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Band Interview: Barenaked Ladies

Grant Walters Grant Walters Band Interview: Barenaked Ladies
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The iconic pop-rockers and recent Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductees return to Columbus on Wednesday night to anchor the "Last Summer On Earth 2018" Tour with Better Than Ezra and KT Tunstall.

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Author’s Note: This article is the last of a three-part series profiling each of the artists on the tour. Read my previous conversations with KT Tunstall and Better Than Ezra.

Winnipeg, 1991. Vincent Massey Collegiate.

We were at a rehearsal for our 10th grade musical, Dames at Sea – probably on a Saturday afternoon when most of our classmates were still sleeping off their Friday night shenanigans. We were all music geeks in one form or another, and we talked about it endlessly and played mix tapes we’d concocted for each other when we weren’t on stage. Taking a break in our drama classroom, one of my friends emerged with a yellow cassette and told us to stop what we were doing to listen to this amazing new song by a group with an absolutely hilarious name…

…the Barenaked Ladies. Insert teenage boy snickering here.

He bought it at HMV, and it was only $7.99 – an impressive price tag for those of us who desperately wanted to buy thousands of new albums and had rather shallow 15-year-old pockets. He passed around the case with its unpretentious cover art – a hand-scrawled picture of a nondescript sandwich with an olive and a daisy bloom lanced by a toothpick on top. It was something one of us would have scratched out on a legal pad while we were waiting for the lunch bell.

He slid the tape into the classroom’s cassette player, queued up to a track called ‘If I Had $1,000,000.’ A bubbly intro of brushed drums, accordion, piano, and acoustic guitar began to play, soon met by two distinct, but likable voices who began to trade hilarious lines about all the fantastical things they’d buy their betrothed if they had a sudden windfall of cash: fur coats (but not a real one, which I appreciated because my Grandma’s mink made me break out in welts), expensive ketchups (the champagne of Canadian condiments), ottomans, llamas, and emus.

Who the hell were these guys? And more importantly, how fast could I get to the record store to get my own copy?

As a Canadian, describing what makes us culturally unique is sometimes difficult because a lot of our existence is either adjacent to, or derivative of other influences. The arts – the stuff that’s homegrown and encapsulates the experience of growing up north of the 49th parallel – is often where Canadians have been able to express its singularity in visceral ways.

For my generation who began to embrace pop music fully and completely in the early 1990s, the Barenaked Ladies defined that. These were songs that we discovered. We learned the lyrics. We called the radio stations to request them hourly. They were our band.

It’s now, unimaginably, 27 years since that unassuming EP cassette, officially deemed The Yellow Tape despite its eponymous sleeve, brought BNL into public consciousness. Now a foursome with co-founder and lead vocalist Ed Robertson, bassist Jim Creeggan, keyboardist Kevin Hearn, and drummer and percussionist Tyler Stewart, they’ve survived and thrived through a few line-up changes — including the exodus of co-lead vocalist and songwriter Steven Page – and the ebbs and flows of a turbulent music industry. But their 12th studio album, Fake Nudes, emerged last September with the band’s fundamental approach intact: infectious, smart, meticulously-crafted music with humor as the cement of its foundation. For those of us who evolved with the Barenaked Ladies over the past three decades, they remain the very definition of the Canadian musical identity.

As you can imagine, talking with BNL’s drummer Tyler Stewart a few weeks ago was enthralling, if not a bit emotional. Tomorrow night, the band will take the stage with Better Than Ezra and KT Tunstall at Express LIVE! as one of the stops on the latest iteration of their Last Summer On Earth Tour – an irreverent nod to the myriad of farewell concert stints that seem to do anything but end.

So I wanted to ask specifically about your entrance into the band, Tyler, because I know you first met them initially at a busking festival, if I’m not mistaken, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen much written beyond that. Walk me through some of the finer details of how that all played out.

“Well, it’s interesting that you mention that because I’d been reflecting on that a little bit lately because what happened was I was playing with some friends from Guelph, Ontario, and the Busker Carnival was in Waterloo, Ontario – those are two very close communities. I’d started playing, literally, on a suitcase with brushes with my friends and I was exploring the acoustic side of my musical personality. Up to that point, I’d been playing some pretty hard rock and rockabilly, and then some progressive rock and stuff. So stripping it right down to its essence is what I was doing.

And then we ran into the Barenaked Ladies at the same carnival, and they were an acoustic band and at the time they didn’t have a drummer because Andrew Creeggan, who was their percussionist and played congas, was away on a cultural exchange program in South America. So it was just the three of them – Jim, Steve, and Ed. And I just liked the way they performed and they captured the crowd, and their harmonies were amazing. I thought, ‘You know what? I’d like to fit in with these guys. They need some percussion and they don’t have any.’

