle where you’re always moving, there’s a risk factor there. You’re putting yourself in a situation where anything could happen. Somebody could fall asleep at the wheel on the other side of the highway and cross the center line, and there’s nothing you can do about that except try and dodge them. When traveling at high speeds, that’s difficult. You’re trusting everybody in the van knows how to drive properly and that they’ll be safe at the wheel and all that kind of stuff. I consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have gotten through those 16 years on the road, touring constantly, without sustaining any injury. Luckily, it doesn’t happen that often, but there have been some horrific crashes and deaths in rock ’n’ roll in van touring.
I don’t think it’s in the book, but if I could bestow one kernel of advice to young bands now, it would be not to drive after the gig. Don’t try to drive to the next town after the gig. It’s extremely dangerous. The reasons are obvious. You’ve been awake all day long, you just played a gig — which is very tiring — and you may have had a couple of beers — which is also tiring — and so when you’re all in the van, and it’s dark outside and you’d usually be asleep, that’s when people can fall asleep at the wheel and disaster can strike.
AD: I have to say I was nervous for all of you, just reading about that whole experience. I couldn’t even imagine being in the Rockies in that position.
GL: Right, and it was in the middle of the night, too. So, it just took a lot of mental determination and physical stamina, which is what you have when you’re a teenager. It was crazy, but that’s just what we did in the early days. Then we got a really nice, comfortable, much safer, larger van. There were still harrowing times in that one as well. It’s not in the book, but I remember one time — I think it was late September — and there are a couple of really high mountain passes between Utah and Nevada. You’re sort of in the Rockies — it’s the Sierra Nevadas. There are a bunch of different mountain ranges around there. I remember we left the Salt Lake Valley, and it was really hot and sunny down there. So, we climbed and climbed through these mountains to get to Reno, and it was sunny and we were getting up in the mountain passes, and we noticed it was snowing. We were like ‘Snow in September? That’s really early.’ Then, we got up to around the summit and we experienced this crazy whiteout. It started snowing, but it was also sunny. We were just completely surrounded by this white light. We could only see white. We couldn’t see anything else, and we kept on driving. Shapes would emerge out of the side windows — trucks and vans that had wiped out in the ditch. It only lasted about 20 minutes, but it was absolutely terrifying. We didn’t want to stop because we were worried that someone would plow into us from behind. So, we kept rolling and luckily we got out of that one.
AD: Speaking of touring, I think it’s also safe to say there was a bit of culture shock from time-to-time when you toured internationally — even when you crossed into the U.S. from Canada.
GL: Yeah. Even going into different provinces — going into Saskatchewan for the first time was a culture shock, because geographically we had grown up on the West Coast, surrounded by mountains and oceans, and then Saskatchewan is totally 100 percent flat. Then, crossing into the United States, even though the border is only an hour away, when we crossed over it just seemed so different right away. In north Washington state — which, even though Washington is generally very liberal and Democratic — the very upper northwest pocket of the state is quite weirdly Republican. Vancouver is really multicultural and very Asian and just has this huge Asian influence. We just saw none of that when we crossed over into the States at all.
It was just sort of these rural communities that were a little bit different, but then there were lots of culture shocks everywhere. We spent a lot of time in the deep south and there were lots of culture shocks in the deep south. A lot of it had to do with racial relations down there. Then, of course, there were just these massive culture shocks going to places like Japan, where there’s just no English and everything is done differently. The only English that you actually see is the text on these big neon signs that say ‘Sony’ and ‘Hitachi’ and ‘Toyota’ and stuff like that, but that’s why you have to experience the world to understand that as much as people are different, people are the same.
That’s one of the great gifts we received as touring musicians, that we realize that music really is a universal language. One of the greatest experience we ever had as a band was when we went to Japan and didn’t know what to expect, and these Japanese people were in the front row, singing our songs. That was the most incredible sight — to travel to the other side of the planet, with a completely different language without latin roots, and just to hear them singing was totally mind-blowing. Even in Australia and Europe, there were culture shocks.
AD: What do you hope is the takeaway for someone who reads your book?
GL: I hope this book would appeal to anyone who has ever wanted to live out their dream, because it was a real dream of ours to have a band — to live it out and to just chase that dream. Whether it’s a road trip across the country or around the world or forming a band or doing whatever else, I hope the takeaway from the book is that it’s worth it to chase your dreams.
You may not realize your ultimate goals — in the case of the Smugglers, that would probably be having a hit single and living off the music for the rest of our lives and being as big as the Rolling Stones. That may not happen, but what you realize when it’s all over is that it’s the journey that is the real adventure. It’s getting to where you’re going that is the real fun. That’s where the memories are created. That’s the funny thing about music. You have 24 hours in a day, and in a band you’re on-stage for about an hour of those 24. So, there are 23 other hours you’re dealing with while you’re in a band, and there’s so much to experience in those 23 hours. So, that’s what I hope my book gets across.
Grant Lawrence is an award-winning author, CBC personality, singer, columnist, and live event host. His new book, Dirty Windshields is his third. His previous books are Adventures in Solitude (Harbour Publishing, 2010) and The Lonely End of the Rink (Douglas & McIntyre, 2013). At the CBC, Grant is known mostly for his work with the groundbreaking Radio 3 and the championing of Canadian independent music. Previously, he worked as an indie label publicist and concert promoter. Grant is the lead singer of the Smugglers and the goalie for the Flying Vees beer league hockey team. He is married to musician Jill Barber and they live in Vancouver, BC, with their two children. To find out more about Grant and his new book, log onto his website. You can also find him on Twitter and Instagram.
You can also find my 2011 interview with Grant Lawrence regarding his debut novel, Adventures in Solitude (Harbour Publishing, 2010), by clicking here, and my 2013 interview regarding his second book, The Lonely End of the Rink (Douglas & McIntyre, 2013), by clicking here.