For Group, Music Is FirstBy CHERYL LU-LIEN TAN, <!A HREF="" TARGET=_blank>The Baltimore Sun, March 17th, 2001.
The name came to Steven Page and Ed Robertson when they were smart-mouthed teens in Toronto suburbia way back in 1988.
It was a joke, the type of funny phrase that would make boys giggle Barenaked Ladies. But as it turned out, the wacky name not only stuck, it also went on to sprout an irreverent band to match its off-beat spirit with catchy tunes with titles such as "Be My Yoko Ono" and goofy lyrics like "I'll lick my wounds, could you pass the salt?"
Over the years, the Ladies' lyrics have become more layered with the texture of life's altering experiences getting married, having children and weathering pianist Kevin Hearn's recent two-year battle with leukemia. But the songs have remained as witty as ever, and the band now has a large grassroots following and an album, "Stunt," that went platinum three times. On Monday, they play the Baltimore Arena as part of the publicity tour for their latest album, "Maroon."
"When we were teen-agers, we had very little desire to be the biggest band in rock 'n' roll," Page says during a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Kelowna, Canada. "We thought, 'If we sold out at a club, that'd be an achievement.' We've certainly exceeded any of our expectations."
And just when you think that maybe these cheeky Canadian boys-next-door have begun to take themselves a tad seriously, Page adds: "We certainly never tried to be the coolest band in rock although a few years ago we did start to dress nicely."
Despite their admitted dearth of fashion sense in the early days, the Ladies experienced instant popularity from the beginning. With Page and Robertson penning funny lyrics, the Ladies independently produced a five-song tape in 1988 that sold an amazing 50,000 copies. The duo share lead vocals and are backed by drummer Tyler Stewart, bass guitarist Jim Creeggan and Hearn on the keyboard. Their 1992 debut album "Gordon" topped the Canadian charts for eight weeks and earned them a Group of the Year Juno, Canada's version of the Grammy.
Success south of the border, however, didn't come until the 1998 release of "Stunt," which sold 3.5 million copies and gave the group its first No. 1 Billboard single, the Grammy-nominated "One Week."
"Maroon" has sold 913,000 copies since its release in September, according to Soundscan. While the album hasn't done as well as "Stunt" so far, it offers the same brand of catchy melodies paired with brilliantly humorous lyrics. "Conventioneers," for example, tells the story of an office romance that culminates a hotel room hookup followed by regrets: "Before all the fireworks exploded/ Our conversations were so loaded, innuendo flying/ Now what can we say?/ Have a nice day."
"They are as viable to someone who is 11 years old and likes the lyrics, 'I just made you say underwear,' as they are to a 45-year-old who enjoys the lyrics to some of their deeper songs," says Bill Pasha, vice president of programming at Infinity Broadcasting, which owns Baltimore radio stations WWMX-FM 106.5 and WXYV-FM 102.7.
Greg Carpenter, music director for WWMX-FM 106.5, says many fans have been won over by the group's infectiously fun spirit that makes for concerts filled with hilarious covers of songs such as Britney Spears' "Oops! ... I Did It Again."
"Music in the mid-'90s got so serious and depressing that their fun lyrics were just a good change," Carpenter says. "And anybody who saw them live fell in love with them because they're so much fun on stage and there's a lot of audience participation."
Even with the celebrity, Barenaked Ladies has lost so far in pop music's most important popularity contest the Grammys. The group has come up empty-handed despite being nominated for "One Week" in 1999 and "Pinch Me" this year. In a column Page wrote for the New York Times ("We Really Want to Win That Grammy") just before the 1999 awards show," he pledged, "We'd be good winners; we'd represent the category with grace and honor. We promise not to get caught doing a Penthouse magazine pictorial."
The losses haven't deterred Page.
"I'd love to have a Grammy," says Page, now 30. "I wanna be the Rita Moreno of rock and have a Grammy, a Tony Award, an Oscar and an Emmy."
But Page knows that these goals are insignificant compared with a prize the group won recently the health of Hearn, diagnosed with leukemia just after "Stunt" hit stores.
Hearn, back touring with the group, may not have been around for much of the production of "Maroon," but his influence on the album is evident. Page says the pianist's illness made the rest of the band think about the important things in life a little more, and the album reflects this. In "Pinch Me," a guy ponders his place in the world, while in "Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel," a man remembers the most important thing in his life as he watches his own fatal car wreck unfold.
"It's more emotional and direct than we've been in the past," Page says. "The songs are less tempered by jokes throughout them; it's a more sincere-sounding record. A big part of that is that we recently almost lost Kevin, who's an integral part of our group and a great friend of ours. It made us think a little bit more about our mortality."
The new mindset makes it easier to shrug off the barbs of some critics who have ripped the Ladies' whimsical lyrics and called them lightweights or leaders of "nerd rock," a label that Spin magazine coined last year.
"Like Canada itself, Barenaked Ladies were hardly given a thought by anyone below the 49th parallel for most of the '90s," a Spin reviewer wrote in October. "We weren't missing much."
Page's take on that? "They're just jealous," he jokes. "Bad reviews are wrong and good reviews are right."
Seriously, though, Page says he has learned not to dwell on the criticisms.
"I used to sit down and try to rationalize why they weren't getting it, why they weren't thinking about it hard enough," he says. "Now I just say [expletive] off... I like to write about what I like to write about, and if people like it, that's great."
And besides, he says, whether people like them enough to give them an award or a good review is irrelevant in the face of the things the Ladies do have devoted fans, tight friendships among the band members and, of course, Kevin Hearn.
"As we become more successful, the goals start to drop off," Page says. "Your reason for doing it comes back to your reason for what got you into it we love making music together. At the end of the day, the fact is, we can spend every day doing what we love to do, and that's pretty amazing."