The Barenaked EssentialsBy JEFFREY PEPPER RODGERS, Acoustic Guitar #99, March 1st, 2001.
Backstage with Steven Page and Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies, the clown princes of contemporary rock.
They just can't help themselves. During sound check at the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan, there are only 30 people sitting in the front row of the 12,000-seat venue, but the five guys called Barenaked Ladies are already putting on a little show, goofing around and chatting with the audience in between bits of rehearsal. Ed Robertson pauses from testing his rack of guitars to point out to this happy group of radio-station winners that a table of drinks and snacks is set out for them, and he and fellow front man Steven Page can't resist turning that announcement into an improvised ditty about "chips and pop." Later on, after smoothing out a few rough edges in songs from their brand-new album, Maroon, the band starts surfing through the pop catalog from "Tears of a Clown" to some English Beat to the opening verse of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" with the phrase "marmalade skies" replaced by "pistol-whipped guys." The huge, garish jester's mask that looms over them (and whose open mouth and lapping tongue is their stage entrance) is the perfect backdrop: this is a band with entertaining in its blood and a highly developed taste for the absurd.
Even though the band's gift for high-wire improv and hilarity has been central to its rise from a Canadian cult success to one of modern rock's biggest acts, what is so unique about Barenaked Ladies is how seriously they take the business of not taking themselves too seriously. Robertson and Page are two of the sharpest and wittiest craftsmen in pop songwriting today, often sneaking dark emotions into songs that have audiences boogying and belting out the chorus. They have also successfully whittled the overblown corporate-rock sound down to the essentials, remaining doggedly acoustic for most of the band's life until their 1998 blockbuster album Stunt introduced a taut mix of acoustic and electric elements, an instrumental expansion that continues on Maroon.
After pressing the flesh with their sound check audience, Page and Robertson join me backstage for a chat about songwriting and the 12-year rise of their band. Not only are they riding the release of Maroon, their deepest and best set of songs to date, but a highly entertaining movie called Barenaked in America (directed by avid BNL fan Jason Priestley), which follows the band on tour after the release of Stunt, is just hitting theaters. As we sit in a windowless room deep in the catacombs of the hockey arena, the heavy pounding of Rush's Signals leaks through the walls from the ad-hoc exercise room next door, where keyboardist Kevin Hearn (back in action after winning a battle with leukemia in '98) is doing a preshow workout. Our conversation is interrupted several times by Robertson's gleeful sing-alongs with these anthems of '80s metal, betraying a background that, as Page points out, is practically "a prerequisite for being a Canadian male teenager."
I'd like to go back to the beginning of the Barenaked Ladies duo. Could you set the scene for what a late '80s performance by the two of you was like?
Page Our first real gigs were with this comedy group called Corky and the Juice Pigs. We loved these guys. We saw them and they just killed us our guts would hurt and our faces would hurt from laughing so much. So Ed bought a four-track recorder, and we made them a tape. They liked it and asked us to open for them on their tour. We had funny stuff on there by that point we were probably already doing "If I Had $1,000,000," and we did covers of songs like "Wishing Well" by Terence Trent D'Arby with Ed playing acoustic and me playing Casio. We played everything, and basically it was all for laughs, but it also was about the voices singing harmony that was the greatest rush for us.
But opening for this comedy group, we'd be doing comedy nights at colleges and bars, and the audience was expecting a comedy act, even though we were never trying to bill ourselves as that. But we certainly learned a lot from Corky and the Juice Pigs about the pacing of the show and how to keep an audience's attention. In a rock club you can just be wallpaper; you can be the soundtrack to a lifestyle. But a comedy club is like a folk club where you have a captive audience and they are watching and waiting to be entertained, and they'll tell you right away if they're not entertained.
So the whole improv side of what you do was really there from day one.
Robertson That was all we had in the beginning.
Was it hard to put yourself out on a limb like that?
Robertson Both of us enjoyed being out on a limb, even when it fell flat. It was like, well at least we went for it. We were just trying to make each other laugh and enjoy the show, and we were never too worried about what anybody thought about it. We had a good time, and I think that's what people gravitated to.
Page It was just fresh for a lot of people. We were silly and young, and that was half the appeal.
Robertson Now we are old and serious, and that's the other half of the appeal.
