SameDiff BNL

A Few Nude Men

By MICHAEL BARCLAY, eye, November 23rd, 2000.

The GuysBarenaked Ladies chalk up hard-earned international success to their thick Scarberian skin

You can take the boys out of Scarborough, but you can't take the Scarborough out of the boys. After sharing mutual memories about tobogganing at Masaryktown, Ed Robertson admits that growing up in Scarberia has given the Barenaked Ladies a thick skin from day one.

"We were always outsiders in some respect," says Robertson, during some rare time off at home. "At every stage in our career, we've heard, 'Oh, it will never work in X'; 'Oh, it's huge in Toronto, but it will never work in Vancouver'; 'Oh, it's huge in Canada, but it will never work in America.'

"We've overcome those things. It's being from Scarborough, it's being a little brother, it's being whatever — all of your experiences shape you. I guess we were groomed to be underdogs and then overcome."

And overcome they have. Their dogged persistence and workaholic natures led to hard-earned international success that even the snippiest home-town critics — and there were more than a few, including this here paper — couldn't begrudge them. But with their fifth studio release, Maroon (Warner), they've finally made an album that doesn't require any apologies.

The Ladies' musicianship was never in question, but this time they've improved their melodic songcraft and arranging abilities exponentially, delivering three of the most stirring songs they've ever put to disc: "Helicopters," Kevin Hearn's "Hidden Sun" and "Tonight's the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel," a song that an unintentionally hilarious Macleans article dubbed "Cronenbergian." Most importantly, they've left the one-liners for the live show — the result of a more intensely collaborative songwriting process for Robertson and Steven Page.

"With this record," he explains, "we sat together in a room with no songs, and we stared at each other until it all came. We really check each other. Some joke that we might let ourselves get away with, when the other guy is in the room he'll say, 'No, that's too goofy.' At the same time I like those things, because I like things to be immediate, but we always leave a lot of room for that onstage."

That means that thankfully there are no "pre-wrapped bacon" jokes or cringey references to "Chickity China the Chinese chicken," short-shelf-life punch lines that Robertson doesn't regret. "Everything we've done has got us to where we are, good or bad. I can't second-guess it. I still really enjoy playing all the older stuff live."

By making their best album to date, the Barenaked Ladies have finally beaten the post-novelty trap. "One Week" will now refer only to their breakthrough American single, not the length of their "overnight" success. "I feel like this band has had several lives," says Robertson (the band's many lives will be documented in an authorized biography by Paul Myers due next year). "We're in the 12th year of this band. People say to us, 'The Americans think you're an overnight success — or excess! — and they don't know how hard you've worked.' And sometimes even I'm not really aware of it all."

In a typically self-aware move, Maroon's opening track is titled "Too Little Too Late," although Robertson feels somewhat vindicated that people are appreciating the band's progression. "This is actually the first time I've read reviews of our record and agreed with them," he says. "Not the dismissive ones, but the positive reviews that were in Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, they listed strengths and weaknesses that I totally agreed with. We've always been misunderstood or suspect, like we have some motivation to fool people."

The Ladies' show at the Air Canada Centre will be their biggest in Toronto, a chance to celebrate their recent success and, most importantly, the live return of beloved keyboardist Kevin Hearn after a bout with leukemia sidelined him from the most intense period of the band's career. It's also a chance to show home-town fans a spectacle they haven't yet seen.

"It's nice for us to come back home and put on the same show we carry around the U.S.," says Robertson, describing the stage shows as a "Dr. Seuss meets Tim Burton nightmarish vision." "We're used to doing this big rock show across America and then having to scale down when we come home, because we just haven't had the fan base in the past couple of years."

Remember that this band single-handedly altered perceptions of independent Canadian pop in the early '90s with a small yellow tape that sold near platinum. They were spawned from a cooperative music scene that in turn opened doors for countless other bands.

"We were conscious of wanting to build things and make it viable," says Robertson. "We thought, 'This can happen here.' That time period of '91-'92 was one-for-all-and-all-for-one. It was very cool. Everybody was playing with everybody else and supporting each other at gigs. I feel so detached from it now because we're on the road so much. People ask us, 'Hey, can you name us some other Canadian bands?' And I'm like, 'Um... the Rheostatics?' There are so many new bands that I don't even know."

Before recording Maroon, the band took some downtime at home, during which Robertson's occasional club-going was considered newsworthy enough to make local on-the-scene reports. "I went to see a couple of Starling shows and that was it," he laughs. "Tyler [Stewart, drummer] said to me, 'I go to see three bands every fucking night that we're home! You go out once a year and it makes the paper!'

"I have two young kids, so when I come home, I'm dying to spend time with them. My son got up at a quarter to five this morning, so I don't want to be dead to the world and reeking of smoke when he starts pounding on my head."