May 13, 2004
by BOB DORAN
When I caught up with Small, he was somewhere near Magic Mountain, just outside of L.A., working as part of the art department for a crew shooting a TV commercial.
"I think it's for Taco Bell," he said, without much certainty. "They all kind of meld into one another, you know." He says it's a good job for a musician. "No one to account to, no big boss. It's always different and it's kind of cool."
But, he conceded, it's not the work that drew him to Hollywood.
"I came here to play music," he says with conviction, and the music he came to play was rock `n' roll.
Small grew up in Boise, Idaho. By the time he was a teenager he was putting together rock bands, first as a drummer, then, when he started writing songs, switching to guitar.
"Earlier it was covers," he recalled. "We'd play anything from the Kinks to the Rolling Stones to whatever happened to be cool in that time, Cheap Trick or whatever."
By the time he finished high school he was into his own thing, drawing influence from bands from Los Angeles like X, and particularly the Gun Club.
"The whole so-called cow-punk type thing was happening with bands like Tex and the Horseheads [and] all those bands that were on Slash Records. That's what I was into back in the day."
What did he find when he left Boise and showed up in Hollywood?
"It was like the Promised Land of music. I found exactly what I was looking for, all the bands that I loved. I moved into a building where a lot of them lived. I found some guys who were into what I was wanting to do, and -- there you go."
Small wasn't thinking about making it big, but his timing was not bad. It was toward the end of the '80s, major label A&R guys were looking around L.A. for the next Guns `n' Roses, and the Hangmen had that certain swagger in its hard-bitten mix of punk, blues and country.
"It was never our intention to be on a major label or anything," said Small. "We were just making up songs. But there were a few labels that were interested. I was shooting for being on Slash, but our manager at the time was Keith Morris from the Circle Jerks, and he thought that Capitol would be a good idea. It turned out not to be a good idea."
Why not? "They didn't know where to put us. They didn't understand what we were trying to do. So we got shoved into a certain thing that wasn't what the band was about."
The album titled The Hangmen did not really capture the gritty feel of the band's live act, and since it did not immediately capture the attention of the record-buying public, Capitol dropped the band.
Small kept going and before long had a deal with another major, Geffen. Things did not go any better, in part because Small had fallen prey to the down-and-dirty lifestyle he sang about.
"I was a drug addict, and most of the guys I was playing with at the time were also, so we didn't care one way or another what happened," he said candidly.
"We actually recorded a record [for Geffen], but it never came out because we were such disasters that the label was just fed up. And I didn't care either way at that point. So we parted ways."
The '90s were not exactly an easy time for Small, but he survived, and by the end of the decade he had cleaned up his act.
"I just got fed up with the way things were going. I stopped doing the things I was doing that were holding me back. I knew if I wanted to do music, for me personally, I knew I had to stop messing around with other shit."
The Hangmen came back strong in 2000 with Metallic I.O.U., a collection of kick-ass rock released on Acetate Records, an indie label based in Santa Monica. A live disc, We've Got Blood on the Toes of Our Boots, followed in '02. Another studio album, Loteria, just hit the streets in April. As with all the Hangmen records the music is primal -- straight to the point.
Says Small, "If I had any self-imposed rule it would be to keep it simple, but I come to that naturally. I don't think in terms of complicated drum patterns or song structures. It's just not what I do.
The Loteria title? "We wanted something that was pretty specific to Los Angeles, touching on the Mexican vibe that Los Angeles has. And the loteria cards themselves have images that go with the way I think of the city with the palm trees, the heart, cool images that I equate with Los Angeles.
"Lyrically it's just words that I like, images I'm drawn to, things from the darker side of life, and experience I've had with that. The themes of the songs are Los Angeles-driven -- they're about the place I live, where I've had my good times and bad times.
"I try to capture something of what L.A. means to me: mostly love, but also the hate side of it. I absolutely love living in L.A. but there's so much fucking wrong with it -- and that's kind of what makes it good, and interesting. L.A. is so extreme: extremely good and extremely bad, both at the same time."
He lives "right in Hollywood" in the heart of town. "For a lot of people it would seem like an insane place to live, but not for people who live there. I don't think it's insane at all, but if my parents came down to hang out with me at my apartment, I'm sure they'd just freak."
The Hangmen roll into Arcata Monday, May 17, for a 10:30 p.m. show at the Alibi with Que La Chinga opening. Admission is just $3. Proceeds benefit Humboldt Free Radio. See www. thehangmen.net for more on the band.
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.