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Mike Ragogna

Mike Ragogna

Posted: May 12, 2010 02:10 AM

Beyond The Nineties: Conversations with Tonic and Crash Test Dummies' Brad Roberts

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Surviving the nineties has proven to be difficult for many talented popular bands, especially after they've established themselves with one or two signature superhits that firmly planted their history in that era. During that decade, Canada's Crash Test Dummies' "Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm" was feverishly added to America's pop playlists, and California's Tonic took their impressive Lemon Parade album to platinum status based on the infectious single "If You Could Only See." Though both acts technically might be classified as "nineties bands" because of the dates of their Billboard charters, both groups' latest offerings are a couple of the best albums of their careers and should be taken seriously in 2010 and beyond. Discussing their new projects are Crash Test Dummies' Brad Roberts and the gang from Tonic.


2010-05-12-HuffPostTonicPhoto.jpg
photo credit: Rod Blackhurst

A Conversation With Tonic

MR: Hello? Who's this?

Dan Lavery: Who the heck are you? I'm the bass player.

MR: (laughs) That's nice. It sounded like there was more than one person on the line.

DL: Just me, I'm on the highway. We just pulled off to get our singer, Emerson, some coffee. He's grumpy without his coffee. We're just sitting on the side of the 101 right now.

MR: Ah, caffeine. Hey, it looks like you have a new album, and it's self-titled.

DL: Yup, the self-titled, fourth record from Tonic.

MR: Yet another fine power-pop record from Tonic.

DL: I love that. That's a great description and quite a compliment.

MR: It seems like you have a gazillion singles on this thing. I especially liked "Daffodil." How did the band come together for this one?

DL: You know, it wasn't any particular revelation or epiphany. We just sort of, you know, the other two guys started talking again where they had been sort of not. I don't know that there was any reason, we just sort of lost touch. Everyone went off and did his own thing. Jeff had another band. I was producing and working with other bands. Emerson did a solo record. You know, at some point, everybody just started trying to get back in touch. We did one gig just to see how it felt, and to see if anybody would appreciate it. We had such a good time and there was such a great response that we started to do more. Within the year, we had written and recorded a whole record. It was a gradual process, but at the same time, quite a bit got done in a pretty short period of time.

MR: Does that include the songwriting?

DL: Yeah, the songwriting happened in a few big spurts. I used to live in Nashville on a couple of occasions and stayed in Emerson's house. We basically cranked out a bunch of stuff. Really happy with it, really happy with the record and songs that evolved.

MR: What was the songwriting process like?

DL: Well it really depends. I was out on tour when these guys got back together. I know they wrote a couple of songs even before the three of us got together. When I went to Nashville, Emerson and I wrote like seven songs in one week. Then we got back together, and the group of us did a whole bunch again in Nashville and L.A. It really depends, you know. Each song was kind of different.

MR: You all share the songwriting credit.

DL: We're all credited on all songs, and we feel like everybody brings something to the table. Clearly, Emerson is the main lyricist. The theme of the record will come mostly from his life experience. But you know, it's been seven years since the last time we wrote together as a band. There's quite a bit of ground to cover.

MR: How did Tonic the self-titled come about?

DL: You know, we didn't think about it too much, honestly. We'd done a gig in Los Angeles, and we had some interest from a record label. So, that was nice 'cause we were flying to Nashville and writing. And at the time, Jeff was in New York. Basically, Emerson and I put together demos of like a handful of songs in my studio in Los Angeles. We shipped those tracks electronically to Jeff. When it came back with Jeff's guitar parts, we just started laughing because, to us, it sounded so perfectly Tonic that it was hilarious, you know. It sounded like Tonic songs, like a Tonic record with the two of us. And then when he put his parts on, it solidified the sound. It was like this is very familiar to us.

MR: Do you have any personal favorites on the record?

DL: You know I love "Daffodil" and "Release Me." Those are the first two that were written. They always strike me as...I don't know they feel good to me. I also like "Nothing is Everything." I think that's a bit of a departure for us, but it's a beautiful song. You know, we tried out a little different instrumentation. We had our friend Chris play piano. Basically, the main part of that song was written on Emerson's upright piano in Nashville. When it came down to do the record, I did the demo, and I just wasn't happy with my level of skill there. So we brought in a ringer.

MR: Personally, my favorites are the two you mentioned, plus the last track, "She Goes Down." I loved the way you end the project with it.

DL: Yeah, we seem to have a habit of taking a sort of darker, more introspective song and putting it last on the record. It's definitely the way we close things on a regular basis.

MR: Do you feel there's a theme running through the album?

