Interview with Crash Test Dummies Brad Roberts
Cornwall Ontario — Crash Test Dummies frontman Brad Roberts will be co-headlining the inaugural Cornwall MusicFest which takes place on Saturday, August 20th outdoors at the Nav Centre. Brad Roberts, a folk rock musician, will be playing an acoustic set along with Stuart Cameron.
Brad Roberts is best known as the lead singer and guitarist of the Juno Award winning band the Crash Test Dummies. His baritone voice is memorable on such hit songs as “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”, “Superman’s Song”, “Afternoons & Coffeespoons”, and “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”. In the early 90’s the band had heavy rotation on the radio, MTV, and Much Music.
The Crash Test Dummies first debut album, “The Ghost that Haunt Me” (1991), went platinum in Canada and sold over 400,000 copies. Their second album, “God Shuffled His Feet” (1993) ,went platinum in the United States and sold over 5 million copies worldwide. Their third album, “A Worm’s Life” (1996), went platinum in Canada in less than one month and sold over a million copies worldwide. The band’s subsequent albums did not have the same commercial success.
The Crash Test Dummies were also nominated for three Grammy Awards. For Brad Roberts, being nominated for a Grammy award is a milestone even if it is based largely on record sales.
“Awards are based on record sales. Whatever value there is in an album it is closely tied to that. If you have a big hit you get an award whether it’s fluff or not. It’s a milestone in anyone’s career to be nominated for a Grammy. I’m happy and proud of it. That kind of success doesn’t come often. In my case I don’t write garbage and they got it right with us,” said Brad Roberts with a smirk.
Brad Roberts, who graduated from the University of Winnipeg, writes songs that are high brow and he also writes songs that are low brow. It has created an interesting dichotomy between deep intercultural thought and crass humour throughout his career. For example one Crash Test Dummies song makes allusions to a T.S. Eliot poem, while another song’s theme is about self stimulation.
“Thanks for pointing that out, not everyone gets that I think. I do make a reference to T.S. Eliot in the song “Afternoons and Coffeespoons”, making reference to “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”. When he talks about measuring his life in coffeespoons, it evokes an image of the triviality of life. It’s a very melancholy poem. I liked the phrase, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”. That being said, I have no time for people who are merely high brow. I like salt of the earth people who don’t take themselves too seriously. On the other end of the spectrum there are songs like Give Yourself a Hand”, Brad Roberts asserted.
The Crash Test Dummies first hit song came out in 1991. “Superman’s Song”, about a comic book character co-created by Canadian artist Joe Shuster, struck a chord with many Canadians. In recent years the popularity of superheroes has skyrocketed with events like Comic Con and blockbuster movies. The song itself might be more relevant today, not because of a pendulum shift in pop culture towards superheroes, but instead because Canadians can still relate to the same faceless drudgery Clark Kent endured. Perhaps it is that very drudgery of life by consumers that correlates with a high demand for Hollywood escapism.
“Superman’s song seems to have touched a nerve with Canadians, and I think it has a great deal to do with Clark Kent’s tirelessness in the face of anonymous drudgery. Superman is not recompensed for his actions and he enjoys little personal glory because he must keep his identity secret. Perhaps most importantly, it is within his power to be a tyrant, but he opts not to. Many people have to work anonymous thankless jobs, and many of them have abusive bosses. In this way, perhaps Superman’s Song becomes an opportunity for cathartic healing? Forgive my Freudianism,” Brad Roberts jested.
Superman’s Song was off the album “The Ghost that Haunt Me”, an album that had a lot of success in Canada. Ironically the band’s second album had to do well in the United States first before it got any recognition in Canada.
“Our first album the “Ghost That Haunt Me” was hugely successful in Canada. Our second album “God Shuffled His Feet” was ignored in Canada until it became huge in America. When Canada was finally ready to embrace it we released a single for “Swimming in the Ocean“. It is quite possibly my favourite music video with the band. The concept of the video was by our own Ellen Reid”.
