After eight long years, Marshall, Michigan emo-core band Small Brown Bike is back with a new album, Fell & Found, and a reunion tour. It just wrapped up recording with legendary producer/engineer J. Robbins, whose catalog includes work for bands like The Dismemberment Plan, The Promise Ring, Against Me!, and Braid’s latest EP. Small Brown Bike’s current tour includes a stop at Subterranean on May 14.
The A.V. Club caught up with the band’s bassist Ben Reed, who’s currently working at Chicago ad agency Plan B as a senior art director, to talk about Small Brown Bike’s reunion, the new album, Chicago show memories, and what he thinks about A.V. Club commenters who took exception with the band’s name.
The A.V. Club: You have a reunion tour and a new album out. What inspired you guys to do this now after being broken up for years?
Ben Reed: Well, there was one other time about three years after we had been broken up where we got back together for about four shows to raise money for a friend of ours, and it was a lot of fun. Then we got back together about three years later for a festival, so I don’t know. It seemed like the right time, and we had all moved on and tried new things. It just sounded like fun, that’s all. All the stress about it was gone.
AVC: Well, why’d you break up in the first place? Do you think it was stress?
BR: Everyone had their own reasons, but I think everyone wanted to try new things, because the band had been our lives for a long time. I finished school, and everyone tried playing different music. We had been stuck in between being a band that could really support ourselves with our music and just doing it for fun; so we spent all of our time doing it, but we really weren’t making off doing it. After touring, we would come home and scramble to find a job and make some money before the next tour. It was just a tough middle ground to exist in.
AVC: You did tours all over the country?
BR: Yeah, we did the U.S. like crazy and played a lot of shows in Canada. We had a Canadian label that put out our albums, and they were awesome to work with. We never made it to Europe. We were close a couple times and had some tours scheduled, but things fell apart for one reason or another.
AVC: Do you see this current reunion as a permanent thing for Small Brown Bike?
BR: More or less, yeah. I don’t think we’ll ever be as active as we were. Well, I’m positive we won’t be. But, I don’t think we’ll ever get to that point where we feel like we have to split up and do something else. I mean, you might not hear from us for a year, but then we might just release an album.
AVC: For this reunion, would you say you have aspirations as high as you did a decade ago?
BR: No, not at all. It’s just for fun, and we’re just lucky to get together and make a record with J. Robbins. It’s awesome that we can get back together and do that. It’s just been fun without stress involved.
AVC: We’ve seen quite a trend recently of Midwestern emo-core bands getting back together. Why do you think that is, and would you include Small Brown Bike in that trend?
BR: [Laughs.] I suppose. It’s not like we all talked to each other and decided that we do it. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the certain amount of time it’s been. Maybe it’s a mid-30s crisis for everybody. [Laughs.] It’s just a funny coincidence that everyone decided to give it a try again. I don’t know what everyone else’s intentions are, or if the other bands want to make it a full-time thing again, or if it’s like us, and they’re just playing a few shows here and there for fun.
AVC: Fell & Found is your first album in eight years. When making this album, did you feel Small Brown Bike picked up where it left off?
BR: Well, the interesting thing about this record is that it’s the first time the original lineup has recorded together since ’99 for our very first album. That was the last time the original lineup was together until now, so we definitely couldn’t really pick up where we left off. But to me, the album makes total sense because I’ve seen what everyone else in the band has done since then. To me, it sounds just like the projects Mike and Dan have been doing, what Travis has been doing, and what I’ve been doing. I would say that coming back together is maybe a return to our earlier stuff. But I see it as an evolution for sure. I guess it was just easy, you know? We just did what came naturally to us, and we didn’t feel the need to force anything or make it mean anything. I think we definitely had those voices in our heads for a few releases, where we felt some pressure to follow up what we had done previously or be different than what we had done previously. This time around, it was whatever came naturally.
AVC: How would you characterize how this album fits with the rest of Small Brown Bike’s discography?
