Songwriter Interviews

Brad Roberts of Crash Test Dummies

by Greg Prato

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On the real-life inspirations for "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm," betrayal in the Canadian press, and why he became the group's lead singer.

Undoubtedly, one of the bassiest voices ever featured on a pop smash belongs to Brad Roberts, the singer/songwriter/guitarist of Crash Test Dummies. The song, of course, is "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm."

Hailing from Winnipeg, the group's first album, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, was a hit in Canada in 1991. Two years later, they broke through internationally with their next album, God Shuffled His Feet, and the aforementioned hit single.

To celebrate the 25-year anniversary of that release, the original CTD line-up - Brad, his bassist-brother Dan, keyboardist Ellen Reid, and drummer Michel Dorge - reunited for a full-on tour. Brad spoke to Songfacts about the reunion, the stories behind two CTD classics, and reaction to the rather unusual "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm."
Greg Prato (Songfacts): What inspired the stories you tell in the song "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm"?

Brad Roberts: Good question. That song is generally based on three kids who are outsiders. Each verse is about a different child. The child in the first verse, that story came from a combination of events. I was in a couple of bad car accidents when I was a little kid, so I was fascinated by them in kind of a distanced way by the time I wrote the song. But they made an impression on me.

And I had heard a story about a guy who was also in an accident, only in this case, on a boat that was in Niagara Falls. The boat was going towards the Falls, so the people could see it as closely as they could, and then it turns away. Now, you have to turn away before you get carried off over the Falls! This guy made a miscalculation, and it looked like they were going to not make it back, and he realized, "Fuck... I'm going to die!"

It turned out that the boat did not go over the edge, and he was able to get back. But his hair turned from black into bright white. His whole head. And since then - although this didn't inspire the song - I heard other cases of that happening, including my great uncle, who was dug in on an island near Japan during World War II and spent a night entrenched, listening to the Japanese crying out in their broken English what they would do to him when they caught him. And he was terrified. In his case, just a portion of his hair turned white. So anyway, that's where that came from, in the first verse.

But the idea was this kid had something that made him stand out. And of course, when you're a little kid, if you're different, it's a problem. I don't know what it's like now, but when I was a little kid, anything that made you different made you a target: a target for abuse, a target for bullying, a target for humiliation. And that's the case with the kid whose hair turned bright white.

Verse two is about the girl with the birthmarks. I actually have a birthmark at the base of my spine, which I was teased about a great deal when I was a little kid. It was a physical marking that made me different, and that made me the target of verbal abuse and teasing and bullying. So, that was really grown from an autobiographical part of my life.

Interestingly, I met a girl at a show who was a waitress there, and she had tiny little birthmarks all over her body. She said when she heard that song as a little kid, she thought it was meant for her. I was quite touched by it. I had never seen the kind of birthmark I have spread out like that. In my case, it's just one patch. In her case, they were tiny little marks all over her body, and she went through the same thing I did, although probably to a greater extent: being physically marked as different.

And then the third kid, I struggled a little bit with the last verse because I had two ideas. One was going to be about another child who was marked in some physical way that distinguished him from the rest of the kids, and the other idea I had was based on a friend of mine who rather than having a physical characteristic that marked her out to be different, she had an environmental characteristic, for lack of a better term. This girl that I knew, her parents were Pentecostal Christians, and they used to take her to church every week and do what they call "speaking in tongues."

When Pentecostal Christians get together every Sunday, some of them are moved to speak spontaneously. They claim that the spirit has entered their body and what they are saying is simply a transmission of that spirit. It's not themselves speaking anymore, it is the holy word of God speaking through them. And the language that comes out, sometimes it's an ordinary language, but quite often it sounds like gibberish. For my friend, as a little child going to school, she found this terrifying, needless to say, because her parents were the people that ran her life. Every kid has those parental figures, and they seemed to lose their minds. They seemed to just become different people, and it really terrified her. It made a big mark on her, emotionally. It was a scarring experience, I would say. So, that's the story behind the third child.

Songfacts: What challenges did you face in getting such an unusual song released?

Roberts: I would say it was the opposite, that the unusualness of the song sold it. There's kind of a bigger story behind this, and I'll try not to be too long-winded about it. You've got to remember, "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" came off our second record, not our first record. Most Americans don't know our first record because it was simply never big there. But in Canada, our first record went multi-platinum, and we had a huge following and huge tours in Canada. When our second record came out, Canada - being the country that loves to eat its own - decided we weren't going to have any success at all.

