Interview | Crash Test Dummies

The Temperamental Pencil returns after his recent Incubus interview to have a one on one with Crash Test Dummies frontman, Brad Roberts


We had a chat with Brad Roberts, lead singer and songwriter of the Crash Test Dummies, ahead of their South African Tour. We covered Zeno’s paradoxes, Whitely Strieber, penguins wearing sombreros and where he finds inspiration.

Pencil:

Hi Brad, it’s an absolute honour to interview you. Huge fan. Looking forward to this!

 

Pencil:

You started Crash Test Dummies at university (University of Winnipeg). You studied Literature and Philosophy. When and how did you decide that music was it? Do you find that some of your lyrical inspirations stem from your studies and knowledge of those fields? Any writers or poets specifically that you’re a fan of?

BR:

Great question, thank you for it… I had a habit for many years, when I sat down to write a lyric, of keeping a copy of T.S. Eliot’s Complete Poems at my right elbow. It gave me confidence. I don’t know why. It probably should have discouraged me, you know, having Eliot looking over one’s shoulder while one wrote. He really was and is great. Sure the Wasteland is dense, and it’s really not very accessible, but I love it anyhow. I love the way it looks on the page, and the words, and the music. I loved going to university; and yes, I’ll blow my own horn: I was a star student—I got all of the scholarships that were available, and I graduated with gold medals in both departments. I was a maniac about it: I read every novel twice. I read Descartes and Leibniz and Hume and Kant as though I were living with them: those four guys, read in that order, is a stunning read. Zeno’s paradoxes affected me very deeply. I say that with modesty and in earnest. I would never be able to understand what physicists were talking about without Zeno in my background. The beautiful thing about all those texts is that I get to reread them now, with a fresh eye, and I find they are not what I thought they were. I’d missed so much! And then I find that there are books that I wanted to like as a student, but found somehow too difficult, too dense to really be enjoyable. Like Virginia Woolf’s to the Lighthouse. I found it dry. And yet last night I began rereading it, for the first time in 20 years, and I found it was just mesmerising! I was glued to it. There were entire centuries lurking in every paragraph. Yes, it is certainly dense, but dense as in a rich gorgeously woven tapestry. Am I just a better reader now, with more of life under my belt? I don’t know. But I know tonight I’ll return to her book with renewed enthusiasm. It’s too bad I can’t get a teaching job, because I sincerely love the material. Going to university was the most important time of my life, and it made all of my accomplishments possible.

Pencil:

First song you ever learnt to sing and play?

BR:

I learned my first songs from my dear mother, who sang to me before bed, every night. Songs like Feed the Birds, from the Mary Poppins soundtrack: I could sing every word of that song by the age of 3. And it’s a long, complicated song. My mother sang it consummately well. Stay Awake was another song from that record that she sang to me. Nature Boy, It’s Only a Shanty in Old Shanty Town (probably because Doris Day sang it, and mother loved Doris Day—I prefer the version from the film in 1932, The Crooner).

Pencil:

Do you have any advice for aspiring artists out there?

BR:

My dear fellow–my advice is for aspiring artists is this: don’t do it! Your dream is dead, you were born too late. There’s just no money it anymore. I had the good fortune of selling records when people were willing to pay for them. But file-sharing changed that forever. And that’s just the way of the world. Every now and then there’s a game-changer, and all the rules change. If I had to start over, I wouldn’t.

Pencil:

Throughout the years, you’ve experimented with many different sounds and kept things very fresh, obviously tied together by your distinctive bass-baritone. In fact, we’ve heard you say in the past you created a story that you had a third testicle that aided the bass in your voice.

BR:

Yes, I made that story up one day when I was tired of hearing the question, “why is your voice so low.” Why are your eyes brown? How the fuck should you know, right? Dumb question. So I invented the third testicle theory. That was many years ago, and I still hear about it. That’s called Good Branding. It’s got staying power, that story, doesn’t it? I’ll take that one to the grave with me.

Pencil:

What does the songwriting process entail for you? Melody or lyrics first? Or does it depend on your mood? Are you still treating songwriting with a lightness of heart when it comes to lyrics and concepts? Or have things become a little heavier in essence?

