SameDiff BNL

Naked Truth

By MARK BROWN, Denver Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer,, October 17th 2000.

Barenaked Ladies delve deeper with 'Maroon'

Maybe, just maybe, Maroon will finally end the "novelty" tag that the Barenaked Ladies have carried around — rather unjustly — since their brilliant 1992 debut, Gordon. The public has picked up on their quirkier songs — One Week, the current single Pinch Me.

But longtime fans are equally as enamored with their darker, more personal reflections on human interaction — What a Good Boy, Blame It on Me, Break Your Heart.

Even their jauntiest hit, the happy sing-along If I Had $1,000,000, keeps coming back to a cynical refrain: "If I had $1,000,000/ I'd buy your love." And plenty of songs that are funny or light on first blush — The Old Apartment, Jane — have edges filled with regret, anger, unfulfilled dreams.

"There's kind of a lot of that through a lot of our records," says singer/ songwriter Steven Page. "I'm not sure what it is that appeals to me about that. But the idea of regret is one of the most powerful human experiences."

Barenaked Ladies — Canadians Page, Ed Robertson, Tyler Stewart, Jim Creegan and Kevin Hearn — bring their catalog of songs, big and small, to the Pepsi Center tonight. Despite some somber themes on Maroon, expect the usual high-spirited, high-energy fun, punctuated by poignant moments, especially considering Hearn's well-chronicled bout with leukemia, which has kept him off the road for much of the past few years.

That had something to do with the more serious bent of Maroon, Page says.

"I just turned 30. It's not a huge deal, but it's a deal where you think, 'OK, have I done what I wanted to do with my life?' And watching friends and everyone around you who's at that age and thinking 'Have they done what their dreams are?' It's the point in your life where you think 'I've dreamed my whole life about things.' You kinda have to evaluate where you are. I'm successful, but is that the important part? Have I achieved what I wanted to achieve? It's not necessarily all about the cover of People magazine."

Maroon turned out to be a suite of songs about wasted lives and missed potential, couched in the Ladies' trademark irreverent humor and sharp insights. Pinch Me, Sell Sell Sell, Off the Hook and Baby Seat look at people who never quite get it together, never quite live their lives.

"Kevin's illness... was the bigger influence on the lyrics of the record. You think 'I could die at any time.' Kevin almost died twice in a year," Page says.

"We don't notice any of those themes until the record is long done. We write song by song. But even the songs that didn't make the record were like that; some of the reasons why they didn't make it was some of them were actually too dark," Page says.

And even the darker songs have some redemption, such as Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel, where Page imagines himself dying in an auto accident, somewhat reminiscent of Bloodrock's gory '70s hit, DOA.

"My wife, before we were married, used to go to university about 21/2 hours out of Toronto," Page says. "I used to drive out and visit her and drive home at 3 in the morning. I remember coming toward the city and thinking I could just flip off the road into the snow right now. You have those moments where your eyes close for just a second. I'd think what if I died on that night?"

In the song that happens, and he has a few moments to reflect on his life — and witness the uninvolved bystanders — before he dies.

"The other theme of the record is how other people can just stand around and watch and not help," he continues. "The climate we live in now is with reality-based television and so on. There's a lot of people just kind of gawking, the rubberneckers of life."

Despite those somber themes, Maroon is "less about regret and more about deciding to take action," he says. "We've had so many songs in the past where we've been kind of the observer, where we were in some ways the rubberneckers. This record is about learning to take action in your life."

Indeed, the final, hidden track, Hidden Sun, is an upbeat song about life, written and sung by Hearn.

"It was incredibly emotional," Page says. The band isolated Hearn in one studio to sing and play keyboards, while they backed him from another studio. "For us, he was just this ghostly voice in the headphones as we played the song. It had an odd symbolism; Kevin had been away from us for two years. We just knew it had to be on the record, but didn't fit anywhere."

