Music

Barenaked brains

The Ladies’ new release has their signature bouncy sound, but the lyrics reflect a darker intelligence

Brian D. Johnson October 20 2003
Music

Barenaked brains

The Ladies’ new release has their signature bouncy sound, but the lyrics reflect a darker intelligence

Brian D. Johnson October 20 2003

Barenaked brains

Music

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

The Ladies’ new release has their signature bouncy sound, but the lyrics reflect a darker intelligence

TORONTO IS IN RUINS. Beside a crumpled bus, on pavement littered with rubble, five soldiers are backed up against an army truck and under fire, looking like extras in an old war movie. They’re being bombarded by fake concrete debris—chunks of painted Styrofoam a film crew is throwing at them as they pretend to react to a six-storey-tall chimpanzee that’s climbing the CN Tower. For the Barenaked Ladies, it’s another day of taking care of business. They’re shooting a music video outside a sound stage in Scarborough, the Toronto suburb where the band first formed 15 years ago. The scenario is K-Tel King Kong, but to see these jokers cavorting like B-movie Beatles, I can’t help thinking of John Lennon playing a surreal soldier in How I Won the War.

The video is being shot to promote Another Postcard, the first single from BNL’s new CD, Everything to Everyone. Like the band’s 1998 breakout hit, One Week, it’s nonsense rap, but instead of singing “Chickity China the Chinese chicken,” Ed Robertson is rhyming about postcards of chimpanzees. Some chimps in swimsuits Some chimps in jackboots Some chimps in hard hats Some chimps who love cats I’ve got some shaved chimps; that’s chimps devoid of any hair

I’ve got depraved chimps dressed up in women’s underwear.

It’s the one totally goofy tune on an album that also includes a rumination on suicide (War on Drugs), a wry dissection of stardom (Celebrity), and a soul-searching plea from Robertson, asking whether he’d still be heard if he “shed the irony” (Testing 1,2,3). The Barenaked Ladies aren’t going to dispel their image as a novelty act by choosing a Dr. Seuss chimp riff as the first single. But the decision wasn’t theirs to make. “I originally thought it wasn’t the right choice,” concedes Steven Page, explaining that the label gets to pick the sin-

gles. “But whatever the label feels good about, great. I love the fact that it’s nonsense. This way we can say, here’s our new record, here’s a fun song. That’s what music is about for us. People come to us first for entertainment, then hopefully leave with other stuff.”

Other stuff? Well, yes. Behind the clowning antics and comic irony, the Barenaked Ladies are Canada’s most serious band— a quintet of seriously good musicians with serious questions about war, fame, social justice and their own success. We have divas coming out of our ears—Celine, Shania, Sarah, Alanis, Avril, Nelly—but BNL is a band, a cohesive gang of wise guys who seem determined to prove that the harmonic shimmer of optimism and wit pioneered by the Beatles is not dead. They may not have taken the world by storm, but with sales of 12 million records, they’re also Canada’s most successful band. With their sweet but brainy pop, and their Revenge of the Nerds image, they’ve broken the rock-star mould. They’re self-effacing celebrities, nice lads who devote their spare time not to doing drugs and models, but to their families, and local causes such as promoting wind power and reinflating the NDP. They’re so Canadian it hurts.

The classic rock ’n’ roll band is a reckless chemistry experiment built on a combustible mix of male egos. But 15 years after first harmonizing at an Ontario music camp, lead singers Page and Robertson—BNL’s Lennon & McCartneystill seem to like each other. “I think I’m probably Lennon,” says Page, 33, “because I tend to be more intense. Ed’s more moviestarish in a way. And he has the big hits.” Both men agree the Beatles analogy goes only so far, and suggest they’re really more like Ernie and Bert of Sesame Street. “Everyone wants to be Ernie,” says Page. “But I know I’m Bert. I’m the curmudgeonly, bitter, jaded guy.”

When these guys talk about their band, it sounds more like a men’s group than a rock group. In 1998, just as BNL was about to hit the big time, “we had a major powwow, this great clarifying moment,” recalls Robertson, 32. “We forced ourselves to examine our relationship. We all needed our space and we all needed support from each other.” The singer had a “big blowout” re-

cently with drummer Tyler Stewart. “But we came in the next day and it was fine.”

The Ladies have always split songwriting royalties evenly five ways, even though Page and Robertson have traditionally composed most of the music. With Everything to Everyone, they’ve thrown the creative process open for the first time. Six of the album’s 14 cuts were co-written by bassist Jim Creeggan or keyboard player Kevin Hearn. “The collaboration gave us more material,” says Page, “but it also became difficult. It’s totally democratic. So everybody

loses in some ways, and everybody wins.” Page is the band’s most engaged activist, its “social and political watchdog,” according to Robertson. And the weight of world politics can be felt between the lines oí Everything to Everybody. “We wrote a lot of the songs while we were watching Colin Powell trying to make a sales pitch to the UN in February,” says Page, “just thinking about how we as Canadians fit into the world, and how we as artists, and as employees of Time Warner, fit into the world.” Then, while they were recording in Los Angeles, the Iraq war was in progress. “It was a really weird time,”

‘PEOPLE come to us first for entertainment,’ says Page, ‘then hopefully leave with other stuff’

says Robertson. “Through the ramping up of the war, the media really turned on celebrity. All these polls on CNN—do you care what celebrities think? Yes, you care what celebrities think! That’s why you have a television. You care what they wear, what they eat, what they put in their hair. Are you going to tell me now because they’re against the war you don’t care what they think?”

