800,000 Barenaked Ladies Fans Can’t Be Wrong
They’re multi-platinum stars in their native Canada. Their U.S. audience has steadily broadened thanks to persistent touring and word of mouth. Their ’96 studio release, Born On A Pirate Ship, furthers their rewriting of the pop rulebook. Now they’re releasing their first live record, Rock Spectacle (pronounced Roc-Spectak). Clearly, Barenaked Ladies have better things to worry about than flying cheese.
Still, worry they must. At least, until concertgoers manage to restrain themselves from hurling boxes of macaroni and cheese at the band after lead singer Steven Page sings the line "We wouldn’t have to eat Kraft dinner" in their love song "If I Had $1000000."
"When it started it was really fun," says Page, reacting to the mac-and-cheese-throwing phenomenon as we sit in the band’s dressing room backstage at The Electric Factory in Philadelphia, before a show on the band’s fall tour. "I couldn’t understand how the word spread that you were supposed to do that. And I thought that was pretty amazing and magical, ’cause that was kind of before the internet explosion of the last couple years. Now it’s kind of easy to find out about that stuff."
The band’s sense of wonder about the unique form of adulation they’ve received has lessened as they’ve grown tired of being the victims of airborne pasta and powdered dairy product. "People started opening the cheese, which was the worst part," Page explains, his face wearing the frustration of a man who has worn far too much cheese on his sleeve. "People opening cheese powder and whipping it. So the whole audience walks out sweaty and covered with cheese, we’re covered in cheese, and our equipment gets wrecked. It’s not worth it."
Drummer Tyler Stewart, seated on the opposite sofa, notes the additional concern of the band’s personal safety. "Getting hit by sharp boxes, when you’re blinded by lights, really sucks," he says plainly. The effects of the Kraft Dinner toss have increased in proportion to the size of the venues the band now plays. "As your popularity grows," says Steven, "you can’t weed out the goons in the crowd. And there’s always goons." These goons know no limits, apparently: "I got hit in the nuts with a jar of applesauce once," Steven reveals. Uh, thanks for sharing, Steven.
Through thick and through thin, through cheese sauce and applesauce, Barenaked Ladies have carved out a dedicated fan base since the band’s inception in the late ’80s, when Page and fellow singer/songwriter/guitarist Ed Robertson, both in their teens, began writing and performing together in the Toronto area. After recruiting Stewart and brothers Jim and Andy Creeggan on upright bass and piano, the quintet’s self-released 1991 EP, The Yellow Tape, sold well enough to achieve gold status in Canada—a first for an indie release—and attract the attention of Warner Music Canada, who inked them to a deal.
The full-length debut, Gordon, (Sire/Reprise) sold 800,000 copies and roamed the upper reaches of the Canadian album charts alongside The Bodyguard soundtrack and Eric Clapton’s Unplugged upon release in 1992. Emphasizing acoustic-based pop, Gordon seriously examines mental illness and relationships while spoofing such institutions as high school and box sets. It is bursting with pure pop like the first-love reminiscence "Enid." Its guts-on-the-floor ballads like "Blame It On Me" and "What A Good Boy" are world class, as are its rocking study of paranoia "Brian Wilson" and the Arlo Guthriesque "If I Had $1000000." Gordon encompasses so much that the multiple musical personalities, wackier songs like "Be My Yoko Ono," and penchant for blatant musical and lyrical nods to The Beatles, New Kids On The Block, and many inbetween threatened to earn the group an undeserved novelty act label.
The album certainly proves that humor does belong in music. But attentive listening to Gordon reveals it to be much more—a multi-faceted pop masterpiece, in fact; a study of the range of human emotion written almost entirely by Page and Robertson that somehow, in the course of its 15 harmony-laden songs, manages not to collapse under the weight of its many ideas. Trying to do everything is usually a sign of certain doom in almost any artistic endeavor. Somehow, on Gordon, it works.
Gaining popularity slowly over the four years since its inauspicious U.S. release, Gordon has now sold about a quarter of a million copies stateside. It’s an impressive number considering radio and video airplay never materialized, but as Steven told Timothy White recently in Billboard, he thinks Gordon may be just about the most bootlegged album in history. "We go and play university campuses, and it seems like all the university kids know all the words to these Gordon songs," he says in support of his theory. "And I guess we sold maybe 250,000 copies of that. But for the amount of people who know those words, I’m sure there must be like 800,000 [copies] floating around the campuses and bars and so on in the United States."