DL: You know, once again, I attribute the lyrical content, almost 100%, to Emerson. But I have my own feeling on it.

MR: What's that?

DL: We're all at that point right now, it's a very significant age, you know what I mean? I don't know if it's a crossroads, but it's definitely a milestone where we've all reached forty. It's an interesting place to be, but it's also a very challenging place. You start leaving your adolescence behind. We've certainly been able to, and we're fortunate enough to have had this sort of extended adolescence, being in a rock and roll band and having the modest success that we did. But we're at a place where we're sort of leaving that behind. All of us are now fathers and have these new responsibilities and joys and worries. I can't imagine that doesn't get reflected in one's heart.

MR: Kicking adolescence can be a lifetime struggle for artists. Creating something gives you this sense of timelessness, but physics doesn't play along by supplying agelessness, seems like there's the rub. "Flower Man" by Tonic on The X-Files soundtrack. What's the story behind that?

DL: We were in the middle of touring non-stop at that time, and we were asked to do a song for the soundtrack of that film. We went to a studio in Hoboken, New Jersey, and I think wrote the song and recorded it all in the space of a couple of days. You know it was supposed to be inspired by The X-Files, but it's sort of...you know, it's such a long time ago, I'm trying to remember where the inspiration for that came from. I was definitely thinking about the film or the theme of that show in general.

MR: Doesn't it feel like The X-Files was on TV like a million years ago?

DL: It does, yet it's a huge part of our popular culture, right? You know, it's funny, we were just talking about that song the other day. And Emerson just got to the car and I think your bringing that up is very timely and I want him to answer that question.

MR: Yeah, we got to that very significant part of the interview where we were talking about The X-Files. So, now that you're all caffeinated, what's your take on it?

Emerson Hart: I thought it was really interesting. Just a few days ago, I was talking to a girl at...actually we were talking about that soundtrack. That song had come up, and I was like, "Yeah that's us." She was like, "What?" I was like, "Yeah, that's Tonic." We just thought it was really funny how we've written so many songs in different parts of our career that people have no idea it's us. So, we talked about the lyric a little bit.

MR: It seems that there was a big jump creatively between the last album and this one. Since you're the main lyricist, did you have a theme for the album?

EH: I think there was. I think as one gets older--no matter what that is, from 20-30 or 30-40 or wherever you are in your life--lyrically, I've always tried to reflect change. I try to have a common thread because the songs are all very different. This is probably the first Tonic record that was musically collaborative for me, so it was an interesting challenge to kind of hunker around that. I have a daughter, and I think that she was probably one of the main threads through this record.

MR: So parenthood caught up with you. How's that going?

EH: I try not to become our parents, at least the bad parts of them. I talk a little bit about that on "Precious Little Bird," just remembering who you are and trying to parent but not over-parent. Don't crowd your child with the crap that you were raised with and realize that they're their own little beings and they have to grow and learn as they go.

MR: And how about your take on some other songs?

EH: On songs like "Where Do I Fit," that's really a reflection of this band and everything that has changed in our industry and where do I fit as an artist. I think that also, on another track, "Daffodil", it's just about kind of refining love, and that feeling that even though sometimes you might keep repeating a pattern when it comes to love, it's something that's so simple.

MR: 429 Records seems to understand creative artists, has that been your experience?

EH: We've been very fortunate. They were very hands off when it came to making this record. They trusted us as artists. They believe in all the records we've made before, and obviously, they'd heard some of these demos that we were working on. They were like, "Just do what you know how to do and do it the best you can." And we did, and in the end, they were like, "This is exactly what we wanted!" It's really been a great experience for us. During much of our early days, there was so much involvement by the labels.

MR: In the first track, "Release Me," you say, "I want to know when the deeper part of life will grow, I want to see where's the deepest part of love in me." Might this be the underlying theme to the album?

EH: It's funny, the lyrics to that song were kind of inspired, in a way, partially by a conversation I had with a good friend I had that I grew up with. He's very successful and has two kids and a fantastic life. We were sitting down and having a glass of wine, and he just looked at me and he was like, "Man, is this it? Is this what we are?" I said, "Well, just because you get to this age doesn't mean you have to stop digging for what the deeper parts of you are. It's a major responsibility as a parent to guide your children and give them the tools, the best of what you are inside." That kind of sparked something in me. I thought "Oh s**t, am I doing that?" So I started digging deeper.

MR: That's why I think you guys still remain relevant. I told Dan this record is yet another wonderful power-pop record.

