Steven Page has seen the future. In it, there are walkable cities with plenty of bike paths, cleared for cyclists even in the dead of winter. Whole communities are powered by wind and other renewable energy sources. And his pop-rock band, Barenaked Ladies, liberated from its major music label, releases music online and on refillable USB thumb drives instead of CDs encased in plastic.
OK, that last part is already happening. A few years ago, Page and his bandmates — none of whom are ladies, or even naked — left Reprise Records, their major label for almost a decade, opting to go indie again. The move gave them more flexibility in the decision-making process for their new album Barenaked Ladies Are Me. They’ve also partnered with Reverb, a nonprofit that helps musicians green their tours and raise awareness with their fan base.
But the Canuck fivesome doesn’t lecture or “finger-wag,” as Page calls it. Instead, they try to share honest versions of themselves and their values. BNL lyrics are clever and socially conscious, their shows fun and lighthearted. They joke about mistakes they make during shows and point out funky dancers in the audience; they’re not afraid to dance on stage, give a weather report in the middle of a song, or sing “Tomorrow” a cappella.
Page says he knows fans come for a laugh, but he hopes they’re also willing to at least listen to the band’s message. The singer has long been vocal about his progressive views, campaigning with Canada’s New Democratic Party, wearing a “Vote Solar” shirt on stage, serving on the board of directors for WWF Canada, and participating in WindShare, a renewable-energy co-op in his hometown of Toronto.
I caught up with Page on a snowy afternoon in Everett, Wash., a few hours before a recent show. In a black zip-up sweater, graphic tee, and his trademark glasses, Page looked the part of a grup (as defined by New York Magazine) — he’s got kids of his own and a glint of gray in his sideburns, but he’s still a kid at heart. Sipping herbal tea between questions, Page leaned forward while talking, clearly passionate about his “pipe dreams” of greening the music industry, building cities that “really work,” and getting fans on board with the issues he cares about.
How does it feel to be officially indie again?
It feels good. It’s scary a little bit, and also exciting. Exciting to know that we’re calling the shots ourselves. Scary to know that we’re calling the shots ourselves, too.
Tell me about the decision to release online and with the USB flash drives as well as on CD — was that related to the environmental impacts of all those CDs?
That’s certainly a consideration for us — we tried to be a little more eco-friendly with our packaging [with this CD]. We went with emphases for certified paper this time around. … Ultimately, it’s still new-growth forests, but it’s well-managed. Especially for a country like Canada where forests are such a big part of the economy and culture, we want to be able to encourage pulp and paper companies to do the right thing. By advertising the certification, we’re just trying to make sure that’s an opportunity inside our industry.
You guys have partnered with Reverb — you’ve worked with them before — what’s the importance of exposing your fans to environmental issues?
We started with them in ’04. It was right up our alley because in those summer-concert venues … as much as Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair were good for music and connecting with fans and so on, the promoters realized they could use those concourses to do more than just sell pretzels and beer. Reverb was the perfect opportunity for us to reclaim some of that concourse and at least part of it could feel like it had to do with our values and our ethics.
At first, it was essentially just the eco-village, so there’d be not-for-profits and companies with new products and so on, with a green focus. But then we’re standing there on stage saying, “Go check out the eco-village” — and backstage, there’s all this waste. Our industry had never really paid any attention to the amount of waste that goes on — whether it’s food waste or the fact that you have buses and trucks and, of course, air travel. … So we decided to work with Reverb a little closer this time and have them help us design a smaller footprint for our tour.
And tell me about Barenaked Planet — you’re selling offsets?
That’s our name for the Reverb eco-village, and we’re selling stickers to help [fans] understand that they can actually offset their own travel emissions. Offsets are a hard thing to explain because it seems very token; it seems like you’re representing something as opposed to actually purchasing renewable green power — which actually does make a difference. Carbon offsets are a real way of actually balancing what you put out into the atmosphere. If you’re trying to conserve as much as you can, but you have to fly somewhere or you have to drive somewhere, it’s the perfect way to do it.
It’s been a great way to show the audience that it’s pretty easy to make a positive difference. And the response has been huge.
Do you feel like fans are taking part because it’s coming from you guys?
Yeah, in a sense. I think people feel like they have something in common with the band. I remember years ago, in the 2000 election, touring around and realizing we had this kind of “everyman” image. And people would say, “Well, he’s just like me.” But you never know what that means. Does that mean you’re a family man or you’re a progressive or you’re a Jew or — in some people’s minds — it was a Republican.
I thought, I’m not doing my job if I’m being everything to everyone, so I realized I had to start standing up for being honest about who I am and what I believe. And you do lose some people along the way, but I think you connect with people on a deeper level when you are actually honest with them about it.
Where do you feel like you got your environmental ethic?