So really we hit it off on a sense of humor level more than anything, and we were laughing and joking and hanging out right off the bat. And that to me was an indication that, ‘Hey, I’d like to be around these guys a lot more often.’ I started sitting in with them in clubs around Toronto, and lo and behold I was in the band. But honestly I think it had everything to do with social skills and having an acoustic instrument and playing it, and there you go – boom! – I was in.”

My appreciation for the Barenaked Ladies goes way back to The Yellow Tape. Certainly I listened to other Canadian music when I was a kid like Corey Hart and Bryan Adams that sort of defined pop radio during my formative years, but I’d say that listening to that EP for the first time made me really evaluate what defined our national musical identity in a tangible way. That sort of balance of humor and humanity that seems to be part of the Canadian persona.

“I think it’s not necessarily the Canadian-ness you’re hearing. I think you’re hearing a band that isn’t afraid to have a sense of humor, you know? Maybe that is Canadian. Some of the biggest comedians have been Canadian over the years, and we’re very influenced by SCTV and people like Martin Short, Jim Carrey – people who have always managed to have a fresh perspective on things and not really be too worried about the consequences.

So I think especially in our younger years, on The Yellow Tape especially, we were singing about culturally relevant things to us as teenagers and as young people you know? So singing about Kraft Dinner and Super Big Gulps, things like that — and ‘What would you do if you had a million dollars?’ And now, of course, a million dollars seems like…I think it’s more like people are saying, ‘How badly would I have had to mess up to only make a million dollars?’ [laughs]

But I think what you hear on The Yellow Tape is…I love the fact that you detect a sense of optimism or maybe irony, or whatever. Really that’s a great example of the breadth of the band, as well, because you had the tongue-in-cheek fun of ‘If I Had $1,000,000,’ and the seriousness of ‘Blame It On Me’ and ‘Brian Wilson.’ So The Yellow Tape really encapsulates where the band was heading and also the breadth of the band.”

So you mentioned the things you wrote about in the early 1990s that meshed with what you thought about or cared about as young musicians. What are those ideas or values that the band cares about now in the Fake Nudes era? What do the four of you discuss or mull over as a collective now?

“I mean, you know, we’re all very alarmed at the continued disintegration of the institution of democracy in the United States at the hands of 45. We talk about that on a daily basis and we’re worried about it, you know? I think everyone should be alarmed about it. But also one of the things we’ve been talking about in the group is how fortunate we are and how lucky we are to be able to do this for a living, to have an audience of people that still want to come and have a good time with us and listen to our music and celebrate the good things in life.

Because I think, really, that’s our job – to make people feel and make them reflect and make them celebrate. And honestly after 30 years, the fact that I still get to get up on stage and sing and dance and do all kinds of crazy things and people pay to see it…we’re feeling very fortunate. So I think that’s part of the discussion these days as well.

I’ll give you a little anecdote off of that – we just went to the UK and played a tour there immediately after we were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Now, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame induction was a career highlight, and it was lovely and beautiful and it was just such an honor to be enshrined among such names as Rush and Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen. It was great. But, you know, the Canadian media sort of chose to focus on the fact that we were getting back together with Steve Page again to perform at the ceremony.

So that became the focus of everything in the hopes and dreams of Canada. And after a while, it was kind of like, ‘Ahhh…what a drag that that’s all they want to talk about.’ But what we realized is that it’s Canada, and there’s a certain period of our career that I think, the very beginning quite frankly – The Yellow Tape and the Gordon era – that Canadians really fixate on. And I think that’s because we blew on to the scene and, for a couple of years there, we were the biggest band in Canada. And that’s kind of what they’ve kind of chosen to focus on and remember.

But shortly after receiving that honor, which was a great one, at the Juno Awards, we went to the UK and played our own tour with our regular four-piece that we are now and sold out shows and had people going crazy in places like Manchester and London and Glasgow and Edinburgh. And one night in particular in Manchester after the show ended, they just wouldn’t leave. They were screaming and clapping and getting us out for a third encore. And Ed turned to me and said, ‘You know what? Fuck everything else that isn’t this.’ And what he was saying to me was that none of the other, ‘Are you getting back together with Steve Page?’ sort of controversy – even awards or chart positions or whatever that may be – nothing is as good as playing for people and getting them so excited they won’t leave the building until you play more music. So, there it is! [laughs]”

And I think it’s so much fun to watch bands now who have made it and are a decade or two into their careers because they’re producing and playing music that’s purely being made because it matters to them and not because they’re scratching for credibility or fame. I know there’s still an impetus to create good material and to pay your bills, but the pressure must be different for you all now.

