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Cover Story: Barenaked Ladies on Top

Cover Story: Barenaked Ladies on Top

It was like an IQ test question asking which was the apple among the oranges. In the summer, Canada's Barenaked Ladies had been booked to play Chicago's Rockfest at the city's motor speedway. But the fun-loving popsters found themselves sharing top billing with heavy-metal road warriors Metallica and white-trash rapper Kid Rock. As soon as the Ladies hit the stage, rap-metal fans in the audience realized that this group didn't share their "Rage Against Anything" credo. First there was booing, followed by dozens of middle fingers being thrust angrily in the air. Things turned uglier as the rabble started hurling beer bottles and homophobic insults towards the stage. Drummer Tyler Stewart recalls that he quickly went from being "a little nervous" to "very scared."

Steven Page and Ed Robertson, however, took a perverse delight in trying to win over the crowd. While Page began singing The Kinks' "You Really Got Me," Robertson invited a heckler onstage to strum the song's power chords on his guitar. It worked: boos suddenly turned to cheers. By the time the Ladies launched into their hard-rocking hit "The Old Apartment," the most obnoxious dissenters were crowd-surfing above the mosh pit. "We were lucky not to get hurt," says Page, "but I got a total rush out of it. It was like all these rocker guys who called me faggot in high school were now in front giving me the finger. For us to get them singing along really was a case of revenge of the nerds."

It's not the first time that the once-geeky Ladies have proven their detractors wrong. Formed in 1988 and then largely written off at home by the mid-'90s as a novelty act whose time was up, the group — which also includes bassist Jim Creeggan and keyboardist Kevin Hearn, who replaced Creeggan's brother Andy in 1995 — headed south only to find greater fame. American audiences welcomed the band's witty, melodic pop. Although the Ladies' U.S. breakthrough came with its 1996 live recording, Rock Spectacle, it was the next album that catapulted them well into pop's upper echelons. Featuring the hyperactive rap of "One Week," a No. 1 hit on the U.S. Billboard charts, the four-million-selling Stunt established the Ladies as superstars capable of filling arenas and stadiums from Portland, Ore., to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. — which they did for much of the next two years.

bnl maroonAn even busier year lies ahead. Having recovered from the shock of stardom and, more significant, the recent near-death experience of Hearn, who successfully battled leukemia, the Ladies seem ready for the challenge. First up is this month's release of the band's ambitious fifth studio album, Maroon, produced by Don Was, who has worked with such A-list clients as Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt. Then, following this week's appearance on the MuchMusic Video Awards in Toronto, the band kicks off a major U.S. tour (it performs in Toronto on Nov. 24, and will tour Canada in early 2001). The Ladies are also making American TV appearances — on everything from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to Charmed. A further boost will come with the release of Barenaked in America, a documentary by Canadian-born actor Jason Priestley, which opens in U.S. cities on Sept. 29 and across Canada next month, and an authorized biography by Paul Myers, brother of Mike (Austin Powers) Myers.

This fall also marks a new stage for the band. Until now, the Barenaked Ladies have, as their name suggests, been mostly about irony. Page and Robertson first became friends during high school in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough — often dismissed by locals as "Scarberia" — which also helped shape the absurdist sensibility of Mike Myers. Once the Ladies came together, they quickly became the class clowns of pop, satirizing suburbia and such phenomena as fast food, high-school alienation and an assortment of cultural icons. The quintet accompanied their quirky lyrics with self-mocking fashions like bowling shirts and Bermuda shorts. But in 1992, Toronto mayor June Rowlands didn't get the joke, banning the group from performing in front of City Hall because their name "objectifies women."

Now, the Ladies are all in their late 20s or early 30s. Three of them, Page, Robertson and Stewart, are married with children. And they are taking a more personal, serious approach to their music. They have decided, as Rolling Stone noted in a recent, favourable review of Maroon, to "start making sense." Even the City of Toronto has come around: this week Mayor Mel Lastman is giving the Ladies the key to the city, and for the first time since they were blacklisted they are performing outside City Hall.

