This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on March 27, 1995. Partner content is not updated.Its Tuesday night at MuchMusics downtown Toronto headquarters and the star-maker machinery is working overtime. A crew is busy taping a live Intimate and Interactive special on the latest Canadian pop sensation, Crash Test Dummies.
Crash Test Dummies (Profile)
It's Tuesday night at MuchMusic's downtown Toronto headquarters and the star-maker machinery is working overtime. A crew is busy taping a live Intimate and Interactive special on the latest Canadian pop sensation, Crash Test Dummies. Besides performing some of its best-known songs, the band is patiently fielding questions posed by phone, fax, e-mail and a small audience. The focus is on front man Brad Roberts. Some of the queries are frivolous, dealing with his favorite shampoo and style of underwear. Others are more predictable, dwelling on the nature of his bass-baritone voice. The most provocative moment comes when Roberts, who has an honors degree in English and philosophy, is asked whether his academic background has influenced his songwriting. "Yes, it has," replies Roberts, "and here I am, today, using words that are probably too large for this kind of television." Realizing how pompous that sounds for a pop star, Roberts quickly backtracks, flashing the broad, gently ironic smile that is as much his trademark as The Voice. "I'm only kidding, really."
But the truth is that Roberts and the Dummies probably are too smart for music television. Their songs - quirky, literate and sometimes even existential - don't fit standard pop conventions. The hyperactive brain behind the Dummies clearly belongs to Roberts, who writes almost all the group's material. Rolling Stone magazine has dubbed him an "egghead," while Billboard magazine's Canadian correspondent, Larry LeBlanc, dismissed him as an "intellectual wanker." Even the esteemed novelist-in-hiding Salman Rushdie is an admitted fan.
Yet, because of their accessible pop sound and eminently hummable melodies, the Dummies are sufficiently down-to-earth to have won a broad audience. The group's folky 1991 debut album, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, which spawned the surprise hit Superman's Song, sold an astonishing 400,000 copies in Canada alone. The 1993 follow-up, God Shuffled His Feet, has done 10 times better with sales of four million. Recorded in a rockier, more robust style, and featuring the oddball hit Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm, the album has made the Dummies an international phenomenon and the most successful band out of Winnipeg since The Guess Who in the 1970s. That breakthrough earned the group nominations for three U.S. Grammy Awards, including best new artist. And next week, the Dummies will cap a triumphant 18 months when they perform at Canada's Juno Awards, where they are up for best single, best group and entertainer of the year. Amid the populous new freshman class in Canadian rock, the Crash Test Dummies have won - at least in terms of international profile and sales - the top grades.
At the MuchMusic taping, the main-floor hallway is its usual cavalcade of chaos, with producers racing around and technicians busy installing equipment. Holed up in a dressing room off the corridor are the Dummies - keyboardist Ellen Reid, 29, mandolin and harmonica player Benjamin Darvill, 28, drummer Michel Dorge, 24, and bassist Dan Roberts, 27, Brad's brother - all hanging around for a sound check. Brad, however, is out in the hallway, talking about illness, old age, death - the usual stuff. The 31-year- old musician is not entirely convincing in the rock star role. He has the leather jacket and the chest-length coiffure, but not the attitude. There is something puppy-doggish about him, with his hair flopping down, spaniel-like, onto his shoulders, and his large, sad, beagle-brown eyes.
Oblivious to the hallway distractions - at one point a gawking group of high-school students passes by - Roberts is completely focused as he talks about the unusual subject matter of his songs. "It's true that I've written about growing old, getting sick and dying," he says, coughing for a moment, as if on cue. Roberts's speaking voice - like his singing one - is a resonant baritone that seems entirely unsuited to his slight frame and blithe manner. "I'm actually a pretty happy guy," he continues. "I certainly don't want to come across as some kind of pathetic, angst-ridden creature."
