Bif Naked returns for North Bay Pride fest

·11 min read

Bif Naked loves North Bay so prepare to be rocked extra hard when she takes the stage this Saturday night to headline the Out on the Hill concert on the Laurentian Ski Hill. North Bay Pride is hosting the event as part of its week-long Pride events, and admission is free, although donations at the door will be gratefully accepted.

It will be an epic night of live music, with Mackenzie Drive opening the show and a performance by Ria Mae. Alice Rose and Geri Atrick are the evening’s hosts, and to top the night off, Bif Naked will close the show.

“This is our third time playing with North Bay Pride,” Bif said, “and at this point, they’re like family.” When she played Pride during the pandemic, the concert was live streamed to fans, and although she missed the live energy, she has fond memories of playing the theatre with the other musicians. “It was so amazing, all of the artists who were performing all got along so well.”

See: The Pride flag flies proudly over North Bay’s City Hall

“North Bay is a great community,” she said, and Bif and her band have been playing here for years. She recalls the early Frosh Week tours that kept many a Canadian band on the road throughout September. The Wall at Nipissing University was a prime venue for these touring bands, and many stopped over for the night to perform.

Bif Naked’s band has remained fairly constant over the years, and they will be backing her when she takes the stage this Saturday. Doug Fury plays guitar, Chiko Misomali is behind the kit, and Peter Karroll lays down the bass. The band is as tight-knit as bands come. Fury has been writing songs with Bif since the ‘90s, and Karroll has been her manager for 30 years. He also co-wrote “Spaceman” with Bif, which became one of her greatest hits.

As for Chiko, “I’ve been playing with Chiko since I was 21.”

“We have too much fun to stop,” she said, and the band continues to tour, write, and create videos to promote the new work. A new album has been in the can since 2020, and although some singles have been released—“Jim,” “Broke into Your Car,” and “Rollerdome,”—the band is holding off on the release.

The album is called “Champion,” and once it does drop—which may be this fall, the band is still deciding—fans will be treated to a triple album extravaganza, with a track listing approaching 30 songs. Why the delayed release? The timing wasn’t right for Bif or the band, she said, noting there were more important things going on in the world that needed attention.

She summarized 2020 as “a dumpster fire” of a year. Covid was washing over the world, and social issues were erupting into the minds of many. “I call it a social justice awakening that was starting to simmer,” Bif said. “A racial discrimination reckoning was unfolding in the USA and here as well, and then they were starting to discover mass graves in the residential schools across the country.”

Truth was erupting, and within this whirlwind, Bif thought “people don’t need a Bif Naked record, they need to talk about this instead. I didn’t want to take up the bandwidth by promoting a record.” Instead, it was time to reflect on what people could do to begin turning these past wrongs into future rights. At a recent gig this past August at Calgary’s Rec Room, Bif told the crowd “it was more important to get out bodies in the streets and march” than release her record.

“I didn’t feel it was as important as the issues of the day,” she said. So, it sits on the shelf, fully formed, waiting patiently to reach the ears of fans. She’ll play a few from the new album on Saturday, but only the ones which have been released. There’s a wide scope of songs—there are 30, after all—and she promises there are a few “ringers” in there as well—her term for pure-driven rock songs.

Overall, “we’re not in a rush” to release it, and that’s one of the luxuries of releasing music on your own label, aptly titled Her Royal Majesty’s. She’s had this label since 1994, basically since the beginning of her recording career. “I have to credit Peter for that,” she said, referring to her manager, bass player, and one of her closest friends.

She was signed to A&M for her first record, “and before it came out, the company folded,” which was a real hit for Bif. She wasn’t sure which road to follow and considered going back to university and putting the recording plans on hold. But on Karroll’s advice, she formed her own label which allowed her not only to release her own material but to “retain all the masters and have creative control” over the entire process.

Through Her Royal Majesty’s she would licence her albums to other labels to sell in different countries. In the U.S. that was Atlantic and sometimes Sony, Epic brought her music to Germany, and “for a time it was Roadrunner in the U.K.” It was an effective business model, but it was also a “different era” when music was released as a physical medium. Now with streaming platforms, “once you digitally release a song, it’s global.”

“Things have moved quickly in a short period of time,” she noted, and those movements have drastically changed the music industry. A part of her misses the physical release of an album as “it created a lot of anticipation for the fans and for the band.” Few people are running to the record store to buy a band’s new album, and she still has a small box of CDs of her breakthrough album “I, Bificus” lingering about her house.

“Digital releasing is a different animal,” she said. “In many ways, it’s very freeing, it allows us to dictate when and where we put it out and in other ways, we want it to be tangible, and it’s not tactile, not something you can really hold.”

“I used to have such a fun time hand-drawing all of the liner notes,” she recalled, but the times just aren’t the same. But resiliency and adaptation seem to be just a few of Bif’s strong points. She’s been living the rock and roll life for practically as long as she can remember and has toured tirelessly for decades.

