Welcome to the circus: Barenaked Ladies preview Portland show, embrace Internet age

Canadian rockers Barenaked Ladies have been a “roller coaster” ride from indie band to mainstream successes back to a more modestly sized following. In 2009, Steven Page, the band’s co-leader and co-songwriter, left the band, but Barenaked Ladies have persevered.

The group are returning to the Maine State Pier Friday, June 24, as part of their Last Summer on Earth tour in support of its new live album “BNL Rocks Red Rocks,” which features such hits as “If I Had a Million Dollars,” “One Week,” “The Old Apartment,” “Brian Wilson” and “Pinch Me.”

Drummer Tyler Stewart spoke with Alec Kerr about the band’s success, the post-Page transition, the band’s involvement with Animal House: The Musical and Canadian stereotypes.

 

First, I just want to say that despite perhaps not being lyrically appropriate I had my first dance at my wedding to “Have You Seen My Love?”

Oh, wow, yeah. That’s amazing. I love that song. That is one of my favorite songs that Steve (Page) ever wrote. We really embraced the sort of Willie Nelson-ness of it, I thought, on the recording. Interesting choice for a first song at a wedding. You guys are open minded.

 

Well, it kind of has a waltz quality to it and my wife and I were using it as practice song and it wound up being the only song I could dance to.

(Laughs) Oh, that’s great. That’s awesome. Well, that’s cool, man.

 

No one seemed to notice that it wasn’t actually a sweet love song, which leads me to my first question: it seems like the band likes to have songs that sound either sweet or upbeat but have lyrics that are darker or a little bit more sad. Is that true?

Definitely. We like to cloak a sometimes depressing message in a sunny or harmonious melody. I think that is one of the strengths of the band. If you’re not paying attention, you would always assume that we’re just these happy-go-lucky guys that write these throwaway novelty songs. But, as you yourself know, there’s a lot more to a Barenaked Ladies song than meets the ear. I would say that one of our modus operandi is to challenge the listener with lyrical content that may not be what they are expecting.

 

You were a band that started out as an indie group and then you found mainstream success with Stunt and Maroon and then went back to being an indie band. What has that journey been like?

Well, then, that’s a very good question because it has been a roller coaster. It is interesting, when we started out and just started having popularity in the Toronto club scene, we were selling five-song cassette tapes from the stage after our shows. We’d have to get another print run and another one printed. Eventually, it was getting that cassette into stores and it started to out sell things like Madonna and U2 in Toronto. Going from there, signing a major label deal. Getting a number one record in Canada and selling a million copies on a first album, all that shit, you don’t really notice because you’re working so hard. It is a natural progression. Then from there, finding success in the United States, having a No. 1 single and just working our asses off.

We had the benefit of joining the record business at its peak in the mid-to-late ’90s, where there was no Internet yet and radio was playing our music, radio was driving sales — people were buying a ton of music. I think ’97 or ’98 was the most money made selling music ever and that was right around the time that we released our Stunt album. We really reaped the benefits of the major label system. Then to have it all come crashing down within three years, it was an interesting time. On one hand, the future seemed really exciting and bright because of the Internet. I didn’t really give a rat’s ass about the end of the record business because I saw a lot of my friends get eaten up and spit out by that business. We happened to do very well by it. We were one of the lucky ones. But obviously, something had to change.

When we went indie, it was a time when we were trying to cut out the middle man. I think we maybe did that a little too early because we wound up coming back to a major label. The ideas of independent record promotion and sales, every band now has to be like that. You have to make a connection with your fans directly. There can be no middle man. And you have to put on great live shows, otherwise you’re done. You have to find a way. Fortunately, over the years, we’ve always had a good live show, so that has been the one constant on the roller coaster ride. We managed to keep our shirt on and not puke because we have this live show to cling to and we are thankful for that. I think our fans have really embraced that over the years, as well, and have stuck with us through thick and thin.

 

You have now released three albums as a quartet, how has the dynamic shifted and evolved in the band after going from five to four people and losing one of the co-leads?

It was an interesting time period there where we decided to go out on our own without Steven, and I always felt like we could do it. I never felt any trepidation about it. Steve has a big voice and a very distinctive voice, so we never really had any intention of replacing that. Fortunately, we have four other singers as well and that really serves as well live. Any old material we could still do because a) Ed (Robertson) co-wrote most of the songs and b) We have all been singing and playing them for 25 years anyway.

It has been great. We are all having a lot more fun now because there is more space for everyone to contribute. Everyone has to bring a little more to the table. I am doing a lot more singing. I front a few songs. (Keyboardist) Kevin (Hearn) has the opportunity to write more songs and sing as does (bassist) Jim (Creeggan). We are all doing more. Ed, I think, is very admirably and quite successfully assumed the role of frontman, and he hasn’t missed a beat. We are happy with the way things are. If it wasn’t like this, there wouldn’t be a band. It is that simple. We got to a critical point where it was do or die, so we did and we are still alive. We’re happy about that.

 

How was it decided that you’d take the lead on “Alcohol?”

Because I’m the one that drinks. Uh, yeah, that was a song I could sing. It is a rockin’ song. The last tour we decided to switch it up a bit and decided to do the song “Drawing” from our children’s album. Because you go from singing about getting drunk to singing about drawing pictures with kids, that’s how we roll here at Barenaked Ladies. We are a renaissance band. Alcoholism and child rearing, they go hand and hand. (laughs) Unfortunately, for a lot of people they do. For us, it is only on stage, just to put that out there as well. That’s a disclaimer.

