SameDiff BNL

Barenaked Ambition

By SCOTT LAPATINE,, November 4th, 2000.

The Barenaked Ladies had staffers in stitches when frontmen Ed Robertson and Steven Page dropped by to discuss the band's latest album, Maroon. In addition to fielding questions about the new tunes, the two Ladies cracked lots of jokes and shared a few celebrity impersonations. Ten years ago, it was this unique combination of pop music smarts and pop culture humor that put the Canadian quintet on the map. Five albums later, they're still at it, now with an audience of millions. Welcome to the weird, wonderful world of Barenaked Ladies.

Fans of the bouncy, upbeat sound of earlier BNL albums will not be disappointed by Maroon. However, underneath its lighthearted exterior, the new album finds Robertson and Page exploring uncharacteristically dark themes. "Helicopters" takes issue with society's indifference to foreign devastation. "Off the Hook" — "a gripping tale set against the backdrop of '80s German dance/pop," says Robertson — examines a relationship shattered by adultery. Then there's the somber waltz "Tonight Is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel" — you can probably guess what that one's about.

According to Page, many of the new songs feature characters who are burdened by unrealized ambitions. "I could make a mint ... I'll give you a hint: It involves the Internet," declares a lazy dreamer over crunchy power chords in the slacker anthem "Never Do Anything." The lovable-loser theme continues with "Pinch Me," the story of an average guy coming to terms with life's missed opportunities. "It's about [wanting to] get up and get out there ... but there's an 'All in the Family' marathon on TV," Robertson explains. The video for the track depicts Robertson as a discontented employee of a fast-food restaurant. In the final sequence, he leads his customers in a colorfully choreographed dance number straight out of a Gap commercial.

With its infectious, rapid-fire chorus, "Pinch Me" may remind some listeners of "One Week," the surprise No. 1 hit from BNL's previous album, Stunt. Aware that the similarity between the songs could invite criticism, Page and Robertson were reluctant to release "Pinch Me" as a single. While they're grateful for the massive success of "One Week," the Ladies are quick to dismiss accusations that the tune was a sellout. "How can you sell out to 'the Man' with a line about Chickity China the Chinese chicken?" Page says, referring to one of the song's goofier lines.

In order to take their songwriting to a new level — instead of simply rehashing the quadruple-platinum Stunt — the Ladies enlisted the help of Don Was, the veteran producer whose previous clients include Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones. So what did the guys think of the legendary Was? "He's a really sage guy," says Robertson, "and he actually smelled a bit like sage as well." Page adds, "You'd think a guy that looks the way he does would reek, but he's very clean." In addition to Was' surprisingly top-notch hygiene, Page liked the fact that he did not have a "signature sound" to impose on the band. Instead Was focused on the Barenaked Ladies' vibe, attempting to capture the magic and spontaneity of their dynamic live act.

Those who have yet to experience BNL in concert can see what they've been missing in a documentary hitting theaters this fall. Directed by longtime fan and fellow Canadian Jason Priestley, Barenaked in America was shot over two weeks of the band's last U.S. tour. Naturally, the Ladies were a little freaked out the first time they met the Beverly Hills, 90210 heartthrob. Of this first encounter Robertson remembers thinking, "Brandon Walsh is in my dressing room — this is really messed up!" Almost instantaneously, however, Priestley established a close rapport with the band. Page boasts that Priestley's film has already wowed the cooler-than-thou crowds at Slamdance and the Toronto International Film Festival. In addition to terrific live footage, Barenaked in America features numerous behind-the-scenes antics that are sure to amuse audiences. The film also hits some serious notes, particularly in scenes relating to keyboardist Kevin Hearn's battle with leukemia.

Upon being diagnosed with the illness in early 1998, Hearn sat out the U.S. Stunt tour in order to undergo treatment. Following a successful bone-marrow transplant, he rejoined the band in time to record the new album. Hearn's life-threatening experience inspired Robertson and Page in their songwriting, lending Maroon a sense of gravity missing from other Barenaked Ladies albums. Fortunately, the momentous themes tackled on Maroon did not come at the expense of the sophomoric one-liners and self-deprecating humor that made BNL so popular. While bands like Radiohead and Creed have made careers out of taking themselves too seriously, it's refreshing to see a bunch of songwriters who aren't afraid to poke fun at themselves.

With Maroon, the Barenaked Ladies continue to straddle the line between rock band and novelty act. Equal parts Dave Matthews and "Weird Al" Yankovic, they fill a niche in popular music that few other acts attempt to occupy. The closest comparisons might be drawn to bands like Squeeze and XTC, critical favorites of another era that infused carefully crafted pop tunes with thoughtful lyrics and a sense of humor. BNL's '80s leanings come even more into focus when Robertson and Page name-check Spandau Ballet and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark during the course of our interview. Page claims unconvincingly that the airy synth intro to "Off the Hook" was inspired by OMD's "If You Leave" — yep, the song from Pretty in Pink. He recommends listening to "Off the Hook" while imagining Molly Ringwald and Jon Cryer dancing. "And we are, incidentally, pretty in pink," Robertson chimes in.

Given their new wave sensibilities, do the boys ever feel like they're practicing a lost art? "I feel more that way when I'm doing my alchemy," Robertson jokes. "I'm looking to change just basic metals into gold." Maybe he ought to stick to making gold records. But then again, a little ambition never hurt anyone.