Never before has an unknown band been so popular...nor a successful band so invisible.
Canada's Barenaked Ladies have made a career out of such contradictions. Since the release of Gordon, the band's now-classic 1992 debut, BNL has been on a steady creative and commercial rise that culminated in early 1998 when the quintet earned its first-ever U.S. gold record.
Now comes the band's latest achievement – a musical slice-of-life called Stunt.
"I certainly hear a confidence in our writing and playing on this album," says Ed. "But I think that stems from natural growth. I think we're all growing naturally, as writers and musicians."
"It took me a while to get used to it, but I love it," says Steven. "It's our most consistently good record. It has the least amount of what I like to call 'fast-forward songs.' In fact, I don't think this album has any."
After a short break at the end of 1997, the five members of the group anxiously approached the beginning of the most important project of their collective lives.
"There was certainly anticipation," remembers Ed. "Rock Spectacle had done far better than any of us expected it to do. But we were getting such great support all around – from fans, from each other, from management, from the label. There was this feeling of, 'You guys know what you're doing, so keep doing it and everything will be OK.' We felt like we were in a really good position, where we weren't necessarily in a bind to deliver/perform something we didn't have in us. It was more like this expectation to do what we already do well."
But not everyone was quite that calm.
"I think my mood was terror as we went into the studio," says Steven. "I was so scared writing these songs. The first couple that I wrote came out fairly easily and quickly, songs like 'In The Car,' and 'It's All Been Done.' Then Ed and I started to get together at my house, everyday for a couple weeks. For the first couple of days we'd just sit and stare at each other for hours. But once the songs started coming out, I was really happy with them."
The first single and video from Stunt is a renegade little number called "One Week," which adds yet another vibrant color to the band's already-substantial musical fabric, despite 'a wee bit of writer's block,' according to Ed.
"I never thought I'd finish that song," he recalls. "As soon as I started I was afraid to write it. Hip-hip and rapping and freestyling have been a part of what we do as a live band since the beginning, and we're big fans of that kind of music. But it's never really reared its head on any of our recordings, although it's a huge part of what we do live We're always freestyling."
"I love 'One Week' because it's so different form stuff that we've done before," adds Steven. "But at the same time, it has a lot of similarities with our live show."
Of course, after these many years of collaborating, Ed and Steven have developed a special working relationship – one that allowed the pair to fully realize their creative potential on Stunt, without fear of trying new or different things.
"Steven and I write so well together," says Ed. "When I get a song started, I always know that, no matter what happens, together we can finish it and we'll have a great song. A lot of the time – because we've been working together so long and we've known each other for twice as long as that – we know right away where the other person is going."
Three of the news songs were co-written by Steven and long-time friend and collaborator Stephen Duffy, who has also contributed to each of BNL's studio releases, except for the first one.
"The songs we did together this time are 'Alcohol,' 'Call And Answer' and 'I'll Be That Girl,' which was deceptively difficult to write. I had written it and thought I was finished, but when we went to record it I realized, 'This doesn't make any sense!'"
"Saying what you want to say in a three-minute pop song is really difficult sometimes, but I love the challenge. And I love songs that have lyrics that surprise people, especially in a song like that, so poppy and melodious. Hinting at things like auto-erotic asphyxiation and suicide are pretty unexpected in that kind of music."
On that slightly disturbing note...for those of you new to the good ship BNL...a quick refresher may be in order.
Barenaked Ladies began modestly in 1988, when the band formed as part of Toronto's burgeoning alternative music scene. Blending alt-pop-rock with hints of folk and country, the group toured extensively throughout Canada and England.
The 1991 release of their independent EP signaled BNL's popular potential, as the hit single "Be My Yoko Ono" helped the collection become the first independent release in Canadian music industry history to go gold.
Barenaked Ladies signed a major label deal with Sire/Reprise Records a year later and released Gordon, which was No. 1 in Canada for eight weeks and earned them Group of the Year honors at the Juno Awards. But American success was still just a dream.
The 1994 album Maybe You Should Drive (containing "Jane" and "Alternative Girlfriend") and the enhanced 1996 Shoe Box Ep (featuring the title track and the other unavailable "Trust Me" and marking BNL's first release sans Sire) followed Gordon. They met with similar success and accolades at home, but were noticed in the U.S. only by their growing, but still modest, underground core of fans.
That disparity finally began to disappear with the release of Born On A Pirate Ship, later in 1996, which contained what would become BNL's first legit Yankee hit, "The Old Apartment." Though it took nine different radio campaigns by the ever-believing record company, the song ultimately cracked the Top 40 one full year after it was first released.
1997 was the year the band (singer-guitarist Steven Page, guitarist Ed Roberston, bass player Jim Creeggan, drummer Tyler Stewart, keyboard and accordion player Kevin Hearn) finally broke. Distinguished appearances on CNN"s Showbiz Today, NPR's All Things Considered, Beverly Hills 90210 (whose Jason Priestly directed the video for "The Old Apartment"). VH1's Hard Rock Live and Conan O'Brien's New Year's Eve show, put the band in front of a huge new audience that obviously like what it saw and heard.
Sales of Rock Spectacle – recorded live-in-concert at theaters in Montreal and Chicago during BNL's sold-out Spring '96 tour – began to explode, and multi-format radio play for the newest version of "Brian Wilson" exceeded all expectations, giving the band their first certified-gold U.S. album and first crossover pop smash.
What's more, Rock Spectacle – taken form the French-Canadian phrase for "good music" – spent more than a year on Billboard Magazine's Heatseekers chart for up-and-coming artists, peaking for two weeks at No. 1 before graduating to the magazine's prestigious Top 100 list, another first for the band. The Ladies' well-received debut appearance on Late Show With David Letterman in early 1998 – as well as a subsequent booking in the summer – only confirmed the band's mainstream charm.
Barenaked Ladies began work on Stunt – their fourth studio album – in January 1998, first in Austin with co-producer Susan Rogers, and later with co-producer David Leonard in Toronto. David also mixed the album, along with the band, in Nashville.
One of the more exciting revelations to come out of the studio this time was the valuable work of keyboard, guitar and accordion player Kevin Hearn, a veteran of a number of BNL tours but who – album-wise – had previously only been heard on the live record.
"It was the first time we worked with Kevin on a record," says Ed, with a proud smile on his face. "Kev is a sample guy, and a keyboard guy, so he had a big influence on us and on the album. For the first time it was his chance to really put his fingerprint on the band, and we couldn't be happier with the way it all turned out."
Barenaked Ladies have enjoyed many highs and many lows both in the U.S. and at home north of the border, which according to Ed leaves the band members prepared for whatever lies ahead.
"I think everybody
wants success," he says. "But in a lot of ways, we've been there. It's
not something we need for validation, because we know what it's like to
be that appreciated. We made a great record, and that in itself is validation.