Ladies MenBy LIANA JONAS, Onstage Magazine, March 1st, 2001.
Ed Robertson and Steven Page, front men for Barenaked Ladies, riff on road life and getting naked with friends.
After all these years, Steven Page finally knows why he used to lose his voice during his early days with Barenaked Ladies. The reason? Open van windows. Talking over road noise wreaks havoc on a singer's vocal chords, the co front man explains, and he issues the following cautionary words to young bands: "Don't talk with the windows open. I used to lose my voice all the time in the van, not really understanding why. It was because the windows were open, and it would be really loud in the van, and I would be yelling, all day, driving from gig to gig. My voice would be hoarse at the end of a trip.
"Don't yell," Page concludes, whispering in a mock-teacher voice.
It's midmorning on a Friday, and Page is talking to me from his hotel room in Portland, Oregon. The band arrived in the city the night before, and Page, while present and articulate during our conversation, sounds a bit tired. Ed Robertson, the group's other front man, is conducting his own interviews with local press from Pennsylvania and Ohio in a different hotel room.
Portland marks one of the first stops on BNL's 18-month international tour in support of Maroon, the follow-up to 1998's multiplatinum-selling Stunt (both releases on Warner/Reprise). Judging from what Page tells me of the band's schedule for this particular day morning phone interviews, radio-show visits, a sound check, late afternoon meet-and-greets, a performance, and then off to Seattle by tour bus to start the process all over again it will be a long road ahead for all concerned.
The Canadian Barenaked Ladies, founded by Steven Page (lead vocals, guitars) and Ed Robertson (lead vocals, guitars), formed in 1988 and performed as a two-person acoustic act in Toronto nightspots. Today's BNL, which has been together since 1995, also includes musicians Jim Creeggan (bass), Kevin Hearn (keyboards), and Tyler Stewart (drums). Although the band's 1992 debut release, Gordon (Sire Records), was successful in Canada, U.S. crossover didn't begin until 1996, when the group appeared on the television series Beverly Hills 90210. In fact, one of that show's lead actors, Jason Priestley (who played Brandon Walsh), also from Canada, directed the band's video for "Old Apartment," as well as Barenaked in America, a documentary on BNL released this past fall.
But it wasn't until 1998, when Stunt came out, that Barenaked Ladies became a well-known name on U.S. soil. Energetic, humorous, and fun, Stunt yielded the catchy hits "It's All Been Done" and "One Week." That year also saw the rerelease of BNL's staple song, "If I Had $1,000,000," which attained instant popularity with its sing-along lyrics. Inciting ecstatic call-and-response participation at concerts, the track remains a favorite among fans. After garnering such wide acclaim with Stunt, BNL found themselves facing a band's most perilous question: how do you follow that? Their answer was Maroon, which spawned the infectious first single, "Pinch Me." The song quickly found its place on Top 40, alternative, and rock radio stations. (As this issue goes to press, "Pinch Me" has just been nominated for a Grammy Award.)
IN THE BEGINNING...
Like most bands, Barenaked Ladies had their early struggling period. Between 1988 and 1991, Page and Robertson were scuffling along with all the other musicians on the Toronto club scene. But with dogged determination, they got things going in the right direction.
"I knew we needed a demo tape, and at that time, when [BNL] was two of us, we had a 4-track recorder and taped every song we knew and wrote," Page remembers. "I would call around to club owners and club managers in Toronto, and I was terrified on the phone. I'm still not good on the phone, but I knew that if I wanted to get these gigs, I had to call these people. And you have to start at the bottom club, because the big clubs won't even think about you until you've played the smallest, dirtiest, grungiest club. Then they'd say stuff like, `We'll book you, but if you don't bring 50 people, you're never playing here again.' So you start in a club that holds 50 people and bring 20 of your friends. I realized at one point, a year or two in, that the people who were filling up the clubs weren't friends anymore. They were strangers who happened to want to come see our band. It was a measure of some degree of success."
In spite of Page's distaste for telephone detail, his pitch to club owners was well thought out. In addition to providing a specific description of the band and equipment setup, he also recommended acts that he thought BNL should open for. Another gig-getting tactic Page used was to attend the shows of local Toronto bands and ask if BNL could open for them. That also required pitching a demo tape to club impresarios, something he remembers fondly: "I would call the club owners and say, `These bands would be good for us can I come by the club and give you a tape? Is there a good time to meet with you?' Usually, they'd just blow me off [laughs] or just say, `Drop off the tape.' And you'd have to follow up, calling back in a week and asking, `Have you had the chance to listen to the tape?' Usually they hadn't listened to it, but because I called back and wasn't totally annoying, it put us closer to the top of the pile."
Telepathy is a word that keeps popping up during my conversation with Page telepathy between techs and the band and between players onstage. Because of BNL's multi-instrumentalist nature Page, in addition to guitar, plays flute; Creeggan switches between acoustic and electric bass; Hearn adds accordion and guitar to his keyboard playing; and Stewart triggers loops and samples as well as playing a conventional kit a sense of telepathy is an unwritten must for BNL. It also comes as a result of longstanding relationships.
