By Brad Lopez
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After leaving Dag Nasty to spend a year in Israel studying political science, Smalley returned to the States in 1988 to join the first lineup of All, a group formed from the ashes of the legendary Descendents. Now based in Fort Collins, All and the resurrected Descendents are both still active, playing their own geeky, articulate brands of pop-punk. Smalley quit the band after a year, however, because "the guys in All are like superheroes, in the sense that they do insanely great amounts of touring," he says. "I was just such a wimp; I couldn't do it." Smalley settled down, enrolled in grad school, and picked up the guitar as a way to work out songs by himself without the pressure of a group situation. But in 1990, he took a batch of his new stuff to his friends in the band Chemical People; the result was Down by Law.
"That was the first time I'd ever played guitar in a band," Smalley recalls. "I was so not used to standing up and playing guitar live that I would shred the skin off my fingers. There'd be blood literally dripping off my guitar."
Down by Law quickly signed to the burgeoning Epitaph label and released tons of records during the height of the '90s pop-punk explosion. And while the group's approach gelled perfectly with the sounds of the day, Down by Law always had an edge of earnestness and sincerity that made the ironic sneering of its peers seem phony and lame. Even the band's occasional love songs were funny, tender and saccharine-free. But throughout all the hooks and harmonies, Smalley's lyrics pretty much stuck to the political -- both global and personal. On "All American," a track off of DBL's 1996 masterpiece All Scratched Up, Smalley sings like a cheery drill sergeant: "Combat boots and a scratched up record/Signed by a hero of long ago/A pair of vans and some torn up blue jeans/This is his world; that's what he knows/He's gonna find a girl who thinks like he does/Gonna grow older but never old."
Besides Down by Law, Smalley has kept busy with his day job: "When I'm not doing this crazy touring stuff, I'm working at a newspaper; I'm an editor," he says. "I put out two sections a week of the paper that are entirely written by high school students, which is a great, great experience." He also recently began playing solo acoustic shows, doing his own songs as well as renditions of the Jam, the Who and "a lot of Irish ballads and drinking songs." His love of vintage mod music, however, doesn't stop there; in 2001 Smalley released an album with his new combo, the Sharpshooters, a full-on mod-revival band. He also regrouped with Brian Baker -- on loan from his current group, Bad Religion -- to record last year's Minority of One, the second Dag Nasty reunion album after 1992's lackluster Four on the Floor. Though in no way attaining the sheer, transcendent force of Can I Say, Minority of One is a worthy heir, buzzing with urgency and melody. Plus, the hidden bonus track is a mean cover of Generation X's "One Hundred Punks."
"Generation X, Elvis Costello, XTC, the Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers -- they just have great melodies that hit you beautifully. You never forget them. There are a lot of universal themes in that early punk scene," says Smalley of his retro proclivities. "We were talking about Fugazi being experimental, which they certainly are, but I think they were heavily influenced by Gang of Four -- which is great; there's nothing wrong with that. It's normal and natural to have musical heroes, absolutely.
"I think that everybody is pretty influenced by their main era of musical learning," he elaborates. "It's not really a conscious decision to keep that flame alive, but it's definitely a part of who I am. I think it's important for every generation to keep its torch lit."
Now touring the U.S. for the first time in five years, Down by Law -- whose current roster includes Smalley, guitarist Sam Williams, bassist Keith Davies and drummer Milo Todesco -- is supporting its seventh album, Windwardtidesandwaywardsails. After the mod and new-wave inflection that characterized the group's recent albums, Last of the Sharpshootersand Fly the Flag, Windwardtidesis a revamping of everything that made Down by Law great in the first place: Punk, skate rock and pure pop collide in a jolting, bracing shot of anthemic energy. "Turn off the TV/Get up on your feet/Make some noise in your head and on the street," Smalley commands on the new song "Kickdown." This is especially good advice if you happen to be watching MTV, infested as it is with pale, empty echoes of the pop-punk sound that Dag Nasty and Down by Law helped pioneer. It's enough to make a lesser man resentful, but not Smalley.
"There are some bitter, grouchy, thirty-something guys who might say, 'That's uncool' or 'Other people who paved the way for these bands should be as rich.' Blah, blah, blah. 'Success' is such a relative term anyway," Smalley reasons. "If you want to measure things in terms of monetary success, then, yeah, you could say Good Charlotte is more important than Minor Threat. But would anyone say that, really?