Did the pop covers you started off doing mold your songwriting as you steered more in that direction?
Page Yeah. Even though we were an acoustic group rooted in country and folk, we were molded by whatever was on the radio. Whether it was Janet Jackson or the Smiths didn't matter; we were just in pursuit of good songs.
When you started out, most pop music was so bombastic, and the bands were portrayed with so much self-glamorizing imagery you know, standing in a barren landscape with black sunglasses on, looking cool and aloof. You steered completely around all of that somehow.
Page It didn't make any sense to us. The great thing about the great rock stars, whether it's the Stones or Bowie or the rock stars of today, is that there's a sense of irony and a sense of humor. There was a point in the mid- to late '80s where there was no humor and no irony in self-reflection it was all about self-aggrandizing qualities. Springsteen ruled the airwaves, and everyone went, "I want to be like that." Springsteen might be the genuine article, but it just begat a lot of posers who weren't of the same quality.
In the past you've mentioned U2 as another example of what you were reacting against.
Page I always think of that Joshua Tree era of U2. I was a big fan of theirs until that record it just offended me at my core. In retrospect, it's not a bad record, but it summed up a lot about the times that I didn't want to be force-fed. And then when Rattle and Hum came out, it was like, "We have just discovered this great thing. It's called the blues." And the rest of us in North America were like, "Yeah, we know. It's good." "No, no, we are going to play it, and you're going to love it."
Robertson "No, we're not."
Who were some of your favorite songwriters back then?
Page I grew up loving the Violent Femmes. Their first and second records were so exciting. Gordon Gano wrote that first record when he was about 15. He wasn't looking back on being a teenager and writing about it; he was actually being one and writing astutely and poignantly about it. That blew my mind, along with the energy they put out. We were big fans of the Proclaimers. Again, they were rooted in the folk tradition, but it had all the attitude of punk rock. It had this energy and angst and aggressiveness and tenderness as well.
Billy Bragg was a big thing for us then too. That Workers Playtime album was really important to us. I still think it's a great collection of songs, and he was a great performer as well. I remember seeing him as a teenager and saying, "That's what I want to do." I never thought I wanted to be in a band until I saw him play. I had always assumed he was going to be heavy-handed and didactic and try to teach the audience a lesson about politics or something like that, but he did that in his songs, poignantly, and then went on stage and entertained people, related to them.
Robertson He was a fantastic performer. When we finished writing and recording Gordon, he somehow ended up with a copy of it. He was a big fan and thought that "What a Good Boy" was the best song of the previous couple of years or whatever he said. And so he invited us over to play his New Year's Eve run of shows in England, which was very exciting for us.
There's a lot of great wordplay in your songs unusual rhymes and a mixture of sophisticated and everyday language. Were there particular people whose use of language inspired you?
Page I thought They Might Be Giants did that really well, especially on their first two records. I'm trying to think of who else was good at that kind of thing...
Take, for example, something like the rhyming of marriage and disparage in the song "Conventioneers." That's a type of language you don't often hear when you're flipping the radio dial.
Robertson We like our two- or three-syllable rhymes.
Page They are a little precious for some people, but I always get a kick out of that...
The Beastie Boys get away with that like crazy. As far as rhyming skills and jokes and so on, they influenced us a lot.
Robertson I listen to quite a bit of hip-hop and get influenced by the kind of rhyming patterns they use. It adds a lot to writing pop songs. It can take you away from traditional sorts of patterns.
Page There is also a Toronto singer-songwriter/guitar player named Kurt Swinghammer who writes like that. "Conventioneers" could be a Kurt Swinghammer song. He is one of those guys we used to see a lot early on who would just blow our minds.
On Maroon, the pop culture references are subtler than they were in your earlier songs. There's more material like that line from "Off the Hook": "Something that you heard while you were sleeping left you shaken while he stirred." The words just lightly ping the James Bond reference rather than hammering it home. Is that just the way the songs went on this record, or does it reflect an evolution in your approach to writing?
Page I just think we're more out of the loop culturally now [laughter].
Robertson Yeah, Steve and I don't pay any attention to popular sayings.
Page Dissed is in there.
Robertson Fly, being fly. Chill.
But there's nothing on Maroon that has the kind of barrage of pop culture references of a song like "One Week."
