CM In Depth

BARENAKED LADIES Take a Little Trip on 'Detour de Force'

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.

By Andrew Leyenhorst

Ooh, look at the stars/ Some of them are long gone/ And yet they are -from “Flip”

There are a lot of poignant lyrics throughout Detour de Force, but this little passage from the bridge of lead single “Flip” sums up the spirit of this, the Barenaked Ladies’ 13th all-original LP, appropriately and succinctly. The notions of impermanence, fragility, and finding the wherewithal to see the bright spots in otherwise black skies weave their way through these 14 tracks with classic BNL charm and character. However, while it’s an introspective, thoughtful, and surprisingly intimate effort, there’s also plenty of irreverent fun to be had as well.

A slight departure from the recording processes for their previous two records, Fake Nudes (2017) and Silverball (2015), the making of Detour de Force was a little bit more homegrown and unpredictable. After the songs were all written, the band would hole up in vocalist/guitarist Ed Robertson’s Ontario cottage with legendary producer Mark Howard and his host of studio equipment, and get to work right in the living room.

“We knew we wanted to make a different kind of record,” Robertson says. “Our plan initially was to do the entire record up here at my cottage, which is not a studio at all… Mark was moving all his gear into the living room of my cottage. And you know, guitar amps in the bedrooms, bass amp in the bathroom, drums in the main room. We built a very cool, makeshift room in a very isolated location.”

“That was really great,” adds bassist Jim Creeggan. “I mean, too many car rides with Tyler up to Ed’s house,” he laughs. “We did it in a week, and just laughing our brains out having a good time together. It really smooshed us together up in a snowbank, and that really created some special memories. And whenever we wanted to go on a frozen lake, we could, just right outside the door. Often if I was finished a track and we were moving onto the next thing, I would grab even 25 minutes on my cross-country skis out in the middle of the lake. It was pretty awesome.”

“We really wanted to do four guys in a room, all the gear right there, in the cottage; an intimate setting, and where the acoustics are very natural sounding,” affirms drummer/percussionist Tyler Stewart. “And you know, Mark, he had some really neat vintage mics, and some interesting old school gear.”

ED ROBERTSON PERFORMS INTO THE RCA 44 [Photo by EDWARD POND]

So, it’s clear where the intimacy on the album comes from. Foundationally, Detour de Force is perhaps one of the rawest efforts from BNL in over a decade. However, it does offer a very unique blend of off-the-floor vibes, combined with a very polished and deliberate big-record feel. This is owing to the fact that the band took somewhat of a detour themselves in making the record as the pandemic hit, electing to take the songs they recorded at the cottage, and subsequently bring them Toronto’s Noble Street and Vespa Studios with Canadian rock stalwart Eric Ratz for further production.

Robertson continues, “I think we thought that would be the record, just a very live off-the-floor snapshot of where we’re at. The lockdown actually allowed us the luxury of time to listen back. You know, we thought we were going to go in with Eric and maybe just do a couple of the production-heavy tracks like ‘Good Life’ and ‘Roll Out,’ and ended up going over the record again, using loads of elements from what we recorded here,” referring to his cottage from where he joined me for our chat. He points out, however, that some songs like “Live Well” and “Man Made Lake” are still very much just “four guys in a room playing. There’s an alchemy to that sort of live energy that’s really special.”

To capture that live energy, it makes sense that they tapped Mark Howard to produce the cottage sessions; known for his organic and off-the-floor style, Howard has worked with legends like The Tragically Hip, Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, U2, Daniel Lanois, and countless more. “I don’t make records in recording studios, I just rent houses; and I just kind of move in, set up, bring in rugs and lamps, and deck it out. And Ed’s place, I thought it was pretty big. But once we got everything in there it kind of shrank, because they’ve got two drum kits set up, and keyboards, and it was all a whirl, so it got pretty small, pretty quick.”

MARK HOWARD

But Howard describes the recording process of having the whole band in the room, live, even going so far as to track without headphones.

“I keep the speakers on, we don’t use headphones usually, and just go for a vibe. And we’ll do a couple takes, listen back to them, and then go back and maybe change the arrangement slightly and make sure there’s not a lot of dead wood in there,” he explains. “I don’t even use Pro Tools,” he remarks. Instead, Howard tracked the band through an old iZ RADAR 24 digital multitrack recorder.

With Howard’s complement of gear, there also came a piece of music history that has its stamp on Detour; a 1946 RCA 44 microphone that has recorded some of the all-time greats. While recording Tom Waits at one point in time, Howard and Waits were unhappy with the vocal sound they were capturing and decided to find some different mics to try. Howard headed to a used equipment dealer in Los Angeles and asked if they had any RCA 44s available. “He goes, ‘I don’t think so, but let me look in the back,” Howard recounts. “He comes back out saying ‘I got this old one that’s been on the shelf ever since the store opened,’ so I said I’d take it and bought it for 2,500 bucks.

“And so, I found myself working at Capitol Records with Shelby Lynne, and I’ve got her singing into the 44 because I get this killer sound out of it. One of the tech guys that worked there his whole life, he goes ‘That’s one of our old microphones!’ I said ‘Really?’ and he says ‘Yeah, because with that microphone there, we were the only ones to ever put those toggle switches on them to roll off the low end for a vocal. Wait here a second,’ and he goes back into the archives and he brings out all these photos.