God forbid - God, or the concept of a deity, being another of Roberts's philosophical preoccupations. "I find theological questions intellectually interesting," he says matter-of-factly, "and I got a taste for that at university where I took a course about the history of the Bible." Another cough, this one causing him to double over spasmodically, leads Roberts to concede that he suffers from chronic asthma and is highly prone to colds and flu. "I'm fairly attentive to any symptoms that may be cropping up," he says, adding that he takes as many as three ventilators with different medications on tour. "But I don't think that makes me a hypochondriac. I just find illness, like God and death, fertile ground for songwriting."
The discussion about his health helps to demystify the current album's many references to lungs and X-rays, in numbers like Afternoons and Coffeespoons, which features the telling line "I've heard the rattle in my bronchi." Reflecting his high-brow interests, the album also mentions T. S. Eliot, Jean-Paul Sartre, cubists and dadaists. Ultimately, what saves Roberts from sounding ponderous in his songs is his curative use of humor. It even crops up in the otherwise erotically sweet Swimming in Your Ocean, which Roberts says was inspired by listening to Leonard Cohen. In it he sings: "When I'm sampling from your bosom,/Sometimes I suffer from distractions like/Why does God cause things like tornadoes and train wrecks?"
Reid, a classically trained pianist who has known Roberts since their days at the University of Winnipeg, says that irony underscores everything he does. "Brad's always careful not to sound too heavy or preachy, so he uses these little twists," notes Reid. "If people find him pompous, it's because they're intimidated by his choice of language. He uses the word 'juxtaposed' in a sentence, which you'd maybe hear in an art-theory class or something. But he's not being pretentious; that's just the way he talks."
Back in the MuchMusic corridor, Roberts is dissecting the critical backlash that greeted God Shuffled His Feet in Canada, when he abruptly stops and edits himself - "Let me back up, because that's not going to make a good sentence, grammatically or structurally." It is an irritating conversational tic, but his need for precision has obviously paid off in his songwriting. "When you have an academic training," he says, "you learn to think critically. I have a very methodical approach to writing. Things don't just pour out of me, due to some inspirational muse. I usually write a bunch of crap and then edit it. Maybe one line out of eight or nine will be usable. Then, after three weeks of editing and throwing away a lot of garbage, something comes together that I'm happy with."
If that sounds dry and dispassionate, well, that's Roberts. With an analytical mind as cold as a Winnipeg winter, he is, as he acknowledges himself, an "icy rationalist." Yet his songs - and his instantly recognizable vocals - also exude a warmth that has made him famous from Melbourne to Munich. At the same time, his songwriting, with its detached, wry perspective, seems somehow uniquely Canadian. Although he cites Cohen, Jane Siberry and the Rheostatics as among his favorite composers, Roberts claims not to feel part of the singer-songwriter tradition. Yet, as a teenager, he regularly attended the Winnipeg Folk Festival. And perhaps only a Canadian could have written a ballad like Superman's Song, which whimsically mourns the loss of a socially committed superhero with a mild-mannered alter ego.
Roberts is in many ways typically Canadian, having grown up in the middle of the country, in the suburbs, with average middle-class parents. Born to Norman and Eunice Roberts, a stationery salesman and his secretary wife, Brad and his brother Dan spent their early years playing hockey on the streets of Winnipeg's St. James district. Dan, a natural player, excelled, while the physically gawky Brad was somewhat less adept. Despite power-skating lessons, Brad never cut it. But he was lucky enough to have understanding parents who supported his non-jock interests, including music. When Brad was in his teens, he formed his own garage band, called Lung and the Breathless, which played 1970s rock covers. Says Curtis Riddell, a next-door neighbor who babysat the Roberts boys - and later figured in the formation of the Crash Test Dummies: "His dad, who is the funniest man in the world, even took Brad to his first concert - Kiss, I think."
By the time Roberts enrolled in university, he was ready to trade Kiss lead singer Gene Simmons for Sylvia Plath and Nietzsche. "He was always interested in the big issues," recalls philosophy professor Brian Keenan, "metaphysics and morals, rather than day-to-day politics." But his English professor, Judith Kearns, also remembers a self-deprecating wit. "Even though Brad was saying intelligent things, he always seemed aware of not taking himself too seriously."
