SameDiff BNL

If they had a million tour dates, the Barenaked Ladies would still find ways to keep their shows fresh

By BRIAN McCOLLUM, Detroit Free Press, December 6th, 2000.

If Eminem is the dean of young angst, Macy Gray the queen of hipster cachet, then the Barenaked Ladies are the pre-eminent spokesmen for a much-neglected demographic:

The goofy white guy.

Such is the assessment of bassist Jim Creeggan. In so many words.

"There's a cultural identification with us that goes pretty deep. I see a lot of guys out there who look like Steve Page and stuff," he says with a laugh, noting his vocalist's all-suburb college-guy look. "With us, it's more than a musical thing — it's tied into an identity thing. Steve Page is the biggest wally on the earth, but he can dance like no other, and he does it 100 percent. There's something really joyous about that."

The band has certainly found some empathy in Detroit. The Toronto five-piece has shows tonight and Thursday at the Palace of Auburn Hills, sustaining a hot streak that has made it a Motor City concert favorite for half a decade.

The shows are something of legend: There's that lively audience participation, including scripted moments out of a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" screening. The jokey jams on unorthodox songs like "Jessie's Girl" and "Eye of the Tiger." The improv raps and winking humor between tunes.

It has all led to an impressive bond between audience and artist, a party-with-your-pals vibe that seems to keep the fans it attracts. Plenty of bands claim a kinship with fans, but the Barenaked Ladies are among the few that can say it with authority.

"Part of it is the fact that we always keep our shows fresh," says Creeggan. "People could come to 10 shows in a row and it would be different each time, as far as what we talk about, the songs we make up. It fosters a 'Hey, you wanna go tour with the Ladies?' kind of thing."

But it wasn't all fun and games on BNL's latest album, "Maroon," which found lead songwriters Page and Ed Robertson venturing into more introspective territory. Upon its release in September, critics and fans were quick to dub it the group's "serious album," but Creeggan isn't so sure that's an apt label.

"There have always been been serious songs on the albums — 'serious' is such a funny word, such a cold generalization — mixed in with the more light-hearted ones," he says. "But when it comes down to categorizing, I know it's difficult for people."

He laughs. "I think it's that the cover of this album is much more serious. Maroon, the color, is more of a serious color, I guess."

Most Americans got their introduction to the band via 1999's "One Week," the infectious summer single that hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 and provided a quick rock breather on radio airwaves crammed with dance-pop. For a band that had been toiling in relative anonymity on the American scene, the newfound success seemed to up the ante.

But Creeggan says that the Ladies were already veterans in the expectations field, having navigated their own self-imposed mandates over the years.

"When we went in, we realized we had been making albums under different expectations all along," he says. "We'd gotten used to that, so it sort of faded into the background. We're always conscious of what we did before, and don't want to fall into the same habits. We're trying not to repeat ourselves."

Guitarist Robertson is "definitely the funnel" when it comes to crafting song selections and making group decisions, Creeggan says. But ultimately the Ladies are akin to a board of directors behind the scenes.

"Everybody pretty much has a sense when something's working and when it's not," he says. "That's something we don't usually argue about it."

On "Maroon," some of those conscious choices include "Helicopters," "Sell Sell Sell" and "Off the Hook," songs that paint a darker coat onto the group's upbeat stylings. All have worked their way into the group's new live set, sandwiched between familiar fan favorites like "Be My Yoko Ono" and "If I Had $1000000."

"We've figured out what really works for us. Some songs we keep in there — like 'Sell Sell Sell' — to challenge the audience," he says. "It's so easy to go for songs that have that immediate recognition. But we're happy to include those, too."

To its relief, the quintet is learning that it can make a name for itself in its homeland again. After debuting with a bang in the early '90s, the group found its Canadian appeal waning just as it began carving out an audience in the United States. Creeggan says it took the American success of "One Week" — and the resulting press attention — to spur Canadians to pay attention again.

"We just played a huge arena in our hometown. That hasn't happened for a long, long time," he says. "The mainstream forgot about us for a while. Now, it's sort of the product of Canada receiving all the U.S. media. It's like, 'Oh wow, Barenaked Ladies, right.' "

And that's pretty fly by Creeggan.

"We're the unlikely rock stars," he says. "Here you have a big rock star situation with atypical rock stars. Sort of ironic, you know?"