“Yeah, I agree. It’s the best place to be and it also takes a lot of pressure off of us to be on any kind of treadmill, really. Because we can call the shots and we can do things because we want to do them, as opposed to doing them because we have to do them.”

Thinking about the 12 albums’ worth of material the Barenaked Ladies has to choose from, in addition to the one-off singles and EPs, how do you now pare all of that down to fit into a show? Surely everyone wants to hear the hits, but it must be a challenge to decide what makes it on to your set list now.

“You know, a lot of songs we’ve been playing for over 25 years, so we have to find new ways to invigorate those songs and present them in different ways. And one of those things actually involves KT Tunstall — she’s been joining us for a version of ‘Brian Wilson,’ and it’s so great to have her on stage. She’s such a great person to be around and has great energy. And then we have Kevin Griffin up, too, in one of our new songs called ‘Looking Up,’ because [he] co-wrote that song with Ed.”

Kevin and I actually spoke a couple of weeks ago, and I’d told him I was flabbergasted by the sheer number of songs he’s co-written for other artists beyond Better Than Ezra. And I know he co-wrote a significant amount of the tracks on Fake Nudes.

“Yeah, he’s kind of the Zelig of pop music – he’s always there in the background of a lot of songs.”

So if you had to re-write the Barenaked Ladies’ history, or re-live it in some capacity, what would be a pivotal moment that you couldn’t possibly change because it was so important to the arc of the band’s story?

“I think for us, early on in our career, something we didn’t have any control of but really helped us is when we were banned from playing City Hall in Toronto because of our name. Overnight. The mayor at the time, whose name was June Rowlands, she banned us from playing because our name objectified women. So rather than listen to any of our music and realize we’re pretty innocuous with our song titles…I mean, we weren’t like Naked Chicks, you know? We weren’t in a heavy metal band, or whatever.

But anyway, she banned us, and it made front page news. Overnight, we went from being a popular Toronto club band to a national Canadian household name. We sold 80,000 cassettes in a month. So, there you go. She made us famous overnight. And thankfully we had the songs and chops and desire to continue it because, you know, we were ready – we were ready to go. And boom! we got shot out of a cannon and we haven’t looked back since.”

I’m sure you’ve had so many people who have helped guide the band and move it forward. Who gave you the best advice or encouragement that really made a difference in BNL’s progress?

“Over the years, we’ve had some really good managers. Terry McBride was one of our early managers and took us to the top of the charts. His thing was, ‘People need to know who you are, so build your brand and keep playing live because it’s the best thing you can do – and keep going back to the same places and playing.’ So we did that, and lo and behold, it actually worked. It was a different era then and radio was more important, there was no internet. But that was some pretty sage advice – ‘Keep doing what you do.’

I’d say that meeting Peter Buck of R.E.M. at Bridge School in 1999…we were standing in the buffet line getting food at Neil Young’s house, and there was Peter Buck standing with us. And he said, ‘Hey! You guys are doing really great right now, it’s amazing, I was listening. Here’s what you do: buy a nice house, and furnish it nicely, and maybe buy another one, too – buy a vacation place. But then focus on the health of the band. Make sure you guys as a band are communicating and getting along well. All the material stuff – it doesn’t matter. A nice house to go back to matters. Nothing else does.”

And I said ‘holy shit! That’s some good advice!’ Right?”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank you for the music and the impact it’s had on me and so many other people in my circle of friends. I know I’ve talked a lot about the band in a Canadian context, but your success in the U.S. and abroad has really been magnificent – and unique among a lot of your counterparts. I was living in Los Angeles for the summer in 1998 and I remember hearing “One Week” jump into heavy rotation on KIIS FM, and I thought “Man. That’s it. They’re going to have a number one record and nothing’s going to be the same for them again.” I’d like to point out I was right [laughs], but really, I was so excited for you guys. It’s been so fun to grow up with you.

“Ah, thank you, sir. That’s very nice! And it turns out you’re a bit of clairvoyant, so I hope you can use that to predict other things in your life that give you as much enjoyment as we do! [laughs]”

The Barenaked Ladies, with Better Than Ezra and KT Tunstall, are on the “Last Summer On Earth 2018” tour, which stops in Columbus at Express LIVE! on Wednesday, July 11. General admission tickets (the show is outdoors) are $39.50, plus applicable fees and taxes, and are available via Ticketmaster. More information about BNL’s music, including downloads and purchase links for their latest album, Fake Nudes, can be found on their official website.

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