"Our techs know the songs well, and they have a set list we go over before the show," Page explains. "There's a certain degree of telepathy that goes on during the show. My tech, Keith, has been with us for three years. Dean, Ed's tech, is actually the newest of the group, but we've known him for a long time, so he's with the vibe. It's kind of a family situation, where everybody is friends with everybody."
In terms of Page and Robertson, both 30, friendship is a bit of an understatement. The two have been buddies since grade school, and their kinship translates into a nightly comic shtick onstage, which has grown into a hallmark of the band. No one is safe from the duo's stage banter they sound like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show. Because they can go at it seamlessly for lengthy periods of time, one might assume the antics were staged. They're not.
"We're pretty fortunate to have an audience who can accept most of what we say, because we know 80 percent of it is crap or stupid," Page jokes. "People ask, `When did you write that?' People also say we should get into comedy, but if we were doing comedy and called it comedy, it wouldn't be funny. Because people are coming to see music, the humor is a pleasant surprise, and they cut us a little more slack."
BNL's shtick also includes full-blown rap numbers also unplanned. Page and Robertson often perform on-the-fly lyrical rhymes, usually built around a hip-hop beat. Telepathy comes up yet again.
"That's the five of us working together," says Page of the band's improvisation. "Whether it's a rap or improvised song, I think that is our version of how a lot of bands do solos. Phish are like that. They jam and do these long solos. A lot of that is based on their telepathy. That's the same thing we do with these songs. We try to make it a little bit more concrete with more structure, and the structure is that of a song. Everybody is listening to each other. Sometimes the groove will start with Tyler and Jim, or just Jim, and we'll start rapping. Everybody understands that there's a point when you're about to take a breath and lay into something. Everybody is listening until you're at the peak of the song, where you come up with a chorus or a joke or an exciting moment. And it really is up to everyone, without looking at one another, to communicate the ending of the song."
Two weeks after my conversation with Page, co front man Ed Robertson calls from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His family is visiting from Toronto for this part of the tour, and he has just finished having lunch with his wife, daughter, and son. Walking along the campus of the University of North Carolina with his sleeping 13-month-old son, Lyle, Robertson is on a cell phone. It's about an hour before the sound check at the college's basketball arena, where the band will perform later that evening. Robertson is upbeat and clearly happy to be spending time with his son during the lengthy tour. He sounds downright chipper for a person who only 12 hours before spent the evening driving up the coast in a bus from the Hard Rock Live Theater in Orlando, Florida.
"They come in and out," says Robertson of his family's on-tour visits. "My daughter [Hannah] is five and in school, and we don't like to take her out too much. Plus, my wife [Natalie] has a life of her own in Toronto. So it's hard. It kind of screws up everyone's routine for them to come out. But at the same time, we all miss each other too much if they don't. They'll come out for a week, go home for a couple, and come out for another week, and then I'm home for a couple of weeks.
"The touring lifestyle is not a glamorous life," Robertson says. "If you're anything short of U2, the Rolling Stones, or Elton John, chances are you live a lot of your life in a tour bus or in the parking lot of a venue, away from family and friends. It is a hard thing. We just try to take really good care of ourselves and each other. Steve, Ty, and I have been focusing really hard on working out and trying to stay in shape. We have a treadmill, an elliptical cross-trainer, a stepper, and free weights that we bring on the trucks and set up. Everyone is focusing on their physical health lately, and I think, `A healthy body, a healthy mind.'"
NEXT STOP... WHERE ARE WE?
No one ever said life on the road was easy. Traveling from city to city for long stretches of time drains musicians and it's a fatigue they can't show onstage. Robertson tells me that once he found a very famous band's set list taped to a stage monitor from the previous night's performance. Written on it in black marker were these words: "You are in Phoenix, Arizona. This club is called the Roxy." It's a frame of mind Robertson hopes he'll never find himself in.
"We try to connect and identify with where we are and who we're playing for," he says. "I never want to get to the place where I need that written on the stage. You make it a priority to stay connected. When we travel, we are going somewhere to play for people, and it's important to us to entertain them and relate to them.
"Today," Robertson says, "I got out and walked around the town, so now I know some names of a couple of streets. I've been to some local restaurants, and I have a little bit of a flavor for where I am." Will that experience show up in the form of stage banter tonight? "Oh, absolutely," he says.
THE BIRTH OF SHTICK
The very first BNL show was an accident. In fact, Robertson and Page had never even played together before their debut.
"A friend who knew that I played in a band asked me if I'd do a fund-raiser for a local food bank," Robertson recalls. "I said, `Sure.' She had asked me six months in advance, and in the intervening time, the band broke up. She called me a week before the event and said, `So you're still on for the fund-raiser, right?' And I said, `Uh, yeah, but now the name of the band is, um, Barenaked Ladies.' That was just a name Steve and I had bantered around, making each other laugh. I called Steve and asked, `Do you want to be in Barenaked Ladies with me? I've got this gig; it's a fund-raiser. Maybe we'll just do acoustic guitars. We'll set up three rehearsals, learn some songs, and then do the show.'"
Those rehearsals never happened. In fact, when Page and Robertson met backstage the night of the fund-raiser, they had nothing prepared. With no material, the two tuned their guitars and performed. "We basically entertained each other," Robertson says jokingly.
