ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 15, 1991
By Steve Newton
A while back, the chances of hearing a booming baritone voice on pop radio would have been about as good as finding a cache of lipstick in Metallica’s dressing-room. But these days you can hardly flick through the airwaves without hearing the hit tune “Superman’s Song” and the deep, resonating voice of the Crash Test Dummies’ Brad Roberts.
“At one time I saw my bass/baritone range as being a bit of a drawback,” says Roberts, “simply because most of the time people singing lead do so in a tenor range. You turn on the radio any day of the week and you hear people singing with a tenor voice—you can do all kinds of acrobatics and dramatic vocal histrionics. But my voice was stuck way down in this bass range, and I had to learn how to use that, and use it effectively.
“And in the end, instead of it being a barrier, it was rather an avenue, because people find it refreshing instead of alienating. So I’m very fortunate and pleased to find that it worked that way.”
Another quality that sets Roberts apart from a lot of singer/songwriters crowding the airwaves these days is his poignant, literary approach to penning tunes. You won’t find a lot of throw-away, “Ooo baby” lyrics on the band’s debut album, The Ghosts That Haunt Me (the demo of which Cowboy Junkie Margo Timmins named in Rolling Stone as one of her 10 favourite albums of the year). For example, in the hugely successful first single, “Superman’s Song”, Roberts came up with the bright idea of using comic-book figures to represent two antithetical views of the good life.
“I wanted to write a song that essentially dealt with political questions,” relates Roberts, “and ‘Superman’s Song’ is in fact a very political song—it takes a look at the relationship between the individual and the community. One of the things that annoys me very much about a lot of political writing is that it tends to be very heavy-handed and preachy-sounding, but I figured that by employing characters like Superman and Tarzan, there would immediately be a certain levity and humour added to the situation.”
A former English and philosophy student at the University of Winnipeg, Roberts, 27—whose band performs a free-with-PNE-admission show at the Exhibition Bowl next Thursday (August 22)—often draws on the fruit of his scholastic endeavours, though not in any obvious way.
“I think when people hear that I’ve done a degree, they assume that some particular philosopher or writer has come into the forefront of my mind and that I’ve attempted to duplicate their ideas or narrative techniques in my own work. That’s not really the case. But it [education] does have a very profound effect in a more general way on the way I write.”
One particular topic that has been endless fodder for human thought and writing since time immemorial is certainly the Big D—death—and Roberts gets his thoughts in on the subject as well. “At My Funeral” deals with the subject of death and the afterlife, and the title track is, as Roberts carefully explains, “based on the incongruous fusion of images of death and an ironically sentimentalized view of eternal love”. Then there’s the video for “Superman’s Song”, which is set at a funeral.
“It [death] ended up being in quite a few songs on the record,” admits Roberts. “It’s a very writeable subject. The problem that I sometimes run into with this is that people assume that I’m a morbid sort of a person who is preoccupied with death and sickness, and really, all those songs—although they do deal with death—are written in a blackly humorous way, and not merely a black way. I don’t think they’re depressing songs at all; I think that they’re funny songs.”
Roberts’s denial of darkness notwithstanding, the actual naming of the Crash Test Dummies does have some rather morbid origins. “A friend of mine was a medical student who had been watching films on car accident victims, one after another, and one night he suggested—in a jestful way—that we call ourselves Crash Test Dummies. And it was quite a vivid sort of an image, so we adopted that name.
“And when we began to put our own material together—as you might have noticed—we ended up producing a rather eclectic fusion of various different styles that you don’t often hear being thrown together. And it ended up being, if you will, a kind of a crash test.
“So the name, in fact, does apply to what we do. The deceiving part about the name, of course, is that it suggests perhaps a late-’70s, early-’80s thrash band. And if people think that’s what we are on the basis of our name, then they’re in for a surprise when they actually hear us.”