The Crash Test Dummies biggest international hit song was “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” off the album “God Shuffled His Feet”. The song ranked number one in Australia and Germany, and it ranked high on the Billboard charts in the United States and in Canada. Kurt Cobain once said he knew Nirvana made it big as a band when Weird Al made a parody of one of his songs. Brad Roberts had similar sentiments when Weird Al made a parody of the song “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” entitled “Headline News“. In Brad Roberts song each verse describes the isolation and suffering of a child. In Weird Al’s parody each verse describes the absurdity of mainstream news coverage.
“I felt very honored that Weird Al wanted to parody Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm. In fact, it was his first single and first video on that album. He even wore a Brad Roberts wig! I am repeatedly surprised to hear people say to me: “So I guess you were pretty pissed off when Weird Al did your song….” Au contraire! It was a real milestone in my career. We even performed the song, live at Much Music. Great fun it was!” Brad Roberts disclosed.
In 1994, the same year as Weird Al’s parody, the Crash Test Dummies’ song “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” appeared on the “Dumb and Dumber” soundtrack. The movie, starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, had a recent sequel in 2014. 90s culture has made a resurgence in recent years, however it seems short lived like a flash in the pan. The early 90s was an interesting time for music. Genres like alternative, grunge, rap, and punk all felt innovative, authentic, and fresh. However that was short lived with a reassurance of banal pop and rap music in the late 1990s driven by the mainstream record labels.
“90’s music did indeed make a comeback, though I feel that it is over and we are now getting back to the 80s already. I personally felt this brief come-back in the form of renewed interest in the use of early CTDs tracks. The early 90s was a relatively interesting time in music: the innovations that were made came on the heels of hair-bands and metal, which I personally hated. I loved rock and roll music, don’t get me wrong; but hair-metal became a very limited genre very quickly–a thin gruel indeed. After the early 90’s, things went down hill again, and the sticky, kid-stuff bubblegum genre, combined with merely formulaic rap (as opposed to the really good stuff, like Public Enemy), made the late 90s a dismal time indeed,” Brad Roberts reflected.
One of Brad Robert’s favourite rock bands growing up as a teenager in the mid 1970s was Kiss. Although The Crash Test Dummies sound nothing like KISS, they were an early influence for Brad Roberts.
“The first album I owned was Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975), followed by a KISS album. When I was a little kid they were an early inspiration. KISS sound nothing like I do live, so it surprizes some people that they would be an inspiration. When I was an eleven year old boy they would get me excited. I think their best album was “Dressed to Kill” (1975), the album that came out before “Alive”. I wanted to be a lead guitarist like Ace Frehley”.
Brad Roberts became a lead guitarist and a lead vocalist, and made a living as a professional musician. In the 1990s the Crash Test Dummies sold over seven millions albums, and during that time period many musicians could make a livelihood off of their record sales. Since the advent of file sharing in the year 2000, it has become more and more difficult for musicians to make money selling records. Streaming services, for the most part, don’t pay musicians very well. This has changed the way musicians release music. Brad Roberts doesn’t release albums anymore, because they no longer pay for themselves.
“I don’t think there is any way to return to the old ways, as some folks do. However, as time passes, more and more streaming services will have to start recompensing artists. Youtube recently made steps forward on this front. If such changes don’t happen, music will eventually just die out. Why wouldn’t it? Who wants a job with no pay–unless its apprentice work that looks good on a resume? I’ve stopped putting out albums because they cost money to make and they don’t pay for themselves in sales”, said Brad Roberts.
In 2010 the Crash Test Dummies released their last full length album “Oooh La La”, quite possibly their best album since the 1993 release of “God Shuffled His Feet”.
“That album didn’t sell anything. It’s a great album, but I haven’t written another album since. It was all over in 2000 when people started file sharing, and it’s gone down hill since.
Brad Roberts, under the Crash Test Dummies banner, released a new song before the start of his first tour in five years. The song entitled “I’ll Be Peaceful Then” was released directly to the internet. The brilliant ballad tells a melancholy narrative. The song is excellent, worthy of a download, but unfortunately it received no radio airplay.
