Released this past Friday, Fake Nudes is the 15th album from Barenaked Ladies. Their prolific output over a career now spanning 29 years has been matched by few Canadian bands.
In a recent chat with FYI, keyboardist/vocalist Kevin Hearn discussed touring, his increased songwriting role in the band, and his work outside BNL.
Since joining BNL in 1995, replacing original keyboardist Andy Creeggan, Hearn has regularly contributed material to the band, but Fake Nudes marks a new high in this regard. The album features six solo Hearn compositions, and three co-writes with group co-founder Ed Robertson.
"That does feel good," the amiable Hearn notes. "I usually present the songs I'm working on and the others choose one or two. This time they said they liked and wanted to do them all! It takes a little pressure off me too so I don't have all these songs building up and then I feel I have to make a record on my own just so they have a place in the world."
The recording industry has obviously gone through cataclysmic changes since BNL first burst onto the scene in 1991, with an indie cassette, no less. The group remains committed to the album format, with Fake Nudes comprising a generous 14 songs, but Hearn acknowledges they are aware of the importance of streaming.
"We try to look at both sides of the coin and use the silver lining of both. When it comes to sequencing the record, we took a few shots at it and took it seriously. We wanted it to be as enoyable on vinyl as much as online. You realise some people may just download one or two songs, but we want to treat all those avenues with equal attention."
A new Hearn composition already gaining a good response is "Invisible Fence," a tune featuring some political commentary. "For me, there is a little nod to Trump there, but the song isn't about him. It is more about racism and I think he [the US President] encourages that with the things he says and does. He definitely inspired that song, but I tried to put a more positive spin on it."
Hearn is quite aware that social or political messaging is not exactly a signature of BNL, a band largely known for its playful sense of humour. "I think there is a place for us to say our thing but I think people come to us predominantly to feel a lift. I don't think we'd want to put out a whole record of didactic songs, hammering people over the head with a political message."
"One thing I've noticed at our shows, especially in the US, is that people need a lift more than ever. Our shows seem like a service we are providing, letting people escape for a bit and have a laugh. Still, we have been playing 'Invisible Fence' on the tour and it gets a really big reaction, just because of the message."
Hearn explains that an ongoing large and loyal US fan base means BNL currently does the bulk of its business there, even though it has been a while since the group has had a hit single south of the border.
A faithful following also remains in the UK, he says. " At least once a year we do a tour there. It is usually a short and intense trip for two or three weeks. We especially like playing Scotland as the fans just sing along at the top of their lungs. That energy makes it so much fun.
"It is usually general admission halls there. We played [historic venue] the Roundhouse in London last time and sold it out. Randy Bachman came to see us." Another two-week UK tour is set for April 2018.
Hearn is keen for the band to tour Down Under too. "The last time the band was there was around 1999 or 2000, but I was in the hospital then [Hearn had leukemia]. Our friend Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes lives in Tasmania and he's trying to cook up a way for us to tour with them there."
In 2015, BNL teamed up with US college rock faves Violent Femmes for a very successful Stateside Last Summer On Earth Tour. Kevin Hearn also participated in the recording of the VF album, We Can Do Anything, lending accordion, guitar, keyboards, and backing vocals to five tracks. “Kevin is a very good influence and a great musician,” wrote Ritchie on his group's website. “He subtly raises the level of the music just by being there.”
A man of multiple creative talents, Hearn also contributed the cover artwork to that album. "Touring with them, they always had a photo on their dressing room door," he recalls. "On the last day of the tour, in New York, as a gift I did a drawing of them and taped it to the door. Brian asked if they could use it for their record. 'F***in A!," I said."
Many BNL fans may not be fully aware of Hearn's work outside the band. He cut his teeth in wacky Toronto combo Look People prior to joining Barenaked Ladies, and he has worked extensively with Rheostatics. He has put out a series of critically-acclaimed solo albums, both under his own name and as Kevin Hearn and Thin Buckle, and collaborated with cousin and comedian Harland Williams on two albums as The Cousins.
His musical skills caught the ear of Lou Reed, and Hearn served as musical director of Reed's touring band from 2007 on, developing a close friendship in the process.
Reflecting on a musical career now spanning 30 years, Hearn observes that "I don't spend a lot of time looking back but I certainly have memories I cherish. I have been trying to make an effort to write them down in my journals as I'm finding I'm forgetting them."
"As you know I worked with Lou and that just feels like a dream to me now. I look back and I try to remember good memories just because I miss my friend. It is the same with people who are alive like Paul and Andy of OMD and The Femmes, all the ones we made friends with over the years."
Getting to take Anglo '80s synth-pop pioneers OMD (Orchestral Manoevres In The Dark) out on tour was a recent highlight for Hearn. "I suggested them as opening act for our US shows last year, and I couldn't believe it when it happened. I was able to sit down with [OMD principals] Andrew [McCluskey] and Paul [Humphreys] and play them my high school band's cassette of us playing their song 'Secret.' We all laughed really hard. They are wonderful as a band and as humans."
Collaborating with others has been another way BNL has kept things fresh and enjoyable. Earlier this year they put out a joint record with American a cappella greats The Persuasions [Ladies and Gentlemen: Barenaked Ladies and The Persuasions], and Hearn loved that experience.
"They were totally fun and had so many wonderful stories. We had great dinners together. I think we went into recording Fake Nudes determined to keep that spirit during this process. More than ever, we were open to having people come in and just hang out with us and jam along."
Pals Jim Cuddy and Alan Doyle (Great Big Sea) added guest vocals to "Canada Dry," a focus track on the album, while Steve Berlin [Los Lobos] and trumpeter Michael Ray [Sun Ra] also contributed. "We explored a musical friendship with Michael in a way that was economical and still special," Hearn explains. "He lives in New Jersey and is touring all the time with Sun Ra and Kool and The Gang, but we still connected. It was 'hey, here are three songs that could really use horns. Can you try an idea?' We'd wait a few days then get these cool tracks back from Michael."
BNL remains Kevin Hearn's major priority, but he has been working on other projects too. "I have an instrumental record I recorded with Hugh Marsh and Chris Gartner, and I'm trying to get that out. I've also recorded a strange medley of super-hero theme songs with all kinds of different people, like The Persuasions, Violent Femmes, Ron Sexsmith, Carole Pope, Mary Margaret O'Hara, and more. I hope to release that next year."
BNL began its official Fake Nudes tour with two shows at Vancouver's Commodore on the weekend, prior to upgrading to larger venues for their trek eastwards. The tour closes out at Toronto's Massey Hall on Dec. 9.