SameDiff BNL

Brian Wilson covers Barenaked Ladies

By PAUL CANTIN, Senior Reporter, JAM! Showbiz, September 4th 2000.

Barenaked Ladies's singer Steven Page recently came full circle with his paean to The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson.

Page wrote the early BNL hit, "Brian Wilson" as a tribute to the singer, and Wilson himself recently returned the nod by kicking off his recent solo tour with an a capella version of the song, which was also included on Wilson's live album.

Page was in the audience when Wilson and his band recently passed through Toronto, but he first became aware of Wilson's intention to cover the song when Wilson visited the group while they were recording their new album "Maroon" in Los Angeles.

"(Wilson) came to the studio to play it for us when we were recording at what is now called Cello (studio). Before that it was Ocean Way and before that it was Western, where The Beach Boys did 'Pet Sounds,'" Page says, referring to what is widely viewed as The Beach Boys' masterpiece album.

"He came into the studio where they did 'Pet Sounds' to play it for us. It had no resonance for him at all. Someone said, how does it feel to be back in the studio where you did 'Pet Sounds?' And he said ... 'it's a studio.'"

Wilson played the band his version of their song and wondered aloud if they thought it was cool.

"Of course it was cool! Just the fact that he acknowledged that he knows what we wrote is pretty exciting. To hear his voice is remarkable. I don't know if it is daunting, because he is so non-judgemental He was excited, so we were excited," he says.

Having met and spent time with Wilson, whose life story invariably leads to him being described as a "troubled genius," Page says he believes the singer understands the song was intended as an homage.

"I was trying to write about Brian's hope: Please help, someone guide me through this," he says.

"When we were sitting at the (Toronto) concert, my wife said she had trouble reconciling this terrible painful life of Brian Wilson's, with this joyful music. Is it ironic, or is he trying to overcome?

"For me, he has always used music as a way to overcome pain, and I think that is what our song is about: Being incapacitated, but the power of music to bring you out of that."

The group's new album, "Maroon," which arrives in stores Sept. 12, builds on that theme, the power of music and the effect it can have on both the artist and listener, and it also follows up on the band's breakthrough U.S. hit, "Stunt."

Page spoke to JAM! at length about the making of "Maroon," and the new pressures the band faces. Here's what Page had to say.

You recorded the album with producer Don Was, who is best known for working with people like Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan, but was also a member of the band Was (Not Was), of "Walking The Dinosaur" fame. What was it that drew you to working with him?
I knew who he was and I actually liked Was (Not Was) in the day. I thought they were interesting, but written off as a novelty group, and kind of an intersting funk-mixed-with-Zappa kind of thing. But when he started producing records, I always thought they were a little too straight for me.

They were really kind of, a little bit bare and open. At that point, I wanted something that sounded lusher and a little more produced and experimental album. Then I heard the (Paul) Westerberg album he did last year and the Iggy Pop record, and I loved them both. I thought the Westerberg record was so gutsy, starting out with two or three piano songs, before an electric guitar or drums.

I got the sense from listening to those records, that this is a guy who listens to the songs, sees the artists and says; what do we need to show people? Strip away the veneer and show them what we need to show them.

So we met with him and got along with him great and realized that he had a connection with us in the sense that he was in a band that he took seriously and worked very hard at, and it had a novelty hit. And he hasn't come to terms with that novelty hit yet. He still feels like they got ripped off because of it ("Walkin' The Dinosaur").

Ripped off in what way? Financially? Artistically?
People didn't see what the band actually was, and that became a burden for Was (Not Was). What was a throwaway song for them became THEIR SONG, and that was it. And they couldn't do anything past that because people only wanted to hear "Dinosaur."

He knew what it was like to be written off as a novelty or comedy thing, knowing there was a lot more there. It was important for him to show who we actually were. But I think he knew how comfortable we were with our sense of humor and he was impressed with that.

So your fear was that Barenaked Ladies ran the risk of being dismissed as a novelty act?
The record company in the States always wanted us to release "If I Had $1,000,000" and release that as a hit. I couldn't stomach that. If we have a hit with that, we will be "The Million Dollars Act" forever. Later, fine. But we had to have a hit first.

We have had a hit now, so you can kind of do anything. I know we have an audience who knows who we are now, and that is fine. "One Week" was a fun song and had a novelty element to it, and I was finally comfortable with the novelty element of it. That song was so us, it wasn't trying to be someone else.

So how did Was pass on his experience with Was (Not Was) to you? What did it teach him that he passed on to you?
Working with Don, he kept us aware of our audience in a way that in some ways made us uncomfortable. I thought, you are not supposed to be aware of your audience when you make a record. You just make a record.

He said, what is your job? Your job is to make people happy. Some band's job is to make people sad, or to make people want to dance. Or whatever. And it is true. I realized that on the last tour. My job is, people should walk out of the show feeling better than when they walked in.

If I can make you think about stuff or take people on an emotional journey over the course of a show or an album, all the better. But what is it people like about us? There are certain things we do that nobody else does, so let's do them, because we do them better than everyone else. He kind of milked that from us.

But how does that influence manifest itself on the record?
A lot of it would be in song selection. We recorded 17 songs and put 13 on the record. And I think his argument was some of the lighter songs that we didn't take very seriously, he was like: Put them on the record. It is part of who you are.

We had such a great time making it, but you make a record full of dark songs, even though we didn't think it was a downer record, he kind of made us realize that if you don't balance the song selection, the audience is going to see it as a downer record, even if we don't feel like that. So make it a balanced record, put all of your personality into it.

