Ladies Back On TrackBy JANE STEVENSON, Toronto Sun, September 10th 2000.
Toronto pop band Barenaked Ladies made their early reputation on clever novelty songs, such as Be My Yoko Ono and Brian Wilson.
But the period leading up to the group's latest album, Maroon, was no laughing matter.
It was literally one of life and death.
Keyboardist Kevin Hearn was diagnosed with leukemia just as the Ladies' previous album was being recorded. In 1998, Stunt would become the band's biggest record with sales of 3.5 million in the U.S. alone.
"I was in the hospital when the album was released, and when it hit No. 1, I was a very bald, skinny, white man," Hearn said during a recent interview to promote Maroon, which lands in stores Tuesday.
"It was very serious. It was blood cancer. And if it moved into the next stage of the cancer, it would have been untreatable. And they don't know, it could have gone into the next stage, the next day, the next week, the next month. So I basically had to just put my life on the backburner and hope that I could get through this. Even in doing that, it wasn't a guarantee that I would stay alive."
Added singer Steven Page, at Hearn's side: "The day before his (treatment), was the day we left to go on tour to support the record. At that point, Kev couldn't move anymore. I just watched him get worse and worse."
Needless to say, when success came south of the border, after a decade of slugging it out in Canada, it was bittersweet.
"It was hard to stay focused on the success we were having and on the work schedule we had," Page said. "It was hard to stay focused on how Kev was, and hard to stay in touch with anything. It was very difficult."
Even though the treatment was successful, Hearn ended up having to deal with a whole new immune system in his body, "and then that nearly killed him all over again ... So it was like two years of two separate battles and we thought after the first time, 'Okay, we're in the clear, now he's back.' But he's just back now and he's still not 100%."
Still, Hearn managed to make it out to play with the Ladies on the road whenever he could, and plans to do the same as they head out again in support of Maroon.
"Basically the doctor said, 'You know you've got to do what makes you feel good whenever you can.' So that's what I did. And the band was flexible enough and really encouraged me to do that. Initially, when I went in (to the hospital), I was worried because it's not like I had been with the band since it started, so I felt there could be some tentativeness there as far as, 'How far are they willing to support me through this?' But they were absolutely there for me. And it really made me feel closer to them."
Naturally, such a crisis couldn't help but influence the making of Maroon, which saw the Ladies hook up with acclaimed, Grammy-winning producer Don Was (Rolling Stones) in Los Angeles for seven weeks.
"Yeah, I think it definitely did," Page said. "At the same time Kevin was diagnosed with cancer, my grandmother died of cancer and I was really, really, really close with her. She was one of my absolute favourite people in the world, and she died. And I didn't expect she would. She's the kind of person I thought would outlive me. And it happened real fast. We were in Texas making (Stunt), I actually had to fly home and be with her while she died and so on.
"Between those two struggles, and watching people struggle with actual life-and-death stuff, it just made me think about the things that I have that are great and how it's important to take advantage of the good things in your life and the people you love and the world outside of your own, little tiny world.
"And so I think that's what a lot of the songs are about for me. It's about acting on things and acting on your emotions. It's about the heart and the precedence that it should take over the mind, in a lot of cases."
Maroon might also help people move on from the novelty tag that has shadowed the Ladies over the past 12 years.
"It's just not as glib as some of the other records were, so it doesn't have that same kind sarcastic humour that some of the other songs have," Page said.
Hearn elaborated: "I also find, from my point of view, with Steve's lyrics in particular is that he used to subtley coat things, and you'd have to kind of peel the layers off a little bit before you found that bitter, darker stuff underneath. But it's a bit more in-your-face now."
The band also recorded a wildly different sounding tune hidden at the end of Maroon that Hearn wrote about his cancer. He sings lead vocals.
"I wrote it in the hospital and I guess I was encouraged to bring some ideas into the album, so I brought in about four songs and the other four were kind of less serious, kind of comical, or more vague in what they were about," Hearn said. "But I think the band and Don Was really kind of keyed into this song."
Added Page: "In some ways it sounds like a different record. I think we all felt incredibly proud of the song. It was a really moving evening recording that song, and it just kind of kept getting better and better as we added overdubs. We were all so excited that we had done it."
The Ladies also recorded another Hearn track, Born Human, that Page says will eventually surface somewhere else.
Working with Was, who was specifically chosen for his work with Iggy Pop and Paul Westerberg, meant the Ladies had to shack up in what they call "corporate housing," an apartment complex across the street from the Warner studios in Burbank.
While those living conditions weren't always pleasant, working with Was was.
Especially since he was the catalyst that finally cleared the way for the band to meet Brian Wilson, just as they were wrapping up recording Maroon.
After some previous false starts, they didn't actually believe they would ever meet the former Beach Boy.
"He was supposed to come to a couple of shows of ours, one of which he was going to sing Surfin' USA with us, and we learned he cancelled 20 minutes before he was supposed to show up," Page said. "So we just assumed this wasn't actually going to happen.
"And then when Don came up to do pre-production rehearsals with us, he said, 'I just went to see Brian Wilson the other night and he did your song. It was amazing. He recorded it.' So he said he would try to get a copy of it. So he actually got Brian and (his wife) Melinda to come into the studio and play the disc for us. I mean, we've never had a cover of ours recorded before, never mind the guy that the song's about. It is so odd."
And leave it to Wilson to have some quizzical parting words.
"Remember fellas! Don't eat too much!" Hearn recalled with a smile.
"It was so weird. When I was five, like, I listened to God Only Knows and all those songs, and to have him sitting right as close as Steve is to me now, I just wanted to hug him and say thanks."
The BARENAKED LADIES File: