Get Naked with Steven Page of Barenaked LadiesBy BOB BLUMER, Wine X Magazine (Vol 4.3), May-June, 2000.
The usual drill for my Wine X celebrity cover stories is that the interviewee comes to my house, I cook dinner and he or she plunders my wine collection. So when Steven Page, lead singer of The Barenaked Ladies, invited me to sample his cooking and drink his wine, how could I refuse even if he does live in a foreign, snow-bound country, 3,000 miles from my comfortable perch below the Hollywood sign.
All that Canadian snow and ice must have a peculiar effect on a person's sense of humor. How else can you explain why Canada's major cultural exports consist of oddball comedians and offbeat rock n' rollers? Kids in the Hall, Mike Myers, and the BNLs share the slightly wacky sensibility of a good-natured outsider who holds up American cultural norms for a gleeful poke.
The Barenaked Ladies began their career 12 years ago playing in the local bars of Toronto's burgeoning live music scene. Shortly thereafter, a self-financed EP reached gold selling status in Canada, thus becoming the best selling indie record in Canadian music history. Since then, songs like "Be My Yoko Ono" and "If I Had a Million Dollars" have become US radio staples.1999 proved to be the band's watershed year: driven by the hit single "One Week," their acclaimed album Stunt sold over 5 million copies and finally propelled the band into the big league. During the past twelve months, the BNLs toured the world, finished a feature-length documentary (directed by the band's number-one fan, Jason Priestley), and strutted their manic energy on TV shows ranging from Letterman to Regis & Kathy Lee.
A week after receiving the invitation, I embarked for Toronto and was met by a midwinter blizzard. An hour later the reception was much warmer as I was invited into Steven's tastefully furnished, albeit modest-by-rock-star-standards, house. Steven, equally as unrock-star-like in his thick black framed glasses, tended to a pan of scalloped potatoes as he introduced me to his wife Carolyn, his two young boys, and to Stephen Duffy, leader of the '80s British band Tin Tin, known for their classic hit "Kiss Me." Duffy was visiting from London for a couple of weeks, to co-write the forthcoming BNL album with Page. Over the course of the evening, the four of us feasted on a seemingly bottomless tin of 0setra caviar, a bottle of Schramsberg's J Schram that I'd lugged with me, a magnum of Gosset 1989 Champagne, seared ahi tuna served with the aforementioned potatoes and a gloriously stinky collection of French cheese all served with wines from Steven's carefully assembled and very rock star-like 300 bottle temperature controlled walk-in wine cellar. The atmosphere was so homey and the host so relaxed, that as dinner started, I had to remind myself that I was there on a mission.
Bob: What were the early days like for the Barenaked Ladies?
Steven: We all grew up or went to school in Scarborough [a Toronto suburb]. We loved the irony of the fact that we came from Scarborough. This was well before Mike [Myers] popularized its suburban subculture in Wayne's World. We loved the fact that we drove downtown three times a week in our mums' cars to play gigs. We realized a lot of our audience was doing the same thing as we were living with their parents after graduating from University. On Thursday night they're downtown and acting as though they're living in some artist's loft, but we knew damn well they were all going back to their mother's house in the burbs. We were doing the same thing even though we were on stage. I realized the audience was exactly the same as me, but everybody put on this facade... and we turned it into schtick. It was an unexploited part of our culture.
Bob: At what moment did you realize that "One Week" was about to transform the band into "rock stars," and can I just take a moment to tell you how much I hate you for it because I still can't get that song out of my head?
Steven: One particular day we were in New York City doing a photo shoot for Rolling Stone, which we thought at the time was going to be a cover story. On the same day we found out the single was number one in America, and that night we played Madison Square Garden. I just remember being so tired that it didn't really sink in.
Bob: Do you remember your first glass of wine?
Steven: Growing up, we drank Manischewitz every Friday at Shabbat dinners.
Bob: How did your taste progress?
Steven: My wife Caroline and I learned about wine together. The thing is, when we first started, we made our own wine at one of those wine-making places on the corner. [A uniquely Canadian concept that allows customers to circumvent the absurdly high alcohol taxes by "blending" their own wine.] It was our only way to have affordable wine. Then we started drinking beaujolais it's fresh, it's fruity, you get a sense of understanding what tannin is and it goes with food pretty well, too. From there we started going to restaurants and ordering different wines. We hung out here [in Toronto] at a restaurant called Cafe Brussels. Eventually, we got to be friends with Roger, the owner, who would take me to tastings. Sometimes we'd taste California wines, sometimes Italian, and once we did a whole vertical of Phelps. That's what really got me into it. Then in 1995 we went to a dinner to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day. Every wine that was served was from 1945. I was invited in exchange for singing the national anthem at the event.
Bob: So you literally sang for your supper.
Steven: Yes. They served a white Cheval Blanc, an Haut Brion, and a Mouton-Rothschild. That was the first time I was really blown away. Then there was the '45 Yquem that they served with a quail stuffed with foie gras this combination was made for each other. There's no turning back after that. I remember another time in Italy when we had a simple parsley omelet with a local Prosecco [an inexpensive Italian sparkling wine] and again, both things were so simple, yet it worked it just exploded. Wine just became one of those things I had to investigate. I'm really good about remembering stuff that's not important at all. I can remember a wine I tasted 10 years ago, but I'll easily forget somebody's birthday.
Bob: Can you recount some of your most memorable wines?
