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Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012

After a Shake-up, Barenaked Ladies Redefine Themselves

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From Bob and Doug to John Candy, Kids in the Hall and Mike Myers, Americans have long had a soft spot for offbeat Canadian humorists. Clearly, Barenaked Ladies have struck a similar chord. Their hits, including "One Week," "If I Had $1,000,000," "Be My Yoko Ono" and "It's All Been Done," are characterized by their lighthearted élan, enough so that singer/guitarist Ed Robertson has remarked, "We often lead with our goofiness."

That's a critique that's also been leveled against one of their inspirations, They Might Be Giants—and like that band, Barenaked Ladies' hits are hardly indicative of a catalog that is darker and headier than they're typically given credit for. According to bassist Jim Creeggan, being able to explore such a vast stylistic range is just a perk of a long career.

"Those are really clever guys and we really look up to them," Creeggan says, gently plucking and strumming his instrument in the background throughout our interview. "They're pretty diverse as well. Once you have a long career, you have time to explore different avenues and emotional content."

In May, Barenaked Ladies released Stop Us If You've Heard This One Before, an odds and sods collection of a dozen archival live, demo and other unreleased tracks that close the final chapter on singer/guitarist Steven Page's participation in the band. Page left in 2009 under a cloud of scandal and growing dysfunction keyed in part by his cocaine arrest in July 2008, just months after the release of Snacktime!, the band's children's album, and weeks prior to scheduled appearances (soon canceled) at several Disney Music Block Parties. It was a break that had been building for more than a dozen years.

The band has seen turnover before. Jim's brother Andy played drums on the first two albums, before departing as the band struggled with its chemistry in the mid-'90s, with Robertson and Page enduring long stretches without speaking.

"[The band] started with five guys in a van, and the idea of 'let's take over the world,' and then all of a sudden it didn't quite work out," Creeggan explains. "We were each other's mirror and a lot of us were struggling for our own identities and pushing each other around. Andy was the youngest and couldn't really flourish in that more competitive environment.

"When Andy split, we just put our head down and charged," he continues. "We toured like crazy from '94 to '98."

By that point, the breakthrough single "One Week" had made them household names in America.

"I think when there are shake-ups in the lineup like that, it really forces everyone to re-evaluate how they feel about the band. If anything," he says, with a momentary flourish from his bass, "it made us realize that even though we've taken a hit, we want to really go for it and try and be more respectful to each other, even though it's harder when you're 25."

Creeggan is hoping for a similar breakthrough now that Page has left the band, though they didn't get it with their first post-Page album, the perhaps presciently titled All in Good Time. It featured, perhaps by necessity, a more egalitarian approach incorporating five of Creeggan and keyboardist Kevin Hearn's compositions. Recorded only months after Page left, they hadn't adjusted to their new roles as fully as they have now.

The band has since been tabbed to write songs for Animal House: The Musical. They're working on it with director and famed choreographer Casey Nicholaw (Spamalot, Book of Mormon). Like many of their unusual projects—from penning the "Big Bang Theory" theme song to designing their own Ben & Jerry's flavor—it stemmed from their willingness to try almost anything.

"
Saying yes a lot leads us into a lot of interesting situations and great opportunities," Creeggan says. "When we made that ice cream, it was one of the hardest collaborations we've ever done."

I note that it's easier to make music together than cook together, and Creeggan retorts, "You laugh, but some of our biggest fights have been when we've tried to put some dance steps together."

He says working on the musical has been a good warm-up for their next album, whetting their appetite to start work on it in the fall.

"Facing an album can be daunting," he says. "You've got to kind of put your heads to the grindstone and get it done. That's the hardest time for bands, when they're redefining who they are. But I feel like the Animal House process has greased our chain. So it's really got some momentum for us. I'm really looking forward to the next album."

Barenaked Ladies headline the Wisconsin State Fair Main Stage with Blues Traveler, Big Head Todd and the Monsters and Cracker on Friday, Aug. 10, at 7 p.m.
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