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Hit Men

Pop

The band Barenaked Ladies has always had its loyal following, but now the Toronto-based folk-pop group has a hit on its hands.

August 27, 1998|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Barenaked Ladies always had their fans, rabid followers drawn to the Toronto quintet's relentlessly upbeat folk-pop and onstage wisecracks. Albums sold well enough, and their concerts were usually well-attended. All was well in their universe.

That was before this year, before the single "One Week" helped land the band's new album, "Stunt," in the Top 10 on the national sales chart, where it has remained since its release last month. Now singer-guitarist Ed Robertson can't take a beach-side stroll with his wife without being recognized as that fast-rapping man from MTV.

"When we play 'One Week,' it's like, 'Wow, we have a hit,' " says Robertson, 27. "Everybody in the audience knows this song. That's a whole new thing for us. We've been perpetual underdogs for the last five years."

The Barenaked Ladies' hard-core following was already large enough to win the band a spot on this year's H.O.R.D.E. tour, which arrives today at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. But the near-constant presence of "One Week" on MTV and modern rock radio could dramatically enhance the group's fortunes.

The song blends a tropical rock groove with a dance-hall reggae vocal that describes a relationship in terms filled with attitude and nonsense. It is the first Barenaked Ladies album track to incorporate the band's popular onstage freestyle routines, but writer's block almost prevented Robertson from finishing the song.

"I was trying to write this elaborately worded, intricately phrased dance-hall thing about relationships, and it just [wasn't working]," says Robertson. "Finally, [bandmate] Steve Page said, 'Just freestyle it.' I labored over that song for two months, and then wrote it in three minutes."

The decade-long collaboration between Page and Robertson began when they worked at a summer music camp for kids. Inspired by R.E.M. and Joe Jackson and the sounds of bluegrass, the acoustic duo kept working at its own music after returning home.

"We never thought we were going to be a band," says Page, 28. "We were just doing it for the hell of it, making four-track tapes in our parents' basements when we were 18, and we just never stopped."

Their first album was 1992's "Gordon," which included the cult hit "Brian Wilson." But some critics quickly attacked the band's music and stage persona, which they found to be goofy and obnoxiously cute. "One Week" has been dismissed as a novelty.

"It's driving me nuts," says Page, who is also a key songwriter in the group. "People are so mean sometimes. I see the way it makes other guys in the band mad, and some of those guys don't even write the songs. I sometimes think those barbs are aimed directly at me. I've got to stop thinking about it that way. They are just people who don't like it, and that's fine. I wish those people weren't rock critics."

The Barenaked Ladies have found support elsewhere. During their frequent appearances in Los Angeles, the band started to notice the regular appearance of actor Jason Priestly in the front row. One night at the House of Blues, the star of "Beverly Hills, 90210" introduced himself. He has since directed a 1996 video for the band's "The Old Apartment," arranged for the group to appear on "90210" and made plans to follow his fellow Canadians on the road for a planned documentary.

"I find it totally exciting, because I love stars," Page says with a laugh. "We've become really good friends. Maybe it's because we're both Canadian, but I think it's more a common sense of humor, and we're both very self-aware but don't take ourselves particularly seriously."

With their gig on H.O.R.D.E., whose lineup also includes Blues Traveler, Ben Harper and Fastball, the Barenaked Ladies are not only enjoying camaraderie with other bands on the bill--Blues Traveler's John Popper has occasionally joined them on stage to play harmonica--but also in seeing how far their newest music has reached beyond their longtime fan base.

"I can already see our audience getting a bit younger," says Robertson.

The band typically spends eight months a year on the road. And after H.O.R.D.E., the Barenaked Ladies will begin their own headlining tour in October, with an L.A. stop expected in early November. By then, the band will have released its next single, "It's All Been Done," written by Page.

"I was imagining someone who had been reincarnated several times and knew it, but really couldn't have cared less," Page says of the song's lyrics. "To me, it's a comment about how people are so blase about some of the most exciting things that can happen to them." It's not an attitude the Barenaked Ladies are likely to share any time soon.

BE THERE

H.O.R.D.E., Barenaked Ladies, Blues Traveler, Ben Harper, Fastball, Alana Davis and others, today at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine, 3:30 p.m. $19.50-$32.50. Information: (714) 855-4515.

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