EH: We were just talking about that this morning. We were listening to--I forget what song it was. We were having a couple of Guinness' at the pub in Monterey where we had just played. I asked Dan, "You know what song's on the radio that we were listening to? What song that was? That pop song?" I forget what it was. It was a great pop song. It's a current song we were listening to. Man, I love pop music. It's such a drag that a lot of it has got such a bad rap. You know there's a lot of pop out there, but I think that's a great term. I'm going to wear that on the lapel of my school jacket.

MR: I love a lot of your contemporaries, you all have such a keen sense of pop. It's unfortunate that the Disneyfication and American Idolization of pop has sort of made one generic sounding recording approach and sound on radio. Unique pop records like your latest really do stick out when they get airplay because, to me, they don't destroy the vibe as they give you the hook.

EH: Thank you. We feel like that too. At a certain point, I don't know when it happened, but it's like songs became about lifestyle. Where you shop, what you buy, how you dress. That is your badge, that is your lifestyle. When that happened, that really kind of did some damage to our industry as far as the craft of songwriting. You know, I live in Nashville, Tennessee, and I'm a songwriter. That's what I do. A lot of labels will send me younger artists who will come down to Nashville to write with me for a couple of days, whatever and I'll work with them and do stuff in the studio.

MR: How do you feel Tonic has changed from when you had your hit until now?

EH: We're trying to understand each other a little bit better now, and we're in it because we enjoy it, not because we feel like we're in some kind of a race. I know that sounds ridiculous but that's what it really is.

MR: Emerson, what's your advice for up-and-coming artists?

EH: I would focus as hard as you can on being the best at what you are. Know yourself, write what you know and the craft will take care of itself.

MR: And now we've got Jeff Russo! What was is it like being in a band divided between two cities? How did that affect the creative process?

Jeff Russo: It was really great. When we were writing songs for this record, I was living in New York, so it was really three cities we were dealing with. We would just send demos around to each other and put on our parts and added our bits and pieces. I think it actually made the whole process pretty relaxed which made it better.

MR: You guys are all old friends, can you remember how Tonic formed?

JR: Emerson and I have known one another since high school, and I had been playing in bands for a while. Emerson had been playing some solo shows when I saw him at a pool hall he had been working at. We thought it would be good to hang and write some tunes. We did, and the band was born. Dan joined the band right after we made Lemon Parade.

MR: This album maintains your power-pop sound. Was that an intentional choice? Do you like the label of "power-pop"?

JR: We didn't set out to reinvent what we did, we just wanted to write some songs and see where that took us. I think labels are just there so people can recognize and categorize the music that they listen to, so in that way, labels are just fine. We are a rock band with pop song leanings.

MR: Which songs on the album do you relate to the most either musically or lyrically?

JR: They are really all relatable to me, but I would say "I Want It To Be," "Precious Little Bird," "Nothing Is Everything," "Torn To Pieces," and "Where Do I fit" are the ones I relate to the most both lyrically and musically.

MR: How has Tonic evolved since your early days?

JR: We have all become better musicians. We all listen better than we did early on. And the egos have kind of waned.

MR: What's your advice for up-and-coming acts?

JR: It's all about the song, so make sure you write, write, write!!!

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Tracks:
1. Release Me
2. Daffodil
3. I Want It To Be
4. Send A Message
5. Bigger Than Both
6. Nothing Is Everything
7. Feel It Now
8. Where Do I Fit
9. Resolve
10. Precious Little Bird
11. Torn To Pieces
12. She Goes Down


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photo credit: Alan Gastelum

A Conversation With Crash Test Dummies' Brad Roberts

Mike Ragogna: I'm a Midwesterner for a while and I'm really digging it. Is that like being a Canadian?

Brad Roberts: I used to live in Winnipeg and that's, indeed, part of the Midwest, north of the border. I know exactly what you mean.

MR: Brad, I've been a fan since "Superman's Song." For the purposes of someone coming in fresh with Crash Test Dummies, can you talk about that song?

BR: "Superman's Song" is an attempt to use a cartoon character to tell a story that I thought would be poignant without being too corny. Not corny, corny is the wrong word, earnest I think. When people sit down and try and write serious lyrics, with the word serious in quotation marks, often they take themselves too seriously. I wanted to avoid that. I wanted to write "serious" songs, but I didn't want to fall into that trap. Using a cartoon character seemed to make a great deal of sense because it automatically put it onto a level of popular culture.

MR: You do avoid clichés, all the while sporting a great sense of humor. I believe every CTD project is fully-loaded with intelligent and humorous perceptions.

BR: I'm so thankful that you feel that way, that's a nice compliment.