Touring “is all I’ve ever done as an adult.” She was 18 when she first hopped in the van to bring the show on the road. Her first tour was in September of 1990, and “I toured Canada four times a year for like a decade before I ever got a bus.” The bus eventually came, but she had to wait for a European tour to gain that extra comfort.

But that bus came after the success of I,Bificus, her breakthrough album. Released on February 24th, 1998, the album was propelled by “Spaceman,” and “Moment of Weakness,” with videos for both on heavy rotation on MTV and Much Music. “That changed everything,” she said, and the success of that album opened a lot of doors and cleared the way along a lot of roads.

Before the success of that album, Bif constantly toured, and had many roadshows throughout America, where she discovered that “little pockets of places have a different energy” as she played the various regions that make America great. She played all over and found those cool energies in many places, and not necessarily in the cities that jump to mind.

Sure New York and L.A. stages were great, but Bif explained that Birmingham, Alabama “has a great punk scene,” as does Detroit, Chicago and Baltimore. Cleveland and Rochester also rate high on her lists as “these places are amazing markets, and they have loyal ravenous music fans.” Albany and Albuquerque “these are hidden gems” for hard touring bands.

The early days on the road were with her band, Gorilla Gorilla. “We had to mail posters to the promoter from Winnipeg and hope the promoter would hire his friend to put them up,” she joked, “and that was all we could do” as far as promotion.

“And that was it, that’s all we could do, hope for the best, hope to get interviewed by the local paper, and hope to get on college radio,” she said. “It would never occur to us that we could get on mainstream radio.” Everything was very do-it-yourself, she emphasized. Gorilla Gorilla put out a cassette “but we could only afford to make so many cassettes and we made shirts in our garage” to sell at shows.

“It was very organic, and very cool,” she said of those early days. The band would pull into a venue’s parking lot and hope for the best. And when the show delivered the magic, “it felt like a real victory” to win over the crowd, whether it was in Birmingham or Albany. The band was happy with that, rocking new crowds and converting strangers to friends and fans with their live sound. At that time, “it would never occur to us that we could get on mainstream radio.”

That would change.

Her first album came out in 1994—the pre-cursor to I,Bificus—and it did well, and also caught the attention of Sony 550 who signed her to record I,Bificus. The label also handled Celine Dion and Social Distortion—two of Bif’s favourites—so she knew she was in good company. Sony brought up a producer and an audio engineer from L.A. and rented a studio in Vancouver where over the next 10 weeks, they recorded the album—“a dream come true” for Bif.

But reality has a strange way of tempering dreams, and Bif recalled the recording process was difficult at times. “I had to sing things 100 times, sometimes just a line” of a song, and the number of takes occasionally shook her confidence. Sometimes she would find herself “crying in the booth” from frustration, and looking back, she noted that “I was so young and trying so hard.”

That hard work paid off, and I,Bificus became a defining moment in her career. She titled her 2016 memoir after the album, and “it still stands up.” The 25th anniversary of the album is approaching, and she plans to produce a special tour for the occasion. “There’s a lot of magic for me in that record.”

Many felt the same way, and once released, and those videos rode the airwaves into living rooms everywhere, life changed for Bif. “I was never home” after that record, she said, always busy with touring, promotion, and appearances.

“At the time there were not a lot of girls who looked like me on a video channel,” she said. “I had body piercings and tattoos,” which weren’t seen too often on mainstream media “especially not on a female.” Her unique look, punk-energy and DIY aesthetic tempered with her talent and work ethic, led to a life of constant touring, writing, and recording. “For about 18 years straight, all I did was work.”

“And then everything stopped. Dead stop.” At 36 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and her frantic work life halted. Talking about those heavy times, she recalled how the experience deeply altered her outlook on life and living. “I could have died happy a million times,” she said, “I’ve never been afraid of death.”

“And of course, all of us old punk rockers used to fantasize that we’re going to f—king die before we’re 30, we told our parents that we’re going to die before I’m old,” and the memory of those feelings “makes me laugh because we all went through” that phase in those early days.

Staring down the barrel of cancer makes one reconsider many things, and for Bif—now cancer free—the experience led her to help others. She’s become a palliative care volunteer, a very active one at that, and “if I hadn’t been a patient, I never would have had the opportunity to become a peer support worker, I never would have had the opportunity to be a volunteer.”

She helps patients in the Toronto area, and for the past four years, she has called the city home, after 30 years of Vancouver living. She’s training to become a death doula “because palliative care volunteering is my passion.”

Her new life in Toronto suits her, and “I never missed Vancouver, because there’s so much nature here” in Ontario to keep her occupied and inspired. Volunteering keeps her busy, and as always, Bif can’t resist the call of the road, and there’s always another stage waiting for her just around the corner.

Including the stage at the Laurentian Ski Hill, so be sure to catch her this Saturday, and become a part of Bif Naked’s incredible rock and roll journey.

Be prepared, the forecast calls for rain, so an umbrella will be a useful addition.

David Briggs is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of BayToday, a publication of Village Media. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

David Briggs, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, BayToday.ca