In an interview, Page, Stewart and Hearn reflected on the band's new outlook and where it fits in the current musical climate. With the Chicago experience still fresh in his mind, Page, 30, is troubled by the current rap-metal trend, because it feeds and fuels alienated youth. "There's so much anger out there now, whether it's Eminem or Limp Bizkit, but it's so aimless," says Page, the father of a three-year-old and an 18-month-old. "People are venting all this rage, but they can't be bothered directing it at government because they don't even know what the government does."

The new album contains few of the cultural references (Kraft Dinner, Yoko Ono, The X-Files) that have characterized the band's past work. Instead, the songs tend to be more thoughtful. "Some of it is born out of frustration with the glibness of modern culture and knowing how much we participated in that," concedes Page. "As a songwriter, I asked myself whether I've put enough of my heart in the music in the past, or whether I've spent too much time trying to shield the emotional side of things. One of the themes of the album is about taking action — going out and doing something, instead of sitting and talking about it."

Page and Robertson have, in fact, lent their faces to an information campaign sponsored by the nonprofit organization Artists Against Racism. And recently, along with Stewart, they made a series of public-service announcements on behalf of World Vision, the Third World relief agency. However, Robertson believes that aligning oneself with causes can be a double-edged sword. "People are so skeptical these days," he says. "You want to help out, but then cynics question your motivation. It's like Sting and the Amazon. The guy's trying to use his celebrity to help save the rainforest, and everyone's making fun of him." That conundrum became the subject of "Helicopters," one of the strongest songs on the new album.

Hearn's illness has also clearly influenced the group's outlook. According to Paul Myers, a musician who first met the Ladies in 1990 when his group shared bills with them in Toronto clubs, Hearn's leukemia triggered a profound shift in the band's thinking and gave them a humility in the midst of their newfound celebrity. "They stopped kidding about," says Myers, whose book Barenaked Ladies: Public Stunts and Private Stories will be published this fall. "They're still making wisecracks, but they're much wiser."

While Hearn, now 31, was battling cancer — he went into remission after receiving a bone-marrow transplant from his younger brother, Sean — Robertson was struggling to cope with the havoc that fame had wreaked on his personal life. As the lead singer on the smash hit "One Week," Robertson found himself increasingly in the spotlight. "There's no way to prepare for the way people suddenly start to view you and the privacy that you lose," says the 29-year-old, who has been married for six years to homemaker Natalie Herbert, with whom he has a four- and one-year-old. "All of that affects you in such a staggering way. It's really difficult to keep your feet on the ground and your head together." Last year, Robertson was pictured in Rolling Stone in the company of porn actress Jen Teal and was later the subject of reports about marital problems. But he insists that he had an innocent backstage encounter with Teal and that his marriage is back on solid ground. "Those sorts of stories always dog the touring rock star, and stuff gets read into them. But I've worked hard to get my life back together."

Rebuilding is also a theme of Priestley's documentary, which follows the band on part of its American Stunt tour. With Hearn out of commission, the Ladies recruited keyboardist Chris Brown, formerly of the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir. Although the film captures the improvisational thrill of Barenaked concerts and the giddy devotion at tailgate parties, Hearn's illness casts a shadow. By the time the Ladies bring their recovering keyboardist, bald from chemotherapy, to perform the ballad "Call and Answer" with them in Buffalo, the stage has been set for an emotional finale. "Please welcome our hero," Page declares, "the strongest man we know — Kevin Hearn."

Despite their image as rock 'n' roll jesters, the Ladies have always had darker songs dating back to their first major-label album, 1992's Gordon. Death, in fact, has been a recurring theme. But that sense of mortality is particularly acute on Maroon. Tonight Is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel graphically describes a fatal car accident. Page says the song came to him from memories of commuting between Toronto and London, Ont., where his wife-to-be was living at the time. But Robertson reveals a more direct connection. "I lost a brother in a motorcycle accident and it was a violent, probably pretty sudden thing," he says. "I've often wondered whether he had a few seconds to look around and go, 'Wow, I'm screwed.' The song really isn't about death, it's about the cinematography of the moment." With other songs on Maroon dealing with romance and unfulfilled promise, does that make the latest Ladies' offering more mature? "I'd prefer to use the term 'more adult,' " jokes Robertson, "because it links back to the porn thing. But this album is definitely for mature audiences only."

