If Barenaked Ladies drummer Tyler Stewart were given a million dollars today, he claims that he’d use it to buy a house in Charleston.
If you go
What: Last Summer on Earth Tour featuring Barenaked Ladies and special guests Ben Folds Five and Guster
When: Saturday, doors open at 5:30 p.m. with the show starting at 7 p.m.
Where: Family Circle Magazine Stadium, 161 Seven Farms Drive, Daniel Island
“Will that get me a nice home right on the water?” he asks, on the phone with Charleston Scene from a recent tour stop in Michigan.
Since becoming nationally known on the strength of mid-’90s hits like “If I Had a $1,000,000” and “One Week,” Barenaked Ladies have likely made more than a few million dollars, but they’re still pressing forward with new music and energy, even after 25 years as a band.
In June, they released “Grinning Streak,” their second since the 2009 departure of founding member and singer Steven Page.
This summer, the band has teamed up with Ben Folds Five and Guster for an encore run of their Last Summer on Earth Tour, which visited Charleston in its first iteration last summer with a lineup that included BNL along with Blues Traveler, Cracker, and Big Head Todd and the Monsters.
“It doesn’t feel like 25 years, because we’re still making new records and moving forward as a band. We feel like we’re still a viable creative entity,” explains Stewart.
But, he adds, “there are those days where you’re off on a Sunday in some nowhere town in Michigan and everything is closed and your hotel room is musty and old, and you feel like, ‘OK, we’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m over it.’ But then it’s a new day and you play a show and you forget about the constant travel and the little inconveniences you’ve got to suffer to be in a rock band.”
Despite that forward-thinking perspective from the bands, most Last Summer on Earth attendees will be eager to look back in time and hear the songs they’ve been singing along with for two decades. That goes for each of the bands: Ben Folds Five released a new studio album last fall, “The Sound of the Life of the Mind,” but their biggest hit remains “Brick,” from 1997’s “Whatever and Ever Amen.” Likewise, Guster’s best known songs, like “Fa Fa” from 1999’s “Lost and Gone Forever,” stem from their days touring the college circuit during that decade.
“There was definitely a bit of wondering whether this tour was going to read like a nostalgia run,” admits Guster guitarist and singer Ryan Miller. “I was worried that it was going to look like a ‘best of the ’90s’ tour, but Barenaked Ladies and Ben Folds Five each put out new records last year, and in my opinion, we put out the best record of our career a few years ago (2010’s “Easy Wonderful”) and we’re writing new music now. Sure, (BNL) was headlining arenas and they aren’t anymore, but they’ve done an incredibly good job at remaining relative.”
Miller’s comment highlights one of the most appealing aspects of a package tour, from a band’s perspective. Guster could likely fill the room at the Music Farm, while Ben Folds Five played the North Charleston Performing Arts Center last year. But none of the three bands could, on their own, fill a large outdoor venue like Family Circle Magazine Stadium. Together, however, they’re a tour de force that gives fans the chance to hear songs they loved years ago, while also catching up on a band’s evolution and new material.
“There’s a fan base that overlaps between these three bands, and that’s kind of what the summer thing is about — to try to make it work for people,” explains Miller. “Usually people are really psyched by at least two out of the three of us.”
Love for Charleston
The bands’ visit to Daniel Island this Saturday marks the third-to-last performance of their two-month run together, an occasion that should lead to celebratory collaborations between the artists.
Guster’s Miller plans to wake early and ride his bike downtown, while the Barenaked Ladies are scheming for a way to top their appearance last year, when they took the stage wearing tennis whites and headbands in a nod to the tennis stadium venue.
“It was hot, but Charleston was the highlight of last summer,” says BNL’s Stewart.
The shows this year have been marked by musical camaraderie between the bands. Guster and BNL first toured together in the mid-’90s, and both have frequently crossed paths with Ben Folds Five.
“We call Guster our lifelong pals. We’re big fans of them. They write great songs,” says Stewart. “Ben Folds is someone we’ve always admired. It’s great to have our friends together under one roof, so to speak, and to spend the summer together playing music. It’s been like a fun summer camp the whole tour.”