Page It's true. A song like "Sell Sell Sell," if it were written a few years ago, would have been packed with concrete references to pop culture. And it just didn't seem to appeal to us in the same way this time. We wanted to write more about the actual experiences rather than just relying on the allusion to explain it. I think that's what we did a lot in the past: use those allusions to pop culture as the keys to the song, as your way to unlock what I am trying to say in that line. But it's kind of an easy way out.
Robertson It's like printing at the start of a movie, "This is a true story."
Page We'd rather do what they did in Fargo and say, "This is a true story," and then not make it a true story.
You say you both were following this new approach in your songwriting; since you work so closely together, do you tend to steer each other in similar directions?
Robertson We used to fulfill very definite roles when we started writing together. But we have written together for 12 years now, and we've learned a lot from each other and from the other things that we have done in the meantime. When we write together now, it's a lot more of an ambiguous process. We know each other well enough that I know when Steve is going in a certain direction; he knows when I need help or when to just leave me alone and let me run with something. We know each other's cues.
The process is always different, though. Sometimes Steve will spit out an entire chorus, just like, "I have a chorus idea," and there it is, and it's great. And then other times we are stuck on a single line for 20 minutes.
Page Throughout the songwriting process, we are always saying, "What is this about?" and "Are we getting there?"
Robertson And "Are we saying more than we need to say? Can we be more concise?"
Page There's a lot of moving things around, making sure that we are getting the flow of the story or the emotions spaced out properly.
So your ideas are pretty unfinished when you bring them to each other?
Page Yeah, and more so on this record. There was a lot of bare-bones stuff that we just sat and wrote together. I think a lot of songwriting partners write the lyrics independently of each other one guy will write the lyrics, and they'll work on the music together. Or someone will just fill in the music and lyrics for a bridge or a chorus. We've often done that, but this time around it was much more of the two of us writing everything together and more lyrics than music, which is even rarer. I think part of our strength in writing lyrics together is the fact that we move the song forward in the same way we do it on stage, the same way we complete each other's sentences or continue raps or move the show forward.
Robertson [Bursts into a sing-along with the Rush album playing next door] "He's wise enough to win the world but weak enough to lose it. [Page joins in harmony] He's a New World man..." [laughter].
Well, the end result of your songwriting process
Robertson It's really quite excellent, isn't it, the end result? It's amazing.
What I was going to say is that it's really tight. Do a lot of little pieces and parts wind up on the cutting room floor?
Robertson When we write a song, we combine verses we'll take the first two lines of one verse and the last two lines of another. We really try to chop the fat from a song. Any songwriter with a certain degree of experience can get an idea across it may take five verses or whatever. We challenge ourselves to be really concise and clear. That is the fun of trying to write a pop song. We want to get 12 of them on the record, and we want them all to be good. And we also try not to repeat ourselves from song to song. If we say, "I think we have already written that in another song," then we try to incorporate what we're working on into that other song.
Page We are not afraid to merge the songs together to make one better song take two or three different song ideas, what you think are three different songs, and make them one. It's exciting on the quality level and very sad on the quantity level.
When you get down to the three- or four-minute song, you've obviously thought a lot about the story that is unfolding during that time. You don't just nail the chorus again and again, winding up at the end at the same place you started.
Page They are like short stories. In a short story you've got essentially what happens in a novel in an incredibly condensed form. There is some sense of change some kind of an epiphany, or an ending that is uplifting or downturning. You don't know where you're going, but you know that you are on a journey that you trust when you're reading. It's the same thing in a song: you trust the song to take you somewhere that you may or may not expect.
Robertson We very definitely write with that movement in mind. We have a very clear idea, even half a verse into a song, of what we want to say and how we want to go about saying it.
For a long time we have been conscious of [the value of] getting together daily and writing, because if you wait for the muse to strike you, there are movies to see and food to eat and places to go. We make sure when it is time to write that we do it every day, and we sit down for four hours. One day we might get half of a verse and another day we might get two songs, but as long as we keep doing it each day, when the muse hits we'll be ready.
That relieves the pressure, too, doesn't it?
