The Golden Age of Rock and DrollIndependent, September 1st, 2000.
They're often seen as just pop clowns, but Barenaked Ladies have a more serious and thoughtful side to them. No, really. But, they tell Glyn Brown, that doesn't mean they're going to stop dropping their trousers on stage.
Every now and then, a band come along who really seem to irritate. At the moment that combo is, apparently, Barenaked Ladies. When the Ladies started out, they took the "novelty band" tag and didn't so much run as pole-vault with it, which saw them off to a great start in their native Canada (where their first album, Gordon hilarious, right? went nine times platinum) and nowhere everywhere else.
Because of their live show (we'll come to that) they were seen as the clowns of rock-pop, guys it was not cool to like, and as for in-built irritation, the vocalist Steven Page occasionally sounds like The Housemartins' Paul Heaton, and one of those is quite enough. In a shock-horror breakthrough, last year's album Stunt, their fourth, sold big and made them famous in a global way, though critical dislike remained. Then, recently, the forthcoming album, Maroon, found its way on to my CD player before I knew what was happening, and its laid-back sound, pitch-black lyrics and surprisingly listenable vocal took a forceful hold.
"What's this about?" you ask yourself in such a situation. You play it again. Damn the thing; it's still good.
So, a week after the band held thousands in the palm of their hand at V2000, I find myself talking to the immensely skinny bassist Jim Creeggan and goatee-bearded writer, guitarist and vocalist Ed Robertson. It's been a busy old week in Europe, whizzing between here and France and Germany. What did they like most about, say, Paris? In answer, Robertson gets out this... thing. It's a one-foot-high figure of a chiselled dude, like the statues of cowboys on broncos you sometimes see in pine shops.
"In Atlanta, I found possibly the most excellent sculpture I've ever seen. In my life. He's an American race-car driver and we've named him Country Time." This is what's emblazoned on the wooden thigh. "The plan is to get photos of him beside the world's best monuments. Last weekend, I got a great shot of Paul Weller hanging out near his dressing-room. I put Country Time on the table near him and Weller is completely ignoring him."
Robertson is on a roll. "So I took him to Cologne, then Hamburg, but the best was when he went to the Eiffel Tower and had his portrait done by one of the artists." Here, he pulls out a huge pencil portrait. Creeggan roars with honking laughter. "This tells me that the artist loved the idea," says Robertson, glowing. In fact, I mumble, I think it flatters him, looks like James Dean, in a way. "Yeah," agrees Creeggan. "He looks really sexy there."
All in their early thirties, the band are touring at full force again, having spent two years without the keyboardist Kevin Hearn, who was fighting, and seems to have beaten, leukaemia. The five musicians (including the vocalist Page and the drummer Tyler Stewart) met long ago at music camp ("which automatically makes us geeks") and their determination was cemented. Gordon appeared in 1992 and was supported by constant touring and impromptu busking "We even played at the opening of a bakery."
Thus, in time, to Maroon, produced by Don Was; a key moment in its recording was a visit by Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys genius. Wilson was overseeing a live album on which he covers a Ladies track named after him. It's not a flattering number, but it's sympathetic, detailing the 10 years of the Seventies when the troubled songsmith broke down, retired to bed and stayed there. "The fact he's covered it seems like he's coming to terms with that time, acknowledging people's perception of it," says Robertson. "He played it for us then looked at me and said, 'Is... it... cool?' " Wilson left them with a pearl of wisdom: "Remember, guys, don't eat too much."
There's a get-yourself-together feel to much of Maroon, in which the prevailing emotion is frustrated anger and an underlying directive to do something about it. "Falling for the First Time" initially seems like a Kurt Cobain-ish I-hate-myself-and-I-want-to-die thing "I'm so cool, too bad I'm a loser/ I'm so smart, too bad I can't get anything figured out." Actually, says Robertson, "It's about that release in seeing your own weakness and learning from it. Failing, but allowing yourself some slack."
On the broader scale of dilemma, there's "Helicopters", about a protest singer who visits a war zone and gets derided for the privilege. Robertson again: "We were thinking about how everyone questions your motivation in everything you do people like Sting, who's devoted so much time to saving the rainforest, and people just make fun of him." Shooting your gob off about tantric sex could be the reason for that, but Robertson has a more personal quandary. "A friend of ours is involved in an outfit called World Vision, and when any kind of awful strife breaks out Rwanda, Bosnia they go, and take a celebrity in tow to report on it, to put a familiar face there and make it more real. We've been asked, but my fear is that, as much as we'd try to use our celebrity to aid a cause, we'd be seen as using a cause to aid our celebrity."
Robertson's own life hasn't been without tragedy, illustrated on an album track ("Tonight is the Night That I Fell Asleep at the Wheel") that's partly about his brother's demise in a motorbike smash. "It was late; we think he fell asleep, so he would've been startled awake while hurtling through the air. His body would've rushed with endorphins; he probably wouldn't have felt any pain. I wanted in that song to get across the calm in the moment, somehow. You know in the film Wings of Desire, when one angel's talking to another, then he says, 'I've gotta go,' and rushes to a motorcycle-accident victim and leans down and murmurs peaceful things to him? I thought a lot about that."
Where, amid such Zen pondering, does the "novelty" tag originate? Possibly in the way the band encourage food to be thrown at them on stage or when you read that Steven Page, a man who lists the opera Turandot among his favourite things, likes to drop his trousers during a show and sing: "Steven's pants are falling down, falling down... " Why is that? Creeggan starts giggling. I'm trying to understand, I say. I'm not blaming anyone. "That's OK," he splutters, tying his limbs in knots; "no blame taken." Robertson bridles: "Don't point the finger at me." Finally, Creeggan gets a grip. "It's just boyish exuberance," he shrugs. "It's a lotta fun to get naked." Good Lord. My whole article is falling to bits here.
"We've actually recorded one song on each album completely naked," murmurs Robertson, stroking his goatee. "Can you guess which one it was this time?"
I can't, I admit. But my feeling is, there must be a whole lot of therapeutic value to be had in dropping your kecks. In the often dour world of rock, the Barenaked Ladies are happy blokes. Now, that's what some people find irritating.