Growing up in a small town can make connecting with music all the more special. While brothers Ryan and Aaron Crane didn't come of age in a small town per se (Charlottetown's population tops 32,000), you'd be hard pressed to find a more endearing introduction to indie-rock on the island.
"It's a typical big brother hand-me-down record collection to the little brother. I remember when [Aaron] was 10 years old, in the summertime his friends would be outside playing baseball and he'd be home in his bedroom listening to Slanted and Enchanted by Pavement or a Belle and Sebastian record," says Ryan Crane in describing how he educated his younger brother.
Typical? Hardly. Fate? As one looks back on Smothered in Hugs' 2008, it seems certain the Crane brothers were predestined to catch the music bug.
Named by the younger Crane in 2002---after a Guided By Voices song---Smothered in Hugs have gained some serious attention this year within the Canadian music scene. They performed at North By Northeast and Pop Montreal, opened gigs in southern Ontario for Holy Fuck and released their first full-length, The Healing Power of Injury.
Wild to consider all this has come from a band whose lead singer was once unsure if he'd get a chance to pursue his primordial passion.
"I was hanging around Charlottetown [in 2002], and I really wanted to play music. I grew up loving music and idolizing all sorts of bands. It seemed like something I really wanted to do, but I couldn't find anyone I was comfortable forming a band with. As soon as my brother came out of the woodwork and said he wanted to do this...it seemed like something we could do, and it seemed like it could be fun."
Onwards they went, and with the addition in 2005 of cousin Todd MacLean on guitar alongside Ryan, Aaron on drums and the younger Crane's high school chum Josh Byrne on bass, Smothered in Hugs got serious. (Guitarist/keyboardist Andrew Murray joined late last year.)
The new album shares similarities with the ramshackle indie-rock stylings of Guided By Voices, largely due to big-time hooks and huge choruses. Comparisons made by other media to The Replacements seem even more apt. Ryan's vocals have a Paul Westerberg-esque combination of urgency and weariness, and coupled with the aforementioned melodicism of Smothered in Hugs' songs it wouldn't be hard to imagine some of their tracks fitting in on a mid-career Replacements classic like Tim.
Their propensity for big hooks and fun rockin' seems to come naturally for a lot of the island bands who've attracted attention beyond Confederation Bridge. Along with Two Hours Traffic, The Danks and Boxer the Horse, Smothered in Hugs are now one of several island indie bands creating a buzz.
"We're all really good friends with one another," Ryan says when asked about his fellow PEI rockers. "We party together, we hang out together, we go to lunch together, we drive around in cars and listen to music together and we give each other advice."
Does that advice ever revolve around the idea of relocating to a place with a larger, more renowned music scene, such as the ever-cosmopolitan supercity of Toronto?
"I don't think it matters as much where you're from anymore as far as geography---if you're willing to tour. With the internet and blogs and online publications you don't have to live in a particular town and actually buy a hardcopy of a magazine or journal, you can just get on the internet."
In fact, Ryan sees a lot of upside to sticking things out in Charlottetown. With less competition for the attention of audiences, they're given more opportunity to continually refine their craft. "You're not lost in a big swamp with other bands where you'll have trouble getting gigs. If you play a lot of shows and work hard you can develop a pretty strong following in your hometown."
With a national release of the album planned for next month and an upcoming spring tour, Smothered in Hugs hope the rest of the country will embrace them much like Charlottetown has.
Collagen Rock Weekend: Smothered in Hugs w/Mardeen and Boxer the Horse, Friday, January 9 at the Seahorse, 1665 Argyle, $10, 423-7200. Two Hours Traffic w/The Danks and The Death Avengers, Saturday, January 10 at the Seahorse, $10.