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The Barenaked Facts

By JONATHAN TAKIFF, Daily News Staff Writer, Philadelphia Daily News, October 27th 2000.

These guys are more than a novelty band

OK, OK, so sometimes Steve Page does sound like a Broadway singer with a voice that's almost too good for pop. And yes, the group's biggest hits have all been lumped under the category of "novelty" tunes, which to some minds makes them less than serious "artistes."

But see Barenaked Ladies in their charmer of a documentary film, "Barenaked in America" (out soon on DVD), or give a serious listen to the Canadian quintet's latest album, "Maroon," and you've got to come away with a much different impression. It's the realization that these guys do have a thoughtful core, serious musical chops and genuinely ingratiating personalities. All that and clever pop songs that stick to your brain like Krazy Glue.

Sparked by their headlining appearance at the First Union Spectrum tomorrow, we got on the horn with the band's Ed Robertson — the other front guy who shares the singing and songwriting duties, and also the wackiest free-style rapper on this square planet.

Would you agree there's been a lot of misunderstanding about your band, when they write you off as a novelty act?

Absolutely, but I don't fault people one bit. There's a lot more to this band than "One Week" and "If I Had a Million Dollars," "Brian Wilson" and "Be My Yoko Ono." Hey, there must be more to Smash Mouth, too. There's a lot of bands you write off as that one thing, but there's only so much time in the day to devote to this stuff.

Truth is, we have a great live show, and if people want to get into the records, that's there, and if you just like the singles, that's cool, too.

Were you happy with the way the "Barenaked in America" film came out? Do you think [director] Jason Priestley did a good job of exploring the band's personality and history?

We thought it was pretty cool. The movie gives you a real slice of what the "Stunt" tour was like — that kind of sudden, startling success we finally got in the States. We've been around for a while; we're in our 12th year now. At home, we saw a lot of good success in '91, '92. Then there was a bit of a backlash. So we basically went away, worked hard on getting things going in America. Now we're planning our first Canadian tour in three or four years.

What is it about the Canadian sense of humor? Why is it that so many funny people have come out of your country and done well in the U.S.?

We're fortunate that most Americans speak Canadian. It's an observational thing, like Scottish comedians do well in the U.K. You live in a small country on top of a superpower. You can sit back and talk about how you'd do it better. I think Canadians grow up like that — with no guns and free health care. "If we were in charge down there, we'd have kicked their a--." Plus, we get all the benefits of your media and at the same time we're not American. Maybe 'cause you're in the thick of it, you don't get to sit back and comment on it.

I'm struck by the spontaneity of your shows and your crowd. It's almost like a Grateful Dead or Phish concert, isn't it — no two exactly alike?

The prime thing we have going for us is a live show that's really unique and cool. We have a rabid live following that know all the songs and act like our missionaries. They bring their friends to the shows and then get them into it. It's two hours of non-stop pop. We do jamming, improv, but not 10-minute solos.

Are you really free-styling on the crowd?

Absolutely. I'm droppin' science, droppin' rhymes.

There's some wild stuff going on in your lyrics. Like that allusion in "Go Home" to Catherine the Great and being "the horse to help her meet her fate." Do you think the audience always knows what you're talking about?

If they want to get into it, it's there. If not, it's a cute little rhyme.

On a serious note, how's Kevin Hearn? (The group's keyboardist, Hearn was diagnosed with leukemia in 1998 just as the group's "Stunt" album hit the stores. That's why he had to miss that whole "victory lap" tour documented in the film. Hearn subsequently endured two years of cancer treatments and a bone marrow transplant.)

Actually, Kevin's doing exceptionally well, thank you. He's all over the "Maroon" album and has been back on the road with us the last four or five months. He's come so far, looks and feels so good. He's kicked cancer's a--.

Is it true that one of your happiest moments on the Stunt tour was here in our town, meeting Bobby Clarke and singing the national anthem at a Flyers game before going across the parking lot to do your own show?

Absolutely, although I don't think he had a clue to who we were, and why we were asking all about this stuff that happened on the ice in the '70s.

Can we talk a little about some of the most intriguing songs on "Maroon"? What's "Sell Sell Sell" really all about?

It's kind of about the marriage of acting and politics. It's about guys like Schwarzenegger and Stallone, but really more about a Daniel Day-Lewis — a fine actor, who unwittingly becomes a Schwarzenegger-type action-movie hero. He gets offered bigger and bigger movies, and winds up the mouthpiece of behind-the-scenes Republican spin doctors, the guys who'd say, "Hey Arnie, could you do us a favor? Could you make a movie with Syrians as bad guys? We need some justification to go in there and bomb the hell out of the country."

And what's the deal with the character in "Helicopters" who witnesses the horrors of war? Is he a journalist or a musician?

He's a musician who's been asked to be a journalist, and that comes out of our own experience. We've been approached a lot by world aid organizations to go and help out and participate in relief efforts. It makes me think, what will people think to see us going to Rwanda? It's already hard enough for them to take our music seriously. The last thing you want is for people to question your motives as artistry and hype, and ignore the underlying issue. Look at Sting and his work on behalf of saving the rain forest. He's put a lot of effort into trying to make change and people say, "Oh Sting and the rain forest, like he really cares." And the fact is he really does care. He doesn't need any extra hype and publicity. So that song is about how you let various charities and causes use you, but your motives are questioned. It's about a musician seeing something profound and wanting to do something about it. But only he's profoundly changed and his celebrity can't change anything. I really like that line in the song, "A world that loves its irony must hate the protest singer."

And what's with all those songs early on in the album about duffers, about people who can't seem to find their way in the world?

I like to call those "autobiographical." Every song is a mix of fact and fiction, observation and self-appraisal. It's something I've thought about a lot. I'm just turning 30. I'm fortunate to do something I love, but there are so many friends I've grown up with who're struggling with what they do. I'm so friggin' lucky. What if I hadn't gone for broke, put all my eggs in one basket? I could still be struggling. I think there's a lot of dedicated people who don't get that magical mix of luck, good breaks and timing. There are certainly better bands than us, but none luckier.

Do you think pop music has unfairly gotten a bad name?

I think it's always the root, whether you listen to Blink 182, Backstreet Boys or Britney, there are pop songs in there. Sometimes they're dressed up with makeup and costumes, but if there isn't a pop song there's nothing in there. That's a problem a lot of bands will have. All they have is a swift beat and cool arrangement and cool video, but there's no song. Two years from now, nobody will be singing the song 'cause there is no song. They might be doing the dance, or talking 'bout the video, but they won't talk about the song. People are still covering songs from the '50s, '60s and '70s. Why? Because they're great songs. Yes, there are great songs now, but technology is so readily available, and the hype and production machine are so in place that something can rocket to the top with no substance. We don't want to be throwaway popsters. We're trying to write great songs and push the limit of pop, the music we love.