Barenaked success hits the LadiesBy JANE STEVENSON, Toronto Sun, July 26th 1998.
Toronto band has made breakthroughs in the U.S. with their records and on TV
The success that homegrown music veterans Barenaked Ladies are finally enjoying down south after 10 years in the business seems strange even to the Toronto band itself.
"It's like our career was on tape delay in the States," jokes Ladies co-founder and co-frontman Ed Robertson prior to the group's show at the Molson Amphitheatre on Tuesday as part of this year's H.O.R.D.E. tour.
"It always felt like it was growing somewhere, which I think is what kept us slugging it out for so long. It's only really been in the last year that we've seen real leaps of growth."
As the now familiar Ladies saga goes, the group launched itself in Canada with incredible grassroots support for their self-produced EP in 1991, which featured such wacky pop songs as Be My Yoko Ono and Brian Wilson, and became the first independent release in Canadian music history to go gold (50,000 copies). It eventually sold just over 100,000 copies.
Their second album, 1992's Gordon, went nine-times platinum (900,000 copies) and 1994's Maybe You Should Drive spawned such hits as Jane and Alternative Girlfriend.
But the Ladies made themselves almost too available and started to suffer from backlash in Canada.
"We were everywhere," says Ladies co-founder and co-frontman Steven Page. "For two years, we were on every TV screen and every magazine cover in the country all the time."
Adds Robertson: "And asked for a comment on every issue that had nothing to do with us, as well."
"We were all about mugging, at least as far as our image went, 'cause it was all in the spirit of fun," continues Page. "But we never saw this stuff. We were too busy to actually be the ones turning on the TV and see us grinning at people all the time. But I think other people did have to actually make the conscious choice to click us off if they wanted to."
Now, the Ladies' fortunes have changed dramatically due to their successive breakthroughs down south over the last two years.
Their 1996 album, Born On A Pirate Ship, contained the rocker The Old Apartment, which would become their first big U.S. hit, due in no small part to the Jason Priestley-directed video. (They're currently talking with Priestley about shooting some live shows for a special or documentary.)
The Priestley video was followed by appearances on Beverly Hills 90210, Conan O'Brien's New Year's Eve show and David Letterman. They also had released a live album, Rock Spectacle, which contained a well-received new version of the old song, Brian Wilson, and which sold a staggering 775,000 copies in the U.S.
"He was going to come and do a song with us at a show," says Page of the real-life Brian Wilson.
"We did a radio show for Q101 the alternative station in Chicago he lives there now and we had heard through his people that he wanted to come and do a song with us. At least he's been told about us.
"The reports I've heard about his mental health are not good, regardless of how he tries to present himself. I think he's very on and off in terms of being conscious or being aware of his surroundings. Anyway, he ended up cancelling about half an hour before he was supposed to show up.
"I think he just probably got up in the morning and went, 'I can't do this,' or `I don't want to,' or whatever. We got close. We had to learn Surfin' U.S.A. and then never played it."
Adds Roberston: "That's not a bad thing."
The other funny thing was that the Ladies felt it was too early to put out a live album since they had only done three studio releases up to that point.
"It didn't make sense to us to put out a live record," says Page. "It was only six months after Born On A Pirate Ship. Pirate Ship had already kind of died by that point and Terry McBride, our manager, really wanted to keep the band's name part of the focus of what the record company was doing, where radio was going. He had sort of a master plan.
"He wanted it to just tide people over for another few months while we were busy making a new record. But the live album ended up being so successful and because it was so cheap to make, people kind of went, 'Wow, this thing is happening.' We did basically three nights of shows, we started hearing the master tapes, it was like, `This is better than we thought it was.' "
Now the Ladies' recently released studio album, Stunt, has debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard album chart while the first single, One Week, was the most added modern rock radio song upon its release.
"We saw a bizarre kind of phenomenon in that when things started to get really happening in the States, things started to turn around a bit here," says Robertson.
"Particularly doing Letterman and the news that Rock Spectacle went gold in the States turned a lot of heads up here, I think. A lot of people went, 'Oh, they're not gone and maybe they don't suck' or something."
The Ladies also find themselves co-headlining the 40-plus date H.O.R.D.E. tour to be followed by their own North American tour in October and November, including a Toronto date and will appear on Letterman again on Wednesday.
"We're actually making money now," says Page. "We've never been in a position where we were not surviving, but after Gordon everything was just a matter of breaking even, all along the way. Don't have the million dollars yet so we can continue to keep singing the song."
Still, their progress in the U.S. hasn't been without a few bumps.
A record company press release a few weeks ago suggested the Ladies had drawn 80,000 people to a free outdoor show in Boston on July 6 and 40,000 to a performance and autograph-signing in Detroit on July 7. The actual figures turned out to be 40,000 in Boston and 2,000 in Detroit.
There is also a particularly scathing review of Stunt in the August issue of Details, which gives the album one out of a possible 10 stars.
"On Never Enough, a jeer at college students, backpackers, and retail workers, the band actually have the nerve to insult the very people who buy their lousy records," says the magazine reviewer.
As for the darker subject matter evident throughout Stunt autoeroticism and suicide on I'll Be That Girl, oral sex and masturbation on In The Car, and the politically incorrect but hilarious ode to heavy drinking, Alcohol the Ladies don't expect to get any flak.
"You can't worry too much about that," says Page. "I didn't think about it when I was writing it and I didn't think very much when recording it. I think when you start to think about it too much, you second-guess yourself and you water down what you want to say.
"The content of the songs is there, not to shock my mom but to communicate ideas that I think are interesting or evocative for myself or for an audience."
FORMED: 10 years ago in October.
CURRENT MEMBERS: Steven Page and Ed Robertson (vocals, acoustic-electric guitars); Jim Creeggan (double bass, bass, vocals); Kevin Hearn (keyboards, accordion, vocals, electric guitar); Tyler Stewart (drums).
DISCOGRAPHY: Barenaked Ladies (EP), 1991; Gordon, 1992; Maybe You Should Drive, 1994; Shoe Box (EP), 1996; Born On A Pirate Ship, 1996; Rock Spectacle, 1996; Stunt, 1998.
H.O.R.D.E. TOURMATES: Blues Traveler, Ben Harper, Alana Davis, Gov't Mule, Marcy Playground, Chris Stills, Johny Vegas.
STEVEN PAGE SAYS: "That was always the thing any article I've ever read on us was always, 'They're huge in Canada.' But the fact that you're huge in Canada to Americans is like saying you're huge in Luxembourg; it doesn't really matter to them but it is part of how they think of us."