When Barenaked Ladies (BNL) released “Rock Spectacle” in 1996, I was hooked. I enjoyed the three studio albums that came before, but Steven Page’s vocal performance on the live versions of “Brian Wilson,” “Break Your Heart,” and “What a Good Boy” solidified him as one of the finest artists of his generation. His ability to balance the sweet and sour aspects of the human experience through song spoke to me at a time when I desperately needed reassurance, so it’s always an honor when I get to speak with the man himself as I did this past Wednesday.
We talked about his latest album, his foray into live streaming, and what fans can expect to hear when he brings his trio to The Riviera Theatre on April 29. While a 50/50 split between BNL and solo material is likely, do yourself a favor and familiarize yourself with “Excelsior” before you go. It’s arguably his best yet and a sonic culmination of everything he has been working towards since leaving BNL in 2009.
MNOD: We last spoke in 2010 when “Page One” had just been released and you came to town for a memorable show at The Riviera Theatre. You’ve now released three albums since then including “Excelsior,” which came out late last year. What role did the changing landscape of the pandemic play in your process this time around?
Page: A fair bit. I already had ideas about loss and isolation, but I didn’t know that I would end up with a whole thing here. I wasn’t able to see my kids for a while due to not being able to travel back and forth from Canada, so the loss and disconnection I was feeling was real and everyone was going through something in their own way. I started exploring this question of whether or not we really need other people, which of course the answer is yes. I knew exactly the kind of song order and feel I wanted to have on this record. Later on, I was reflecting on these themes even more when I started doing the live streams.
MNOD: Speaking of the live streams, you recently celebrated the 100th edition of “Live From Home.” Did you ever think the concept would end up taking on a life of its own?
Page: I resisted doing any live streams at first, because I didn’t think I could compete with Garth Brooks in his kitchen or something like that. Artists were doing it for free, as well, which took away one of the last things that we get paid for as musicians. It wasn’t until a friend of mine, Dan Mangan, had success doing them that I decided to give it a shot. I got good at it and started having fun with the format, but then there was an entire community that grew out of it. I realized that we all had enough in common to make it work. Also, it was something to mark the week with and doing it kept me on schedule, which was healthy. I think not doing it would’ve done more damage to my mental health, because I started looking forward to it every time.
MNOD: You’ll be performing with Craig Northey and Kevin Fox when you play The Riviera. How do the confines of the trio alter the material you’ll be playing from the new album?
Page: Well, the songs become quite different without drums. Drums take up a lot of space within the music, so we have to make up for it in other ways. We realize that the sound could become quite sleepy in certain situations, but we opened for The Who and got a great response when having to fill up an arena. Not having drums leaves more space for voices and nuance. We bring the rock ‘n’ roll energy to fill the holes in each arrangement.
MNOD: How does the fact that you guys have been playing together for a while make filling the holes easier?
Page: The thing about this trio is that we didn’t start playing together when we were younger. We came together fully formed, because we’ve all been playing for years. It’s not as if we were kids who grew together like BNL, so we’re able to really listen hard to each other and bring the best out of one another.
MNOD: The title, “Excelsior,” feels like a nod to how at-home you’ve become in New York State.
Page: Yes, I’ve lived in Central New York for years now and during the pandemic I was forced to stay in one place. It’s also a sardonic nod to the Excelsior Pass, which is where all of our vaccine records are kept.
MNOD: When “Page One” came out back in 2010, there were songs that sounded as if they could have been leftovers from your BNL days, but “Excelsior” and the two previous records suggest that you’ve settled into your own sound. Is that something you’re conscious of?
Page: I think with “Page One” I was almost reminding people of what I did in BNL. I was basically saying ‘I’m the guy that sounds like this’ and trying to not intentionally alienate anyone. I’m not conscious of it anymore, because the material I’m making now is just the way I hear music.
MNOD: This year marks the 25th Anniversary of “Stunt,” which is the album that took BNL to another level in America. How do you look back on that album after all this time?
Page: It was a huge thing for us. I reacted with less surprise, because of everything we had done leading up to it. We made the record we wanted to make and we really took everything in stride. It was also a heavy time for us, because it was Kevin Hearn’s first album with the band and he was going through cancer treatment shortly after the recording of it. The songwriting and performances were excellent and that record means so much. It was a real turning point for us.
MNOD: “One Week” was a monster hit for the band back then. Does the lack of radio support in 2023 bother you at all?
Page: The funny thing about that is I don’t even know how much radio really exists anymore. There’s really no place on the radio for the kind of music I’m making now despite the pop success I’ve had in the past. I think I’m part of the last generation that values listening to the radio, so I’m not making music with that mind.
MNOD: Now that you have a formidable catalog of your own, how much of your live set is composed of BNL material?
Page: I’d say it’s about half and half. I’ll play the hits and fill in the rest with album cuts that the diehards appreciate. There are also songs that I’ll include for fans from the Buffalo area, because I have a long history of performing there.
The Steven Page Trio plays The Riviera Theatre on April 29.
See www.rivieratheatre.org or www.stevenpage.com for details.