“It’s a song that I wanted to put out there for people to hear, while I’m still here. It didn’t get serviced to radio. People don’t feel they have to put out an album anymore. I put the song out online. It never became a big hit. I don’t have the interest at this point. I don’t make money selling records, I make more money touring,” Brad Roberts pointed out.
Brad Roberts who was born in Canada, and lives in New York, looks forward to returning home and touring.
“I love going to Canada and touring there. It gets kind of obnoxious in the United States after a while. I am living in New York which I love, but things are changing. Rich people are buying out New York. Soho is now a tourist trap and it doesn’t feel like a home for artists anymore. I’m maybe getting ready to move back to Canada, for the health care,” said Brad Roberts.
Saturday, August 20th, 2016 is a date that will live in Canadian music infamy. Not because it is the first ever Cornwall Music Fest (although that is really amazing), but because it is the final concert for the Tragically Hip who will be ending their farewell tour that same night in Kingston Ontario (a concert that sold out in minutes). Brad Roberts thinks highly of Gordon Downie and laments the news of his terminal illness.
“I think Gordon Downie is a really talented man. He has an awesome presence as anyone who has seen him live can attest to. He is well educated and it shows in his lyrics. It shows an intelligence a lot of writers don’t achieve. It’s terrible that he has brain cancer. He is not the only musician I know to be diagnosed with it. Rob Morsberger also had it”.
Fans at Cornwall Music Fest are in for a treat. They can expect to hear a lot of their favourite Crash Test Dummies songs, especially from the first two albums.
“Suffice to say, I’ll be playing nothing but CTD’s material, and much of it from our most popular records–the first two, that is. Many artists get tired of playing their old material over and over; but as far as I’m concerned, one should give the people what they want, and if that’s the ‘oldies’ then so be it! Besides, when the audience is into the music, it makes it feel fresh, no matter how many times one has played it,” said Brad Roberts.
Brad Roberts enjoys the dialed down touring. In his youth he found more enjoyment writing and recording music, but now he finds more joy playing live. The seasoned musician doesn’t get performance anxiety on stage, but he confesses to one place he still gets performance anxiety.
“When I tour I play as a duo. We have a great show. I don’t have to compromise musically. It’s just the two of us, I can do just one show on a weekend. It’s fantastic. I like performing now. When I was younger all I wanted to do was build a portfolio of music. Now I would rather tour than write records. Especially when I don’t have to tour months at a time. It’s way easier when you are a small group touring. Everything is harder when there are about ten of you in a crew, from a long wait to get breakfast and eggs at a restaurant to going to a gas station. People ask if I get nervous to play. Real performance anxiety is when your bus stops, and you’re at a gas station, and everyone is waiting for you to finish a shit,” Brad Roberts concluded.
Brad Roberts will be playing with guitarist Stuart Cameron whose resume includes The Crash Test Dummies, Ashley MacIsaac, Amanda Marshall, Matthew Good, The Heartbroken, and more.
Also headlining Cornwall Musicfest is Sean McCann of Juno Award winning band Great Big Sea, and the award winning blues band the Paul Deslauriers Band. Rounding out the lineup is an Eagles tribute band One of These Nights, ska band the Cardboard Crowns, The Bard of Cornwall Jesse Ferguson, Nick Seguin, Mena Hardy, Bruce Ciccarelli, Tommy Heatley, Ryan & Amanda, and Chris Benton. There are twelve bands and three stages in total.
Organizers Davey Bedard and Jason Mitchell of Limelight Entertainment have partnered up with the Nav Centre and Corus Entertainment to make this event possible.
“Cornwall Musicfest is based on a vision of quality musical performances, an awesome atmosphere, and fun and enjoyment appropriate for a big audience”, says co-founder Davey Bedard.
Tickets for Cornwall Musicfest are $30 in advance or $40 at the gate the day of the show. The event is licensed and 19+, and alcoholic beverages will be permitted throughout the festival site.