MR: I think to be successful at that, it takes the mind of somebody who can combine creative concepts that don't normally fit. Now, speaking of that, your new album Ooh La-La! blends your intelligent writing style with, as you phrase it, toy instruments. That's an interesting combination.

BR: We did use several toy instruments. What I mean by toy instruments is amateur instruments. I don't know how old you are, but you've probably seen in malls those sort of auto-organs, where you sort of press a button and you get chords that play along for you.

MR: I had one as a kid. Guess that kind of tells you how old I am.

BR: Well there's this particular one called the optigan, and you put in different discs, each of which has a different style of band playing with it. You hit the G chord, C chord and the D chord buttons and you're off. The interesting thing about the optigan is that it was made in the early '70s, but the technology was really way ahead of its time. In a curious way it foreshadowed sampling. And what they did was to use optical technology that was part of film at that time and managed to create, I guess, what we would call "files," but they got musicians to go in and play all the chord progressions together in whatever genre was desired. That's what you heard being played back. Some of them sounded pretty sophisticated for a toy. But you also had this kind of creepy, long ago built into it. It's so inspiring.

Once we started writing on these toys, particularly on the optigan, it just proved to be an enormous wealth of material because we could plug into all kinds of genres and press some buttons and then do overdubs on top of it, drag it out, and there you go. You're in a place you never would have been before. You're not relying on your old habits which everybody develops, say, for example, on the guitar. You'd have to write a certain way. It pulled me out of my habits, and put me into a different place where I couldn't have otherwise gone.

MR: Watch when after this article gets posted, smarty artists like E and Thomas Dolby immediately incorporate optigans in their productions.

BR: (laughs) In the old days, you could only get them at garage sales and junk shops, whatever. And now you can get them on Ebay.

MR: A couple of these disks have interesting names. For instance, one is titled "Nashville." What did that optigan file end up being used on?

BR: If you hear a banjo playing very intricately, then that is the toy. It's one of the most amazing of the discs.

MR: Considering all your albums and the Christmas release, there seems to be this unique, alternate universe that Crash Test Dummies reside in, topically and musically. It's like a place where things don't necessarily have to be making sense at all as long as you're having fun while communicating. How far off am I?

BR: Not far at all. I think all the elements of what I would consider a good Crash Test Dummies record are on this record. I'm fairly impressed that you even know about the Christmas record and the kind of instrumentation involved. The lyrics, I'm hoping, are smart and funny at the same time. I think the melodies and the chord changes are interesting. I like to write with some harmonic richness, lack of a better word. I think a lot of the material, if not all, is really good. If I recorded something that I thought this is not, you know, anything but really good, then it's not going on.

MR: From your perspective, which songs were the most demanding to write?

BR: Wow, that's a hard question.

MR: Okay, which ones were the real puzzles that, when completed, gave you that, "Oh, this is cool!" feeling?

BR: That happened all the time. I'm trying to think song by song..."You Said You'd Meet Me In California" was the first song that we wrote, and on that I came to realize what could be done with the optigon. It took a while to piece it together, to kind of get a working model of what could be done on toys. On that process of going through and learning that song, I wrote the lyrics, but I didn't sit down and write them all at once. I wrote them partly out of the mood that the track suggested, and by "the track," I mean the button I pushed. My own sort of poetic style. That's a bad phrase because I don't want to sound pretentious but the lyrics on this record, as you probably notice, are very clearly verses and choruses that have metaphors that are strung out throughout the words. Quite often, that will just descend upon me in one fell swoop. "You Said You'd Meet Me In California" was not that way. I think that once we had that song, and we were so excited about it even just as a demo with the toy, it sounded amazing.

MR: Did you end up rewriting songs based on using the optigan or after playing back what you thought was a final track?

BR: That didn't happen, although maybe it did but I'm not remembering because it sometimes does. Stuart Lerman, who writes none of the lyrics, every once in a while will say, "You know this line is not working," and I just kind of have to respect that. I think it was only one line, a couple of words in some cases, like getting rid of them or adding them. He was right on the money, and it's great to have people like that who are so in their head.

MR: And he knows you and your material, where you're coming from.

BR: And these lyrics actually read well off of the page. I think, in a way, a lot of my earlier lyrics didn't because there wasn't enough attention paid to like where the syllables fall and so forth.

MR: Forgive me, I kind of disagree. I love reading the lyrics on your older songs, maybe because I'm a longtime fan.

BR: My thing with lyrics is that, when sung, they sound great, but when read on paper, they often don't look that great. That's partly because they're not meant to be read, they're meant to be sung. But having said that, I think some lyrics are readable, and I put Leonard Cohen into that class as being, by far, the king of it. He rules that world.