Page Yeah, if you treat it like a craft. It's what painters and authors do: authors sit down at their typewriters, and painters sit down at their easels, every day, and they just write and they just paint. It doesn't have to be good; you just do it, and at the end of the process you start editing. The editing is a huge part of it. I think people do less and less, just because of the availability of space: 74-minute CDs and Web sites with extra tracks and whatever else.
Robertson People feel like they're getting ripped off if there's not at least 65 minutes of music on the CD. Meanwhile, an LP would hold a maximum of 40, and the last five minutes of each side sounded like crap. You had to be more concise 20 years ago. You had to edit yourself or it didn't fit on the LP. I think there is something great about a record that's under 50 minutes. You should be able to say it in that much time.
Your sound on Maroon has changed quite a bit from the acoustic guitar and string bass simplicity of Gordon. Even in '96, when you recorded Rock Spectacle, you were playing almost all acoustic instruments. What has been driving you to add electric instruments to the mix in the last few years?
Robertson I think just our own interests and exploration into those places. When we made Gordon, I was very, "I am an acoustic guitar player that's what I want to play." But we have been growing in those directions and interested in those sounds. A lot of rock energy doesn't necessarily come from big, loud, distorted guitars, and we have been experimenting with where to find that energy.
Page A song like "Falling for the First Time" on this record which is in some ways the most rocking moment on the record is driven by acoustic guitar. There's electric in it, but it's a supplemental part. The thrust of it, and what's on the bed track, is the acoustic guitar. "Pinch Me" is an acoustic-driven track, and so forth. So it still is the core of our sound. It's there, but it has changed.
I think [one influence was] Kevin [Hearn] joining the band in '95. Our old keyboard player, Andy [Creeggan], was really a purist about his keyboard instruments: it had to be either acoustic piano or something like a Rhodes, and that was it. Kevin came with a bunch of synthesizers and a sampler, because that's what he played in his previous band. He brought in all kinds of different textures that we hadn't really imagined in the group before, and that opened us up to a lot of different possibilities we hadn't considered previously.
Do you think the band's progression into bigger venues has nudged you to amp up too?
Page Absolutely. When we did our big tour for Gordon in Canada in '93, we had an acoustic bass, a piano, some congas, drums, and acoustic guitars. Not a single amplifier on stage except for Jim [Creeggan's bass amp]. It didn't really fill arenas in the same way that a big rock sound does.
Do you find that electric instruments tap into the same sort of instrumental energy that you started with?
Robertson Absolutely. Right from the beginning we have just been trying to cover a spectrum. We have always been very conscious of what's going on rhythmically and melodically in the song, and of what's going on frequency-wise and sonically between the instruments. We try to keep parts apart so that they're interesting. What I am doing on acoustic guitar isn't stepping on what Jim is doing on bass, and percussion is not overlapping what Tyler is doing. I think we have just translated that formula. You can't just add big, loud guitars; it won't rock all of a sudden. It's about parts. Listen to James Brown, and there is the blueprint for how to do arrangements.
There's also some stuff on the record where you go beyond the sounds of guitar, like "Tonight Is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel."
Page Guitar on that song wasn't working; we couldn't get it to fit in that soundscape. So Ed played the banjo instead.
Robertson Because I am an excellent banjo player [laughs]. I played a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar. I am trying to learn to play banjo. I can play "Cripple Creek" not [sings] "Up on Cripple Creek, she sends me," but [hums fiddle tune].
Page Watch out, Tony Trischka.
Your songs often have interesting internal contradictions things pulling in opposite directions. For instance, "Pinch Me" [see transcription, page 42 of Acoustic Guitar magazine, March 2001, No. 99] has upbeat, light-sounding music, but the words are about a very serious, grown-up kind of philosophical questioning, and then thrown in the middle you have the bit of classic kid humor in the lines "I could hide out under there / I just made you say 'underwear'." Do these kinds of juxtapositions come from a very highly developed sense of mischief?
Page Some people think things like the underwear line rip off the song, like we can't be serious long enough. But it's who we are and how we talk; it's about finding humor in mundane things.
Robertson That's the way I relate to the world. In dire, depressing times, I look for the smile in the situation not to make it go away, but to cope with it. I have always approached life like that, and so those lines are more to emphasize the cloud inside the silver lining. It serves to illustrate the direness of the situation. If I am cracking jokes about it, I am trying to cheer myself up.