“He’s got photos of Frank Sinatra singing into that exact microphone. And you know, Billie Holiday singing into it; you name it, whoever was working at Capitol, that was the microphone they were using, and I got my hands on it. So, a lot of the [Detour de Force] vocals are done on that 44. And I’m not sure if you notice, but the vocal that’s on “Man Made Lake,” it’s just so warm and so cool and pulls you right in… I think once [Ed] heard that vocal sound, and I had it coming out of the speakers and he sounded like God, I think that made him emotionally come out and it was amazing. I don’t think they’ve ever made any recordings that have been that heartfelt.”

As for the songs themselves, there really is something for everybody here, and it really speaks to the musicality of the band, and the fact that they’re more or less just a group of guys passing instruments around and doing whatever they want rather than occupying certain “roles,” so to speak.

In classic BNL style, songwriting and lead vocal duties are split across the record, making it quite a fun journey as the varying perspectives and voices really keep things interesting from song to song. While Robertson’s eight songs comprise the bulk of the LP, keyboardist/guitarist Kevin Hearn penned and sang four songs for the album, while Creeggan wrote and sang a pair — “Here Together,” an intimate piece about the importance of constantly acknowledging the love for those close to you, and the strutting jazz-infused banger “Paul Chambers,” which is just delightfully smooth. Both Creeggans’s songs also include his brother and former Barenaked Lady Andy Creeggan, who recorded the wood drum on “Here Together” and played a host of backing instruments on “Paul Chambers,” including the piano as well as putting together the string and horn arrangements.

“'Paul Chambers’ was hilarious. I was totally willing to go with the barebones bed track, because that’s kind of what we were going for… But when we took a break, I realized that all of the energy and bigness of the song was more in my head than it was on the track itself. So, I reached out to my brother, Andy, and him and I created the string part together, and he added some Joe Beam guitar, which wasn’t even in there. He was kind of responding to Tyler’s drum set and that Latin kind of feel.” In terms of the song’s namesake and inspiration, the legendary jazz upright bassist Paul Chambers, Creeggan remarks, “It was basically just being inspired by what Paul does for his band; you know, bringing all that support and compassion, and wondering ‘How can I bring that into my life?’”

The cottage “live floor” setup in action [Photo by Edward Pond]

For Creeggan, perhaps one of the most exciting parts of the process was getting to borrow and use Geddy Lee’s personal Moog Taurus pedals. “That was an out-of-body experience. On ‘Big Back Yard’ I was actually playing bass and the Taurus pedals at the same time, so it was this wild experience of almost being an organ player!” He also proudly shares that the final bass take used on “Here Together” was from the very first band take, which was performed while he was singing at the same time.

To add to the album’s pedigree on top of the already star-studded crew, cast, and history-laden gear, there were also some really great co-writers involved on the record, including Kevin Griffin (who also had a hand in co-production on a handful of songs), as well as Donovan Woods, Danny Michel, James Bryan McCollum, Craig Wiseman, and Mike Evin.

What’s made really apparent across the record is that this is a group of musicians who don’t care to have an ego, and are all dedicated to making the best record they can, regardless of who contributes what. “You know, I like that our records have more than one voice,” Hearn mentions. “One of my favourite records of all time is the White Album by The Beatles; I like the element of our record that has Jim’s songs and my songs and Ed’s songs, and we have Tyler singing on this one and it’s really cool.”

“It’s funny, a lot of the songs have had kind of a new light shone on them because of the pandemic, but they were all written before it happened,” says Creeggan. “The record was started just before the pandemic, and we finished, sort of, in June [2020] when things kind of opened up. We were responding to the pandemic life, in a way, as we were recording it.”

I mentioned to Robertson, as well, that I felt as though this is a very timely record and, being so varied in its ethos, that it captures a lot of the common emotions felt across the population lately; both positive and negative. There’s no denying that we’re all having a hell of a time. “Yeah, and I think that’s why the title worked so well for me. Detour de Force. I felt so great about the record, but it wasn’t the record that we started to make; like, the whole world had to detour last year, and our record was no exception, so it really encapsulated the process,” Robertson says.

The record’s opening salvo of huge production numbers – “Flip,” “Good Life,” and “New Disaster,” penned by Robertson and Kevin Griffin – really do a great job of setting the tone for the LP, as those three songs almost feel like a summation of what the record sets out to do right from the beginning; big, fun, thoughtful, and funny, while also creating a sense of longing and urgency. Then there are songs like “Flat Earth” and “By Law” that are just plain joyful to listen to for their effortless humour. These songs, as well, is where Ratz’s production shines. These are big, fat radio joints rolled with precision, while still retaining a lot of the in-the-room feel. In fact, Stewart mentioned that he recorded two different drum kits entirely for the tones on “Good Life.”

