There’s no shortage of ammunition for the argument that Little Guitar Army ranks as one of the most entertaining squads operating on the frontline of the Vancouver music scene.
The brilliance starts with the fact that no one can accuse the group of false advertising, which is more than—God love them—the Subhumans, Dayglo Abortions, or Alcoholic White Trash can say. Living up to its name, LGA is indeed more of an army than a band, with a platoon of 11 members—including seven six-string warriors—taking the stage for its vaunted live spectacles. Further living up to its name, the group also plays little guitars—miniature replicas of Fender Stratocasters, Gibson Explorers, Flying Vs, and SGs, each lovingly handmade by band founder and leader Cal Thompson.
As cool as all that is, there’s more. Forget T-shirts and jeans, Little Guitar Army has twigged into what Angus Young, KISS, and GWAR realized long ago, namely that, in rock ’n’ roll, it’s important to dress to impress. This goes a long way toward explaining why LGA co-lead singer Linda Stang hits the stage looking like a Vargas girl decked out in the height of World War II military fashion. And why other members of the band sport uniforms that range from General George Patton chic to private-school cool.
None of this, of course, would really work if Little Guitar Army didn’t deliver where it counts most: with the music. As the band’s nitro-powered debut, 30 Watts to Freedom, proves, no one can question LGA’s ability to kick out the jams, and not just because the record includes a smoking-amps cover of the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams”.
But it’s Little Guitar Army’s proud enlistees who understand best why the group is poised, after four years of flying under the radar, to launch a full-scale attack on Vancouver. The sun has only been up for a couple of hours when the Georgia Straight meets Thompson, Stang, guitarist Sonny Dean, and raspy-voiced singer Bertman in the living room of a smoky East Vancouver home occupied by the band’s manager. Perhaps predictably, all believe passionately in both the band and its explosive, coming-out-statement of an album.
But what really makes the group worth looking out for, suggests Bertman, is something more intangible. Forget plugging in and taking root on-stage: the members of Little Guitar Army have learned to treat every show like they are going to war. And that means being the kind of band that they would want to see if they were in the audience.
“It’s not about underselling it—it’s about volume and theatrics,” says Bertman, who sports thrashed white high-tops, a couple of barrels worth of tattoo ink, and a Mohawk that brings to mind a punk-rock Travis Bickle. “It’s about guys being crazy, guys being over the top. I don’t want to see someone doing a note-for-note perfect rendition without a drop of sweat on his forehead. I wanna see some crazy dude rolling around in broken glass.”
And in case that message isn’t entirely clear, Dean—who, awesomely, looks like a cross between Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and a Sasquatch—sums up the appeal of Little Guitar Army just a little more succinctly: “Intensity,” he says. “I think that Cal is after maximum intensity.”
Professional woodworker by day, and one-man manufacturer of quarter-scale guitars by night, Cal Thompson is the kind of guy who looks good for his age. It’s only when the Vancouver music scene veteran talks about his original vision for Little Guitar Army that you get a sense of how long he’s been living and breathing rock ’n ’roll.
“It’s a conglomerate of all the over-the-edge things I learned growing up when rock was king,” says Thompson, who on this day sports a worn fedora, sensible work boots, and an attitude that suggests he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. “The magnitude of everything. When I was a kid watching these huge coliseum shows, these big arena shows, the world was an enormous place and everything was possible. It was spectacle—in everything.”
The axeman, who is also known as Little Black Wings, put together the first edition of Little Guitar Army in 2007, but in many ways he started laying the groundwork for the band a decade ago. Back then he was working as a luthier with notable Vancouver guitar maker Jean Larrivée. At the end of each shift, he realized a lot of wood was being thrown in the trash each day.
“Everything that he [Larrivée] would have as an off-cut, I would put in my backpack and haul home on the SeaBus,” Thompson says. “I would design these guitars basically around everything that was being thrown away.”
His first little guitar took about a week to get from brilliant idea to finished product. “That was years and years and years ago,” Thompson notes. “Ever since then, I don’t even own a full-sized guitar. I own about 60 guitars, and none of them are full-sized.”
Bertman notes that these small-scale axes are jokingly referred to as bonsai guitars by LGA, which also includes drummer Craig McKimm, bassist Rich Hopkins, and guitarists Markus Lander, Nick Venditti, Frank “Chopper” Sivertz, Chad Winquist, and Tony Bardach. Dean acknowledges that playing Thompson’s mini-axes requires some getting used to.
“The tension is a little more intense, and the tuning is a little different,” he says. “We tune to C sharp. Black Sabbath is in C-sharp. I wanted to play along with some Sabbath and realized we’re one octave higher. I was like ”˜This is a piccolo guitar—a soprano guitar—and I love it.”