While planning to work towards a doctorate and a possible academic career, Roberts joined Riddell, then owner of two Winnipeg nightspots, the Spectrum Cabaret and the after-hours Blue Note Café, in a bar band. They jokingly called themselves Bad Brad Roberts and the St. James Rhythm Pigs, and played Irish jigs, tv theme songs and wild acoustic versions of Alice Cooper tunes. What started as a late-night lark turned serious when Roberts attended a workshop conducted by Lyle Lovett at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Inspired, he rushed home and wrote his first composition, Superman's Song. Flush with original material, the band evolved into Crash Test Dummies, a name suggested by a medical-student friend. Three of the members were working at the Spectrum - Brad Roberts as a bartender, brother Dan checking coats and Reid as a waitress. In 1989, they landed their own gig at the festival. They also got the attention of Richard Flohil, a Toronto music publicist who sang the group's praises to anyone who would listen. Recalls Flohil: "They sounded very fresh, different from anything else around at the time."
After a short eastern Canadian tour and a bidding war from the major labels, the Dummies signed a lucrative deal with BMG. However, Roberts had already raised $50,000 from the CBC and funding agencies for the Dummies' first album. That ensured him creative control and a healthy royalty rate. With his earnings from The Ghosts That Haunt Me, Roberts was then able to buy himself a three-storey house in Winnipeg, equip it with a 24-track recording studio and begin work on a second album.
With God Shuffled His Feet, the Dummies' fortunes skyrocketed south of the border. In January, 1994, MTV, which had shunned the video for Superman's Song, put Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm into heavy rotation. The next month, Dummies manager Jeff Rogers landed the group a prestigious date on Saturday Night Live. Appearances on all the major American talk shows followed, including three on Late Night with David Letterman. By the summer, Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm was the number 1 track on modern-rock stations across the United States. Satirist Weird Al Yankovic even parodied the hit with a song called Headline News. The Dummies then capped their success with songs on two popular movie sound tracks: The Flintstones and Dumb & Dumber.
At the end of an exhausting 18 months of touring, the Dummies performed one final, "all-ages" concert at Toronto's Warehouse club in January. The audience was an eclectic mix of grunge kids and boomers with their preadolescent offspring. The twentysomething crowd gathered at the foot of the stage, politely swaying rather than thrashing about in the usual concert mosh pit, while the 10-year-olds and their parents sang along to the Flintstones song, In the Days of the Caveman. Despite such wholesome, feel-good shows, the band has managed to maintain its not-quite-mainstream image: one of their Grammy nominations had them competing with nouveau punkers Green Day and hard-core rockers Nine Inch Nails in the best alternative music category.
Now, the Dummies have earned themselves a sabbatical. After their Juno appearance next week, three of the members will return to Winnipeg to pursue personal projects. Reid, who recently moved to Toronto, is developing material for a future solo album. As for Roberts, he is living in a sublet in New York City's East Village, writing songs for the next Dummies album. Fame has meant that in other urban centres, including his home town, he must now wear disguises to avoid being pestered by fans. In Manhattan, however, he is free to roam about. "It's great here," Roberts said recently. "I can go out alone, quite anonymously, and not feel like a goof."
Single and, he says, with little time for relationships, Roberts fills his days with work and his evenings hanging out at poetry readings or avant-garde concerts. "He's a legitimate snob," says Reid, adding quickly, "Oh, God, don't quote me or he'll kill me. I mean, he legitimately likes that stuff as opposed to people who pretend." Snob or not, the man whom the British music magazine Vox called "Professor of Irony at the School of Postmodernism" is clearly an unconventional pop star. Talking about an art exhibition he attended recently, Roberts asked: "Are you familiar with Kandinsky? He was this early 20th-century guy who had all these convoluted theories of how to paint." Then, worrying that he is sounding too lofty and ponderous, he tries once again to edit himself: "Back up, erase all that," he says, "I'm getting long-winded." Despite his efforts to curb his intellectual leanings, Brad Roberts is still a smart Dummy who thinks in paragraphs.
Maclean's March 27, 1995