MR: Who is one of your major creative influences?

BR: Well, when I was a young man, XTC turned my head right around my neck. Andy Partridge--who really doesn't know that much about theory--is always breaking the rules of theory in interesting ways by changing key signatures and doing it in such a way that doesn't sound like the key signatures necessarily changed. He managed to make it sound fluid. And he goes all over the map in places that people don't generally go. I kind of figured out that what he was doing on some of those records. I started doing it myself where the most extreme example would the last track on God Shuffled His Feet. It never occupies one key for very long or keeps its key signature. They're changing within the lines of the verse and the key of the chorus. So, he's a huge influence on me in that regard.

That influence didn't show up on this new record because when we were working with the toys, one of the best things that we got out of the situation was the happenstance of hitting the wrong button and it being something you couldn't have conceived of. So, I was vibing on that freshness, and I wasn't thinking so much about how it makes sense harmonically.

MR: Are you going on tour with this record too?

BR: Yes. Where are you calling from again?

MR: Iowa.

BR: Oh yeah, so you really are out there.

MR: It's okay, I just wish the nearest Best Buy wasn't an hour away.

BR: I don't know that we'll be coming that close to the Midwest or not, but we're playing a tour in May around the eastern seaboard. Places like Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York. And then we're doing another leg in June where we'll do the southwest and places like...well, actually the West Coast. We'll start in Seattle and go down through Portland, through Florida and California, make it down to L.A., pass through San Diego, and do all that. After that, we go on tour in Canada until the end of the year. Then we start on Europe.

MR: Don't you love Europe?

BR: I do, yes.

MR: What does traveling to Europe do for your inspiration? Does it have an effect on your creativity?

BR: Yeah, it does. Sometimes, it surfaces in obvious ways where I'll tell a story that happened to me on the road in the lyric. I can think of a couple that are that direct, just in terms of being familiar with the cultures I read all my life and actually being in those countries, and passing through those towns and seeing those landscapes. That is generally stimulating, but I don't think I draw a correlation between it and writing well.

MR: What's the Brad Roberts of "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" versus the Brad Roberts of now?

BR: I'm on medication! (laughs) I'm a far more mellow person. I grew up with...I'm diagnosed with a depressive disorder, and it has a lot to do with why I do what I do. And I'm happier older, I enjoy things much simpler. Back then, it was about whether or not I'd written that day, and if I didn't, my self worth was zero. But now I sit down and I write lyrics and they just pour out of me, partly in forms that are stanzas or writing couplets or various other parameters for writing. Once you've worked the form often enough, like the AB/AB/CC/DD rhyme scheme, for example--when you've done that long enough, that's just sort of a second nature thing. The words that are pouring through you come out in that form without it being consciously the case. You're actually...I don't want to say channeling because that's so mystical sounding...but there's definitely kind of unconscious flooding that spills out into the writing. It's not just unconscious because it gets filtered by knowledge of poetic structure in stanzas and so forth.

MR: Anything else that the Brad Roberts of Oooh La-La! is doing that he's proud of?

BR: The new Brad is baking bread. I'm going back to nature and becoming a f****n' hippie, the very thing I always hated. It's an obsession. I have to bake every f****n' day or I'm in a bad mood. Each time you bake a loaf of bread, it's one of these acquired feel skills.

MR: My friend, producer/arranger Terence P. Minogue also must bake bread every day. Might you share some advice on the process?

BREAD BAKING TIPS FROM BRAD ROBERTS

Basically, if you want to make any kind of bread, make sure there's some white flour in it because all breads--whether they're made from rye flour or whole grain flour or whatever type of flour you choose--have to have white flour in them to make the flour rise because bread dough doesn't rise by itself. It needs white flour with it. Every single kind of bread has white flour in it. Here's one more tip: If you want to have a crusty outside and not put it into a pan but actually make it, mold into a loaf shape and throw it in the oven. If you put a pan of water in the oven, it will recreate that kind of crusty outside because that's basically how they do it. They create steam to make the outside of the bread crusty. You can do it. You don't need a special steam oven like they have at bakeries. All you got to do is put a second pan with water in the bottom of your oven. It makes baking a completely different experience.

2010-05-12-61jhRwbf3L._SL500_AA300_.jpg

Tracks:
1. Songbird
2. You Said You'd Meet Me (in California)
3. And It's Beautiful
4. Paralyzed
5. The In-Between Place
6. Not Today Baby
7. Heart Of Stone
8. Lake Bras d'Or
9. What I'm Famous For
10. Now You See Her
11. Put A Face

 
 
 

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