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An Interview with the Barenaked Ladies

An Interview with the Barenaked Ladies

It is a momentous occasion; the first real submission from someone besides me! And this first one is a doozy--Curtis Cook, writer for Comedy Central's The Jim Jeffries Show, columnest for Williamette Weekly, and stand up comedian who has opened for the likes of Ali Wong, Tim Meadows, Pauly Shore, and scores of others spent some time speaking with the 90's legends the Barenaked Ladies. 

As a kid, Barenaked Ladies were one of the few bands my whole family could agree on. Rock Spectacle (Live) and Stunt scored most of our family road trips. I remember that on more than one occasion, my parents were forced to drive down the highway, suffering in silence as my little sister and I competed to see who’d memorized more lyrics to “One Week.”

As an adult, I still listen to BNL. I’ve grown to appreciate their lyricism and the way they poke fun at the minutiae of everyday life. I quietly hum “The Old Apartment” whenever I drive past my old place. I finally learned who Brian Wilson is and why that song sounds so sad. Whenever The Big Bang Theory comes on, I’ll actually stay tuned and listen to the theme song before turning the channel. Because Barenaked Ladies aren’t just a band, they’re a musical phenomenon that makes the first 30 seconds of that bullshit show bearable.

Unlike other bands that gained prominence in the 90s, Barenaked Ladies have never felt dated. The’ve had their heyday and lived through crazed fans hurling boxes of Kraft at the stage, but after thirty years together as a band, they’re still writing great songs, putting on fun shows, and staying true to themselves and the people who appreciate their music. Fake Nudes, their most recent record and fifteenth studio album, is proof that though the members of BNL have gotten older and wiser, their knack for writing catchy, youthful tunes is fresh as ever.

Barenaked Ladies will be appearing at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles this Friday, June 15th. In light of their upcoming performance, I had the chance to sit down with the band’s drummer, Tyler Stewart, for a brief chat about the band’s thirty year career and positive outlook on life.

Curtis Cook: Right out the gate: Are people still throwing Kraft at you?

Tyler Stewart: (laughs) No. That ceased, thankfully. You know, you get a few boxes of Kraft dinner in the nuts or in the face or any other unsuspecting region of your body, it starts to lose its appeal after a while. You know what I’m saying?

Yeah, I hear you. Did you ever eat the stuff when it hit you, or did it just all get swept away?

(laughs) Well, usually it was uncooked and was just… people would actually throw the boxes or sometimes they’d open the cheese packets and that–tell you what, I remember one time one of our techs cleaning out one of Kevin’s keyboards. It was just covered in cheese powder.

This is your 15th studio album in thirty years together as a band. What are some of your favorite memories?

There’s been some highs and lows but some of my favorites, like, one of them was recently being inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, which was a great honor. Really exciting to be amongst people like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and The Band. That was a real honor to be acknowledged by our musical peers and also to be put in such a distinguished place as the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

How do you guys feel about repping your country [Canada]?

Well, it’s interesting because we don’t necessarily… I don’t think outside of Canada people aren’t always like, “Oh there’s those Canadians.” You know? But I think at home in Canada we represent a certain type of ‘Canadianity’ if you will. People associate us with their youth in Canada, and we mention a few Canadian things in our lyrics. But I think more than anything it’s a feeling people get from the band. Like, this sort of like humorous and irreverent and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I think that’s sort of a Canadian way of being. But when we’re in the United States it’s just people want to hear great music and be entertained and enjoy a great show, and the Canadian-ness comes out a lot less when we’re playing in the United States or in Britain, where we’re quite popular as well.

That’s something I’ve always really appreciate about the Barenaked Ladies is the humor you guys bring to your music. But you never come across as… uh… like… uh… You know? It’s always good, relatable lyrics and good music that come across as funny. How do you guys balance the humor and the musicianship?

Well it’s interesting because I think what you’re about to say is that we don’t come across as a novelty act or as lightweights. I think that’s very true. And I think perhaps the humor was–more than anything it was just a way that we related to each other. When you’re with the same guys for almost thirty years, whether your sharing a smelly tour bus or a tiny dressing room or the stage or rehearsal space, it sure helps if you can laugh. And we all related to each other on a humorous level and I think that just sort of spills over onto the stage where a concert is kind of like hanging out with the guys in the band. And that’s just become our trademark.

It sounds rewarding and wonderful, but it sounds like it may be difficult at times to have spent thirty years together with the same guys.

No. It’s like a marriage. Same deal, right? Like, you love the people but you get tired of looking at their face. And the sex just isn’t keeping you together, really, anymore. But it certainly helps. (laughs) But no, seriously. I think the main thing is you have to have a modicum of respect for the people you work with. We’ve all learned how to give each other space over the years and how to navigate the waters of ups and downs. When it’s really successful and everybody’s making money and you’re selling out shows all over the place, you need to get along. But when it gets a little bit tougher and you’re working harder and you don’t necessarily have the same access to the pop charts and stuff that you used to, that’s when you realize that you have to respect each other and try to make the best music possible and do the best shows. And that all comes from, really, the respect that each of us has for the other in the band.