Has that been a problem in the past?
I don't know. I think most of our records are pretty balanced, but a few were a little too long, so they seemed more expansive than they should have. I don't have a big problem with any of our records. Like, "Born On A Pirate Ship" was always my least favorite. And then in the studio, Don put on "I Know," and I hadn't heard it in years. We were pinned to the back of our seats. This is nuts!

It was that kind of thing, him showing us what we do best that made us go into the studio and play with more abandon, and I think that is what happened with this record. It finally sounds the most what the band sounds like. It is 90% us standing in the studio live. The vocals are almost all us standing in the studio playing, except for maybe two songs. We just added stuff on top, we never replaced anything.

This is the first time you've made a record in Los Angeles. Does that have an impact?
You can get anything you want there. Last record ("Stunt"), we did the beds in Austin, and we were looking for a Farfisa organ. Austin Texas, music town! We wanted a Farfisa for a couple of tracks. We could not find one anywhere.

It was hell there! The gear in the studio was all breaking down. We mixed "Stunt" in Nashville, so there was a fancy hi-tech studio. We said, next album, lets do it in a real studio somewhere, so we don't have to worry about it. We are kind of past that point of looking for a vibe or setting up in a castle. We can kind of get a vibe anywhere. We have played in worse clubs than any studio is, and done better shows.

Let's go somewhere where they've got the gear and if it breaks down, someone can fix it. And we can go about the business of making music. We could rent whatever. Let's get tympanis today!. Or Jim Scott (the album's engineer) had a great selection of horrible keyboards, little 60s and 70s Kimball organs. We had this one called a Kimball Swinger that we used on a lot of songs. Some of them, it really sticks out with the cheesy organ sound, and some it kind of blends into the grainy vibe of the song.

We already have a million guitars, but we had access to amazing gutiars. Keith Richards' guitar tech has a collection of guitars that may or may not be Keiths, and rented them out to us. Maybe Keith has touched this one!

For the most part, BNL songs have been about relationships. But this record gets a little more outward-looking, particularly the track "Sell, Sell, Sell." Where did that come from?
I guess it came in the wake of the Time-Warner-AOL merger, and realizing we are a part of that (Time-Warner is the parent company of their record label). We started getting people like (Time-Warner boss) Gerald Levin saying: 'You are the flagship band to the merger' ... which means we are first to die in the revolution!

We were thinking ... what is it we are funding? What are we really funding? I remember during the Gulf War a statistic saying the two biggest exports are entertainment and arms. You make "Rambo" to create a hero to create an enemy, to sell weapons. You sell more weapons, or are you making these weapons to sell movies, and bad guys and good guys? The Cold War ended, and what happened to Stallone? He's gone.

The song is about a guy who is a talented artist who becomes a pawn for big business, which is Hollywood. Hollywood is supposed to be this big renegade place, but we fuel the corporate world. I wanted to write about that in a lighthearted way. It is about inventing bad guys, how disgusted I get at fellow artists, screenwriters or actors or directors, who say we need a bad guy, let's choose one.

The thing in "Wag The Dog" is they chose Albania, and then Albania became the focus of a war a year later. They chose the most implausible country and it became a reality. So many movies it has been the middle east or the Arabs. You just choose a random country so you can sell people weapons and sell these movies?

In this day and age, is it enough to stay conscious of these conflicts, or is there something you have to do about it?
That is part of what this record is about. it is realizing that you have a voice, and do you use it or not? The song "Helicopters" is about that. People who take a stand, or artists who fly in to Kosovo or Columbine or wherever else.

I mean, after the Columbine shootings, we were invited by Teen People (magazine) to play a concert in Colorado for the survivors. We said no, but the reason we said no was: What are we doing? Are we selling Teen People magazine, or are we doing something for these people?

If we were doing it for them, why weren't they asking for it? Why was it a Time-Warner publication asking for it? I didn't want to offend anybody because it is sensitive. But we wanted to be giving and gracious and I want to be able to share whatever we do, if it was going to help. But what was it going to help? What was it actually helping?

Thinking about that and about also how much I made fun of Sting or Bono or whatever else, when they take a stand, that it is self-aggrandizing or self-promoting. But how do you, as someone who has a voice, speak out about something? Or do you not? Do you just keep your mouth shut and do your thing.

And write a cheque.
Or write a cheque and let the rest of the world deal with it.

It was about being asked to do those kind of things and things that might affect you to your core, and then after the cameras are gone, you are still there reeling over it and nobody cares anymore, and the rest of the world makes fun of you for opening your mouth to begin with.

But you are doing Farm Aid, right?
First of all, Neil (Young) and Willie (Nelson) are involved, and you can't say no. They are pretty high up the totem pole for us. Essentially, I think it reflects two big things: The erradicatin of the family farm. And the fact that it is the food we eat. It is an American project, but they are the country that is going to make the changes the rest of the world will follow, whether with genetically altered foods or organic foods.

Your song on "Maroon," "Tonight Is The Night I Fell Asleep At The Wheel," treads a fine line between a very serious topic — highway crashes — and taking an almost whimsical tone. The song is narrated by the driver as he's in mid-crash.
I have sort of had that in my mind for a time. I always imagined it happening ... when my wife was living in London, Ont., I would drive home from seeing her, and where is it, Winston Churchill, when it goes to three lanes and that curve? You could get lulled into this thing: What if I fell asleep now? Everybody has those moments where you wake yourself up and realize you just about lost the wheel.

And it is more than anything about that flipping in mid-air and going, I can't do anything about it. That lack of terror, that feeling of Oh shit, I am going to die. But the essence of the song is about being complacent about what you have and realizing too late you are going to miss it.

It is obviously metaphorical, but it is about losing control of your life and losing what is really important to you.