Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Voice from city's past revives Dummies with new CD

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Brad Roberts has gone from Mmmm to Ohmm and back again.

The Crash Test Dummies frontman has discovered the power of meditation and chanting as a way to get his creative juices flowing.

"I do mediation, but it's not like most people when they do mediation. Most people want to retreat into one; I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the mysteries of life and mystical experiences. I see what I do as a creative way of using my mind," he says over the phone from his Manhattan apartment.

The 46-year-old chants in Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek and English, discovering new ways of using his voice, the famous baritone that helped the band become global stars in the early 1990s. The Dummies sold more than seven million copies of their first four albums on the strength of hits like Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm, Superman's Song, Afternoons & Coffeespoons and God Shuffled His Feet.

While meditation and yoga are part of Roberts' daily routine these days, he hasn't abandoned music. On Tuesday the new Crash Test Dummies album, Oooh La-La!, will be released on his own label, Deep Fried Records. It's the first new material from Roberts -- who essentially is the Crash Test Dummies these days -- since 2004's Songs of the Unforgiven.

Oooh La-La! was written with Roberts' friend Stewart Lerman, a New York composer/producer, using an Optigan, an organ produced by Mattel in the 1970s. The keyboard, with single buttons for chords, uses 12-inch discs, which look like vinyl records, to recreate the sounds of various instruments in different musical styles.

"On guitar you develop habits, but when I write on the Optigan I just press buttons, develop melodies and put vocals on top. You press one chord, and another comes out instead, and it would work. It was the art of happy accidents. The other thing, too, it would be a chord I wouldn't have thought of on the guitar. Instead of C-F-G then E-flat, it would be something I wouldn't have done, chords I don't usually play, like diminished and augmented chords. Those are at our disposal all the time. When I went to relearn the chords on the guitar I was baffled, and that's never happened," he says, noting he now owns three of the instruments.

There is actually a small cult of musicians who are fans of the Optigan and there are numerous sites online devoted to the instrument. Over the years many artists have used it on their albums, including Devo, Tom Waits and PJ Harvey.

And while the instrument was a major inspiration during the recording of Oooh La-La!, it will not make it on tour because of its delicate nature.

The only instrumental backing Roberts will have on tour is an acoustic guitar and the harmonizing vocals of Ellen Reid, the only original Dummy to perform on the album.

The last album featuring the full band -- Roberts, his brother Dan Roberts, Reid, Ben Darvill and Mitch Dorge -- was 1999's Give Yourself a Hand. Since then Roberts has essentially written all the material and hired musicians as needed. He even wrote and recorded the bulk of 2001's I Don't Care That You Don't Mind with a lobster fisherman in Nova Scotia while recovering from a car accident.

Reid will join Roberts and guitarists Stuart Cameron and Murray Pulver (Doc Walker), who will alternate during different legs of the forthcoming month-long American tour kicking off May 11 in Philadelphia.

"It's so stripped down it's unreal. It's so intimate you hear every fingernail on the guitar string and every nuance of the vocal. We've done, for me, some of the most stunning shows with just Stuart on guitar," Roberts says.

There are no plans for a Canadian tour, yet, but Roberts said he would like to play his hometown of Winnipeg with all the original members, but will probably not be joined by Darvill, who lives in London, England.

It would be the group's first appearance in the city since a disastrous show at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 2001 when a drunken Roberts delivered an embarrassing expletive-ridden performance he has spent the past nine years apologizing for. "I've said this before; I've gone on the record: I had a bad day. I made a mistake. I'm sorry. What can I do after that? I have seen Winnipeggers that have given me the sense I've been forgiven by at least part of the population in Winnipeg," he says.

rob.williams@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2010 c7

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