Bif Naked, with Ace, at Huckleberry Books in Cranbrook (Barry Coulter photo)

Bif Naked, with Ace, at Huckleberry Books in Cranbrook (Barry Coulter photo)

Rock’s Bif Naked on the return to performance, rock as protest music, the post-pandemic world, and the Armond Theatre

“Maybe not revolutionary, but evolutionary … bands have had to really shift their thinking”

The music world is contemplating a return to the stage, a year and a half after the pandemic pushed pause on live performance.

As legendary Canadian rock artist Bif Naked relates, performing live is the economic mainstay of a musician’s livelihood and artistic expression. Digitally streamed concerts have filled the gap somewhat, but it’s just not the same.

“I think everybody is [excited at the prospect of returning to a world of regular concerts],” Bif said, taking time out during a Cranbrook sojourn for an interview.

“Long gone are the days of doing all the things bands did in the ‘90s. People receive their music differently. It wasn’t a revenue source for a long time anyway. But touring was.

“So now, to re-emerge, for a lot of bands, we are elated to return to the stage. We want to see our familiar faces in every town, our friends and family. And more than anything else, as artists and performers, we’re desperate to perform, for the sake of performing. Most of us who’ve been in bands since the ‘90s, we’re accustomed to living hand to mouth. I don’t think it’s necessarily new for musicians to be poor. The pandemic pressed the pause button for a lot of people. But that’s true of every industry.

“But us in rock, we’re all used to being poor.”

Bif Naked — aka Beth Torbert — is one of the top-selling Canadian artists and songwriters, and a popular pop-punk artist with an almost 30-year career in recording and global performance. She launched a career in Punk Rock in Vancouver in the early ‘90s, went solo in 1996, and her career has since seen her tour Canada, the U.S., and Europe as a headliner, and appearing on the bill with some of the world’s top rock acts.

She is a prolific writer and graphic artist, and has also developed a parallel career as an activist and humanitarian, as a long-time champion for women’s rights and the LGBTQ+ community, and other causes.

A breast-cancer survivor herself, Torbert has lent her voice to raise awareness and treatment issues. She recalls the experience of returning to the stage after her bout with cancer.

“After I went through cancer treatment, I felt like I had to re-emerge. I was very self-conscious. I gingerly approached the stage again. Nothing for me was scarier than that. But now I’m 10 years older. And the world is 10 years older.”

Even though 18 months isn’t a very long time in the scheme of things, the world that performing musicians are re-emerging into feels like a different place. There is a lot of cultural divisiveness, social upheaval, and tumultuous news. It seems these are febrile times.

“It’s not revolutionary, but it can be evolutionary,” Bif said. “And I think bands have had to really shift their thinking. It’s not even a pivot, because there’s nothing to pivot our thinking to.”

Can Rock music provide a voice to address this new post-pandemic world, like it has in the past?

“Any music, any art, is a vehicle for any artist to express their take on whatever is going on in their world,” Bif responded. “For most of us, it’s our running commentary on society. Any art that we make is going to be that. Rock is always been a protest music.”

People coming of age in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Bif says, were lucky to experience Punk Rock music, and the birth of bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden.

“They were creating new sounds — but new ways to say the same things, that generations before them said. Love is cool, loud is good — those kind of things. But as far as protest music — Punk Rock, Reggae, Hip Hop, were the anthemic protest music of our lives.

“Now, as we are now in a world that is enmeshed in this pandemic apocalypse — people have been suddenly forced online. If they’re not bookworms, then online is where they’re getting a lot of their new discoveries, things that have broadened their lives, broadened their worlds. The internet is so vast that with freedom of speech comes freedom of ideas that we don’t agree with. That has brought a lot of people into the world and discovering they have a voice, where before they didn’t know, or didn’t participate. There are a lot of opinions.

“There are a lot of us ‘bookworms’ that become disheartened by what we see people sharing on the internet. It can seem very callous.”

What’s also happening at the same time as the pandemic, Bif says, has been the enormous repercussions of climate change becoming apparent — “we’re starting to see an acceleration of horrific results.”

“In a post-pandemic world, which we have not yet reached, we’re going to talk about the people who are vaccinated versus the unvaccinated. People who like science versus people who do not agree with the science. This has always existed. Separation of church and state. People have always argued about vaccinating their children, have always argued about climate change.”

Bif Naked is pictured in acoustic performance with Stephen Allen. (Photo submitted)

As for her own performing future, and recent past, Bif Naked and her band have been hanging fire for almost two years.

They had a tour booked with rock bands Buckcherry and Age of Days. “We’ve had that booked for two years, and they postponed it twice. Rumour has it that it’s happening this October, thankfully.”

Even the release of Bif’s latest studio album — which would be her sixth — has been delayed, not for just pandemic reasons, but also because of her perspective on the larger issues that were shaking up things in 2020.

“We made a record — called ‘Champion.’ We’re very proud of the songs, the mixes, and everything was in place. We put out our first single out in 2020. That was a big undertaking. We did a video, and were quite prepared to release another single that May, then another one in August, and then release the record.

“But with everything that was happening, and especially last summer, I felt nobody needed a Bif Naked record at that moment. What we needed was to talk about race, and about equity and about the world we live in and how we needed to fix it, and change it. My parents were civil rights activists with Dr. Martin Luther King, and I thought, ‘where we are, after so many years, we cannot let the work that they started be in vain. I thought, my record means nothing this year. Let’s wait.’

“And so we waited, and we were going to do a streaming show for October, but it’s just not the same. It just didn’t seem right. We released another single (I Broke Into Your Car) … and so here we are, a year later. I still haven’t released Champion, because I don’t believe it’s important enough. I think there are other things, in the news feeds, that are much more important.

“I’m not going to perish emotionally waiting to release a record. I haven’t done a studio record in over a decade. I haven’t wanted to. Hopefully the timing will be right this fall, and we’ll be able to release it. But it depends on the rest of the world.”

Left to right: Ferdy Belland, bass player for Bif Naked’s band; Bif Naked, holding Ace; Stephen Allen, guitarist with the band (and Bif Naked’s husband). In Huckleberry Books, Cranbrook. (Barry Coulter photo)

There is a solid Cranbrook connection with Bif Naked — Cranbrook’s J.D. Ekstrom was the guitarist in her band before his untimely death in 2014. She and the band took a hiatus after Ekstom’s death, but then Steve Allen, a friend of Ekstrom’s and also from Cranbrook, took over guitar duties (he and Torbert are now married). Ferdy Belland serves as her band’s bass player.

While in Cranbrook, Bif toured the historic Armond Theatre, of which Belland is one of the co-owners, and which is being renovated into a live music venue.

“I can see a lot of people playing there,” she said of the theatre. “I see community theatre there, plays, I can see just about any touring act loving this stop.

“The thing about venues like the Armond — there are venues in every city, that have a reputation and notoriety that precedes them … There are so many beautiful venues that have been restored, and there’s something that’s different about them, there’s something that lives in the walls that helps enhance the experience for both audience and performer. I believe the Armond is just that, and I think it’s in the best hands with Ferdy.

“I’m sure we will be gracing the stage there, but more than that, I feel the Armond, with this history and majesty of the building, it will just embrace the artists.”