The band Small Brown Bike, from Marshall, is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a January 29th concert at Bell's Eccentric Cafe. The band has certainly had staying power, but it's also had a winding road, too. The band had plenty of success in punk-rock circles, but after breaking up and reuniting, it hasn't been easy.
A punk band emerging from a small, historic town like Marshall may seem strange. But Small Brown Bike's singer, Mike Reed, says the local community was behind the band from day one.
"Fortunately, there was really a community of people here who were really into DIY, booking your shows. All kinds of bands would play these shows, not just punk or rock or metal. Our family members would help work the door. It was just a community. It wasn’t huge, but it was enough to say let’s get 100 people on a Friday night to the community center. It was new at the time, a little bit. But fortunately, there were enough people there.
"I feel like it was sort of a benefit, being in a town like this," says Ben Reed, Small Brown Bike's bass player. "We knew if we were going to get anywhere, we’d have to do it ourselves. I feel like if you grew up in a big city, you might think, someone might discover you. But we obviously knew that wasn’t really on our radar so if we were going to grow throughout Michigan or Chicago, we’d have to keep working and make direct contact with people."
All that work paid off when Small Brown Bike started getting bigger. They played in Lansing, then Detroit, then Chicago. It all came at the perfect time, too.
Mike Reed says Small Brown Bike was one of the earliest groups in a new wave of punk rock in the late 1990s. A lot of the music came from a record label called No Idea, which was home to some huge bands, such as Hot Water Music and Less Than Jake. So when Small Brown Bike signed with No Idea, it was a big deal.
"There was a new scene starting up," says Mike Reed. "And there was a festival in Wayne -- Michigan Fest -- where for two or three years in a row the bands were just getting bigger and bigger. Bands from everywhere. There was this energy around Michigan, and that was exciting."
For a few years, in certain circles, Small Brown Bike was hugely influential. But Reed says unlike a lot of bands, the members of Small Brown Bike never had any crazy dreams about stardom or world tours.
He says the band knew that playing music was just that – playing music. And once all the touring and recording stopped being fun, what was the point? So one night in 2004, after a particularly grueling tour, Ben Reed says the band finally called it quits.
"It was after just an especially exhausting tour, and we just sat down and talked about it. We all had our individual reasons. But the way I saw it, we were just at this middle ground, where we weren’t this wildly successful band, not making a living totally off doing it. And so we were just stuck in the middle, giving up life outside of the band in order to keep doing the band. And at that point it just wasn’t worth it anymore."
So the band stopped making music. But the members never stopped talking to one another. These were still four friends, including two brothers, and most of them still lived in Marshall.
A few years later they got together, picked up their instruments, and quickly, pieces fell back into place. What started as a jam session quickly turned into new ideas, new lyrics and new songs. In 2009, after six years away, Small Brown Bike released new music. In 2011, that turned into a new album, called “Fell and Found.”
And when the band went out on tour, something unexpected happened, too. After almost a decade ago, Small Brown Bike’s fans, perhaps driven by nostalgia, came out and filled up clubs once again.
"In the last year, we’ve flown to Austin and Montreal and Denver," says Ben Reed. "I can’t believe it’s still happening! That it’s still an option for us, for not tending to us for a long time. It’s like a house plant you haven’t watered in a decade, and it’s still blooming, bigger than it’s ever been!"
The band still plays some shows sparingly. But what really re-energized the band, says Mike Reed, is simply the role that music plays in their lives now. Instead of always touring and recording, Small Brown Bike is now just four old friends, hanging out, strumming guitars.
"And that’s how we’ve always been! We’ve been friends, built forts in elementary school. Built bikes in middle school, then played basketball and skateboarded. We’ve always had this thing that connects us all that we really loved. And music became that thing for the last 20 years."
Ben Reed says if you asked him two decades ago, he’d have never thought that Small Brown Bike would still be standing today.
"Especially after we initially disbanded," he says. "Although I did always believe there’d be some longevity with these four guys. Because I knew that that would be what we did for our whole lives. In one way or another, it’s our equivalent to the fishing weekends or the golf outings. That’s just what we do."
"So is there a time in another 20 years that we’ll be playing these songs still?" says Mike Reed. "Acoustic, around a campfire, maybe. I think it’s now just such a piece and history of our legacy. It's going to be around forever."