My hometown newspaper printed a scathing review of our second record, which they didn't even have the nerve to write themselves with one of their own staff writers - they just picked something off the wire. They found a negative review by some guy in Florida, of all things, who I don't even know if he was a music reviewer. I think he wrote more generally about popular culture. So, they printed this on the front of the arts and entertainment section of the Winnipeg Free Press. After that, we had trouble getting any kind of radio play at all. The video station at the time, MuchMusic, put it in very low rotation, and then just let it fall off the charts. It wasn't because the song was unusual or unacceptable. In fact, the first song that we were very successful with, called "Superman's Song," was quite unusual in itself, and also a ballad. So, this was a reaction against the band. It's not unusual in Canada for this to be the case, I'm sad to report.

However, in America, radio stations had played our first record a little bit, and when I say radio stations, I mean mostly college radio. However, one day we got a call and apparently this radio station in Atlanta, Georgia, had been playing our song. People were calling in and saying, "What is that voice? Who is that guy singing that 'Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm' song? What do those words mean, and why is his voice so low? We've never heard anything like this."

We were getting calls into the radio station, so they started to play this song more and more. Then the next crucial piece to the puzzle was that people went down to the record stores and bought the album. Because believe it or not, you can get all kinds of rotation on the radio, but sometimes it doesn't translate into sales at the record store. Of course, we're talking about a music business that is 25 years old now and doesn't really exist anymore. But that's the way it was then.

When the record label saw that we were having this kind of strong response, they prioritized us. They started to pump money into our cause. They started to show up at all our shows. They started to get me a lot more interviews. In short, they worked our record, and they worked it hard. All of a sudden, "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" was skyrocketing up the charts, and in the meantime, in Canada, they're going, "Oh fuck... we've played this song already. But we've got to get Crash Test Dummies back on the radio" - hypocrites as they are. [Laughs]

So, we ended up making a video for a completely different song and released a different single in Canada ["Swimming In Your Ocean"], so the Canadians could work that. But in the meantime, the record broke in America, and it was precisely because it was unusual that it broke. I had this strange, low voice that people weren't used to hearing. When I grew up, I was listening to everything from Alice Cooper to Elton John, and all those guys have really high ranges. In pop music, the tenor has ruled for a very long time. The only few low voices I can think of are Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, and Nick Cave. But other than those three people - and two of them weren't particularly popular even, Johnny Cash was huge - it just was very unusual to hear a bassy voice on the radio like that.

Honestly, I never even intended to be a singer-songwriter. I'm very happy to write songs, but I didn't hear myself singing them because I thought my voice was crap. I sounded like some guy who would better off in a choir, singing the bass parts in a church somewhere. But I just couldn't get any of the people that I tried to get to be singers for our band to sing the songs the way I heard them in my head, so I ended up becoming the singer myself. That was a real left turn for me. I had trained all my life in an entirely different area in music - I learned piano, I learned theory, I learned the guitar, I learned to improvise - but I never planned on singing. So, singing was a completely secondary thing to me, and something I had to develop very quickly.

I listen to those old records now, and I can't believe my voice. I mean, the tour I'm on, singing those same songs, I'm singing them a hundred times better than I could then, because my voice is just so much better, having practiced all these years. I wasn't ready to be a lead singer when I first began, but boy, did that ever change. Because when we put out the record, people weren't interested in my guitar playing or my nifty key signature changes that I was so proud of, or in the nuances of my lyrics. Although that's not the case entirely - people were pretty tuned in to the lyrics. But what they were mostly taken by was the bass baritone.

Brad offered some further thoughts on the troubles CTD experienced with their homeland's post-initial success. "Most folks don't know about the fiasco of the 'Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm' failure in Canada. Which is to say, Canada, who loves to eat their own, decided our first record had done well enough and now it was time to undo all that. If I sound bitter I'm really not, merely a little astounded that the old cliché about Canada is really true."

"I should stress that when we were rejected by Canada, we were not rejected by the fans, we were rejected by the music industry itself, the major players: radio programmers, video programmers, all those people. The normal human beings who just like to listen to music were all very enthused about the record, however they weren't given much of an opportunity to know it existed due to the sabotage."
Songfacts: What's the story behind "Afternoons & Coffeespoons"?

Roberts: "Afternoons & Coffeespoons" is a song about being afraid of getting old, which is a reflection of my very neurotic character. I have always been preoccupied with death. It's kind of a morbid preoccupation, I'll admit. I always struggled with severe clinical depression, suicidal thoughts, high anxiety levels - ever since I was a little kid. I got extremely good marks at school, but my emotional life was a wreck. And I don't think I understood that I had a psychiatric illness, I just was constantly terrified of things that nobody else seemed to be worried about, like my death.

I will also add that I saw a number of my grandparents die in the hospital rather slowly, and rather torturously. And I did not want to be one of these people. I was very preoccupied with, "Oh God, is that really what it has to be? Am I really going to have to go to a hospital and die there?" And then finally - and this is something that I just figured out recently - I had an operation on my tonsils. I was left in the hospital, and in those days, they didn't make room for the parents to be there. They took me, they put me in a crib, sent my mom away, and I spent the night there before I had the operation done. I was only about three-and-a-half years old, and I was terrified.

