By Nicholas Jennings on Thursday, 31 December 1998
Category: Magazine

Feature Article: Barenaked Ladies - Barenaked in America

The Ladies' luck has changed. While Canada's Barenaked Ladies have fizzled at home in the past few years, their career has exploded south of the border. Last week, with the release of the pop band's latest album, Stunt, the five musicians performed on ABC-TV's Good Morning America before an estimated 3.8 million viewers. Later that same Monday, the Ladies flew to Boston where they gave a free, half-hour concert for 80,000 people-double the number local officials were expecting-in front of city hall, followed by a four-hour autograph session. On Tuesday, they delivered more tunes and signatures to fans at a Detroit music store. Then it was on to Chicago, where the band did it all over again at a downtown record outlet. By Thursday, the group was aboard its tour bus, heading west to Milwaukee, Wis., to headline a rock festival that will travel the continent for the rest of the summer. "It's Barenaked time in America," gushed Michelle Engel, music director of Boston's WBMX. "They're a fantastic group with great songs and a unique chemistry. We can't get enough of them down here."

It's a reversal of fortune for Canadian pop's formerly favorite sons, who in recent years had seen their record sales plummet. After their 1992 debut album, Gordon, went nine-times platinum at home (selling 900,000 copies), the band seemed to suffer from overexposure and the perception that it was merely a novelty act. With has-been status hovering over their heads, the Ladies hired Terry McBride, the savvy Vancouver-based manager who engineered Sarah McLachlan's rise to stardom. Adhering to McBride's formula, the band doggedly toured the United States, building a word-of-mouth following with their dynamic live act. After achieving a modest U.S. hit with The Old Apartment, from the group's fourth album, Born on a Pirate Ship, the Ladies released Rock Spectacle, a collection of live songs from previous recordings that was intended as a stopgap until their next studio album. Surprisingly, the live recording proved to be their breakthrough, introducing American audiences to such early hits as Brian Wilson and If I Had $1,000,000. It has now sold an astonishing 800,000 copies in the United States, paving the way for last week's release of Stunt. Already, the new album's first single, One Week, is headed towards Top 10 charts. And with the 42-date H.O.R.D.E. rock festival and a July 29th TV date on the Late Show with David Letterman, the band's U.S. profile can only grow.

Sitting in an upscale Toronto diner last month, the group's usually wisecracking frontmen, Steven Page and Ed Robertson, were uncharacteristically serious as they reflected on their fall from grace in Canada. They admitted that it pains them to see American audiences embracing the band-which includes bassist Jim Creeggan, drummer Tyler Stewart and keyboardist Kevin Hearn-while many Canadians still take the group for granted. Singer-guitarist Robertson recounts that a woman he recently met in Toronto asked him if the band was still together. When he told her they had been performing in the United States for almost two years, she responded with: "Oh, you've forsaken us." Robertson says he just smiled, but now adds, "I felt like asking her when she last went to one of our concerts." Page, who also sings and plays guitar, seems rankled too. "People always say, `Stay Canadian, don't get too big'. What, do they think we're going to go out and embarrass them in front of the world, that we're going to Ben Johnson them or something? I just don't understand that part of the Canadian mentality. I hope the country grows out of it."

The Ladies themselves have outgrown their image as five fat geeky guys from the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, an image they perpetuated through songs about high school and a professed love of Kraft Dinner. While humor has remained a key part of their live shows, their look has changed: goatees and designer duds have replaced flea-market fashions. And the band's albums have become progressively more mature-sophisticated pop rather than sophomoric shtick. Stunt (Reprise/Warner) represents the band's most accomplished work to date. The rapid white-boy rap of One Week captures the improvisational thrill of Barenaked concerts, while In the Car is a lighthearted but touching coming-of-age song about teenage sex. Songwriters Page and Robertson tackle darker subjects, such as suicide, in I'll Be that Girl. But the album's most cleverly crafted tunes are the gentle Call and Answer and the jaunty Told You So, which place the Ladies squarely in the same league as British songwriter Elvis Costello.

McBride, who helped push U.S. sales of McLachlan's 1997 Surfacing album past the two-million mark, is convinced that the Ladies will reach a similar plateau with Stunt. "They've delivered exactly what they had to do with this album-a great collection of pop songs," he says. The Vancouver manager, who keeps in constant touch over the Internet with the Ladies, their record company and booking agents, added: "These guys have done everything I've asked them to do: in-store appearances, radio shows, club dates, outdoor festivals and their own theatre dates." The strategy, which he calls "micro-marketing," involves building an audience in each city piece by piece. "That way," says McBride, "every time you come back, you're bigger than the last time. You've got more believers. It's incredibly hard work, but I won't take on an act unless they're willing to do this. It's the same commitment that Sarah had to make."

While McBride's approach has succeeded in breaking Barenaked Ladies into the U.S. marketplace-where other talented Canadian acts, including Blue Rodeo and The Tragically Hip, have so far failed-the constant touring exacts a personal toll on the group. Page, like Robertson, is married with a child, and he admits that he is rarely home. "It's a huge sacrifice," says the guitarist. "Basically, my whole life revolves around the band." Adds Robertson: "I don't know how many times I've had to blow off a family event to do a gig. That's hard on your family because they start to feel secondary."

The big question is: will the American breakthrough translate into a Canadian comeback? "It would be nice," Page muses. "We went from selling out four nights at Toronto's Massey Hall to not being able to sell out a single night. It's a hard thing to get used to, especially in your home town." But at the same time, both he and Robertson know that if domestic popularity continues to elude them, the bank is not about to foreclose on their mortgages. Says Robertson: "The success in the U.S. has given us confidence that whatever happens, we'll be all right." Confidence, but not smugness. Both musicians are acutely aware of the band's good fortune in getting a second shot at stardom. "We have to put ourselves in the shoes of other Canadian bands who look at us and say, `Yeah, but you've had a nine-times platinum album. What are you complaining about?' And they're right, we have been incredibly lucky. But we've also worked really hard for this."

 Maclean's July 20th 1998