Put to the test

KIERAN GRANT

, Last Updated: 3:57 PM ET

September 29, 1996

Brad Roberts is one lucky rock star.

His Winnipeg band, Crash Test Dummies, won over Canadian audiences with their infinitely quirky 1991 debut The Ghosts That Haunt Me.

In 1994, they chalked up an international hit record with the defiantly quirky God Shuffled His Feet and the single Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm.

Now, the singer travels freely, unrecognizable to many fans thanks to a not-so-quirky haircut.

In all fairness, Roberts and Crash Test Dummies have more on their side than luck, namely a sound akin to nothing else on the pop charts.

They could use some good fortune this week for the release of their brand new album, A Worm's Life.

Seeing that the band's second album -- which for most bands prompts the dreaded "sophomore curse" cliche -- was such a huge success, the Crash Test Dummies have a lot to prove with their third effort.

"We sold five million records last time," says Roberts recently over lunch in a downtown hotel. "We'll probably sell about a million records even if we don't have a hit, just by virtue of touring in the markets where we were popular last time."

Contrary to how this may sound, Roberts is not overconfident.

A million records may sound like a Crash Test Dummies bonanza to most. But Roberts points out the strange record industry logic, which would be at home in one of his songs.

"By record industry standards, us selling one million copies would be an utter failure," he says. "Not the kind of growth that corporations like to see, which is quite understandable. But it's more records than I ever thought I'd sell.

"And I like writing music. I like my job. In the long haul, things will be fine."

Roberts has an admirable dedication to writing the kinds of songs he wants to. His croaky baritone voice is just one of the more oddball Dummies elements that doesn't seem geared toward mass culture, but winds up there anyway.

"I think it's the climate of the music industry right now that has been favorable to what we're doing," he says. "If we'd put these albums out 10 years ago, it would've been a lost cause. We wouldn't have sold a sausage."

A Worm's Life is probably the most offbeat Dummies album yet.

"This record does go a little further than the other ones in terms of odd melodies, wacky key signatures, and chord changes," says Roberts.

"The more I write the more I can afford to experiment. "When you're just getting your feet wet, it's hard to stray from the conventions because you're not comfortable with them yet. In order to break the rules in interesting ways you have to first manage to follow them."

That said, there's also a certain conservatism about the Dummies' music that keeps a wide range of radio listeners open to them. According to Roberts, if the band is experimental, it's experimental within the realm of mainstream pop.

"There's a line you walk when you're trying to be inventive with pop music," he says. "You don't want to crank out the same old bland s--- because you're trying to experiment.

"On the other hand you want a situation where songs have verses, choruses, bridges -- if you really f--- with that completely then it's not really a song anymore, which is fine, but that's not what we're doing.

"To stay within the confines of a pop song structure but stretch out as much as you can within those confines is a challenge."

Although he's relocated to London, England -- "They don't get MTV Europe so no one recognizes me there except German and Italian tourists" -- Roberts says mass success has had little effect on his work ethic.

Still, A Worm's Life frequently hints at being a hapless recipient of good fortune, particularly on the title track and the lead single, Overachievers.

"I really do just write songs one at a time," Roberts says. "Because they are coming from my brain there tends to be family resemblances between them. But I've never had an architecture in mind when I've been writing.

"It would take quite a bit of talent indeed to pull off a concept album that wasn't cheesy.

"I sat down and conceived the idea for the title track in five minutes," he says. "It was meant to be just a whimsical little story about this little worm who has a pretty good time until he's plucked from the wet slime and dropped into a bottle of tequila."

Mmm. Any autobiographical inspiration?

"I didn't have any metaphors in mind," says Roberts with a smile. "When I started doing interviews I didn't have any snappy comebacks when people asked what A Worm's Life symbolized. It was just about what it was.

"Somebody came and suggested the opening lines -- `Though you think me cold and slimy, I've got a nice home' -- might be about A&R (artist and repertoire) people from major record labels.

"I thought it was so hilarious I would start using it as a rationale for the narrative in the future.

"It was just one of those things where someone had a better interpretation than I did."

Roberts adds: "On the one hand I try and write lyrics that are concrete and simple enough that any 10 year old could come along, read them, and have a mental image. At the same time, if you're looking for something more than that, there will be something there."

THE CRASH TEST DUMMIES FILE

FORMED: As a traditional Celtic band in 1990.

POPULAR COVER TUNES: The Replacements' Androgynous (off The Ghosts That Haunt Me); XTC's The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead (from the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack).

PARODIED: Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm on Weird Al Yankovic's Headline News.

A WORM'S LIFE: Recorded last winter at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. Says Roberts: "I know it looks like an easy way to get out of looking like a decadent rock star, but we spent 14 hours a day, six days a week in the studio."


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