We have a few more songs up our sleeves that we’re going to pull out on this tour. I don’t want to give away the surprise, but there’s another song I am performing. We always like to spice the set up with snippets or covers of the latest chart songs or whatever, medleys, things like that. So, there’s always something new and exciting that we have to lay on our fans.

 

On your first live album (Rock Spectacle) you had a circus theme and everyone had names. If you were to do that now, what would those names be? Are you still Tyler the Strong Man?

Dude! These are good questions. Right on. I think Tyler the Bald Man, although I was follicly challenged back then. Ed was the Bearded Lady. Now I have the beard. Hmm, perhaps we are swapping identities. What would I be now? What do I want to be? Ed was the Bearded Lady. I was the Strong Man. What didn’t we cover? I know: Tyler the Siamese Twin because they can’t use that name anymore. Now it is conjoined twins. You’ve got to be politically correct. I mean, really, I’m about the weight of two people or three, so I’m like conjoined twins in the same body. I think Jim would be Plastic Man because he does a lot of yoga and he’s the most flexible, tall thin man I know. Kevin would be the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. And Ed would be the Hypnotist with those blue eyes that keep getting bluer. You look into his eyes and you instantly fall into a spell. So there are our new roles. You’ve got them all.

 

I was reading at one point, you guys were attached to do “Animal House: The Musical” and I know you had a falling out with the producers. Are those songs ever going to see the light of day?

I don’t think so because they (the producers) own them. We reworked a couple of the melodies into things. It was such a weird concept. They didn’t know what they wanted. We were like the third band to take a crack at it. I believe they’ve gone through two more since then. The problem is, at the end of the day, it is just not a very good story. It is great movie of vignettes. It is a great party, mayhem, drinking, carnage movie but there’s not a helluva a lot of story there, so I think that’s the challenging part of any band working on it. How the hell do we write any interesting songs about this frat party. I think the dream of bringing Animal House to the stage is a very difficult one to achieve. Perhaps it should just stay where it is: on a VHS tape in my parent’s basement.

 

Just reading about that it was such a bizarre concept. I know taking movies and making them into musicals is popular now but that is just such a strange one to choose.

Yeah, but, you know we worked our asses off. The thing is we didn’t even see a second act. We worked on the first act, and we wrote 15 songs. We performed them for the producers, etc. and we still didn’t see the second act. Also, they didn’t even have a comedian writing the story. They had a playwright writing it — a guy who has written drama. How about a comedian? That sounds like a good idea to me. Anyway, that’s that. It was an interesting opportunity.

 

Canada is the butt of a lot of jokes. What is your favorite parody of Canada?

You know, the funny thing is we’re the butt of a lot of jokes and we are the ones doing the joking because Canadian comedians are by far some of the most successful comedians ever. I loved Terrance and Phillip from South Park. I honestly thought for a while that it was a bit of a take on Steve and Ed. What’s another good one? Bob and Doug Mckenzie, even though it is done by Canadians. You know “How’s it going, eh?” “Take off, hosers,” all that stuff. That’s the most clearly Canadian thing that’s actually funny that’s been done. I’ve got to say Terrance and Phillip are right up there.

 

What is one Canadian stereotype that is 100 percent accurate and what is one that you want to put to bed as a complete fallacy?

I think the politeness stereotype is 100 percent accurate but it is also the one I want to put to bed. We say sorry. And of course the way we pronounce it too — “sore-ree.” The “oot and aboot” thing, I’m tired of that. That shit is boring. But most stereotypes about Canadians are actually true. We really do love hockey. We really do say sorry all the time. I am going to start a new one: Canadians are amazing at handjobs. Canadians give incredible handjobs. That’s the new one. So try to get a Canadian handjob. It is the new thing. They’re the best.

 

Well, I’ll help spread the word.

Thank you.

 

You regularly perform in Portland. You were there just last summer. What keeps you coming back?

We love Portland, Maine, because it is one of those towns that kind of reminds of Canada — that we could be in Canada. The maritime vibe. We have our Halifax, Fredericton and places like St. John’s, Newfoundland, etc. Portland is a little like that. Except with black people. We love playing in Portland. We have had some great gigs. We had some good gigs there at the arena when it was the Key Arena and, of course, on the roof of, at the time, WCYY. At the corner there we played a concert on the rooftop. That shit was amazing. We had people down below, people hanging out of windows. So, always a good time in Portland, and also always great chowda. Barenaked Ladies are fueled by chowda.

 

They still actually regularly play a recording from that performance on CYY.

Yeah, yeah for sure man. Because it was awesome. The energy was so high. Back in the day, I think a great thing about a place like Portland is that it is not too big a city and there’s a really kind of community vibe and I think that really hit right into what Barenaked Ladies was doing. We could play acoustic, we could show up in your living room and play a show. Then we can go up on stage in an arena or concert hall and rock it as well. But we are approachable guys and I think people kind of attach to that. Portland was a perfect sized town for Barenaked Ladies and, quite frankly, still is. Last summer, when we played on the pier that was one of the great nights. It was so nice to be on the water, out under the stars. Awesome time.

Last modified onTuesday, 14 June 2016 16:33