BR:

I used to write melody first, lyric second. For the first three records I did it that way. My theory was that if a melody was catchy enough, it didn’t even really need words; people would love it anyhow. I proved that theory with MMM MMM MMM MMM.

Pencil:

You taught Chris Jericho to play bass? True?

BR:

Absolutely untrue.

Pencil:

Are you tired of the success that ‘Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm’ has had internationally for so many years? It’s rumoured Kurt Cobain hated playing ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ after a while, can you say the same for your most well-known hit?

BR:

I am certainly not tired of the success of MMM MMM MMM MMM. No one in their right mind could possibly be unhappy about having a hit song. It almost never happens. To have even one hit is a massive achievement and a huge blessing. In my case, I have had the tremendous good luck of becoming part of the cultural landscape with MMM MMM MMM MMM. It is a very proud moment for me.

Pencil:

Are we the only life forms in the universe? Do you believe in UFO’s?

BR:

Have you read Whitely Strieber? He’s the game-changer in that world. The worldwide response to his book Communion is what convinces me. All those people having the same experience with variations.  Not to mention all of the progress that’s been made in that field. I feel terrible for anyone who’s been through being carried off against one’s will. Of course, I thought UFO’s were nonsense until I actually read about the subject.

Pencil:

Did the chorus of your most famous song – ‘Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm’, elicit your love for mantra or did your love for mantra influence the chorus? Or is it just coincidental? It’s quite mantra-esque. Or did it come after starting yoga?

Well, I got into yoga because I was in terrible shape from touring all the time. You might say I took up OM because of MMM. In fact, I found out about mantra only secondarily. But it’s an interesting coincidence. Jung wrote about co-incidence in a meaningful way, I think, in his book about symmetry. Jung is one of those great minds that only come along once in a few centuries. It’s no wonder Freud fainted when Jung broke with him. Read “Why Freud Fainted” by Samuel Rosenberg. Fortunately, Freud and Jung are alive and well despite being wilfully misconstrued by so-called “science.” Don’t get me started.

Pencil:

Anything special planned in South Africa aside from the shows? Shark cage diving? Zip-lining? Maybe eating a Mopani worm? You’ll have to try some boerewors while you’re here.

BR:

Perhaps there are some psychedelic drugs in South Africa that I might not find elsewhere? A toad to lick? Mostly I’ll be ordering room service and sitting by a pool. If there’s any water left when I get there.

Pencil:

The favourite meal that you cook yourself? The favourite meal that you don’t cook yourself?

BR:

Arugula leaves and thinly sliced watermelon topped with goat cheese; mozzarella cheese slice topped with a sundried tomato and a basil leaf; a rare rib-eye steak covered in deeply sautéed mushrooms and garlic; vanilla ice-cream on a fried hot-dog bun. That I cook myself.

Pencil:

Describe the perfect day for Brad Roberts?

BR:

I like to wake up to a pot of black tea with milk. As for the rest of the day, I could read for the rest of my life and not get lonely, although it’s nice to share ideas with like-minded people on occasion. And I’ve taken to learning about my ancestors lately. I don’t mean simply that I joined ancestry.com. I’ve been a real maniac about it. Like I was as when I was a student. I try to read as much local history as I can about the ancestors I’ve been able to find, particularly the Roberts clan on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel. I’ve become a fan of Manitoba history as well, as all eight of my great-grandparents came to Manitoba in the early part of the 20th century. I’m currently trying to write about it.

Pencil:

Straight up, 3 words to describe yourself?

BR:

Curious, curious, curious.

Pencil:

What’s your stance on plant medicine? Believer?

BR:

You mean there’s another kind?

Pencil:

If you could be any animal in the world, what would you be and why? For me, I’d be an armadillo. Those dudes are hardcore. Or a pangolin.

BR:

Think bigger! Don’t you want to fly, man? And preferably something humans don’t like to eat.

Pencil:

A penguin walks through the door of the room you’re currently in. He’s wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?

BR:

“Hi, I’m a penguin: incongruously, I’m wearing a sombrero. Is this working for me? Or is it merely incongruous? A cheap device, if you will? Could we brand this? ‘I’m an incongruously-dressed penguin, and I drink___.” Did you read Zeno’s paradoxes? Well I did, and I’ve gotta tell you, it changed my life…”

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