In the spring of 1998 the Barenaked Ladies finally began to receive the accolades that had eluded them throughout their ten-year career. In addition to releasing their fifth and most popular record to date, Stunt, the Canadian band had heavy radio airplay with the album's first single, the three-minute pop/rap ditty "One Week." A prime spot on that summer's H.O.R.D.E. bill was followed by an arena tour.
For a brief moment, five guys from Toronto were on top of the world. Then fate took a cruel and unexpected turn.
Band member Kevin Hearn, who plays guitar, keyboards, and accordion, started to experience a cough as BNL finished recording Stunt. Within months, the band's triumphant success would be diminished as doctors diagnosed leukemia. The 29-year-old musician was fighting for his life.
Replaced for the tour but not forgotten, Hearn began chemotherapy on the same day the band started its H.O.R.D.E. dates. A year later, the cancer is gone. And with Hearn recovered and healthy enough to tour, the band decided to add another leg to the already year-and-a-half-long Stunt tour.
"Kevin is feeling a lot better," says BNL drummer Tyler Stewart. "Right now, he is battling the effects of the treatment. He had a stem-cell transplant, so he grew a new immune system. He's been having some liver problems, but his doctors are very happy with his progress. The bottom line is that he's out playing with us again, and I think that is what has healed him more than anything else. He's up on stage, and the band sounds way better with him. We're all blessed that he's alive still. It's a miracle really."
The Barenaked Ladies are also doing quite well, considering everything they've been through. Despite being written off as one-hit wonders in its own country, having to start over in the States, and being under constant pressure from a record label ready to pull the plug, the quirky band toured its ass off and proved all of the above wrong. For the majority of BNL's ten years together, the band was sleeping in its van, eating macaroni and cheese, and dreaming of having a million dollars.
BNL began in 1988 as part of Toronto's burgeoning alt-pop-rock scene. Soon after releasing an independent EP that contained the offbeat single "Be My Yoko Ono," the band signed with Sire/Reprise Records. Despite the success of their debut disc Gordon and the follow-up Maybe You Should Drive, BNL were written off as a flash in the pan by their own people. Feeling somewhat abandoned, the band looked south to find success.
"It's not betrayal; it's just more disappointment," says Stewart. "Canada is a small country, so there is only so much room for so many rock stars. Right now, the most popular band in Canada is the Tragically Hip, but they can't get arrested outside of Canada. The reason everyone leaves is because we don't get support at home. I do think Canada suffers a bit of an inferiority complex and won't support [its] own artists until they prove themselves somewhere else. For instance, Alanis: She became huge and suddenly, Canada is like "Oh, Canada's own Alanis Morissette.'"
Though the alternative music trend was in full swing, BNL found little radio airplay in the mid-'90s. It was this lack of support that angered their record label. Finally, BNL's unique live show started to turn heads, and word spread of an unconventional pop-rock band that, at any moment, could digress into an impromptu multigenre medley of songs. A loose cover of "Smoke on the Water" has been known to end up as "Jesse's Girl."
The band sold just enough albums to justify a spot on Reprise's roster. But the inability of the label's promotions department to crack the radio shell proved disheartening. The single "Old Apartment" from the band's 1996 release Born on a Pirate Ship finally scored. "We're sort of the artist development poster boys for Reprise," says Stewart.
The 1996 release of the live disc Rock Spectacle served two purposes: It opened the golden doors of radio with hit singles "Brian Wilson" and "If I Had $1000000." It also acted as a greatest hits record for fans who had just discovered the band's appeal. Along with the Dave Matthews Band, BNL found success with college students who warmed to regular guys who more closely resembled a geeky, frat-boy cover band than rock stars.
Stunt was praised as one of 1998's better records, and BNL are busy playing arenas, but don't look for success to go to their heads. Prior to joining the band, Stewart worked in the television industry, where fleeting careers are the norm. Whenever he needs to keep his ego in check, all the drummer needs to do is think back to a job he had working for comedic actor (term used loosely) Super Dave Osborne.
"I had to hold an umbrella over his head, get him water, and do his laundry. My Super Dave Osborne story is: It was about 110 degrees in Toronto, where we were filming. I got him some water, and he took a sip and said, "This water is ice cold.' He just sort of handed it back to me and said, "Idiot.' He doesn't like cold water, because it makes his already blown-out voice sound worse. He's a racist, homophobe arsehole. People think he is funny, but he is really like that character you see on TV. I learned pretty quick I didn't want to work for one-joke Hollywood imbeciles."
As for what BNL will be remembered for, Stewart hopes it's their music and not their fans' tendency to throw things on stage green dresses, teddy bears, and the very popular box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. "Yeah, that's old and it hurts," says Stewart. "Getting hit in the nuts with a box of food is a drag."
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