Inside a sunless studio on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard, a dreadlocked man hunches over a recording console. Pushing his ever-present sunglasses back on his nose, he listens attentively to the sounds coming back from the huge speakers, scrutinizing every detail. The song ends. The tape stops. Turning his swivel chair around, the producer is smiling like a proud papa.
"I think this is the best record that they've ever made," the dreadlocked man declares. "Their songwriting, and their playing, has hit another plateau."
The record is Maroon, an impressive collection of 12 brand new original songs by Barenaked Ladies. And perhaps most impressively, this shower of high praise is coming from the man who produced the record, Don Was.
That is, "Grammy Award-winning producer Don Was," a man who has earned the respect and admiration of his high profile clients like The Rolling Stones, The B-52's, Bonnie Raitt, Iggy Pop and Paul Westerberg. Clearly, Don Was knows of what he speaks, and right now he's speaking volumes about the 12 brand new songs contained on Barenaked Ladies' first new album since the groundbreaking Stunt.
Stunt pulled off a few impressive stunts of its own. In addition to the album being certified quadruple platinum, the single "One Week" gave Barenaked Ladies their first No. 1 on Billboard magazine's Hot 100. Then came the television appearances on everything from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to their featured stint as musical guests on Saturday Night Live. As the 20th century came to a close, Barenaked Ladies had become one the hottest touring acts in popular music, playing sold-out stadium shows all over the United States and their native Canada.
Now, with Maroon, Barenaked Ladies enter the 21st century in a decidedly more introspective mood, although theirs is the hummable kind of introspection you can dance to. On Barenaked Ladies first record of the new millennium, the band members are still having the time of their life, but this time they're speaking frankly about their life and times.
The result is a deeper, darker album than you might expect from Barenaked Ladies.
Singer guitarist Steven Page (who along with singer guitarist Ed Robertson co-wrote most of the songs on the record), begs to differ: "While there may be some carnage or war scenes in songs like ‘Helicopters’ or ‘Tonight Is The Night That I Fell Asleep At The Wheel,’ I think all our albums are dark in places. I think that, at this stage in our career, we've just lived a bit more. There's been lots of ‘Life’ in our lives. We just write about it all."
Despite the mood shifts, the band comes out swinging on "Pinch Me," the infectious first single, which is sung by Ed Robertson.
"The song is about this bored guy," says Page. "He's by himself in this world; he doesn't know what he's doing. He can dream about big ambitions but he's just living his life sleepwalking."
According to Don Was, "Pinch Me" could just as easily be called "What Is the Meaning of Life?"
"It goes to the core of the most intense metaphysical and philosophical issues facing man," Was remarks. "That's pretty heavy turf, you know? Yet it sounds like a happy-go-lucky, almost superficial little song. Looking through the lens of the mundane, at the simple everyday things, it becomes metaphorical and the song makes its point. That in simple things lie the most valuable things."
A remarkably upbeat album musically, for all its thematic weight lyrically, Maroon investigates and celebrates the events of life—both good and bad—that make it worth living. Don Was loves the duality of the record, which he says is a lot like life itself.
"You put this record on," Was says, "and sonically, groovewise, it's upbeat. It makes you feel good. It's stuff you would play at a barbecue; yet lyrically they are dealing with more grownup subject matter."
Was can't say enough about the band's ability to write songs that help people come to terms with complex feelings, or emotions that they couldn't verbalize for themselves.
"They're communicating," says the veteran producer. "They're actually getting through to people. If these guys are the torch bearers of the light side of the human psyche, then on this album the torch bearers are acknowledging that you can still live a joyful life and be a good and happy person, but that you will mess up sometimes. You will think of heavy things. And they've done it in a way that isn't a downer to listen to. Now, I think that's brilliant songwriting."
Although songs like "Pinch Me," "Sell, Sell, Sell," "Helicopters" or the dramatic album closer "Tonight Is The Night I Fell Asleep At The Wheel" are decidedly more emotionally direct and politically aware, Steven Page hesitates to call it "Barenaked Ladies' Political Record".
"What I'm saying now in my writing is very explicit," Page explains. "I don't even really need to talk a lot about it because when you hear the songs, you should know exactly what I'm talking about. That's what different for me, it's not just me doing pop culture references. It's more explicit."
Yet the album’s explicit references to life, death and all the baggage in the middle, ultimately become an affirmation of life itself. And Page isn't kidding when he says there's been a lot of "Life" in the lives of Barenaked Ladies recently. There's even been a near brush with death.
In 1998, keyboardist/guitarist Kevin Hearn, whose musical footprints were all over Stunt, was diagnosed with leukemia just as that record hit the stores. While Kevin waited for a stem cell transplant in a Toronto cancer hospital, he was unable to join the band on first arena tour of the U.S. The Stunt tour was a kind of "victory lap" for all the hard work he and his bandmates had put in, year after year. But Hearn had bigger battles to fight.
