Interview with Barenaked Ladies: Bright Lights, Bare Ladies

Interview with Barenaked Ladies: Bright Lights, Bare Ladies

—by , July 17, 2013

Masters of melodic, catchy ditties, Barenaked Ladies are busy celebrating their Last Summer On Earth 2013 tour with fans and apocalypse worrywarts alike (again). Touring in support of this year’s release, Grinning Streak (Vanguard), the Ladies share the summer stage with friends in Guster and Ben Folds, as well as comedian Boothby Graffoe. Before touring, I spoke with drummer Tyler Stewart about the band’s current lineup, the album, and their clever tour marketing gimmick.

Hi Tyler. How are you today?

No complaints today. Everything’s going well. Our bass player, Jim [Creeggan], isn’t feeling so well. He’s got a bit of bronchitis so he’s on antibiotics. Hopefully he’s going to get better before Sunday when we leave for tour.

Bronchitis can hold on awhile.

Yes. He’s a very in-shape and healthy man but he’s also one of those guys that makes you wonder if maybe he should’ve had a few more beers, stayed up late, and eaten a few more Big Macs. He might be a little stronger (laughs).

I like to think the bad balances out the good. First off, congratulations on 25 years. That has to feel pretty good to look back on.

It is pretty amazing. People say, “Does it feel like 25 years?” and some days you say yes because you’re at a truck stop and the only healthy choice is a boiled egg (laughs) and you still have another four or five hours on the bus to get to your destination. But there are other days when you’re in a recording studio making the best music of your life and everybody is totally in a great mood, rocking out, and everything coming back through the speakers sounds incredible. Those days, no, it doesn’t feel like 25 years; it feels as fresh as day one. So it’s sort of an up and down thing.

I think, if you look at it, we’ve had a lot of experiences. We’ve played small clubs and toured across frozen Canada in a van and then we’ve played Madison Square Garden, flown around on private jets, and everything in between. We’ve played Saturday Night Live, have had a couple of members leave, a member survive cancer at death’s door and came through the other side. We’ve lived through a lot. You have to look at it and think, yeah, I don’t think you could fit all of those experiences in a shorter timeframe than 25 years.

You mentioned some members leaving. I know Steven Page settled in Central New York, not far from me. How did his departure push Barenaked Ladies in a different, unexpected direction?

Well I think it’s definitely a happier direction, a more cohesive direction and a more united direction. I think the biggest change in the group is that we’re a lot more committed and into this. We don’t have a member who is trying to figure out whether he wants to do it or not, and whose behavior gave away, for a number of years, that he wasn’t really into being in the band anymore. So now we have four guys who are actually really committed to the group and believe in Barenaked Ladies.

It’s like a marriage. Sometimes you just go through the patterns and do things by rote and there’s no real passion anymore, but you stay together for the sake of the kids or financially, whatever. That happens in marriages and I think that happened in our band. Him leaving was definitely a step in a real positive direction for everybody else. We all had to step up and do more and if you think about if the sound changed that much, I’d say not really. We still do most of our songs that we did when Steven was in the band and most of them were co-written by Ed [Robertson]. He’s a great singer and we have three other singers in the band as well. Sometimes you miss that powerful voice that Steven has but on the other hand, I think it’s more important that there’s a band firing on all cylinders and making great music.

How does the band approach songwriting and performing now that the lineup has changed? Is something missing or is it business as usual?

I think at the first gig we ever played without Steven we thought, “Oh my god. Are we going to be able to do this?” But we’ve been playing those songs for so long that I picked up a lot of the harmonies that Steven used to sing and both Jim and Kevin [Hearn] are great singers. Ed is a totally accomplished lead vocalist with his own style as well. So I don’t think we skipped a beat.

I think that’s very evident on the new album.

That’s the thing, too. When you move on from something like that you start to create material that is more suited and we really hit our stride on this record. It shows in the confidence of the songwriting—which has always been there, quite frankly—but I think with more speculation by the general public whether or not we were going to be able to keep up the songwriting end.

I think Ed’s written his best songs in years. I think the band, as a four-piece, has been together four years now and we’ve played over 800 shows in between there so that’s seasoned the group even more than we were before. I think we’re in a great spot, more than we were before. As you say, that shows on the record.

