The Other Side of the Barenaked LadiesBy SAM HARR, City, July 11th, 2001.
The Barenaked Ladies are touring, again. Actually, "again" is not really the appropriate word: "still" is more accurate. But the constant grind isn't a problem for Ladies bassist Jim Creeggan.
"Playing live makes us feel like we're actually achieving something," he says. "It's great to go to a place where we were just a few months ago and still have 15,000 people show up."
Barenaked Ladies fans always seem to turn out in droves for the band's concerts, which have been a cornerstone of its popularity since forming in 1990. The Ladies' combination of absurdist pop with Python-esque stage antics appeals to people who are tired of formulaic music. Love them or hate them, the Barenaked Ladies are unique, and their uniqueness has fan appeal.
But the Ladies find themselves standing at a crossroads. Creeggan and his bandmates have faced many difficulties in recent years, and you can hear it in their music, which has veered from the giddy pop of their previous album, Stunt, to the introspective feel their latest, Maroon.
In 1998, BNL keyboardist Kevin Hearn was diagnosed with leukemia, and it couldn't have come ata worse time. The band became a pop phenomenon in the States on the strength of its singles "One Week" and "It's All Been Done." It began working on Barenaked in America, a documentary of its US tour. And, suddenly, Hearn was out of the band and in the hospital.
"Between the film and the tour, there was so much going on we hardly noticed the cameras," Creeggan says.
Hearn's illness became surfaced during recording sessions for Stunt. "At first, no one knew what was going on," Creeggan says. "Kevin would wake up in pools of sweat and he was sick all the time. He would go to specialists, but he wasn't fully diagnosed for a while. Perhaps he was a afraid to find out what he had."
It was a break time for the band, but one that has passed. After two years of heavy treatment, including a bone marrow transplant, Hearn's cancer is in full remission. He was well enough to help out on Maroon, and he's even touring this summer. Even though Hearn is healthy, the experience has left and impression on the band.
"Kevin's illness changed our perspective," Creeggan says. "Ed [Robertson, lead vocals and guitar] and Steve [Page, lead vocals and guitar] began to look at a darker side of life in their songwriting, what with Kevin's illness, some of the guys becoming dads, the bombing of Yugoslavia, and the general absurdity of the world around us. I mean, the two largest exports of the United States are arms and entertainment. How weird is that?"
With their new perspective, the Ladies went into the studio to record Maroon, and came out with 12 songs that, lyrically, are not typical Barenaked fare. "Helicopters" depicts scenes of war and carnage; "Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel" reflects complete despair; and "Pinch Me," the first single, is about someone sleepwalking through life.
This isn't to say the Barenaked Ladies have completely changed their focus. In fact, "Pinch Me" still has the bouncy, upbeat sound the band is famous for. "There's always been a darker and a lighter side of the band," Creeggan says. "We try to maintain a balance between the two. We're just trying to figure out where we fit in this crazy world."
Now that the band as recovered from Hearn's illness and recorded a critically acclaimed album, it can go back to the one thing it loves: touring. So far this year, the band has finished a major tour of the States, played through the United Kingdom, and is now back for a mini tour of the Northeast that will bring it to Darien Lake.
So far, the Barenaked Ladies have found only one problem with touring: Ticketmaster's shark-like and unavoidable presence. "The pricing of tickets is a drag," Creeggan says. "If the kids can't afford tickets, we can't get the interaction with the crowds we're used to. It stifles the development of our music."
So, the Barenaked Ladies aee now selling tickets through their Web site, circumventing Ticketmaster altogether. This way, "the real fans can get the first two rows and see the band up close. That makes a better show for the fans and for us as well."
Aside from the tour, the Ladies are working on a DVD compilation of all their videos, scheduled for release this fall. "It's nice that there will be a forum for our videos after MTV and Much Music have stopped playing them," Creeggan says.
Over the years, the members of Barenaked Ladies have worked hard to become a powerful pop unit, of which Creeggan is proud but also wary. "We've made BNL into a finely honed machine, which is good in some ways, but it can be bad," he says. "So now, the band is ready for a change." Since Maroon, Creeggan and his bandmates have recorded four new songs that have a totally different feel from their older hits. They will continue to work on the new material after taking some time off.
"We're trying to keep the rhythm going," Creeggan says, "but we're going to slow it down a bit."