Hearn’s songs include the aforementioned “By Law”; the calm and breezy “Big Back Yard”; “The National Park,” a contemplative memoir of a trip to Africa and an ode to nature; and the closing “Internal Dynamo,” which is hard to qualify as anything other than a wild prog-rock trip. In fact, that particular tune goes so far as to give Robertson a go on drums, and drummer Tyler Stewart taking up the mic for a monstrous vocal performance, echoing a tradition the band has picked up for closing their live shows.

“I’m laughing because it’s so Zeppelin,” Stewart says of Robertson’s drum performance. “And Ed, for a guitar player/singer, is one of the hardest-hitting drummers I’ve ever seen. He loves playing, but he always says, ‘Man, I can only do one song because I blow my arms off.’ I was so excited having him play drums on that track. When we did the initial take, I was jumping around dancing in the room screaming and yelling because it was so exciting. I love that he got to do that on the record, and at the same time I got to sing on that song; I got to bust out my heavy metal!” Robertson describes the vibe as “Rage Against the Zeppelin Machine.” He’s not off the mark either; it’s a massive closing tune and when it comes in, it comes in heavy. It’s awesome.

Naturally, Stewart’s reaction to Robertson’s drumming would come back around as Stewart recorded his vocals. “That was great too, because again, it was right in the middle of Ed’s living room. I just left it all out on the floor, you know, and it was great ‘cause the guys are laughing and bopping. Like, they’re just having a great time watching me do it as my head was getting redder and redder, and I’m trying to record and keep a straight face while they’re pointing and laughing.”

These little moments really speak to the camaraderie between the band members, and the almost by-committee method by which their records are made. I asked about who tends to do what in the recording process, and Robertson gave a great answer. “In some ways, I’ll take the most ham-fisted guitar part. If it’s a strumming, riffy part, I’ll play it. If there’s more nimble finesse required, Kev’s probably gonna do it. He’s a virtuoso on guitar and on keyboards, and I feel zero threat from that. Then with Jim’s songs, sometimes he has a very particular feel to his guitar playing. So, in the past, he’s asked me to play bass on a song so he can play the rhythm guitar part… And sometimes it’s better for him to just do it, then I’ll learn the bass and play it live, or sometimes in the studio I’ve played the bass parts. When you’re trying to serve the song, I don’t care who plays the guitar solo, or who plays the leads, and we’ve got a bunch of different singers!”

KEVIN HEARN [Photo by Edward Pond]

To dig into some more of the music, I found Hearn’s “Big Back Yard” to be one of the most entrancing tracks on the album, and found it especially relatable as someone who grew up on a 42-acre farm. “That is a big back yard!” Hearn remarks warmly. The track is a lush, warm, summery-feeling song that is almost a big, bright, beautiful painting as it is a song. “All I ever wanted was a big back yard / Where me and my brothers could play our guitars / Gaze in wonder at the moon and stars / And sing all night in the big back yard” Hearn sings.

Then there’s “By Law.” I chuckled out loud numerous times throughout this song, which is just so funny and so charming, and Hearn’s casually exasperated, yet nonchalant vocal delivery hits a real sweet spot. And that doesn’t mention the phenomenally operatic outro. Hearn tells a story about how during rehearsals for Gord Downie’s Secret Path project, one morning he was awoken by a violent crash next door. Upon inspecting the source of the sound, he discovered a contractor in the neighbouring garage throwing pieces of metal into the bed of a pickup truck. Upon imploring that it was seven in the morning, Hearn was greeted by a wry grin and the claim that due to a bylaw, seven in the morning is precisely when work could begin.

“So, I went back in and closed the door,” he continues. “And then I could hear the guy’s boss come in. I didn’t put this in the song, but he said to his boss, ‘I think the guy who lives here was kind of upset.’ And I heard his boss say, ‘It wasn’t Gord, was it?! God forbid we woke Gord up!’ So, it was just kind of funny.” He then says he went right upstairs to his piano and started writing about the whole experience, which he describes as being both funny and frustrating. “I didn’t know it would become a song. I just kind of did it for fun to sort of go with the moment.” It wasn’t until a separate incident in which a young police officer pulled Hearn over for failing to complete a full stop that the rest of the song began to take shape; Hearn had once again fallen victim to a bylaw, and it just so happened that this occurred across from a 7-Eleven, making a perfect rhyme for the first chorus line “It’s time to wake up Kevin.”

Hearn’s third tune in the album’s runtime is “The National Park,” a spacy, thoughtful, and evocative ballad that once again draws on Hearn’s lived experiences in quite visceral way.This tune in particular is just a gorgeous intersection of lyricism, live-off-the-floor synergy, polished production, and clever arranging.

And those elements really do pervade through the entirety of Detour de Force in such a tasteful and interesting way, and it really does speak to the journey that not only the quartet has been on in making the record, but the journey of the album’s evolution itself. It’s real, but it’s big. It’s thoughtful, but it’s fun. It’s a triumphant effort, and it also highlights the best of what BNL is as a fully collaborative and exceptionally-talented group of musicians. Ultimately, it’s the perfect record to tie the knot on this pandemic as we flip into a brighter future.


Andrew Leyenhorst is a Niagara-based freelance producer, mixer, recording engineer, and a Consulting Editor at Canadian Musician.

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