Of course, my mom was going to come and pick me up the next day, but my little three-and-a-half year old mind did not understand that. I didn't think I was ever going to see my parents again. I thought, "This is it. They're gone. I've been abandoned. Nothing will ever be the same."

I forgot about how traumatic that experience was, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that later in life I was preoccupied with having to go to die in a hospital, because I already had a horrific experience at a hospital at a very young age. I never made that connection before, but I think it's there.

Songfacts: How did the idea of the reunion tour happen?

Roberts: The idea of the reunion tour happened by accident, actually. Crash Test Dummies had a gig offered to us in August of 2017, and for a long time now, I've had to say no to these gigs. The reason is that the band members have not been on the road for a long time because my brother now has two young children and my keyboard player is married and has a straight day job that she likes. She had given up on touring because it was too exhausting. She wanted to have more of a regular home life. We just weren't a touring unit for some time.

Anyhow, when we were asked to play this gig in August, it was just a one-off. I talked to the band, and they said it sounded like a nice idea. So, just for the one-off, we decided to do it. We had such a good time that I said, "The person who got me this gig has asked if we would like to take any others in the future." We all agreed we had such a great time that, why not? Now, to be honest, I didn't think it was going to turn into a full-blown reunion tour. I thought we would just take a few more one-offs here and there because my brother has a couple of young kids and the rest of the band members have long since turned in different directions in their lives. But we started to get offers that were much more significant than one-offs. In fact, we were getting offers for going out at like, two or three weeks at a time. So, I called up the rest of the band and said, "Listen you guys, these offers are coming in. The money is pretty good. Do you want to consider quitting your day jobs?" Like, "How much money are you making anyways, and what would you like to do with your lives? Does this interest you at all, to go back on the road?" So, everybody had conferences with their husbands and wives, and they all agreed that they would like to take up the opportunity to do this again - 25 years later.

And there are a number of more reasons that make it more palatable now than it was then, one of which is that 25 years ago, I had a manager [Jeff Rogers] who was a great manager, and I really needed him to help guide my career at the time because it was in development. We were working with record labels, and I would have been overwhelmed without him. However, like all managers, he took 20% of my income gross, and that makes it difficult to earn money on the road because by the time you're finished with all of your expenses and paying your manager, it really adds up. So, now for the first time, I don't have a manager. He and I are very good friends still, but we don't work together anymore. In fact, he's coming to see me tonight for dinner.

Brad offers further praise for CTD's former manager, Jeff Rogers. "I also continue to be close to my manager, Jeff Rogers, and his fees were nothing more than industry standard. In the big picture he helped my career enormously and was even responsible for getting us a deal in America, as we had only been assigned to Canada when he became our manager. Jeff Rogers is one of the best managers in the Canadian music business to this day."
All of a sudden, the income from our tour is significantly more, and it makes it possible for us to go back out on the road and to make enough money that my other band members are able to come back off the road with a decent size check in their pocket and to be able to support their families. That simply wasn't possible before. When we toured in the past, we would break even or we would make a small amount at best, and we all agreed that we just couldn't do it anymore.

Part of the reason for this too is that there seems to be a lot of bands from the early '90s back on the road again, and there seems to be a large demand in that market. For a long time, Crash Test Dummies just weren't in that much demand, but recently, that has changed. I would be curious to know your view as to why. I really don't know why that happened. That's kind of the most interesting thing of all: Out of the blue, Crash Test Dummies are getting offers for significantly larger amounts of money than we ever were before, and are able to make a go of it.

Songfacts: I would think that the reason for that is because music goes in cycles, and also, people associate certain songs or bands with past memories.

Roberts: I think you're probably right. Those are some of the conclusions that I came to as well. So anyways, the long and the short of it is we're quite overjoyed to be back on the road and doing it now as much for fun as anything. Back then, there was so much pressure involved: We were on a major label, the song was breaking, my life was upside down, insane, crazy. I mean, I'd get up at 8 in the morning and start doing phone interviews, and they would continue until noon. I would then drive to the next town and I would go to a radio station or a television station, do a meet and greet, then we'd do the show, and then after the show, we would meet with other parts of the media, and then go to bed and get up and do it the next day. It's just mind-numbing.

This time around, there is none of that going on. The band isn't just breaking. I'm not on a major record label. In fact, I'm on no record label but my own, and I am in control of the whole thing. I'm actually in the driver's seat. So, in that sense, it's much more comfortable for me, much more enjoyable for me. I think too that everybody just missed it a little bit. We were all happy to get off the road when we did, but years later, it's quite appealing.

October 5, 2018
Get tour dates and more info at crashtestdummies.com
photo (2): Alan Gastelum

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