After over twenty years and millions of albums sold, Steven Page shocked many people in the music world early last year by announcing his departure from Barenaked Ladies. Although the band shared some of the writing duties, and Page and Ed Robertson traded vocals, Page was the stronger voice and primary songwriter for the majority of BNL’s most recognizable songs.
Onstage, the group was magical. The chemistry musically was matched with onstage banter and impromptu raps. Barenaked Ladies possessed the rare combination of musical prowess in the studio as well as onstage. Just as it would be hard to imagine the Beatles without Lennon and McCartney, a Barenaked Ladies without Robertson and Page seemed unfathomable, but that is exactly what happened. The band moved on without Page and did not attempt to replace him with a sound-alike, or anyone for that matter.
Now almost two years after his departure, Page is back with “Page One,” a delightful album certain to please fans of Barenaked Ladies, as it marks a return to the sound that made his former group stars. Lyrically, it tells a complex story of breakups and new beginnings — it’s highly personal with a pop sensibility. It is Page’s best work in more than a decade.
Page and his new band will be at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda on Saturday. In this exclusive interview, Steven talks candidly about the split with BNL and his relationship with Western New York fans and briefly about the impact of his arrest that made tabloid fodder and provided the impetus for his departure from BNL.
Thom Jennings: “Page One” opens with the song “New Shore,” which is about your departure from Barenaked Ladies, but it seems like a return to pre-2000 material.
Steven Page: Yeah, I guess in a way it is. I have had fans say this is my best record since “Maroon” (Barenaked Ladies’ 2000 album) and I take that as a compliment. I thought really hard about what the style of this record was going to be and I tend to overthink things sometimes, (trying to figure out) what kind of musical statement I was going to try and make, and thankfully, I was able to shed a lot of those questions and get down to writing and just try and be myself. Without being in the band, I felt free to do what I want to do and I was pleased to see what came out was who I am, as opposed to who I am trying to be.
TJ: The result is impressive and I agree it is your best work since “Maroon.” “Page One” is really your first true solo album — your other solo releases were more eclectic. Were you worried about not having band members around to critique your work?
SP: Not really, because I am pretty hard upon myself, but it is nice to have collaborators for that reason. I worked with a great producer, John Fields, and although we didn’t know each other at first, we hit it off really well. A good producer can tell you when something is not good enough, not that you as a musician aren’t good enough, but that you can do better.
I always remember working with Jim Scott when we were making “Maroon” and I remember him saying, “C’mon you’re giving me your ‘B’ material here,” and that is the kind of encouragement you need.
I would play a song for John Fields and he would say, “that’s a little boring” or “that’s obvious” and he would ask me to go back to the demo and we might use a guitar part or vocal part, which is encouraging. It’s always nice to have that kind of filter around.
TJ: One of the songs that intrigued me even before I heard it was “Clifton Springs,” which is about a rest stop on the New York State Thruway that you stop at during your travels. That’s not too far from here and I wonder if you could touch upon your relationship with this area, especially now that you live in New York (near Syracuse) part of the time.
SP: We played so much here in the early days, especially the Buffalo/Niagara area, so I was already familiar with it. Even as a kid, I grew up with Buffalo television stations, so the area was even a big part of my childhood. Later, when we were playing there, we developed friendships and an affinity for the area. Now that I am living in Central New York part of the time ... it seems deeply familiar. Another part is the experience of living in another country, and that has been a unique learning experience.
TJ: And you bought the house next door to where you were arrested, which seemed unusual to me. Was that a way of confronting what had happened instead of running away?
SP: On the most banal level it just happened to be the house that came up for sale in the area and Christine (Munn, Page’s girlfriend) and I loved the old house. The fact that we didn’t run away, well, there were two different reasons, the first being that she had kids going to school in the area and we wanted to stay in the community. The second reason is that we wanted to show people that what happened that night was an anomaly. Moving next door to where it happened was a way to normalize our lives and get past the tabloid things.
TJ: Reading some of your lyrics, it seems like you have been able to deal with what happened and that it wound up being an opportunity for you to shed some things that were plaguing you for a long time.
SP: That’s right, but part of me is ashamed of that, because you wish you had the guts to shed yourself of some of those things without a major catalyst, especially such a negative one. But things like that force you to take a look at things and determine what makes you fulfilled and what doesn’t.
TJ: I want to get back to Barenaked Ladies. I think it is fair to say you and Ed Robertson were like a Lennon and McCartney to many people. I understand that in spite of your musical talents together, you did not have a lot in common as people. Nonetheless, just as The Beatles aren’t the Beatles without either Lennon or McCartney, Barenaked Ladies isn’t the same without you. But band names have become brand names. Does it bother you that the band you started is not yours anymore and is just a brand in someone else’s hands?
SP: We were trained over the last ten years to look at ourselves as a brand and I wasn’t always comfortable with that — we sometimes joked and called fans “customers.” Sometimes it’s the fans who act like customers, it is part of this strange new element in this business with people wanting value for their money and if you don’t do what they want to hear they won’t be your fan anymore. They treat you like a commodity. And as far as the band going on with four very talented musicians, that’s fine, but if Barenaked Ladies without Steven Page is still Barenaked Ladies, is Barenaked Ladies without Ed Robertson still Barenaked Ladies? If it was just me and Ed, would it still be Barenaked Ladies? I guess I am just more sentimental about it then I am business-minded. I didn’t want to take the name with me because in my mind that is not what Barenaked Ladies is. If that is what they want to do, I suppose that is fine, but in a way I find it insulting they consider themselves Barenaked Ladies without me. But if that is what they feel they are, then that is one reason I am not in the group.
TJ: That seems to be the model today. Bands like Foreigner tour with only the original guitarist and The Guess Who is even worse.
SP: Exactly, The Guess Who is a case where the bass player got to keep the name.
TJ: Now that you are performing as a solo artist with your own band, how will your approach be different than it was before?
SP: I put together a new live band and it has been fun working with new musicians. The strange thing is teaching people songs I have been playing for twenty years and know like the back of my hand, and they are playing them for the first time. As far as my repertoire, I’ll be doing a lot of songs from the new album but with lots of the old Barenaked Ladies stuff rearranged for the new group. There are a lot of different sounds in the group, I’ve got violin and cello, horns and multi-instrumentalists that will switch back and forth. It will be a fun and interesting show.
TJ: Do you think you will be playing to a more appreciative crowd now since you will be in some smaller venues like the Riviera Theatre? It kind of goes back to the brand name thing, playing to larger audiences that don’t necessarily appreciate the music.
SP: We struggled with that, especially after “One Week” became a number one hit. It was the difference between being a cult artist as opposed to a mainstream artist. Mainstream artists tend to pick up fans that don’t obsess over music. They like music and they like songs like “If I had a Million Dollars” and we welcomed them to the community for the night. The core fans are very different, they don’t necessarily want to hear the same songs every night like the auxiliary fans that want to hear the songs they hear on the radio. I try and balance that and put on a show that everybody can appreciate. I think at this point my fans aren’t 100 percent sold on me as a solo artist, and they will be coming out to see where I am going.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Steven Page concert
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda
MORE INFORMATION: Visit rivieratheatre.org or call 692-2413