Perhaps the biggest sales handicap was the album’s unfortunate cover photo, which Steven admits is "the worst album cover in history." Picturing the five Ladies posing rather goofily around the large letters G-O-R-D-O-N, the design perhaps conveyed some of the madcap spirit of the band’s zany side, but none of the many other subtleties of emotion their music embodies.
"We realized that we probably could have sold about 800,000 copies if we had a decent record cover," he says. "I know a lot of people got that album in the mail and the radio station would say, ‘What the fuck is this?’" says Page, as he flings an invisible CD across the room. To rectify the band’s continuing unhappiness with the cover, the album was recently re-released with just a picture of the red, white, and blue toy rubber ball, a symbol of childhood innocence which was less prominent in the original Gordon artwork. "Hopefully," offers Tyler, "all the people who bought it in the first place will go, ‘I’m embarrassed to own this record, I gotta get a new copy.’"
According to Steven, the band even considered inserting a card with a new Gordon cover inside copies of their 1994 follow-up, Maybe You Should Drive. That somewhat less playful sophomore effort produced by k.d. lang collaborator Ben Mink confounded some. Subtle humor was still very much in evidence, though, as was, most importantly, top-notch pop songcraft. Its best songs—the sublime love-that-never-was story of the mid-tempo "Jane," the dumb-and-dumber love of rocker "These Apples," and the codependent love of ballad "Everything Old Is New Again"—rank among the band’s finest moments.
American audiences continued to warm to the band in concert as they began playing larger venues; in New York, for example, gigs at the intimate, 400-seat Bottom Line in Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side’s stately 2,400-capacity Beacon Theatre were separated by less than a year. But a breakthrough U.S. hit continued to elude them, while many Canadians did not know what to make of Drive and saw it as a disappointment. Andy Creeggan’s departure in early ’95 created further uncertainty, though by the time their summer co-headlining stint with Billy Bragg hit the road, keyboardist Kevin Hearn already had been brought on board.
As usual, the tireless band got back on the horse and completed an EP and a third album, both of which saw release early this year. The four-track Shoe Box E.P. was quickly followed by the album Born On A Pirate Ship, which in variety of sound was closer to Gordon than the more subdued Drive, yet stands as another wholly original-sounding effort. Once again, the band delivers another set of thoughtful but not maudlin ballads ("When I Fall," "Same Thing") and pure pop that explores psychological angst ("This Is Where It Ends," "Just A Toy"). More in evidence than before is darker subject matter—like celebrity stalking and indigestion—and the only love song is Jim Creeggan’s "In The Drink."
And still, despite the obligatory multi-leg tour and big ad bucks from Reprise in places like Details and the back page of Billboard, there was no U.S. hit, though "Shoe Box" and "The Old Apartment," the latter supported by a Jason Priestley-directed video, did receive fleeting airplay.
Releasing a live album can mean many things for a band. Sometimes it signals a certain measure of success has been achieved and can be cashed in on. It usually means a band has a solid base of dedicated fans who can be counted on to purchase an album full of songs they already have. For Barenaked Ladies, the hope may be that this wider exposure for their live shows that already sell well could bring their studio efforts to a wider U.S. audience. "Our live show is kind of what we’re known for," says Steven. "We’ve had a lot of requests for [a live album] from a lot of fans. I don’t think this means this is our one and only live album. Maybe we’ll be like Rush, who puts them out every three albums or something."
"Every fourth album," Tyler says, correcting him.
"I don’t know anything about Rush," Steven concedes. "That’s the other guys. I love being Canadian, but I don’t know anything about hockey or Rush."
The band simply chose "the ones that sounded the best" for the live album, in Tyler’s words. "But also," adds Steven, "the ones that were a little bit different from the versions people knew, that have evolved with age or even in their youth have kind of evolved from what the recorded version was like. Why put out a live album if it just sounds like the same thing again?"
"That does work for Rush, though," says Tyler, the comic timing the band members exploit so well in their live banter much in evidence here, hours before a show. "Except there’s a drum solo in every three songs or so."
In striving to include live takes of songs that do not merely duplicate studio versions, Spectacle includes, for example, a slowed-down version of Maybe You Should Drive’s bounciest track, "Life, In A Nutshell." Tyler recounts some of the variations found on the album: "‘These Apples’ is a bit different." A pause. "‘God Save The Queen,’ the waltz mix."
"The string quartet version of ‘EMI,’ we did that one," says Steven without missing a beat. "Punk is back. Except it’s P-U-N-Q-U-E this year."
