By Chris Parker
Thirty years ago, Brad Roberts notched a hole-in-one with “God Shuffled His Feet,” which sold over 8 million copies. Pause for a moment and consider what you might do to appeal to so many people, not just here, but across the globe.
A skinny guy with a big voice, Roberts went into the sessions for the Crash Test Dummies’ second album well-prepared, but who could imagine that much success?
“On the first record, I just came in and played my parts,” Roberts says, of their more straight-ahead 1991 debut, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, which, powered by a song about Clark Kent’s thankless service (“Superman’s Song”), outsold every other Canadian artist that year and won Canada’s Juno Award for Best Artist.
What had started as strummy, understated folk-rock act for the second album employed keyboard effects to create an orchestra of melodic and percussive tones. Roberts went one-by-one through the over 2,000 sounds on producer Jerry Hairston’s (Talking Heads) synthesizer taking notes “as a palette to paint the record with after the [basic tracks] were done.”
“On the second record I came in with charts and diagrams and photographs and endless lyric sheets. It was a completely different thing. And I enjoyed the hell out of it. It was really the thrill of my life to make that record,” he continues. “I mean, it would have been enormously satisfying under any circumstances to have even one hit record in your life because it hardly ever happens.”
The great irony of the album’s enormous success was that the Canadian music industry had decided to deflate the Crash Test Dummies’ bubble, perhaps in support of overshadowed establishment locals like the Tragically Hip and Blue Rodeo. The paper in Winnipeg ran a slag review written by an American journalist rather than review it themselves.
The gentle lead single about three self-conscious children, “Mmm mmm mmm mmm,” didn’t break the top 10 in Canada and quickly dropped off the charts. “That record was summarily dismissed by the critics, by radio, by video. Nobody wanted anything to do with it, and it was over within two weeks,” Roberts says. “I’m not kidding. It was just a burning pile of smoke; nothing going on.”
Then, improbably, American radio got involved, as Arista, their stateside label pushed the single, and it took hold. It went to #4 in America and #2 in England, driven in part by the then-emerging format of Adult Alternative, or AAA, which sort of split the difference between Pop, Adult Contemporary and Modern Rock radio.
“When Nirvana broke and the grunge movement started to happen, doors started to open for bands that weren’t necessarily doing grunge,” Roberts remembers. “But those doors were nevertheless being opened. I attribute our success on our second record, in part, to the growth of that movement.”
The song was a huge hit around the world, so much so that an embarrassed Canadian music industry – and Roberts makes pains to distinguish their response from the larger public – asked them to record a second video so they could get behind a different song. You know, because it wasn’t like they could go back and start playing the enormous hit now.
“That would just be admitting defeat,” Roberts sighs. “We actually interrupted a tour to go and make a video just for Canada [of ‘Swimming In Your Ocean’]. While ‘Mmm mmm mmm mmm’ was tearing it up all over the rest of the world. For our own [expletive deleted] country.”
Naturally enough the next album, 1996’s A Worm’s Life, flopped as their American label completely lost interest in the intervening three years, and hardly pushed the album. While intuitively you know the air is going to go out of a balloon that overinflated, and that you’ll need to find a lower, more sustainable trajectory, it was a painful truth to experience.
“In retrospect, it was more difficult than I realized it was going to be,” Roberts says. “We were playing these venues that really should have been a lot smaller but they weren’t and they were half empty.
“There just wasn’t enough room on one bus to have the personnel that we needed, because we had like six people on the stage always,” he continues. “If you’re not selling records, all of a sudden, that becomes a huge expense. And you can’t just scale back to a van and pull up to an arena that’s half filled, because you wouldn’t have enough people to operate the gear that’s there. So you’re stuck with these expenses.”
When they were dropped after 1999’s underappreciated Give Yourself A Hand, which returns to their roots-rock beginnings, they continued for three more post-Napster albums. But they weren’t making any money, so Roberts reluctantly hung up his guitar in 2004. There was a comeback album Oooh La La! In 2010, but they just couldn’t make it work financially. It was a tough transition.
“Writing songs kept me sane and really was who I had become over time,” says Roberts. “When you take on a job like songwriting, where you’re writing and you’re investing in yourself – in a way that maybe most people don’t you know – your identity starts to merge with your job. When the job is taken away, it’s like who am I anyways? What am I doing here?”
During the next few years he tried a variety of things from voice-acting to baking to classical piano. Shorn of an identity and ready to try anything, Roberts found himself drawn into musical counterpoints, a 400-year-old style of classical music that originated in the monasteries.
“I just finished writing a song that’s full of counterpoint, and this is the first thing that I’ve done in like 10 years,” says Roberts of their new single, “Promised Land.” “I was apprehensive to be quite honest… I’m extremely proud of it and we’re going to put it into our set. I think it’s going to be a hit with our fans.”
A funny thing happened in the past couple years. Roberts gave up his pursuits of renewed success, dropping his agent, whose previous 20 percent cut now subsidizes smaller, van-scale touring, and the band’s back to having the time of their life, if only because of the renewed appreciation from having once lost this opportunity.
“Now we’re playing venues that are smaller, like 500 to 1000 people,” he says. “We sell them out, or we come close, and it’s much more like a family operation. I love the scale.”
Crash Test Dummies with Carleton Stone, Friday, Feb. 17, 2023 at Greenwich Odeum, 59 Main St., East Greenwich. 8pm. $59-$65. (401) 885-4000, greenwichodeum.com.