‘Dummies’ singer on the road again

DARRYL STERDAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:06 PM ET

Crash Test Dummies leader Brad Roberts is no fool.

If you’re wondering why the Winnipeg native stopped making albums six years ago, the answer is simple: He stopped making money at it.

“It was becoming too expensive,” says the 46-year-old singer-songwriter in his familiar baritone. “I left a major label to be on my own just around the time file sharing started and the music business started to get more and more devastated. After three albums, I was starting to lose money. There was no sense making any records. So I stopped.”

Burned out after more than a decade on the road, he also stopped touring and laid low in his adopted home town of New York City — where he’s lived since the late ’90s — while working as a music teacher, trying to break into voiceover work and becoming devoted to yoga, chanting and meditation (“It’s such a flaky thing to like that I don’t like to say it out loud,” he laughs).

But after giving up Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm for om and trading Superman’s Song for his own fortress of solitude, Roberts is back with a new CD called Oooh La La! And despite his years away, it was all a matter of child’s play. Or at least a child’s plaything.

A while back, Roberts became fascinated with a quirky instrument called the Optigan (short for Optical Organ). Made by Mattel in the early ’70s, the keyboard’s sounds are produced by clear LPs that contain recordings of other instruments or even entire bands playing different musical genres. Armed with his new toy — and a partner in like-minded composer, producer and studio owner Stewart Lerman — Roberts has created the most playfully stylish and stylistically playful album of his career, setting his wry lyrics and deep-water vocals against everything from big band jazz to doo-wop to boom-chikka country.

“I wish I could say that I was listening to all that, but I wasn’t,” he admits. “It was really all the Optigan. We wrote right on the keyboard, and the songs were very much affected by which disc we’d choose. That’s an obvious understatement.”

You’d think being locked into one sound would limit creativity, but Roberts says it was the opposite.

“The thing with the Optigan is that the individual discs are evocative of such wildly different scenarios that it gave us the freedom to run wild and do things that weren’t within our normal habits. Plus, there are all these buttons you push to get different chords; it’s very complex. You’re standing there pressing buttons and sometimes you press the wrong button. So the chord changes we were doing were not things we would ordinarily have considered.

“In fact, some of the chords, I didn’t even know what they were. I actually had to go back and learn how to play some of them on guitar this week. And they’re hard!”

Roberts isn’t just woodshedding for the heck of it; he’s finally packing his bags and hitting the road again with Lerman and longtime Dummies singer-keyboardist Ellen Reid (the other three members of the group’s most successful era are scattered around the globe and haven’t recorded or toured with Roberts in years, though he says there are no hard feelings). So far, all their dates are south of the border, though plans are being made for a Canadian tour in October.

“There’s been enough time away that I’m able to look forward to it as something new and fresh and creative,” says Roberts of his return to touring. “I’m in a way better place. And I have a handle on what I want to do and what I refuse to do.”

And while fans won’t hear an Optigan on tour — it’s far too fragile to shlep around — they will hear plenty of Dummies oldies. Some artists refuse to play their hits, but Roberts isn’t one of them.

“They’re our gifts and you’ve got to cherish them,” he says. “If you don’t have them, you don’t make records. Yeah, I’ve sung Superman and Mmm Mmm a million times. But for me to childishly withdraw them from fans at shows because I’ve moved on to a different place in my art would just be snobby and dumb. I play those songs with great appreciation for the fact that they’ve helped me so much. Plus, they’re really good songs!” he laughs.

Only a fool would think otherwise.

darryl.sterdan@sunmedia.ca


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