What's strange for BNL is that they had pretty much resigned themselves to that sort of missed-potential category.

"By the time of Born on a Pirate Ship and the live album, we had kind of resigned ourselves to being a very popular cult band, and realized that it was a very enviable position to be in," Page says. "Most bands never get to that level. We could go out and play a couple of thousand seats in almost every city and keep doing it. People kept wanting to come not because you were promoting something, but because they liked to go."

The Ladies' management had to talk them into recording Rock Spectacle, a live album of all their biggest songs. Live albums generally don't get airplay, and BNL had only three studio albums before it. And it was hardly a greatest-hits album, because they hadn't had any genuine stateside hits.

"We certainly had a hard time being convinced to do it," Page says. "Then our soundman said that's what Cheap Trick did — three studio albums and a live record, and the live record was the big one. That was good enough for me."

While Rock Spectacle hardly posted Cheap Trick Live at Budokan numbers, it did go gold in the U.S. — a first for the band — and gave new radio life to 1992's Brian Wilson.

So when they went in to record the 1998 breakthrough Stunt, they had some momentum and saw it as a chance 'for the public to catch onto what I think we've always been doing. We didn't have to change for it to happen."

When the single One Week took off, they suddenly became stars, not only at home but in the U.S. mainstream that had politely ignored them for years.

With success came backlash; the Barenaked Ladies was the pride of Canada, but once the band got stateside success they were deemed sell-outs.

"If you're a fan of anything and it's you own personal elite club, then you have to share it with the world, it must be the fault of the artist," Page says. "They must have changed for the worse for the rest of the world to be turned on to them. If you love them, it's because you're really smart and well-informed. If the rest of the world loves them, they can't be as smart as you are, so the band must have dumbed itself down."

Besides, being big is fun.

"There's a romanticism about the clubs that I don't hold," Page says. "I don't need to go play on a tiny stage in a really hot little room with puke all over the floor in the dressing room. There's nothing romantic about that to me. I like the intimacy with the audience, but I prefer having the space and making sure that it looks and sounds exactly the way we want it to.

"Besides, we love to mess with the form of the big rock show. For us, it's still in the land of parody. We can't hardly believe we're at that level, and while we're here, we might as well have fun with it."

After 4 million in sales with Stunt, "I know we were supposed to be scared, but we weren't at all. It was kinds like 'Gee, we've got fans now and they like us for what we do. Let's keep doing that,"' Page says.

BNL is a band that is totally at ease onstage, yet in the studio they aren't as loose, getting "that stage fright that happens when 'record' and 'play' get pressed," Page says.

So they were determined to turn it around. Page and Robertson had drifted apart in their writing, and consciously set out to write the songs together.

"We went into it saying 'Let's make it as much of a Page/ Robertson collaboration as we can,' because in some ways, that's what the heart and soul of the band is," he says.

In the same way, rather than meticulously overdubbing, the whole band decided to record the album "live" in the studio — all in the same room, paying at the same time, rather than slowly building the tracks as is the norm. Working with producer Don Was was great because "he understood us right away. After being in a band himself that had been pigeonholed as a novelty-type thing (Was/Not Was), he really wanted to fight for us," Page says.

The result was one of the quickest and easiest albums they ever recorded, with an historic meeting-of-the-minds to book. Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys genius, had long loved BNL's Brian Wilson, the song. The band got word he was going to do it for his live album at the Roxy in L.A. earlier this year.

"I didn't want to get excited because there was a time a few years before when he was going to come and play Surfin USA with us in Chicago and he canceled an hour before the show," Page says.

But Wilson made good, playing the song live then bringing a then-unreleased tape of it to the studio as the Ladies were recording Maroon.

He played it, then asked "So it cool, guys?"

"You're asking ME if it's cool?" Page recalls with disbelief. "How bizarre. We'd never even had a song covered before. The first one we ever got covered is Brian Wilson BY Brian Wilson. It doesn't get any weirder than that."