Little Guitar Army would go through various incarnations before the current lineup jelled. Bertman—whose birth certificate reads Roberto Fernando Canete—grew up on the Prairies worshipping the likes of Judas Priest before moving to Vancouver. A punk-band veteran, he started out as a major fanboy of LGA before signing on for vocal duties.
“A bunch of my friends were already in the band, and I’d seen shows where watching them do sound checks alone was worth the price of admission,” Bertman says. “I just thought it was so crazy and over the top. So I hung out at a couple of jams and just listened to them. When I heard that their first singer was gone, I phoned up Cal to throw my hat in the ring. We’ve never looked back.”
Coming on like the Andrews Sisters possessed by Nancy Spungen, Stang is responsible for a good part of the band’s live-wire visual wallop. Funnily, she’d never thought about pursuing music before joining Little Guitar Army. A Vancouver Film School grad, she was working in the film industry while doing photography on the side. After meeting the group at a show, she was asked to try out.
“I wanted to help out with photography and videography,” she says. “I wanted to be in their media department. I ended up being their lead singer.”
Working both behind and in front of the camera would prove invaluable for Stang. “With my background in film, I’d been acting and hosting television for 10 years,” she says. “People would say to me ”˜You’ve been acting in film, why don’t you try theatre?’ I was always like, ”˜No,’ but, now, this is a form of theatre—it’s acting. I was able to step right in because of my background.”
As for his part, Thompson knew that he was onto something once Bertman and Stang came onboard and solidified the lineup.
“I had this idea that it would be a huge, monstrous orchestra right from the beginning,” he says of LGA. “But it’s not easy to do. It’s sort of like herding cats. You’ve got 11 people drinking beer, trying to tune up these tough little instruments. And we have some pretty strong personalities and opinions. So it took a while to get it into full swing, but now it’s running pretty much the way I envisioned.”
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still hiccups. Take, for example, the business of getting 30 Watts to Freedom into finer independent record stores, which finally happens this Thursday (June 9). Little Guitar Army completed and then scrapped a first version of the album.
“Our engineer and coproducer Adam Payne had never done anything of this magnitude before,” Thompson notes. “We sat down and listened to the record the first time, and he thought that he could do it so much better. It was the right decision to make.”
Part of what Little Guitar Army learned is that, sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing.
“There was 36 lead guitar tracks—on one song alone,” Dean says with a laugh.
The final version of 30 Watts to Freedom is a more streamlined affair, which does nothing to diminish the brute power of tracks like “Shotgun Fishing” and “The Jack Pike”. Asked to list off the concerts that helped make them who they are today, the members of LGA cite some of the most iconic acts in rock. Dean caught Guns N’ Roses when they were still hungry and on the way up, and Thompson remembers having his life changed after seeing the Bon Scott–led edition of AC/DC open for Aerosmith in 1979. Bertman had his mind blown after making a pilgrimage to see Judas Priest on the Defenders of the Faith tour in Regina at age 15. The shadow of all those acts looms large over 30 Watts to Freedom, not always sonically, but more in a way that Little Guitar Army somehow comes off as larger than life.
There’s also an unrelenting, take-no-prisoners streak to the unit which reflects the band’s undying respect for the loud-and-vicious likes of Motí¶rhead, the Ramones, and MC5. If you can get through “30 Watts to Freedom” or “Can’t Fix Stupid” without hauling out the rusty razorblades and speed and then punching holes in every wall in the house, take a well-deserved bow.
Little Guitar Army’s greatest accomplishment, however, is that there’s nothing shticky about the band, despite its being built around a concept that sounds too cute for its own good.
“I’ve always been that guy who hates gimmick bands,” Bertman says, “and we have uniforms and tiny little guitars and there’s 11 of us. But it rocks balls-out. We all believes in Cal’s vision, and the shows are just so fun. I say this, after a lifetime of playing music, that these are some pretty fucking wild and crazy shows. That makes people come onboard. It’s like you don’t want to miss it—to hear all the stories later on about how insane it all was.”
And “insane”, acknowledges Thompson, is as good a description as any for LGA’s live performances. “I kind of modelled our show after a movie I saw called Dog Day Afternoon,” he says. “It’s a takedown bank-robbery movie. If we play a small enough place where I’m not going to fall off the stage and kill myself, we go into the audience and get into the face of the audience. If they are going to sit around looking at their shoes or tapping their toes, well then, it’s like ”˜Fuck you. Deal with this.’ It’s sort of like a rock ’n’ roll lap dance. We’re going to be on the tables and sweating on you.”.
And with that, he serves notice that, with apologies to the American military posters of wars gone past, the members of Little Guitar Army want you, even if they have to drag you into the trenches with them. Civilians of Vancouver, you have been warned.