You’d never know it, but a number of the songs on Everything to Everyone were politically motivated. Next Time began with Creeggan trying to write a song about the U.S. airmen who bombed the Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. “The lyrics were wellintentioned but heavy-handed,” says Page.

“So we combined that idea with the sentiment of ‘look, this is what happens when you push yourself away from the people who matter to you.’ It’s saying, if you make a really bad mistake, there’s no second chance.”

When you die they make a list Of every love you never kissed Of each regret and. each mistake Every choice you failed to make You can always get it right next time

This band likes choruses that say the opposite of what they mean. Take Shopping. Robertson says it “stemmed directly from George Bush’s first address after 9/11— that the best thing you can do is start shopping.” The song is a brisk, bouncy ode to consumer joy (Everything will always be all right/When we go shopping). And if you didn’t know better, you might miss the irony.

That’s the trouble with being ironic in America. It’s like wearing camouflage. And BNL’s irony is couched in such bright, clean, feel-good music that one could get the wrong impression. While touring the U.S. during the 2000 presidential race, Page recalls, “I realized how many of our fans just assumed I was a Republican—it’s hard to tell a Republican from a Democrat, frankly. A 22year-old kid could be either. They assume I’m just like them, a regular guy, and that’s kind of our image. We are regular guys. But I can’t allow that to happen any more.” Such confusion is part of what prompted Page to start working with the NDP’s Jack Layton. Last fall, when Layton was campaigning for the party leadership, Page

enlisted BNL in a benefit concert. He also works with the WWF (formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund), and with WindShare, which co-owns a wind turbine on the Toronto waterfront. “I can’t help but see how energy and violence are so related. It’s all stuff people fight and kill for. It’s what rules the world.”

During the Iraq war, Page says, he immersed himself in ’60s protest music, from Pete Seeger to Phil Ochs, “but that’s not what I write—I write about emotions, about dislocation and alienation.” There are echoes of a bellicose America in Second Best, a Police-like anthem that asks us to join “the chorus of the unimpressed,” as Page sings: If winning is an art/Then it’s drawn us apart / when you erased your heart and beat your chest!’ But he explores darker territory in War on Drugs, a world-weary ballad that asks how dull life would be without demons to keep us company—and draws an example from a bridge in his own backyard:

Near where I live there’s a viaduct Where people jump when they’re out of luck Raining down on the cars and trucks below They’ve put a net there to catch their fall Like that’ll stop anyone at all What’s unique about the Barenaked Ladies is how they’ve remained stubbornly rooted in their community, and apparently unseduced by celebrity. They are among the world’s least flamboyant rock stars. “Because of our modesty,” says Page, “people don’t take into account the success. So when you want people to kowtow to you at the record company or in the media, they won’t. They think, ‘Ah, those guys will do anything, they’re just guys.’ And I know lots of people assume we’re blander than we actually are. But we’re not going to go out and start partying with Limp Bizkit to change that.”

Robertson, with his tattoos and punk coif, looks more like a rock star than Page. But he says he’s never touched alcohol—from fear of following in the footsteps of his alcoholic father—and he’s smoked just two joints in his life. “Both were with Willie Nelson on his tour bus,” he laughs, recalling a Farm Aid gig in 1999. “He’s my total hero. And I think he smokes pot from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to bed. There was an ashtray on the bus that must have had $1,200 worth of pot butted out in it.” When Nelson offered him a toke, Robertson declined at first, then thought,

“Would I rather look back 40 years from now and say I never smoked a joint, or say I smoked a joint with Willie Nelson?” Stoned for the first time in his life, Robertson went out into the audience with his wife to watch Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. “I think I got pretty high,” he says. “Tipper Gore wanted us to come over and dance. It was the most surreal experience. I smoked

4WOULD I rather look back,’ says Robertson, ‘and say I never smoked a joint, or say I smoked a joint with Willie Nelson?’

a joint and danced with Tipper Gore in a ring of Secret Service agents—7 wonder if they know I’m high!’ ”

Page, like Robertson, has three children and a house in Toronto’s leafy Riverdale neighbourhood. And he’s more comfortable in the city than in the VIP lounges of Los Angeles. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” he says, noting that Canadi-

ans, especially in Toronto, tend to be passive-aggressive toward their celebrities. “They have this attitude,” says Page, “where they’re like, ‘Yeah, I see you walking into Book City, you think you’re so famous, pretending to buy books.’ No, I really am buying books. People go out of their way to not recognize you, so you can really just exist and do your grocery shopping and yell at your kids.”

If there is such a thing as the Canadian Dream, the Barenaked Ladies could be its poster boys. The lads who sang If I Had $1,000,000 are now millionaires (but in Canadian dollars, Robertson points out). They’ve paid their dues, building an American fan base with incessant touring. They weathered the leukemia that took Hearn out of action for a year. Now, with Canuck circumspection, they’re wondering how they can be everything to everyone—and singing sometimes it’s better to be second-best. The cover of their new CD is a mock socialistrealist portrait of the band in profile, hoisting a white flag and smiling into the future. For the Barenaked Ladies, surrender has become a winning formula. U]