Ladies of DistinctionNew York Times, January 7th, 2002.
Witty Canadian songsmiths never imagined they would release a greatest-hits package
When singer-guitarists Steven Page and Ed Robertson formed Barenaked Ladies in Toronto, they never imagined that a decade later they'd be releasing a greatest-hits album.
"We had no idea we were going to continue doing it, even," Page recalls. "For us, it was a fun trip for a year or so. It was in some ways very folky in its style and in its genesis, two guys singing together with acoustic guitars. We barely had any greater ambitions than that in the very beginning of the band." But as Disc One 1991-2001 shows, the Ladies achieved considerably more. Hooking people with its infectiously melodic songcraft and the good humour and wit implied by the band's name, the quintet was an immediate sensation in its native Canada and gradually built a following in the United States as well. Then came Stunt (1998), a multiplatinum sensation sparked by the lightning-fast verses of One Week, which is currently enjoying a second life in a Mitsubishi commercial.
Maroon (2000) has only sold about half as many copies as Stunt, but Robertson says that he, Page and their bandmates bassist Jim Creeggan, keyboardist Kevin Hearn and drummer Tyler Stewart have nothing to complain about.
"Actually, for the first time in my life, in a 13-year career, I don't care anymore," the 31-year-old Robertson says. "I feel really proud of the band right now as performers and writers and the records we make and stuff. I feel like we've made it to all the kind of popular milestones we've got Grammy nominations, we sold out Madison Square Garden, we've got multiplatinum records... In a lot of ways, it actually released a lot of the pressure.
"At this point," he says, "I'm pretty content. I just want to keep working for my own creative interest and writing songs that are rewarding and interesting to me. And I'm really thankful to have a loyal fan base."
Page and Robertson met in 1998 as college students in Scarborough. Having played in their share of hard-rock bands, the two craved something more cerebral and more distinct.
"We were really, in some ways, purists about being acoustic I think because it wasn't fashionable," the 31-year-old Page recalls. "We didn't want to be roots rock. We wanted something that was acoustic that didn't limit itself stylistically. That was the common thread."
Beginning as street performers, Page and Robertson who came up with the name Barenaked Ladies on a lark eventually signed up Stewart, Creeggan and his younger brother Andy on keyboards. After they independently released a series of tapes including one, The Yellow Tape (1991), that sold 85,000 copies and included early versions of future hits Brian Wilson and Be My Yoko Ono the major labels came calling.
Sire Records won the bidding war, signing the Ladies in front of Toronto's City Hall chosen because then-mayor June Rowlands had refused to allow the band to perform on city property because she felt the band's name "objectified women."
"I think she may have regretted that," Page says dryly.
The Ladies' debut album, Gordon (1993), was a smash in Canada. A subsequent single, If I Had $1,000,000, mentioned Kraft macaroni and cheese and inspired an audience ritual of throwing macaroni at the band at the point when it was mentioned, a practice the group has spent many years discouraging.
Despite the group's acoustic beginnings, Page notes, "we also learned how to be a good rock band" in subsequent releases such as Maybe You Should Drive (1994) and Born on a Pirate Ship (1996).
Meanwhile, the Ladies soldiered though some hard times, including a short-lived schism between Page and Robertson and the 1995 departure of Andy Creeggan, who was replaced by Hearn. Even the band's joy over Stunt's runaway success was tempered by Hearn's near-fatal battle with chronic leukemia, a struggle that largely kept him off the road and out of the band until recording for Maroon began in early 2000.
"That was the worst thing that ever happened to us, no question," Robertson says. "We know there was a very real possibility that we could have lost him, which I don't even like to think about. After what he's been through and, vicariously, what we've all been through, right now is pretty rewarding."
Disc One is not entirely retrospective, because it includes four new songs among them the upbeat, charged It's Only Me (The Wizard of Magicland) and the textured, ironic Thanks That Was Fun recorded this past summer with Maroon engineer Jim Scott.
Thanks That Was Fun, released as a single, is a bit of a dry-humoured joke directed at the Ladies' fans and at Canadian songstress Sarah McLachlan, who shares a manager with the Ladies.
"We bug our manager about the fact Sarah sells more records than us," Page says. "It seems like she has a lot of songs that have the word 'yearning' in them. So as a joke we started (Thanks That Was Fun) with 'I'm yearning...' It sucked, and we wrote a song about it.
"It's a bit of a joke for us as well it would be the perfect breakup song for the band, but we have no intention of doing that."
In fact, Page and Robertson expect to write and record the next Ladies album next year. They don't necessarily predict a severe change in direction, but do say that Disc One has tidily summed up an era.