SameDiff BNL

Ladies' Night

By ERIC BOEHLERT, Rolling Stone #554 (Aus), November 1998.

Canada's Barenaked Ladies buck trends and find a slow, steady road to success.

Welcome to the tallest free-standing structure in the world," booms guitarist Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies, standing with singer-guitarist Steven Page and drummer Tyler Stewart atop Toronto's 1,815-foot Canadian National Tower. Out for an afternoon of hometown sightseeing a month before the release of its fifth album, Stunt, the trio is quickly brought back to earth when an inquisitive fan approaches.

"So, you guys big in the States yet?" he asks.

"That," says an amused Stewart, shaking his head, "is the story of this band."

After ten years and thousands of live shows — they play about 200 concerts a year — the Barenaked Ladies may have an answer to that question. With a firecracker summer single, "One Week", shooting up the modern-rock charts, a new album that debuted at Number Three on the Billboard 200 and a headlining spot on H.O.R.D.E., BNL and their feel-good pop rock are finally making it big in the States.

"We've kind of stopped being a secret," says Page, adding that he's grateful the band has been given a "second chance." He's referring to BNL's short-lived Canadian stardom at the turn of the decade, when their major-label debut, Gordon, sold 900,000 copies in that country. But just as quickly as fans snapped up the album, they turned their backs on the group. BNL's 1994 follow-up, Maybe You Should Drive, sold only one-third as many copies. "The hype thing killed us," says Page.

At a time when "the hype thing" is killing lots of bands, BNL stand as a rare exception to most of the one- and two-hit wonders that dominate the charts. During the last six years, the band has quietly assembled one of the most loyal followings in rock, thanks to constant road-work and a patient label, Reprise Records.

"It's called artist development," says Rick Fitzgerald, executive vice president and general manager of Reprise. "It's the old fashioned way."

What ultimately saved BNL, which also includes Jim Creeggan on stand-up bass and Kevin Hearn on keyboards, are their ambitious live shows. Part cabaret romp, part campfire sing-along, BNL concerts are unapologetically fun. Where else do fans, prompted by a song's mention of Kraft, dutifully pelt the band with boxes of macaroni and cheese?

"The live shows are the thing that converts people," says Page, the theatrical frontman, who debuted the band with Robertson ten years ago at a food-bank fund-raiser.

Still, concert success didn't open every door. "We'd sell out a 3,000-seat theatre in San Francisco, and everyone knew every word to every song, and we still coudn't get played on the radio," says Robertson. "We'd be like, 'Well, fuck, we sold out the show again.' But we're used to being the underdogs. We thought if we keep doing this, eventually [radio] will have to pay attention."

And they were right. But while BNL's rigorous work ethic has paid off, there's also a nagging sense of déjà vu, that this sudden fame feels eerily familar to their brief success six years ago. Maybe that's why Robertson says the band "isn't bouncing off the walls" about its recent triumph: "We're takin' it in stride, because we've been on the roller coaster before and we know what could be on the other side."