Backstage: the making of W5's exclusive on Steven Page
TORONTO - Full disclosure: I've always been a fan of Steven Page's music. I always thought it was smart and funny and the stuff he and Ed Robertson put together had great hooks and memorable choruses -- the hallmark of their Barenaked Ladies sound.
So, a few months ago I thought, "Gee, where the heck did he go?"
I hadn't heard anything about Steven Page since he was on the front pages back in 2008 when he and his girlfriend were charged with cocaine possession. To jog your memory, he agreed to counselling and drug testing, all the charges were dropped and he quit the Barenaked Ladies (who were trying to promote a critically-acclaimed childrens' album at the time). Then Page sort of dropped off the radar.
Turns out, he didn't actually disappear. He wrote music for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. He released an album of covers (A Singer Must Die – named for the Leonard Cohen song he covered) and he played a bunch of small solo gigs here and there. But, he was keeping a comparably low profile.
I called his management company and asked for an interview. The timing was good. Page had a new solo album to be released Oct. 2010, so he said yes.
I was surprised at how candid he was in his interview with W5. I think when Page decided to talk to us, he also decided that it was time to share a lot of stuff that had until now, gone largely unreported.
In his interview with Paula Todd, Page explained what led to him being drunk and at a place where there was cocaine.
"I had pushed underground a lot of what my real desires were, whether creative or romantic or whatever. Part of me was trying to give myself permission to screw up."
In the end, the drug charges were dropped and Page never admitted to doing anything illegal. When W5 pressed him on what was he doing in the same room as cocaine back in 2008 he paused and said simply, "I don't do drugs."
Page stiffens at the suggestion that his celebrity had anything to do with the dropped charges. He correctly points out that simple possession charges for regular people without criminal records are often dropped.
Still, he admits the incident left a lot of fans feeling betrayed.
"I think a lot of fans -- after the arrest -- just didn't know how to take it because they had projected their own kind of idealistic sense onto me. People got very mad at me. And I look back at it now and think, ‘why are you so attached to my personal life?'"
To make more space for the fascinating conversation he had with Paula Todd, we cut out some scenes that we'd originally planned to put into the documentary: the making of his first solo music video, an interview with a childhood friend and a tour of his home studio. (You can see the making-of-the-video and the tour by following the links on this site).
It was worth giving up the time to run more of the interview. Page told us many new things about himself and his life. For example, I think most fans assumed that Page and his singer-songwriting partner, Ed Robertson, were great friends, both on and off-stage. After all, they'd known each other since they were kids. But despite their great stage chemistry, Page said from their very first tour back in the early ‘90s, he knew they weren't going to be best friends.
"As much as Ed and I really understood each other, we didn't have anything in common.
"We just didn't engage. We knew that the best stuff was the Steve and Ed co-write stuff, but I think we both dreaded it."
Page says that was a big part of his decision to leave the band. Though he left right after the drug incident, he says his departure was a long-time coming.
"There were four guys in the band who wrote songs and sang. So each record, I kind of felt like my voice was getting shrunken. It was weird to be squeezed out of the band that I started with Ed."
Steven Page says he always thought the Barenaked Ladies couldn't exist without both him and Ed Robertson. But it does. And he says, although he signed off on a settlement agreement, he wasn't exactly happy with his ex-bandmates keeping the Barenaked Ladies name.
"You know what? Ideally -- just because it was my baby -- if they wanted to stay together and call themselves something else, I would have been a lot happier."
Page has a new band now. And while they play a lot of BNL songs (that Page wrote), they have their own sound that fuses '80s pop with a bit of symphonic jazz and rock-out electric. It's not like the old days when BNL would get mobbed by screaming fans, but Page doesn't seem miffed by his pared-back fame.
A couple of hours before his show at Vancouver's Pacific National Exhibition in August, we walked over to a food stand and ordered some gross, yet awesome, deep-fried butter. Page had to wade through about 10,000 people to get there. In typical Canadian style, they mostly left him alone, but whispered, "Hey, isn't that Steven Page?" He chatted with the folks selling the chocolate dip. He joked with a girl who asked him if the butter was disgusting ("Of course, that's why it's awesome") and said a polite "Hi" to a couple of dozen people who caught his eye.
"I just like meeting and talking to nice people. And they see that I'm a nice guy. And that's the best thing about all these shows. Though that probably doesn't follow the W5 narrative, right Derek?" he joked.
I think he was joking anyway.
When I last saw Page, he was about one-tenth through a massive line of autograph-seekers at that PNE show. I cut in to say thanks and good-bye. He stood up, said "thanks," and offered me a bite of his corndog. It was kind of refreshing (the gesture, not the corndog). I've heard at least one rock star tell me to my face, "You know, if I wasn't contractually obligated to do this interview, I wouldn't, so let's just get it done."
So, maybe I'm a sucker for nice gestures, but I still thought it was pretty cool.
I think when celebrities decide to bare all and talk honestly about their colossal highs and dreaded lows, it makes for a compelling story and remind you that, in a lot of ways, they're just like us -- warts and all. I think in this case, Steven Page doesn't disappoint.