I think part of it for me is simply just being a Canadian. We tend to think of ourselves as being tied to nature, whether or not we’re outdoorspeople. So that’s kind of ingrained from a very young age.
But I think also [it’s] because I’m not particularly an outdoorsperson. I have nothing against it, but I’m not particularly comfortable in the wilderness. Being an urban dweller and a lover of cities that really work, I just started to think more and more about the moral responsibility I have as someone who wants to practice what I preach, so [I’m] slowly starting to change the way I live. If we actually like our lifestyle, we have to make sure it’s sustainable. And the more I learn — whether it’s about climate change or the state of the oceans or about toxins in the food and the air we breathe and so on — you start to get more and more passionate.
Don’t you have a studio in the woods?
I do. I mean I can exist there. But I do run screaming from animals.
What is it about being in the woods that inspires creativity?
The pastoral is always part of making art, in a sense. But when you’re not making art, it feels like a cliché. But I think everybody knows that when they’re in the middle of something that’s unspoiled, it is satisfying, both intellectually and spiritually.
What cities do you see as models or enjoy going to because of how they’re set up?
I like cities that have great public transit. I grew up in the suburbs, and it was an hour and a half bus ride downtown to get to the subway. I thought, “I’m never going to inflict that on my kids. When I grow up, I’m going to live downtown; I’m going to live on the subway system.” And I do. I live three minutes from the subway, three minutes from the streetcar, and I can get anywhere in the city very quickly.
When I’m in another city — well, I think about a city that’s sprawled like crazy, like Houston — it just feels like it’s soulless in a sense. And I know it’s not truly soulless, because the soul in cities like Houston or even Los Angeles often lives in the less-dominant cultures. … A city that embraces all those cultures and the different neighborhoods — the cities made up of neighborhoods, I think, are the ones that truly work. I kinda like Chicago, for that reason.
The other thing I really like is bike lanes in a city. I’m fighting for that in Toronto right now. I like to ride my bike a lot to get places, and we have no major east-west bike artery at all in our city, and people are dying on their bikes all over the place. We were in Madison, Wis., the other day, and there are signs on every street for where bikes should go and bike lanes and bike racks — it’s really bike-friendly.
Tell me about Ships and Dip, the cruise you’re doing in January.
I was incredibly hesitant about it — I’ve never been on a cruise ship; it’s never been my big desire to do it. To be on a boat with our biggest fans for five days could be a little claustrophobic. And one of my big concerns right away was the environmental impact. I know the cruise industry has a pretty bad reputation … But I went ahead and tried to dig up as much dirt as I could on Carnival, and although I think there were certainly some infractions early on, once people started paying attention to environmental impacts, they’ve changed their tune.
One of the great things is we’re bringing Reverb along, and they’re helping to work with both the promoter — which is a company called Sixth Man — and Carnival on ways to make their impact less. And if we can have little bits of influence on industries who are just changing their ways, that’s pretty rewarding, too.
So what are you going to be doing?
I think there will be not only recycling on board and better waste disposal, but also a lot more reusable things in the rooms — biodegradable soaps and so on, which are things people take for granted in a hotel or cruising situation — you just use what’s there. Hopefully we can make sure that what’s there is a little bit more environmentally friendly.
And you guys are going to have an eco-lounge and discussion groups and movies —
Yeah I think there will be lots of stuff, without it feeling too much like school. I mean you want to feel like it’s fun —
You kinda have a captive audience there.
Exactly. We’re gonna take advantage of that as much as we can.
Some of your songs have socially conscious lyrics. In “If I Had a Million Dollars,” you say you’d buy a fur coat (but not a real fur coat, that’s cruel) — it’s just a minor thing, but it’s something people are singing along with. Is that something you try to do consciously, or does it just sort of happen?
In that song, we did it because we were just trying to pit a contemporary vision [against something old-fashioned] — it was a fur coat, which was an old-fashioned view of what you do with a million dollars. Of course, in the ’80s and ’90s, it wasn’t a real fur coat — that’s cruel.
That got us into a lot of trouble in Canada. We ended up having First Nations people — the Dene, the Métis, and also the Inuit up in the Northwest Territories — threaten to picket outside of our show because fur is a traditional way of life that fuels their economy. And they were really upset about that line.
We met with them the day of the show. They eventually decided not to picket. But what we realized is they don’t share the same sense of humor as us. It was a huge eye-opener — to see how even the glib things you say in a song can really impact somebody, whether it’s an individual fan or a group of people. You do start learning to be careful or choose your words wisely, and really have a reason for them, even the ones that seem nonsensical.
Are you a Grist reader?
I have the little Grist widget on my desktop.
Ever thought about putting Grist in your lyrics?
[Laughs.] No, I hadn’t!