Brad Roberts of The Crash Test Dummies
Interviewed by: Keith Ryan Cartwright
How are things going?
Things are going good. I’m pretty busy these days. As you probably know I’m doing a little deep south junket in which I’ll be passing through your town.
Well, actually I live in Nashville. I’m just writing this for Charleston, but I don’t actually live there nor have I ever been there.
Oh, I knew that so what am I saying?
You’re right you are busy and I think you’re a little more busy then you ever expected to be because I was reading an interview you did in the fall of last year and at that point you said, “I don’t really foresee going on the road with a full band.’
Yeah, well, to tell you the truth that’s remained the same. I’ve been going on the road with two people and we’ve been doing an acoustic trio.
Cool. How does that compare to when you did the full band?
They’re totally different animals. When you have a full band you have a much fuller sound, but you also have a lot more things to go wrong and everything’s a little more complicated whether it be soundcheck or just getting to the hotel because there’s so many more people involved and everyone has to be coordinated. The acoustic show, on the other hand, you have to play your ass off just to make it sound like something, but when it’s stripped down without drums and you’re having a good night I find it sounds almost more powerful then with the drums because it’s just two acoustic guitars and a bass.
Right and there’s a difference between just being a musician and being a songwriter. The fact that you’re a songwriter I imagine that going out on the acoustic tour you’re getting a chance to play night in and night out and giving people a chance to hear the songs a little closer to the way you wrote them.
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
What’s the response been like?
We’ve had extremely positive response. Frankly I was little worried when we first went out that people would be disappointed that they weren’t seeing a big show with lights, drummer and the whole shooting match. It seems to be just the opposite. People seem to be really into the sort of unplugged, intimate, hear every note kind of vibe.
I think part of that comes from the fact that the whole music industry has changed so much from the days when you first started the band that now more than ever people are getting the Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys and crap like that just jammed down their throat that it’s a breath of fresh air to go and hear a band that can actually play.
Yeah, that seems to be the general consensus all right. I think if I were a music consumer I would feel the same way.
What’s it like to get out there today knowing the landscape is so different then the early days?
Well, you know it’s kind of like life in general. Everything changes and there are some good things that have come from the change and there are some bad things. I think the music industry is suffering both economically and creatively right now for obvious reasons. Having said that I’m kind of enjoying my less hectic touring years now where I don’t have as many dates packed together at once. I don’t have as many responsibilities to as many people. It’s basically me and my brother and Stewart Cameron hop into a van with a tour manager and drive around and do shows here and there for short stints and from the point of view from a guy who’s been on the road and been around the world a few times it’s actually quite refreshing not to have to deal with the whole big production thing.
I bet. That allows you to almost get back to what it was like when you first started playing music, when you’re playing music because you dig it and you enjoy it and it moves you as much as the people you play it for.
Yeah, it’s very much like that and it’s also similar to that in that we’re not playing in front of 10,000 people opening for Elvis Costello opening in some big shed somewhere. We’re in clubs where there might be 50 people or 300 people so it’s much more a one on one kind of show.
You said life in general has changed. What are some changes that you’ve gone through that transcend and carry over to the music side and changed you as a musician and as a songwriter?
That’s a pretty big question.
I started off writing songs in a fiercely independent way and I ended up writing songs in a much more collaborative way years later. That’s one thing that’s definitely changed. I now am, instead of just putting out records I have another sort of thing I’m working on called Late Night in the Living Room with Brad Roberts. There’s a gig here in New York called the Living Room and every couple of Tuesday’s I take over the venue for the last few hours that it’s open and I host a talk show style gig. It’s not actually televised but it’s a talk show style gig that’s being video taped. I go out and I sing my theme song, I do a monologue and then I have a guest and they come out and do something whether its comedy or magic or music or whatever and then I interview them about it. We do fake commercials that have a humorous twist on them that we show during the show. I get to meet all these great people and, of course, living here in New York you know there’s no shortage of talent to draw on. People are quite willing to come out to the show because I give them freedom to do whatever they want. They don’t have to do their single or what have you. They can do whatever the hell they want. That’s taken over most of my time because I produce the whole show. I have the house band, guests, camera guys and all these people I have to coordinate so it’s really keeping me busy. One of the things I like about it is that I still get to be creative and sing every week, work with people, but I don’t have to be on the road all the time to do it. I can come home at the end of the night, have a couple martinis and crawl into bed with my girl and wake up the next day in the city that I live.
How did you come up with this idea?
I was on a show once before I started this show, I guess six or seven months before, and it wasn’t the same kind of format. It was called the Songwriters Circle and in it there’s a host and the songwriters sit around in a circle and they each take a turn talking about and then singing their song. I thought I’d be good hosting a show like this I thought cockily to myself. Then I just expanded on the idea of what kind of a show I’d like to host. I thought it’d be nice if it was really eclectic and had crazy guests you wouldn’t be able to see most of the time in your average venue and I ran with it. It’s every other Tuesday at this point although I’m hoping to get it going on a weekly basis next fall. I just can’t do all that by myself. I’m going to make a reel of highlights from all the video tapes we’ve done and try to sell it to a cable TV network.