Steven: That '45 Yquem was mind-blowing. Last month I had a Turley zinfandel, '95, Grist Vineyard so full of fruit and glycerin, yet highly alcoholic and concentrated, like a great Pinot Noir. That was pretty remarkable to me. I had a glass of recently disgorged Bollinger '75. It was big, full-bodied, full of toast and vanilla and yeast. I remember the first time I had the Napa Shafer Hillside Select, it was '91 that I tried, that totally blew my mind where you figure out what's so appealing to people about certain wines. That's the thing with Bordeaux sometimes, they're so hard and tannic and backwards, you're asking yourself "What's the deal?" but then when you have a bottle that blows up in your face, you totally get it. You say this is why I want to buy all these bottles, because I want them all to be that one. But on the other hand, I'm always in pursuit of the perfect cheap bottle of wine.
Bob: You seem to have an appreciation for a variety of varietals. If you could only drink one wine for the rest of your life what would it be?
Steven: I think it would be a Champagne. I never wanted to admit that before. In one way it seems so overpriced... it seems so out of line with other wines, and it seems a little low-brow for an educated palate... people who don't know what it is aspire to champagne... It feels a bit nouveau-riche. But when you get there, it beats the complexity of a Latour or a Lafite. A Bollinger, a Krug, or my new favorite, Salon.
Bob: What else about wine turns you on?
Steven: Wine is the only agricultural product that you can preserve indefinitely. Each vintage becomes a snapshot of that summer. We bought some wine on a trip to France in 1993. When we drank it five years later, it was a souvenir of where we were at that time. I love anything that's agricultural that's done with care and passion. There's a great book by a farmer from Fresno, California called "Epitaph for a Peach." It talks about the battle between the factory farmers and those who grow the fruit until it's ripe and it's the same thing with wine.
Bob: Where else do you acquire your wine knowledge?
Steven: Reading things, mainly wine books and wine magazines. For me that's the fun element, because it's not what I do for a living. If I didn't do what I do now, I'd probably go to school to become a chef.
Bob: Speaking of chefing, these potatoes rock!
Steven: Oh, I just made it up potatoes and fennel. You know what the secret is? Cream.
Bob: Do you cook out of cookbooks?
Steven: I read a lot of cookbooks, but I don't follow recipes; I go by instinct.
Bob: Tell me about the song "Alcohol."
Steven: I wrote it with Stephen (Duffy). He started writing a song called "Angela." Just to kind of bug him, I changed it to "Alcohol" and it worked perfectly. Instead of being a love song for a girl, it became a love song for booze.
Bob: Did it cause a controversy?
Steven: We certainly prepared ourselves for it in case it became an issue. I think people were more upset that I used words like "masturbation" in other songs on the record. Actually, the record company was scared to put it out as a single, because they were afraid they'd get all this negative response. Then they eventually put it out and they didn't get any response!
Bob: Is it pro, or anti alcohol?
Steven: This writer from the Washington Post kind of nailed me on it. He said, "You sold out, didn't you? You wanted to write a song about alcohol and getting drunk and how you love it, and you decided to temper it with a verse that said you could really screw things up if you go too far." I said, "You know what? I think you're right."
Stephen takes a sip of wine.
The atmosphere right now in the U.S. surrounding alcohol sales to youth is so tense, yet you have a Republican Congress which feels that when you're born you should be handed your own gun. There's this one politician, Strom Thurmond, who's 90,000 years old or something he's very anti-alcohol, although he's from one of the tobacco states and he has no problem with tobacco. America, it's the land of great contradictions.
Bob: You and Carolyn strike me as a couple who have many common interests.
Carolyn: Our motto is "L.G.F."
Carolyn & Steven, in unison: "Let's get fat."
Bob: Back to your day job as a pop star, my favorite scene in the Barenaked Ladies documentary [to be released theatrically later this year,] is the group's candid acknowledgement of "bunk-wanking" [a soon to be universal euphemism for masturbating in the privacy of one's own 3x3x7-foot berth on a tour bus].
Steven: Oh, God. It was so genuine, because we talked about stuff we all knew existed, but had never talked about amongst each other before. You can see how embarrassed we are, but how relieved we are at the same time.
Bob: During the period that you were making Stunt and beginning to film the documentary, your keyboard player, Kevin Hearn, came very close to dying from leukemia.
Steven: It was a weird thing being able to use someone's tragedy as a plot point. It made the movie poignant in a way that it never would have been. When you're filming a documentary, if you go in with a point of view and try and shoot that, you'll create something that's highly biased and highly constructed that may ring totally false. But if you just go in and shoot your surroundings as they unfold, then you can compile a story out of it later. I think that's what Jason did. We planned to make a movie about a band working their way up, hopefully to the top, but by the time we got the cameras on the road, we were actually exactly at the top. While it was being filmed, we had the number one single in the country. The final story is really about a group that's been together for years that has been hit by tragedy and triumph all at the same time.
Bob: What was it like working with Jason?
Steven: He's like a kid without his Ritalin. He's hilarious. He and his dog were actually staying on the bus with us while we were filming. He really loves being on the road with us and we love having him around.
Bob: [After savoring the last drop of the Chateau de Fargues, which is Chateau d'Yquem's second label]. How do you find this compares to theYquem?.
Steven: It's got a beautifully honeyed nose, but it's not nearly as long on the finish. At this point Carolyn, God bless her soul, asks Steven if they have any bottles of Yquem. Stephen heads for the cellar and returns with a 1990, the same year as the Chateau de Fargues we had been drinking.
Steven: [After taking his first sip] Slightly more amber, spicier, thicker, butterscotch, much longer finish.
Ahhh yes, journalism does have its privileges.