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Barenaked Ladies are “becoming a new entity”. A catch-up with Tyler Stewart…

Barenaked Ladies ended 2013 with a tour of the UK and a string of symphony shows back in their homeland Canada. But what does 2014 hold, and what’s the mood in camp BNL?

Get Barenaked spoke to Tyler Stewart in December 2013.

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Barenaked Ladies are in top form.  2013 marked the band’s 25th anniversary, and they celebrated by putting out their eleventh studio album, Grinning Streak. The record hit the Billboard top 10 – their highest-charting effort since 2003’s Everything to Everyone – and spawned singles “Boomerang” and “Odds Are”; the latter produced a music video in collaboration with Rooster Teeth.

That wasn’t the only noteworthy collaboration of the year: world-renowned superstar astronaut Chris Hadfield picked up his guitar and participated in what was billed as the “first space-to-earth musical collaboration” with the Ladies. The resulting track “ISS (Is Somebody Singing?)” was met with critical acclaim and was performed at We Day 2013.

The Big Bang Theory has fast become one of the most popular shows on TV – it is now in syndication – and Barenaked Ladies are enjoying the snowball effect of the show’s success, after having penned the brilliant theme song.The band toured relentlessly in support of Grinning Streak and continue to receive rave reviews for their live show.

The Last Summer on Earth tour paired the band with long-time pals Guster, Ben Folds Five and Boothby Graffoe, before a winter trip to the United Kingdom.

Coming to the UK provides a new set of challenges for the band. A transatlantic trip is not a particularly financially rewarding endeavour – and there are certain quirks and idiosyncrasies that British fans and venues throw up along the way.

Tyler explains:

The tour’s been great. What we always keep in mind when we come here – the ‘raison d’être’ for coming to the UK – is the fans.

The audience over here, I find they’re quite literate and educated in terms of music. So if we’re shite, they’ll let us know. If we’re doing a great show, then they’ll really encourage that and support it.

I feel like it’s a bit of a challenge for us to deliver over here – and sometimes that’s idiomatic – the jokes, are they going to work? Do they translate?

BNL’s two most recent radio outputs have been the aforementioned jangly folk-rock lead single “Boomerang” and “Odds Are”.

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The tracks fared well in the US market – Odds Are even reached #15 on the Canada Adult Contemporary chart. However, the lack of any meaningful promotion in the UK meant that limited spins on BBC Radio 2 was the extent of their British Grinning Streak marketing.

That exemption, though, Stewart explains, can be a blessing for the band.

Our songs aren’t always on the radio over here, so we feel some liberty with what we can play. This tour we’ve been playing a lot of new stuff, which is always good for the band.

Grinning Streak was met with vastly positive reviews from fans and critics alike; some suggesting that the album sits as one of the band’s best in their 25 year career.

Stewart notes that playing new material – songs that audiences, particularly casual fans, aren’t familiar with – can be risky, although the accessible nature of Grinning Streak allows the band to work almost half the album into their set.

You never know how well people know it, but I think the nature of the songs themselves – they’re probably the most accessible songs we’ve done in a long time – and also we’re into it, we’re tight on those new songs because we’ve been enjoying playing them.

In everything we do as this four piece, we’re becoming a new entity.

There’s a couple that have never been played [off the new album]. “Off His Head” has never been played. It’s hard – it’s not really a loop, it’s just a really driving pattern. We’ve tried to play everything we can in terms of not doing too many hours of rehearsal to learn the songs.

I think we’ve played the ones that are probably the most audience-friendly in some respects. “Off His Head” would be a good one to play, we’ve played everything else.

Limits” is one of those songs that when we recorded, I said: “First song on the album!” Some have immediately gone over well, like “Did I Say That Out Loud?” for instance – people seem to really respond to that.

It is unclear whether or not another single will be released from Grinning Streak, but there are a wealth of options, and the audience response in live shows has paralleled the band’s own suspicions on ‘single-friendly’ tracks.

I think if we were gonna do another one, that [DISTOL], or “Gonna Walk” . It has singalong value, and that’s why we’ve been enjoying playing it live and putting it in the show every night.

“Limits”, “Gonna Walk”, “Did I Say That Out Loud?” and “Odds Are” pretty much every night; those songs are just presenting themselves as needing to be played every night.

We sorta got tired of playing “Boomerang” because it was out for a year before the record. Well, not tired of it, but we felt like playing other songs. I really liked playing “Give It Back To You” too [the band soundchecked and performed it in Birmingham]. I like playing straight-ahead ballads.

As well as reveling in the new material, Barenaked Ladies have redefined and reasserted their individual roles in the live set-up.

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After naturally tentative beginnings as a four-piece, any trepidation has ceased. The band have once again found their feet: BNL look comfortable, sound tight, and most importantly, are happy on stage.

I think we’ve all found our spots – we figured that about 200 or 300 shows ago.

I think Ed is completely comfortable as a front man and the rest of us have found our spots. We’ve all got a chance to shine in the show.

Whilst Robertson handles the vast majority of lead vocals, cuts from Creeggan and Hearn pepper the live show. “All in Good Time”, a bonus track from the album of the same name, and “Day Dreamin'” have been Kevin’s most frequent contributions; while Creeggan takes a more prominent role in “Maybe Katie”.

Stewart, though, arguably has the most memorable frontman cameo of all. Stunt‘s “Alcohol” has featured as the band’s encore throughout the summer and fall tours, typically followed by an improvised mash-up of monster rock hits of yesteryear.

