SameDiff BNL

Barenaked Ladies seek another success with "Maroon"

By GARY GRAFF, Yahoo News, September 29th 2000.

After selling 4 million copies of its last album, the Canadian pop group Barenaked Ladies hopes to prove that success was no mere Stunt.

But singer-guitarist Ed Robertson says the quintet tried to keep the pressure of expectations from weighing too heavily as it prepared its new release, Maroon, which debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard charts and at No. 2 in Canada.

"For me, the series of successes we've had have been a confidence boost," says Robertson, who co-founded BNL with singer-guitarist Steven Page in 1990 in Toronto. Robertson sang lead on Stunt's big hit, One Week and on BNL's current single, Pinch Me.

"What worked (on Stunt) was changing and growing and trying to write the best songs we could. The success of 'Stunt' gave us the confidence to keep doing just that. I think people like when a band changes and pushes the boundaries and takes a risk. So we just rewrote the book and made Maroon."

BNL — which also includes bassist Jim Creeggan, drummer Tyler Stewart and keyboardist Kevin Hearn — recorded "Maroon" in Los Angeles with producer Don Was and engineer Jim Scott.

Robertson credits Was and Scott as important participants, not just in helping the group achieve the richest sound of its six albums but also in helping to generate the light-hearted mood the group likes for its sessions.

The studio was decorated with Persian rugs hung on the wall, along with a black velvet painting of Elvis Presley, green and red blinking Christmas lights and plenty of incense sticks.

Was also arranged for BNL to meet legendary Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson, who recently began performing a version of BNL's 1996 hit Brian Wilson during his own concerts.

"It was very bizarre to have Brian Wilson drop by the studio and play you his version of the song," Robertson says. "I mean, that song was written in '88-'89; we were this tiny band in Toronto and thought that Brian Wilson would never hear our music. He looked up at me afterward and said 'Is it cool?'; I did not know how to answer him. What — 'Yeah?' It was amazing."

And when BNL, which traditionally records one song on each album in the buff, did its strip routine for Maroon, the musicians turned around to find Was, Scott and the other studio personnel wearing duct tape over their eyes.

"We picked Don because of his enthusiasm for the project, basically, and for the band," explains Robertson, 29, who resides in Toronto with his wife and two young children. "The record company was pretty keen on having a world-class producer involved with this record, and I have to admit I kinda got my back up about that; 'What do we need a world-class producer for? We've been doing fine so far.'"

Because it didn't have new songs ready yet, BNL solicited producers last summer by sending out tapes of its older material. While others deferred until some fresh ideas were ready, Was asked to meet with the band, flying up to one of its concerts in San Francisco.

"He came back after the show and was like, 'Guys, I get it!'" Robertson recalls. "He said, 'I know what you're doing, and it's great. I don't need to hear new songs. Whatever you guys are doing next, I want to be involved."

"That kind of enthusiasm and that kind of confidence and that respect for what we do and his understanding of it was, 'Well, Don Was is doing the record.'"

Maroon, meanwhile, shows that multi-platinum success hasn't dulled BNL's cheeky and deceptively cheerful creative bent. Distinguished for the clever word play and winking couplets that mark its songs — and occasionally type the band, unfairly, as a novelty — BNL uses that to help convey darker moods and emotions, particularly in personal politics.

Even One Week, which prompted fans to try to memorize Robertson's rapid-fire rapped verses, was at its heart a song about domestic turbulence.

Maroon's songs deal with similarly disarming matters, including relationship woes, self-doubt, the perils of fame and even a light dollop of politics.

One song, Tonight is the Night I Feel Asleep at the Wheel, is a graphic description of a fatal auto accident — partially inspired by a motorcycle wreck in which Robertson's brother died — while the hidden closing track, Hidden Sun, is a gentle rumination written by keyboardist Hearn, who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after Stunt was recorded.

The unifying element is that these are all songs about the frailty of the human condition, which Robertson says can be dealt with in more than melancholy terms.

"To me, there's beauty in tragedy and there's beauty in indecision and beauty in fear, and there's even comedy in those things," he says.

One song Robertson initially felt uneasy about was Pinch Me, whose fast-paced bridge he feared would seem too reminiscent of the band's best-known hit.

"I was so scared people were gonna go, 'Oh, it's like One Week,' which it isn't," Robertson says. "I was so paranoid people would think that that I almost didn't write it. Then I did write it, and I really liked it."

So did BNL's label, Reprise, which — much to BNL's surprise — picked the song as "Maroon's" first single — and also for the soundtrack of the VH1 film At Any Cost.

"They said 'This is gonna be the first single,'" Robertson remembers, "and we were going 'Uh-uh. No! We don't want it to be the first single 'cause we don't want people to think we're just doing One Week again.' And they said, 'Are you insane? We didn't even consider One Week. We love this song."

"So, yeah, we were pretty nervous about that song, but I love it. I love singing it, and I'm happy it's the first thing people heard from the record."

(Gary Graff is a nationally syndicated journalist who covers the music scene from Detroit. He also is the supervising editor of the award-winning "MusicHound" album guide series.)