TORONTO - Early in the Barenaked Ladies' career, the Toronto band took the stage at a club in Phoenix one night after late '60s hit-makers Steppenwolf had rocked the same space.
During soundcheck, the Barenaked Ladies' then-singer Steven Page recalls glancing down and seeing something leftover from the psych-rock band's show that stuck with him: a message taped to the floor reading "Tonight, you are in Phoenix."
"I was like: 'Please God, never let me get to that place where I have no idea what city I'm playing in," Page says with a laugh now.
So he endeavoured to really explore the locales he visited while shuttling from city to city, and the discoveries yielded by that corner-combing approach to touring are informing a new TV show hosted by Page: Travel + Escape's "The Illegal Eater," debuting Tuesday.
"I learned that early on travelling as a musician, that especially in America and Canada too, you pull off the Trans-Canada Highway or you pull off the interstate to a city, and it's (all the) same chain restaurants," Page said over brunch in Toronto's trendy Liberty Village neighbourhood.
"We would wake up in our bus in the bowels of an arena and you could spend a day there and not engage with the city until you're onstage.... (But) it was always important to me to explore a city.
"That was always a strategy for me," added Page, who left the band to pursue a solo career in 2009. "And also, it stopped me from losing my mind."
A hybrid food and travel show, "The Illegal Eater" finds Page cheerfully marching through underground restaurants and bars across North America.
Despite its title, not all of the cuisine is criminal. Page does visit spots with some illegal offerings — banned wild game, home-cured meats in places they're prohibited, moonshine — but also hits pop-up spots, private dinner parties for in-the-know food-lovers and roving outdoor markets.
In the premiere, he swigs home-brewed liquor and fires off pistol rounds with a chef in Charleston, S.C., and knocks back craft cocktails with Jason Priestley in Los Angeles before attending an exclusive meal at the home of a respected restaurateur. Future episodes will visit cities including Halifax, New York, Chicago and New Orleans, a personal favourite of Page's.
The show occasionally pushes a game Page from his comfort zone — for instance that aforementioned gunplay, a first for the skittish singer.
Making a television show has also offered frequent lessons. He learned to always eat breakfast, in case his day's schedule involved a morning cocktail tasting session followed by a trip to a brewery. And the sharply dressed 43-year-old also had to drop any fussiness about noshing inches from a lens.
"I do have to let go of some of the vanity of eating on camera," he concedes. "There's so many times I made a mess. One thing is I make a mess of my own clothes, and (we'd have) no doubles of wardrobe.
"You're not always shooting stuff in sequence so I might be out somewhere," he adds, "and I've covered my shirt in barbecue sauce, and the next day I've got to shoot all the preamble stuff. So there's some troubleshooting going on sometimes."
He also learned not to overindulge in the cocktails he's constantly expected to sip on camera. But he learned that the hard way — and it may have had to do with that aforementioned barbecue-sauce mishap.
"I made that mistake very early on," he says with a smile of imbibing the readily flowing booze. "The director took the blame because it was one of those ones where they went, 'Before you eat this thing ... I need you to go interview this guy.' So I went and talked to this guy, dinner's going on, and they're just filling my glass and I'm not even paying attention.
"And then it came time to eat and..." he trails off, affecting a drunken, glassy-eyed demeanour. "The next morning I was like, 'I'm so sorry everybody, that is not going to happen again.' They're like, 'Damn right that's not going to happen again.'
"You learn. Very quickly."
The show was a significant time commitment for Page, who says he's nevertheless got a new batch of solo tunes ready that he hopes to record this fall for a 2014 release. Many episodes will also feature a musical performance from Page, and he wrote and recorded the show's jaunty theme tune.
He admits he hasn't been a regular viewer of the myriad food shows littering the television dial, not since the early days of the Food Network.
He does see similarities between his show and the work of hard-edged chef/travel guru Anthony Bourdain, whom Page says "does a good job and (has) really hit his stride." But Page also sees some crucial differences.
"It might be the closest thing to where we're at," he says of the CNN personality and creator of such TV staples as "No Reservations," "The Layover" and "Parts Unknown."
"There is that going to a city and checking out the things that is similar, whereas we have a focus on the illegal or underground side of things. My sense of humour is different from his as well. And I'm not a cook, I'm just a guy who likes food a lot."
Also, Page adds, "I don't really mind running around and doing some sight gags."
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