Miller agrees, mentioning that after our interview, conducted on the phone from a tour stop in BNL’s hometown of Toronto, he’s planning to head over to Stewart’s house for an afternoon cookout. “We’ve known these guys for so long, so it feels really easy and everybody gets along really well,” says Miller. “It’s like a traveling family.”
Along with the three bands, British comedian/songwriter Boothby Graffoe is opening the show, as well as joining BNL on stage for songs like “Be My Yoko Ono.”
“He’s a Brit, so his sense of humor is a little bit different, but it seems to be going over well with our audience,” says Stewart.
Guster performs after Graffoe, followed by Ben Folds Five and then BNL. In addition, a second “solar stage,” set up amid the audience under a small tent, allows for less conventional musical moments between band members, and a chance for fans to see the musicians perform up-close in between the full band sets.
Another quarter century
Each of the Last Summer on Earth bands emphasizes that although a package summer tour will certainly include renditions of each group’s hit songs, they’re also presenting new material and looking ahead.
In Guster’s case, the early set time has allowed the band to collaborate in the evenings to write new material. Each bandmember is a parent, which makes “hang out” time more difficult when they’re at home.
“We played eight months a year for 15 years, and then we all had little girls within a few months of each other,” says Miller. “It slowed down the touring, but I’m 40 — I don’t need to be on the bus all year anymore.”
This summer marks the longest Guster has been on the road in nearly five years.
“We were a little bit worried about how that was going to affect everything. We have adult problems now, and we’re trying to figure out how to be a grown-up band,” says Miller. “We’ve been asking a lot of questions about how we’re going to begin the next phase of our career. Are we still going to be creative? Are we still going to be able to connect with an audience? Are we still going to be able to tour, and are we still going to want to tour? Is it still going to be fun? Is our music still relevant to the conversation?”
The feedback they’ve gotten on the road has reinforced their determination to press forward.
“This summer, a lot of those questions are being answered in a really positive way,” says Miller. “Not to sound too ‘Burning Man’ about it, but we just hope the universe continues to support our efforts, and it really feels that way so far.”
Guster has always been a band marked by quirky creativity. When bands’ albums began leaking on Napster before their release date in the early 2000s, Guster threw off illegal downloaders by recording a version of their record “Keep It Together” with vocals sung entirely in cat’s meows.
“I think we got some licenses from that; somebody used it on TV, like on “The O.C.” or something,” Miller laughs. “I hope that when I’m dead, Guster has 50 things like that that are just ridiculous but musical and creative, and that it’s part of our legacy.”
In Barenaked Ladies case, the recent release of “Grinning Streak” defines their new approach. Although the original songs of frontman Ed Robertson are laced with humor, they don’t embody either the yearning emotion or goofball comedy of former member Page’s lyrics. The group’s first album without Page, 2010’s “All in Good Time,” served as a statement of what BNL could do as a quartet, while “Grinning Streak” sheds the elephant and looks ahead.
“I think the goofiness has always been there, but every album has intensely serious or dark songs,” says Stewart. “The live show is definitely energetic and light-hearted, but I think we strike a balance.”
The drummer jokes that each time BNL releases a new album, media outlets write that it’s a “more mature sounding record.”
“Yeah, we’re a little bit older,” Stewart exclaims. “But with ‘Grinning Streak,’ we’re more hopeful and celebratory than we’ve been in awhile. There’s an optimism right now that we’re feeling as a band, like we’re still capable of anything. It’s nice to be on a high.”
For the second round of the Last Summer on Earth Tour, Stewart says they’re simply giving the Mayans an extra year as a margin of error, since the apocalypse didn’t come in 2012 as some interpretations of the ancient civilization’s calendar had predicted.
“We’re going to party like it’s 1999 this year. Maybe there will be another summer, but just in case, we’re having a good time now,” says Stewart. “We have the benefit of 25 years together to feel like a well-oiled machine, and as long as it continues to be fun and viable, we’ll keep doing it — maybe for another 25.”