barenakedladies youngSurprisingly, the Ladies are far from bitter about the burnout and backlash in the mid-'90s that saw them plummet in Canada from pop-music darlings to virtual has-beens. "We eat our own," says Robertson. "Success is often frowned upon in this country." But he also concedes that the band had overexposed itself. "We were in every newspaper and all over MuchMusic and radio for two years straight. And we were partly to blame for that, because all we did was mug and goof around for the camera. People just finally went 'Enough already!' " Myers has another theory for the backlash: "They wore shorts — there, I said it. Thank God for Terry." He is referring to Terry McBride, Sarah McLachlan's Vancouver-based manager, who took over the Ladies' faltering career in 1995 (Pierre Tremblay is now co-managing the band). "He didn't tell them what to wear or not to wear, but he told them what he really thought. And he explained why the band was having a credibility problem."

Will fans accept a more tailored, serious version of the Ladies? Myers admits that is the challenge for the band. "Jerry Lewis and Milton Berle had to play really nasty characters on TV because people only knew them as goofs. The Ladies are what they look like — really nice guys. But they're not always happy and they have their moods just like the rest of us. I hope people will accept their darker material along with the light stuff. After all, the Beatles always had a song like 'Yellow Submarine' on the same album as 'Eleanor Rigby.'"

A huge thrill for Page during the making of the album was getting to meet his Beach Boy hero, Brian Wilson, the subject of one of his best-known songs. Wilson had performed — and recorded — the Ladies tune himself during his recent tour. Producer Don Was arranged to have Wilson drop by the studio — coincidentally the same one where the Beach Boys had made Pet Sounds — and play the Ladies a tape. Page had to pinch himself several times during the encounter with the pop genius. "I couldn't believe I was hearing our song about him being sung by him," he says. "And there he was sitting next to us, listening to it with us. After the tape finished, he goes, 'Is that cool, fellas?' And all I could manage to say was 'Yup, that's pretty cool.' " Cool and triumphant.

Songs of experience from grown-up Ladies

With songs about death, adultery and domestic bliss, Maroon (Reprise/ Warner) proves the Barenaked Ladies have graduated from callow cleverness to grown-up depth. Produced by Don Was with a crisp and uncluttered sound that echoes classic recordings of the 1960s, it is also the band's most appealing release to date. Songwriters Steven Page and Ed Robertson, drawing on influences ranging from the Beatles and Burt Bacharach to Elvis Costello and Gilbert and Sullivan, mix weighty matters and witty wordplay with a musical palette rich in shades of blue, grey and, yes, maroon.

The album opens with the brisk pop of "Too Little Too Late," the first of several cautionary tales about self-doubt, inaction and ennui. The empty boasts of "Never Do Anything" are followed by the sleepy reveries of "Pinch Me," which includes the closest thing to the fast rap that silver-tongued Robertson perfected on the band's massive 1998 hit "One Week" — which probably explains why the group's record label has issued it as the first single. "Conventioneers" is a gem of a song about the guilty pleasure of an office fling set to languid lounge music, and the country twang of "Go Home" recalls the unbridled joy of the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face." Meanwhile "Sell Sell Sell," a comically operatic number about a TV-commercial actor, echoes the plot of Barry Levinson's film Wag the Dog, with such pithy lines as "a movie's made, a war is won" and "the new Iraq gets more irate."

Offbeat lyrics, especially those written by Page, have always been among the Ladies' most notable features. Maroon contains its fair share of unusual rhymes ("vexed" with "hexed" and "sex") and pairings ("flummoxed and flushed"). And one song, "Off the Hook," gives new meaning to the phrase "shaken not stirred." But for the first time in the band's decade-long career, the lyrics are integral parts of wholly crafted songs, not just gimmicky throwaway lines. The album's best numbers are those, like the war-zone-set "Helicopters" and the Cronenbergian car crash of "Tonight Is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel," that manage to distil complex human issues into nifty four-minute pop tunes. And that's a long way from the ditties about Grade 9 and Kraft Dinner for which the Ladies used to be known.

Maclean's, September 25th 2000

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