So, was rejecting Never Mind The Bullocks, Here’s Barenaked Ladies in favor of the only slightly less tongue-in-cheek title Rock Spectacle a missed opportunity to cash in on the current punk revival? Well, no, not at all, although their willingness to launch into just about any song with no foreseeable warning, from "Pinball Wizard" to Van Halen’s "Jump," certainly is in line with the D.I.Y. ethos. Improvisational both within and between songs without straying into over-indulgence, spontaneous without vainly eschewing set lists, the band just about redefines the concert experience in the course of a typical two-hour performance.
If the band simply performed its extraordinary songs straightforwardly, without infusing their gregarious personality and spirit, it would make for riveting, gut-wrenching shows; but the band goes several steps further to make its concerts total entertainment experiences. Page and Robertson improvise between-song raps, usually based on an experience one of them had that day—often a meal they ate. Musical references not included on album also rear their heads, e.g. "My Sharona" and Gary Numan’s "Cars" in the bridge of "Alternative Girlfriend." A hip-hop medley of tunes including bits of Biz Markie, Beck, All-4-One, and others, complete with the band’s synchronized funky dance, usually follows "$1000000." Regularly performed cover tunes over the years have included capable versions of Public Enemy’s "Fight The Power," and The Beastie Boys’ "Shake Your Rump," as well as ’80s faves like "When Doves Cry" and "Material Girl."
Taped at ’96 shows in Chicago and Montreal, the live album avoids covers, medleys, and, save for an unlisted bonus track, between-song banter and raps. Though their live eccentricities can be heard on unofficial recordings circulated by fans—which the band approves of "as long as they’re not trying to sell it," according to Tyler—the focus on Spectacle is the songs. All 11 tracks on the live record have been issued before in studio versions by the Ladies, and each has its particular new wrinkles evident in the live setting. The gentle "What A Good Boy," already perfect on Gordon, benefits further from a slightly slower tempo and an extra end coda. Pirate Ship’s "Break Your Heart" is occasion for Steven to just about ruin his voice forever with a howl worthy of Prince or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The album-closing "If I Had $1000000," which has been known to incorporate a verse or so of "Wonderwall," "The Gambler," or "Here Comes The Hotstepper," here begins with a self-reference to another Gordon song; the fit, of course, is seamless.
Though somewhat oddly sequenced—"Brian Wilson" leads off the disc, whereas it often ends their shows—Rock Spectacle shows Barenaked Ladies to be formidable interpreters of their material. Like Shoe Box and Born On A Pirate Ship, the disc contains a bonus multimedia CD-ROM portion. The amusing 20-minute audiovisual program "BNLTV" includes a partial live performance of "Straw Hat And Old Dirty Hank," a well-executed home shopping channel spoof, and the decidedly non-highbrow "Tyler Stewart Living."
Though actual confiscation of macaroni and cheese by security guards has been instituted at recent shows, the lack of a cleansing mac-and-cheese shower won’t likely cause the band to deliver concerts that are anything less than great. Odds are BNL will continue to write and record niche-defying rock and pop on albums which sound increasingly brilliant with each listen. Perhaps they will attain a following like that live phenomenon Phish, though it seems a safe bet that the Ladies would not follow in the Phishy footsteps of pretension, questionable white funk, and interminable instrumental noodling. Until this largely misunderstood band gets its due, though, they’ll be doing what they do, and waiting for a tribute album to Sesame Street songwriter Joe Raposo, for which they’d love to record a song. "I think that would be the best tribute album," Steven says earnestly. At least until that Barenaked Ladies tribute 20 years from now…
SIDEBAR: Naked And Shameless
Y3: What’s the worst or most embarrassing record in your collection?
Steven: See, I’m not embarrassed by anything. But you know, I used to love that first Ace Of Base record.
Tyler: Guilty pleasure. I don’t know, like, old Steely Dan records.
Steven: What I would actually be embarrassed to say is in my record collection is The Cult, "She Sells Sanctuary" album, whatever that was. [Everyone laughs.] That I’m embarrassed to say I have in my record collection. Simple Minds, New Gold Dream. You know?
Tyler: It’s not that bad.
Steven: [Emphatically] No, listen to it again. It’s shit. When I was 15 I thought it was excellent, and it’s shit.
Y3: That makes us feel o.k. We listened to a little Tommy Shaw on the way over.
Steven: Was it "Girls With Guns?"
Y3: It was that album.
Tyler: Oh, yeah.
Y3: It wasn’t out of pleasure. It was purely scientific research.
Steven: You know, he did that video with no edits. That’s the only thing I know about Tommy Shaw.
Y3: That’s the only thing I know about Tommy Shaw, too.
Thanks to Bob Fenster for his help with this interview.
YEAH YEAH YEAH, 1996