Stripped BareBy TIM C. DAVIS, Creative Loafing Charlotte, July 27th, 2001.
Taking a (Steven) Page from Ladies' songbook.
As band histories go, it ain't the most shocking thing in the world. At summer camp in 1988, friends Steven Page and Ed Robertson decided to form a duo because they realized they liked... singing together. Yes, they actually liked singing together. Not quite Behind The Music fodder (that was to come later). After a couple of months honing their skills playing at comedy clubs, the two pals added their high school classmates Jim and Andrew Creeggan (who also play together in, appropriately enough, The Creeggan Brothers). Drummer Tyler Stewart soon signed on to pound the skins.
After a couple of independent releases, this band, Barenaked Ladies, signed on with Sire/Reprise in 1992. Their major label debut Gordon introduced the world (mostly Canada at that point) to the band's oeuvre, via songs like "Enid," "Be My Yoko Ono" and "If I Had a Million Dollars." Soon after the release, the band lost Andrew Creeggan to college, and Kevin Hearn took over the keyboard duties.
In 1998, Kevin Hearn was diagnosed with leukemia. He had to take 18 months away from the band for cancer treatment. With the release of Stunt in 1998 came a whole new level of success for the band, which toured for the most part with a replacement keyboardist. "One Week" and "It's All Been Done" helped album sales climb into double platinum territory.
In 2000, the band released their seventh CD, Maroon, and also appeared in an award-winning documentary made by fellow Canuck and Ladies fan (and man) Jason Priestly. Featuring the deceptively dark "Pinch Me," Maroon is a bit of a stylistic departure for the band, as lead Lady Steven Page related recently from the road.
Creative Loafing: How does this album differ from Stunt? I read where you recorded the album relatively "live" this time around.
Steven Page: All the basic tracks are the band playing live. I don't think we've ever gotten the level of performance the way that we did this time. The way we had done it in the past was to play the songs live and basically go for the one where everyone seemed to know their parts. This time around, we got a lot of good performances to choose from, where we didn't have to worry about mistakes. All we had to worry about was finding the right one that had the right mood or the right vocal or whatever else, which is a real luxury.
How did playing in comedy clubs and being in that sort of improvisational atmosphere flavor the way the band began to see itself?
We would play these comedy clubs opening for a comedy group, but not really being a comedy group ourselves. We realized we had a captive audience there. When you're in a rock club and you're a band and you're starting your early gigs, you can in a lot of ways be wallpaper and it's acceptable. You can be in the background of people's conversations and whatever else they can put you in the foreground if they so choose, but they don't have to. But in a comedy or theater situation, the audience is sitting there looking to be entertained. That's why they're there. For us, it made us a little comfortable to be loose and improvisational between the songs and tight and musical during songs. That's kind of an asset I think we continue, and it keeps the shows really fresh for us.
There's noticeably less pop culture references on this album, replaced with more of a direct songwriting style. Was this a concerted effort while penning songs this time around?
I realize I was less interested in it. Unconsciously, I think I decided that I'm interested in culture and the world around me, but it doesn't necessarily need to be defined by Frasier or Entertainment Tonight. I think that it was born under a bit of frustration by the fact that the world seems to be increasingly media savvy and cynical and I wanted to pull myself away from it as a writer. We live in a world were everyone knows what movie made what in its first weekend, and somehow that's supposed to matter. And if a really expensive movie bombs, people feel like they didn't get their money's worth, as if taxpayers had paid for it or something. It's like, those aren't really the issues, are they? But then again, we have songs like "Sell Sell Sell" on this record that in some way say that maybe they are the issues, because entertainment makes the world go round as far as the economy goes and everything else, too whether it's video games or movies or music. I mean, the number two US export is entertainment.
Barenaked Ladies seem to have something that's often missing in today's music clime; namely, the editing process. How important is that to you while writing the paring, the trimming down?
That's definitely my drive in the writing and recording process, and sometimes I think to the point of disagreeing with other members of the band. Our records have gotten even more concise over the years, and I think we always have this kind of dilemma within the band as to what expense is this conciseness? Are we cutting things out because we're trying to make a record that sounds good on the radio? No, not really. Is that somewhere in the back of our mind? Yeah, possibly. But when I think about songs sounding good on the radio, for some reason I imagine them next to "Sugar Sugar" on the AM radio when I was seven years old. I forget about the fact that it's actually supposed to be next to "Bootylicious" or something.
I'm constantly frustrated by the advent of a long record. Everybody makes these 70-minute records now. I think a huge part of being an artist is learning to edit yourself. It's what you don't put out there that makes it just as valuable. I say that now and then at the end of this year, we're putting out a greatest hits B-sides record where we're basically emptying out our vaults. (laughs)
How much do you think the critical complaint against the band is due to the fact that the group doesn't play into the classic "Rock & Roll God" mythology?
I've said it before and I think it's come back to haunt me. In some ways, I'm a rock critic dressed up as a singer. I think in some ways, it's the opposite of that famous David Lee Roth quote where he said, "Critics love Elvis Costello because he looks like a rock critic." But I think the way things are now, critics would rather praise some guy who's nothing like that. If they could find this 15-year-old kid who had already murdered his family and just had an acoustic guitar and sang delta blues and smoked crack on stage, the critics would go ape shit for it! Because it's not them. I understand it's a fantasy world and in some ways what rock should be... but we're not really that. And I think a whole lot of people like us for that very fact.