Miraculously, over two very physically and emotionally draining years, Hearn has pulled through and in the words of Ed Robertson, "kicked cancer's ass."
"While I was in the hospital going through heavy cancer treatments and a bone marrow transplant," says Hearn, "I was seeing a lot of hospital workers, working hard on the night shift, and taking care of people in pain. People like myself. These are the real heroes in life."
Hearn's gratitude spreads not only to his bandmates and close friends but also to the thousands of fans who wrote or e-mailed him during his recovery.
"I was really showered with a lot of love," remembers Hearn, "from people I knew and many I didn't know. I received many cards and phone calls. I don't know how I can possibly thank all these people."
Now finally, and thankfully, Kevin Hearn takes his own personal victory lap around the twelve tracks that make up Maroon. All over the record, the multi-talented Hearn is heard on piano, clavinet, organ, guitar, glockenspiel, melodica, accordion, synthesizer, vocoder and digital sampler.
And when Jim Creeggan isn't slapping or bowing the double bass, he can be heard strapping on his electric bass in addition to his textural work on viola, violin and baritone guitar. Creeggan's groove is once more pinned down by the elastic and funk-tastic drumming of Tyler Stewart, who even gets busy on castanets, tambourines and the odd tympani.
While the lead vocals are shared between Ed Robertson and Steven Page, Ed did most of the guitar work on Maroon while Steven, playing the occasional acoustic guitar, flute or recorder, concentrated for the most part on his vocal skills.
The end result is the acoustic / electric eclecticism that defines Barenaked Ladies fifth studio album (and their sixth album in general, counting the Rock Spectacle album which was recorded where Barenaked Ladies really shine, the Live Concert environment).
Don Was feels that one of the reasons for Barenaked Ladies phenomenal success is their ability to really communicate with their live audience, and to send out a genuinely good vibe in concert. It's that vibe that Was wanted to capture on Maroon.
"I was looking at the smile on Ed's face," Was remembers of a recent performance. "It never leaves his face for the entire show. He's Mother Theresa, man, for that alone. If you're going to stand up there and smile and have fun for two hours and show people that there can be joy in life, you really can effect other people by example. There's no greater thing you can do than to demonstrate how happy you can be, to that many people, night after night. That's a fantastic service to perform.”
Both Was and Barenaked Ladies are quick to credit Jim Scott, who engineered and mixed Maroon, for his unique approach to "Studio Decoration and Vibe Control." According to Robertson, Scott, an accomplished producer and a musician in his own right, came to embody the very "soul of this record".
Scott's studio environment could well be described as "Sixties Hippie Chic." Picture this: Hung between the main speakers, a black velvet painting of Elvis gazed down regally from its position, high on the wall. Persian rugs double as wall hangings and acoustic reinforcements. The green and red blinking lights of the studio electronics were augmented by Scott's multi-colored Christmas tree lights as wisps of smoke from patchouli-scented incense sticks billowed up through Scott's own beaded curtains.
Oh, and Steven says that Scott's got "great ears" as well.
"He listens to everything very closely," Page recalls, "even when my ears are tired and I've lost concentration after a million takes. He is amazingly relaxed; he's always up. He never gets tense about anything, no matter what happens. When we were getting a bit tired, Jim would play us back the tape and spontaneously start dancing or playing along on air guitar."
Don Was, it must also be mentioned, produced and directed the Brian Wilson documentary and album I Just Wasn't Made For These Times. Steven Page's song "Brian Wilson" is one of the Barenaked Ladies' oldest and best known, having been recorded and re-recorded on numerous occasions, including their debut album Gordon. So it wasn't completely out of the blue that the band received a visit from the only other artist to have recorded the song, the man himself—Brian Wilson.
As fate would have it, Barenaked Ladies were recording Maroon in the very same studio where Mr. Wilson had recorded many classic Beach Boys tracks back in the 1960s. As fate would have even more of it, Cello Studios is at the corner of Sunset and a side-street named Gordon.
Wilson had dropped by the Barenaked Ladies studio to play them a few songs from his recent live album, particularly Wilson's own take on Page's song about him. "It was so blindingly exciting," says Page, "I can't even remember what it sounded like."
Wilson took a listen to a song that Was and the Ladies' were working on before posing for a photograph commemorating the occasion.
As Wilson was leaving, Page recalls that the revered songwriter's only words of wisdom: "Remember guys, don't eat too much!"
Still, he says it was an "incredibly strange" experience to meet the subject of a song he had written when he was still only a teenager. He's still not sure that he didn't "summon" him, psychically, with the song.
"So, I write this song," Page explains, "and ten years later, it's covered by Brian Wilson himself. What are the odds? Perhaps I should
now write a song called 'Mariah Carey.'"