I saw this is your first album with Vanguard. Not that that has anything to do with composing the album, but how might this new business collaboration and direction for the band have made for a more daring final product?

As for the Vanguard thing, we like people who are enthusiastic about us. “We love you guys! We’d like to put your record out.” We tend to say, “OK!” When someone says that they love what you do and they want to work with you and do what they can to make you successful, it’s a good way to start a business relationship.

I think, definitely, the album is breaking new ground for Barenaked Ladies. There’s some uncharted territory for us, whether it’s more of an electronic or space sound. Kevin has a myriad of keyboards and a myriad of abilities on them and that’s evident on songs like “Limits” and some of the singles like “Did I Say That Out Loud?” and “Odds Are.” I think there’s a contemporariness to some of those songs that was deliberate because you can’t help but be influenced by the music you’re hearing, particularly since we’re all fathers of some teenagers and that’s what they listen to. You get in the car and the radio’s immediately changed to the hit station. Some Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars is going to creep into anything you do because you’re hearing it all the time! (Laughs)

My kid’s a weirdo. She’s really into Fleetwood Mac right now.

Hey, that’s cool! Oh, you know what? You could say there’s some Fleetwood Mac on our record, too. It’s funny. You know, we’ve been doing this for 25 years so our influences are huge because there’s all the music we listened to as kids before those 25 years, and since then there’s been so much.

As a matter of fact, during this record, one of our producers, Howie Beck, said, “Think Mick Fleetwood on your fills. Nothing fancy. Really just like a single tom hit, not sixteenth notes but eighth notes.” Something like that. Honestly, “Think Mick Fleetwood” was a phrase that came out his mouth (laughs). And I think there’s a real classic Barenaked Ladies sound on the record, too.

You mentioned the tour starts soon. It’s called Last Summer On Earth but your 2012 tour was called that, too. Is there some complicated formula you can share so we can all predict the end of the world or do you just guess?

No, no, not us (laughs). We don’t have that formula. Our main defunct civilization, the Mayans, they had that formula. They said that last summer was supposed to be the last, but it simply wasn’t. But you know what, they brought us some amazing things like chocolate, brewed coffee, things like that. Things that get me through my day on a regular basis.

But they were wrong. They were not good predictors of the end of the world and thank God…or thank somebody. We’re so happy that the summer didn’t end last year that we gave them one more chance, like maybe there’s a margin of error.

We’re kind of scientific people in Barenaked Ladies. Perhaps they were off by one year so we’d better have another summer-long celebration with our friends and dream bands that we like to tour with, just in case they were only off by one year.

What if it ends in the winter? Maybe you should tour during each season.

Well, you know, what if it ends tomorrow?

Then you can’t go on tour!

That’s right, then the last summer really was the last summer on Earth and we would probably kick ourselves for not naming it the Last Spring On Earth! Then it would become the Last March On Earth or the Last June On Earth! (Laughs)

This is all just clever marketing. Well done.

Well, you know, we’re bright lights over here at Barenaked Ladies.

And how is touring with Ben Folds and Guster more like touring with your friends than with two other bands?

Guster have been our lifelong pals and we’ve done several tours with them in the past. They’re a truly unique band themselves with really great pop songs and interesting arrangements and Brian [Rosenworcel] bashing the living hell out of congas and other drums. They’ve become great pals. I went to Ryan [Miller’s] wedding in ’05 and I’ve hung out with them on several occasions.

It’s great to tour with friends. There’s a good hang there and sometimes touring can get a little lonely when you’re away from your family or just being around the same guys and their smelly habits. To switch it up a bit and have good friends around is awesome.

Ben Folds is somebody we all admire from a songwriting and performing perspective. We were all fans of Ben Folds Five from back in the day and his solo work is great so it’s really great to be back on tour with him. We did some shows with him back in the ‘90s and we always enjoyed them.

It’s going to be a good time this summer. And we have our friend Boothby Graffoe too who’s an English comedian/singer/entertainer guy that’s a lovely man and is really funny, so we’re excited about unleashing him on our audience.

 

Barenaked Ladies will play at The Mann Center in Philly July 18, Mohegan Sun Arena July 19, PNC Bank Arts Center July 20 and Celebrate Brooklyn! at the Prospect Park Bandshell July 30. For more information, go to bnlmusic.com.


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