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That’s a lot of fun, that has kinda fallen together by accident. What happens is; there’s a blank space and the music stops – and I still have the microphone and everyone gets terrified.

They don’t know what I’m gonna do – and half the time I don’t know what I’m gonna do – so that’s why Kevin can jump in with a riff, or Ed a beat, or something like that.

They just sorta dangle a carrot out for me and sometimes I bite hard!

The electric guitar in Million, too… that’s sorta new.

As well as receiving plaudits and continued notoriety for their live shows, Barenaked Ladies hit the headlines across the world this year for a show they’re not playing.

A proposed gig at Seaworld, Florida, was met with derision from fans and animal rights campaigners alike. An online petition started, encouraging the band to cancel the show in light of CNN’s documentary Blackfish. Support for the petition grew, amassing thousands of signatures within 24 hours.

The band released an official statement to confirm they had cancelled the show. Stewart speaks diplomatically about this decision, at a time where Seaworld remains in the spotlight with further cancellations from Willie Nelson, Martina McBride and Heart, among others.

We made the right decision for us right now, and for our fans.

Whether you’re a band or an individual or a musician or a celebrity – or just a Regular Joe – finding something you’re passionate about, finding out more about it, and trying to help in any way you can – I highly encourage that.

We saw the amount of passionate response; both when we were going to play the gig, and then when we cancelled it. I like to think that everybody was really informed about the issue.

Away from the stage, the band are putting their heads together and brainstorming ideas for the next steps for BNL. Stewart speaks about the future with enthusiasm. An acoustic album/EP has been discussed, and a follow-up children’s record has also previously been mooted as a possibility.

Whilst Grinning Streak‘s follow-up isn’t immediately on the radar, fans have a new Kevin Hearn release to look forward to. The as-yet-untitled Hearn record has been produced by Gavin Brown, the same talent responsible for almost half the tracks on Grinning Streak.

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Ed is busy doing all kinds of other things on the side, whether that’s fundraising stuff or stuff with his family, so I’m not really sure if he’s concentrating on any writing right now.

Kevin is always writing; that’s Kevin. He’s been recording some of his own stuff too. Gavin Brown is an incredibly interesting guy and immensely talented, he plays all kinds of instruments.

There are, however, a couple of events that fans will have to live without for the foreseeable future. The hugely successful Last Summer on Earth tour looks to be on hiatus, and the Ships and Dip cruises similarly aren’t on the agenda.

We’re doing a Canadian tour next year. In the summertime I think we’ll probably – we’re just formulating now what we’re gonna do – but I think we might take a break from the Last Summer on Earth.

With a line-up boasting Boothby Graffoe, Guster and Ben Folds Five – all good friends of BNL – the most recent incarnation of LSOE has certainly paused on a high note. The similar musical sensibilities and humour of 2013’s acts provided a dream concert for many Ladies fans.

It was for us, too. All our pals, very musically compatible, and we just had great hangs off the stage. It really was quite a lovely tour.

The Ships and Dip cruises also provided an outlet for fans to meet, mingle, and take in music from a variety of the foursome’s friends. Stewart acknowledges that numerous fans have become pals, partners – and even married couples – as a result of BNL’s cruises.

We’re match-makers, we make dreams come true. Here at Barenaked Ladies, we make dreams come true!

I think we would like to do another one [cruise], but it just hasn’t been on our wheelhouse in the last few years. Also, I can’t dis-count the fact that there’s a lot of people doing them now, so maybe the novelty has been a bit deluded or worn off.

It was something that Sixthman proposed to our management – Terry McBride at the time with Nettwerk. He came to us with it and we were like “Are you crazy? We don’t wanna be on a boat with 2,000 of our fans, no fuckin’ way! Where will we escape to?!” Boy, were we wrong – we were totally wrong – because everyone there is having a great time and most people are very respectful to your space, and you can find ways to hide.

But in general it was kinda a big family thing, especially with all the other bands. Great line-ups, lots of collaboration; a chance too for fans to hang out with each other. But you know, never say never. We need to find something to do that’s not a cruise – like a camp or take over a resort.

British comedian Boothby Graffoe has been a mainstay of the band’s cruises – featuring on three of the four trips. As well as providing support for Barenaked Ladies on each UK tour since 2004, the band also invited him to open the LSOE shows this year.

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I felt like we had introduced him to a whole new audience and he did really well – he sold a lot of his CDs, in fact he sold all of the CDs he bought. He’s such a pro – he’s a consummate performer and entertainer – he has great timing. Such a lovely man, too. I feel like he’s our spiritual guide, particularly over here when we come to the UK. He’s always got historical tidbits and he’s such a laugh, we get along so well.

It was great in the summer because he was on when it was still light out, and it wasn’t always full but people gradually filled in and the word started to get out: “You gotta get here early!” With Ed, Kevin and Jim playing with him, too – they’re a great band.

And that’s just the thing about BNL – they are very quick to heap praise on fans, friends, and everyone around them. A typically Canadian humble nature and charm. That, for sure, is part of the band’s appeal – as well as great music of course. Fans, who, 25 years ago attended shows as children, students – getting rides off their parents – can still be found in the crowd; only this time with their own children, partners and the odd grey hair.

There’s a real sense of gratitude and appreciation that, 25 years into their career, BNL can collaborate with genuine friends, sell out shows across the world, write and perform music for a living and just have fun.

2013 has been a busy year for BNL. Let’s hope that 2014 continues the laughs, great music — and the grinning streak.

Stay tuned for a little bit extra from Tyler in the coming days!

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