ROCK / A hit, a very improbable hit: The Crash Test Dummies have come from nowhere with 'Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm'. Erich Boehm meets their leader, Brad Roberts

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The Independent Culture
'MMM, MMM, mmm, mmm,' goes the radio, 'mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm.' It's a strange sound, this. As pop songs go, an ugly duckling. Novelty records may be nothing new, but a meandering tune about the terrors of childhood? With only one letter in the title? Sung by an unknown Canadian whose voice is so deep, it's almost off the scale? Still, 'Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm' by the Crash Test Dummies is one of the hits that 1994 will be remembered for.

And now there's the album, God Shuffled His Feet. This quirky folk-rock concoction has sold 1.5m copies in the US and has just entered the British charts at No 2. There are songs about God, mortality and cavemen, and even probing questions such as how does a duck distinguish his wife from other ducks? It's witty and eloquent, and it clearly touches a nerve.

The man behind it, singer-songwriter Brad Roberts, puts the album's success down to calculation. 'I think music comes from the mind and not the heart. I don't think of our music in emotional terms at all. If I did, there would probably be some shoddy writing going on. I'm concerned with structure and math - that kind of thing.'

If this is unexpected from a rock star, it fits Roberts's background. In the late Eighties, before being 'sucked into the vortex of the music business', he considered doing a PhD on top of his degree in English literature and philosophy from the University of Winnipeg. At the time, the Crash Test Dummies were a casual affair - little more than a hobby, with an irregular line-up and no original material.

Then, at 26, Roberts began to write songs. A handful of demos led to a deal with Arista and an album, The Ghosts that Haunt Me (1991). The breakthrough came with 'Superman's Song', which Canadian radio played 'ad nauseam' - and that's how Roberts puts it. This may be his best lyric: a sad rumination on the relative merits of Superman and Tarzan, which somehow avoids being either ridiculous or maudlin.

'When I wrote that song, it didn't flow through me, I wasn't inspired. I sat down and I decided I had certain themes that I wanted to make sure I handled in a way that wasn't sentimental but at the same time was powerful and poignant. I wanted to put a funny angle on it without being merely slapstick. It all boils down to careful scrutiny of what you're doing, your rational faculties being brought into play.'

The wry humour is an essential element. Without it, much of what the Dummies do could veer dangerously towards art-rock pretension. And it's a sensibility which is carried into the live shows. Roberts and company - backing vocalist / keyboardist Ellen Reid, mandolin and harmonica player Benjamin Darvill, brother Dan Roberts on bass, and drummer Michael Dorge - all tend to mug their way through anything which even hints at a solo. Moreover, at the recent Mean Fiddler showcase, Roberts even went so far as to substitute expletives for the 'mmms' in 'Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm'. Not the kind of behaviour one expects from an up-and-coming act entering a new market.

'The kind of goofy irony that goes on during the stage performances is an attempt to deflect the emotive approach that I find a bit uncomfortable,' Roberts explains. 'That's probably a Canadian attitude. You know, there is a tendency for pop music to have a certain earnestness, and I really am uncomfortable with that.'

It may not seem it, but a sense of irony is something at which Canadians excel. They don't take their indigenous talent too seriously. While the rest of the world hums along, Canadian sales of God Shuffled His Feet have yet to reach half of the 350,000 that The Ghosts that Haunt Me managed. Could this be a backlash? A classic case of a prophet without honour in his own country?

'That would be exactly what's going on, yes - although you should be saying that, I shouldn't,' Roberts says. 'I hate to put it in those terms because coming from my mouth that might sound bitter. But I don't feel bitter, that's just the way it is, and that's the way it's been for a million Canadian bands.'

'God Shuffled His Feet' is on RCA (CD / tape).

(Photograph omitted)

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