BR: I like to look at all of our albums as a snapshot of a certain period of times in our lives. There are certain aspects of this album that are simpler than things we were doing before. There’s a straightforwardness that’s based in simply finding a good melody and harmony. I don’t write the lyrics, but I know they’ve changed quite a bit. They’re just a reflection of life and being different people than we were at 18 or 19 years old as we were starting this band. That’s definitely something I’m proud of: that I don’t cringe when I listen to old music we made. I just think, “Oh, that’s me as a teenager.” If it wasn’t me, I might not pop in those old albums today, because musically, it’s not my style. But I feel so happy about everything we’ve recorded in the past, and that’s how I’ll look at this new album in 10 years. Like, “Oh, I remember those times. They were great.”
AVC: How did your old record label, No Idea, react when you said that you wanted to release your new album with it?
BR: Oh, they were really receptive to it. Even when we went to Lookout! for the last album [2003’s The River Bed], No Idea did the vinyl pressing, and we had our Canadian label, Small Man, release it up there. But yeah, we’ve always had a great relationship with No Idea. We’ve played their festival (“The Fest”) a couple of times, as have other bands we’ve been in. I mean, we’re like, “Hey, we want to make an album,” and they’re like, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
AVC: Was there a monetary concern about a band that had been broken up so long suddenly asking No Idea to finance its new album?
BR: I mean, I’m sure they’d love it if this album was profitable and they could make some money to keep doing what they’re doing. But they know us, and they’re not the kind of label to push us to do anything we’re not comfortable with. All I care is that there are enough people around to like the new album, buy it, and let us do it again.
AVC: What was recording the album like with you living in Chicago and the rest of the band still living in Michigan?
BR: Well, the hard part is preparing for shows, because I have to go back every once in a while or we don’t really have much of a chance to practice. For the record, I would go back to Michigan for weekends here and there, but for a lot of it, they would send me demos which I would write stuff for. We would later come together and practice and work on things a bit more, but a lot of it was Garage Band.
AVC: Do you think the distance and lack of practice time will affect these shows at all?
BR: I’m not worried about it; I think it will be good. In my opinion, the thing that makes a band tight is recording. In the studio, we played these new songs through over and over, processed them, and tweaked every part. So when we play live, it’s like we’ve already done it a million times.
AVC: Your very last show before the breakup was in Chicago at the Fireside Bowl. Your mini-reunions have been at Subterranean, and you’re upcoming show is there. Has Chicago become a second home of sorts?
BR: Yeah, it definitely is. Obviously, it’s that way for me especially. Detroit and Chicago were the two big cities closest to us as we were growing up. We’ve always had a ton of friends here, and we’ve always had great shows here, probably because we spent more time building up a following in Chicago. Even before we were doing national tours, we would come down here for the weekend, so somehow it just became our adopted hometown.
AVC: Were there any Chicago shows that really stood out for you?
BR: Oh yeah, there were a lot of great shows in Chicago. Those last shows at the Fireside were amazing, and it was a shock to see how many people came out. Other than that, we played some very early shows with Alkaline Trio that were really fun. That was when we were just coming to Chicago for weekend shows. I feel like we always played some of our best shows here with other Michigan bands that were touring, too.
AVC: You’ve mentioned before that you used to classify Small Brown Bike as an “opening band.” What are some great opening slots you remember playing?
BR: Well, we opened for Hot Water Music like a million times, and they took us on our first big national tour. That was a pretty amazing experience, considering it was our first tour ever. We played a lot with Cursive, including their The Ugly Organ CD release tour. We also did a tour for their earlier album, Domestica. We did a huge tour with Sparta and Cave In. Those tours were just awesome, because there was nothing to worry about. You just knew those shows would be great.
AVC: So, your new album streamed on The A.V. Club website. You got some pretty interesting comments regarding your band name. Any words for those commenters who might be hating on Small Brown Bike?
BR: [Laughs.] I don’t really care, but do I have any words? Shit, we were 18. Cut us some slack.