Is that the kind of progression you’d like to see with it, sort of a late night Comedy Central kind of thing?
If that worked out that would be fantastic and I would love to do it. I started the show off not thinking about doing anything more than having this fun thing I did to get me out of the house. It’s kind of snowballed and turned into something bigger and now I’m thinking, well, maybe I can turn this into a moneymaking operation. If not, that’s not the goal I had so it’s not as if I will have failed.
It’s great to see that you’re still looking to be creative and entertainment people, but in a way that goes beyond the Crash Test Dummies.
Yeah. Frankly, the music industry is suffering so much financially – not just the big labels, but everybody, that it’s, well, Puss-n-Boots is doing very well, but it’s difficult to recoup my money and it’s going to be that way for a long time due to numerous factors like downloading. By the way, that was declared legal in Canada a couple days ago.
Yeah. So, you know, I shouldn’t have all my creative eggs in one basket. I should do something else as well as what I’m already doing.
Well, it seems to happen with everybody at some point in time, so I’m wondering if there’s a chance there will be or when will the Crash Test Dummies reunion be?
The only circumstance under which that could happen is if there was a demand in the marketplace that I could afford to do it. Another words, the ticket price would have to be high enough and there would have to be enough people interested in order for me to take it on the road or else I’d go broke doing it.
What about for a record?
I still have various Dummies come and play on them.
That’s much easier to handle. I just bring them into town and they do their parts for a couple days and go home again, but going on a long stretch on the road, that’s another thing.
What’s the relationship between you and the various members like?
I’m in closer touch with some than others. Ben, our harmonica player, quit a number of years ago and I think wasn’t too happy with not being the front man basically. He went through a phase where he was kind of alienated by the band and now we’re friends again. He lives over in London and when we go tour in the U.K. we visit him and he sometimes comes and plays with us. Our drummer still lives in Winnepeg and I keep in touch with him on a personal level, but because we’re not taking a drummer out on the road I’m not working with him much. Then there’s Dan, my brother, who’s played bass with us forever. He’s not a founding member but he’s part of our acoustic show lineup. Ellen comes in for special shows and things on the record. So even if she’s not at the shows you do hear her on the record.
A band becomes like a family, but when you’re touring with your real family what’s it like to go out and tour the world and get to share it with your brother?
I hired him precisely because he was my brother and I knew what he was about having grown up with him. It does work out well. Now and then we’ll have the kind of fights only brothers can have, but we also have a level of trust only brothers can have so it kind of works both ways.
Any more Crash records in the works?
Yeah, there’s a Crash Test Dummies record coming out probably in the summer. It’s going to be called Songs of the Unforgiving. It’s a very apocalyptic record with Biblical references and imagery. It was recorded in a church. It’s got pipe organ and harps and it’s a complete departure from anything you would hear on Puss-n-Boots. It will probably be a tough sell, but I think it’s some of the best work I’ve done. Even if it only sells a bit I’ll be happy.
What inspired you to do a record like that? Not only is that a departure from Puss-n-Boots, but it’s a departure altogether.
Yeah, we even flew into this little town called Duluth in Minnesota.
I’m totally familiar with it. I’ve been there.
It’s a nice place. We were there in the winter time so it was a bit chilly, but they’ve got this abandon church there that’s been restored and turned into a venue for concerts. There’s a recording studio in it. Some people do art shows in there.
How in the hell did you find that?
By going onto the Net and typing “recording studios” slash “pipe organ” because we knew we wanted to record a pipe organ and it’s pretty hard to record a real pipe organ without being in a church.
You just did an Internet search and found a cool place like that.
Yeah, it worked out quite well. I just Googled’em.
I guess Google is good for something.
When did you actually go and record that?
That was last year now I guess. Yeah, last year during the winter time.
So a year ago January.
Yeah. I went through this phase where I was extremely prolific and I wrote like three records worth of material in a space of months.
What happened around that time to—
You now people ask me that and I really have no idea. I just had the urge everyday and I wrote all this stuff and I recorded two records and one of them is out now and one comes out later. Since then I haven’t written a single bloody thing. It’s like a great big shit I took or something. What an analogy.
No, I like it. I’ll talk poop anytime with anyone.
How weird is that you were prolific and then took a shit, but when you were prolific and you wrote all these songs they were two extremely dynamic and different records.
Yeah, well, I wrote the first record first and then when I started writing the second record I—
—was getting bummed that you were about to take a shit.
Actually, no, although at the best of times touring is kind of a pain in the ass. I’ll freely admit that. I don’t know what it was really. I had written all this rock and roll music and I co-wrote it with a guitar player of mine, a guy named Stewart Cameron. Some people have a hard time shifting away from what they do. I have a hard time repeating myself because I find that it gets old and I’m bored with myself so for me to switch gears and write a different record was much easier then writing the same thing twice would have been.
Well, that ought to be an interesting record to take a listen to.
Hey, I just want to say thanks for taking the time to chat with me.
No problem man. Thanks for interviewing me.