That was 12 years ago. "I think back then all we had going for us was absolute unbridled enthusiasm," Robertson says. "From there, we've honed our skills and learned how to be a really good band. We're better with our arrangements, listening to each other, and the simple things about being a band. I tell young musicians: `Listen to what everyone is doing. Tighten up bass guitar and bass drum patterns so they work together and not against each other, so not all the spaces are filled all the time.' We've worked so hard on that aspect that a lot of it is instinctual for us now."
In the course of one show, Robertson plays a total of eight guitars six electric and two acoustic. But a New York City based luthier has captured Robertson's ear these days. "My primary electrics, the ones I'm really enjoying playing now, are by Dennis Fano," Robertson explains. "The XTC guys play his guitars, too. He just builds a really nice guitar. I think he essentially calls the people he's a fan of and says, `Hey, I'm Dennis Fano, and I build guitars. I'd really like to make you one.' He brought a guitar to a show, and because I have so many guitars, it sat in a case for a very long time. When it came time to make Maroon, I thought, `Why don't I bring that Fano in?' I also play a couple of Gibson Country Gentleman guitars and a couple of Fender Big Apple Strats. I have a PRS wide-body McCarty guitar as well." Instrument switching is never a problem, thanks to a predetermined song list and a great guitar tech, with whom Robertson works closely.
One interesting aspect of BNL's stage show is how they handle playback of samples. In most bands, this is the keyboard player's province, but in BNL, drummer Tyler Stewart does some of the triggering from his kit.
"Ty triggers the two drum loops we use in `Pinch Me' and `Off the Hook,'" Robertson says. "He has a little sampler [triggered by the pads on his kit] behind him. He uses some sound effects as well. In `Baby Seat,' we use an alternate snare sound, which he plays a pad for, and it's a sample of his snare from the record version of the song. Also, in the song `Helicopters,' we use a second snare sound. He triggers the horn shot in `One Week,' too. He also plays some timpani on his pads."
For this tour, the Canadian quintet has done away with T-shirts and jeans, and all of them are sporting uniform preppy attire, looking as though they just stepped off the set of The Ed Sullivan Show. Is it a penchant for fashion or slick marketing that has BNL donning designer duds?
"It makes for a solid-looking show," Robertson says. "It's just part of the visual presentation." Robertson believes image is important to a band's success. "People need to categorize things," he says. "There is so much out there, so much accessible in this day and age, that you need to say, `Hey, this band is like that... This band is like this.' The way you look and present yourself is the way people view you. I think music is only half the picture there are posters, videos... I'm just talking about people's gut reactions."
THE NAKED TRUTH
In the band's documentary, Barenaked in America, BNL's tour-bus driver describes how the band members sleep in the buff while traveling between gigs.
"It's absolutely true," Robertson says with a laugh. "The name is not a complete misnomer just the Ladies part. There's something about being naked with people you know. It's very liberating. Go skinny-dipping with a group of really good friends. It's much more fun than just going swimming with a group of really good friends. There's some sort of magic intangible about being naked that enhances a moment." And what about those spiffy tour wardrobes? Robertson says, "It's the spiffy wardrobes that facilitate the joy of nudity. We pretty much walk off the stage, walk into the dressing room, get naked, and talk about the show."
ED ROBERTSON, guitars and vocals PRS McCarty, PRS Custom 22, Fano Satellite, Gibson Country Gentleman, and Fender Big Apple Strat electric guitars Larrivee L09 acoustic guitar Dean Markley strings Matchless Chieftain amplifiers with Marshall 4512 cabinets (with Celestion speakers) SIB Varidrive distortion pedal Bradshaw switching Shure UHF U4D wireless system Shure SM58 vocal mic
STEVEN PAGE, guitars and vocals Guild D55 acoustic guitar, Guild Bluesbird and Fender Telecaster electric guitars Fender 65 Twin Reverb amps Danelectro Cool Cat and Hughes & Kettner Rotosphere pedals Shure UHF U4D wireless system, Shure U24D/Beta 58 wireless vocal mic with custom pad
All the band members use Shure PSM700 in-ear monitoring systems with Ultimate Ears UE-5 earpieces.
TYLER STEWART, drums and vocals Ayotte drums Aquarian drumheads Tama hardware Sabian cymbals Regal Tip drumsticks Shure Beta 58A vocal mic Roland PD80 drum pads Roland TD-7 percussion module Yamaha A4000 sampler
JIM CREEGGAN, bass and vocals Steinberger stand-up electric bass Magadini acoustic stand-up bass Gibson Les Paul Recording bass Eden Acoustics World Tour 800 amp with EAW LA325 speaker cabinets (2) Bradshaw switching Shure Beta 58A vocal mic
KEVIN HEARN, keyboards, electric guitar, and vocals PRS McCarty electric guitars, Fender Tonemaster amp Yamaha DG2IIXG digital piano, Roland JP8000 and Yamaha DX-7 synths, Roland VK-7 organ, Yamaha A5000 samplers Weltmeister accordions Shure Beta 58A vocal mic