 I admire that about you guys, and I feel like that’s really something. A lot of bands don’t make it thirty years and it’s really impressive and exciting to see the Barenaked Ladies do that. I read that you guys have been together since your college years. In that thirty year span, has touring together changed? Not that you were going wild and crazy in the beginning, but have you guys mellowed out at all?

Anyone in the rock business, if they don’t mellow out a little bit, they’re probably dead or their about to die because it can’t be all parties. I think the biggest thing we’ve learned over those thirty years is how to say no. That you don’t have to constantly be on a treadmill trying to achieve some higher level of success. You can actually take some time to enjoy what you have and preserve and maintain it at the same time. Because if you’re not healthy you can’t tour. You can’t write. But if you’re healthy and enjoying your workplace you can keep doing what you do. So that’s sort of our mandate is try to have the healthiest workplace possible and to not wear ourselves out.  

Nice. And you guys have maintained and you have had great success. But when I listen to your lyrics from all your records, including this most recent one, you still find a way to be relatable and find minutiae in life that is accessible to someone who hasn’t lived the same kind of lifestyle. How do you guys manage to find that balance?

I think “write what you know” is applicable here. If you’re an engaged person and you’re living your life… You know, we’re all dads. We have kids. We have wives. We lead a pretty good life, but we go through all of the same things our audience does. There’s success and failure in relationships. There’s work pressures here and there. There’s trying to deal with living in Trump’s America or working in Trump’s America. I think that if you just continue to write from an honest place and tell good stories people are going to come to you because they want that. They want to escape from their regular life, but they also want somebody they think who understands what they’re going through. And that’s why I think honesty is the best place to come from [in] writing and not necessarily trying to [go], “Hey, I’m going to write a love song” or, “I’m going to write a political statement.” All of those elements can be in a great song, just let them come out.

 You mentioned working in Trump’s America. Do you guys ever feel a twinge of excitement or a joy when you get to leave here and go back to Canada?

No, man. You know, a country is not divided by their leader. Obviously the people of America have been incredible to us, and it’s where we work most of the time. We have had amazing experiences here over the thirty years we’ve been together, and it’s very rare that we run into the kind of horrible person that supports Donald Trump. (laughs) You know, we’re lucky in some ways. We have people who like to have a good time and who are compassionate and who are into good causes and who want to keep this planet healthy and want to keep people healthy, and they seem to be the ones who come to our shows. We’re lucky in that respect. And I guess if we want a dose of the other side we can just go to Twitter or turn on FOX News and there we go. Then we get the other people who, quite frankly, I’m glad they’re not coming to our shows.

Yeah, it would be weird to see a MAGA hat at one of your concerts. That would be surprising.

I think it’s just weird to see a MAGA hat anywhere. Weird as shit, man. And it gets weirder by the day, but hopefully that’ll change. Anyways, I think nowadays, especially with the kind of torrent of perpetual bad news that we’re getting, every day there’s some sort of new war that’s being reported on in the twenty-four hour and social media news cycle. I think our shows–and our music to an extent, too–are meant to help people deal with that. Get away from that and just enjoy themselves. Reflect and feel and laugh, cry, dance. I think more than ever that’s really important.  

It’s always felt like the Barenaked Ladies have been a positive and optimistic band. And with Fake Nudes, particularly the track “Looking Up,” do you guys feel like aggressive optimism is kind of your political response?

Yeah. I think cynicism is a fall back. Because it’s just so easy because really it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot to be happy about. And that’s when you have to go back to kind of a smaller scale and the personal stuff where you're just singing a song in your car or visiting a new town and having an amazing cup of coffee beside a beautiful, raging river, which I’m doing right now. (laughs). I think looking smaller and then you can… it’s possible to be optimistic because although the country and society at large seems to be heading down the toilet, there’s a lot of great things happening, too. And usually they’re happening right in your own backyard. And I think there’s good songs about that. It’s like, let’s try to keep our chin up, but do it by looking closer to home. Do beautiful and nice things in your own five square mile radius and it grows from there.

 Nice. Well, I know you've got to go, but there’s one question I have to ask or I feel like my buddy will kill me: Where is the old apartment?

(laughs) Well, there’s a clue in the song for your buddy. There’s a geographical clue that’s, “We bought an old house on the Danforth.” Now, the Danforth is Danforth Avenue, which is in Toronto. It’s a pretty major thoroughfare in the city’s East end. The old apartment is not there, though, because that’s the new place. Bought an old house, but it’s a new place. So, the Danforth is the East end, but I think the original apartment that Steve [Page] was talking about was in the West end in an area called Little Portugal. So there you go. And I know for a fact it was on Grove Avenue. So there you have it. If you want to go on a musical scavenger hunt, there it is. Grove Avenue in the City’s West end in Little Portugal in Toronto.

Dessa live at the El Rey

Dessa live at the El Rey