By Carl Begai
Bif Naked and I crossed paths for the first time 20 years ago. Ground zero was the long-since-gone Nightmares rock club in downtown Toronto; I was on M.E.A.T Magazine business prior to her show that night, and she left a lasting impression. Barely two years into my career as a journalist, she was one of the first “rock stars” I ever met and thus set the bar for the future quite high. It was also the first time I’d met a girl with real tattoos; a lot of ’em, decorating her arms and other areas of exposed skin. And no silly tramp stamp, no ridiculous upper-boob blotch of ink that’s supposed to be Japanese kanji for “Love” or “Truth” or “Vegans Rule!”. In stark contrast to the intimidating biker-goth image she wore – however unintentional – Bif was warm, friendly, and possessed a wicked sense of humour, making the 15 minute encounter a cherished memory. Although she doesn’t remember our meeting of the minds Bif most certainly recalls the show, one of a multitude of stories from the adventure that is her life.
“I got robbed at that show,” Bif laughs. “All my luggage and make-up got stolen by a drag queen; he took off running down the street and we couldn’t catch him. The cops gave me a ride from the gig in the back of their police car to where me and the band were staying, and they put the siren on for me. There were four or five undercover cops at the show that night and I got a police uniform shirt with the patches and all that. I wore it on stage for years and years after that. Yep, me and the Toronto police have a long history (laughs).”
Our previous interview took place in 2009 while Bif was out promoting The Promise. Four years earlier she was on top of the world with the success of her Superbeautifulmonster album; in 2008 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, making The Promise a comeback album in the truest sense. She actually recorded it while undergoing treatment, which was and remains a mindblowing fact. Bif was surprisingly upbeat in the aftermath while discussing some of the more stomach-churning aspects of her fight to survive, making her positive attitude in present day 2015 less of a shock in spite of several tragic events that have plagued her over the past few years. Divorce, medical issues, the loss of loved ones… Bif has taken all the punches fate has dealt her and continues to move forward undaunted.
As for the cancer, she’s still on medication to keep it in check but doesn’t make it a paramount issue in her life. Bif insists she never did.
“Cancer patients don’t like hot flashes, they don’t like their lymphatic systems making them swell up. I like it all. I think it’s interesting, I like to be able to speak about it, I like working with other patients and volunteering. If I never would have gotten tit cancer I never would have taken the time to start volunteering. I never would have been off tour, ever. I was in the middle of the Bodog Battle Of The Bands when I was diagnosed and the schedule was nuts; I was never home. It was cancer that got me home.”
“Unfortunately, I was in a brand new relationship when I was diagnosed, and that was a guaranteed danger zone. The cancer was really secondary for me because I was trying to navigate the bewilderment that comes with a terrible relationship. My life was in crisis already. About two years ago when my kidney failed and I had heart surgery (to fix a birth defect), that was huge epiphany, my huge health crisis where I went ‘Holy fuck…’ Being able to be awake for my heart surgery…”
“Yes, I was awake for my heart surgery. Isn’t that crazy?”
Mostly I’m thinking “yes.”
“They were putting a mesh in the wall of my heart, basically, because I had that hole in it, and I physically felt my heart change as soon as the mesh was in place. It was like taking a huge deep breath. I was lying there looking at the ceiling and thought ‘If I live through this I’m going to clean my fucking car when I get out of here…’ (laughs). My car was full of dog toys and dog hair and dog throw-up, so it was good inspiration.”
Bif has never been a wallflower on any level, which is perhaps enough of a reason why she elected to be awake for the procedure.
“Well, they didn’t have to crack my ribcage open,” she explains. “They threaded a camera up through a vein in my leg… it was hilarious. I loved the fact I was awake because I’m such a science geek. I wish I could do it every week. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. I wish I could do it for other people because I really enjoy it all.”
“People often say to me ‘How can you be so positive?’ I don’t know. I think it’s a coping technique that I started using when I was a little kid. Both my parents had hysterical senses of humour, so I guess I got some of that from them, and that’s part of how I cope with stress, fear and heartache. I spin it into something I find amazing or funny or consider a blessing. I can’t complain because I’ve led a really charmed life.”
As well having a successful career as a musician, Bif has taken on the mantle of motivational speaker for cancer patients, animal rights, AIDS victims, battered women support groups, and the homeless to name only some of the causes dear to her heart.
“I don’t like injustice and I can’t sit still about it,” she says of her drive to be out there for other people. “I have to say something. Last fall I was helping to raise awareness in Vancouver about the welfare situation and it was awesome. We’re going to do it again next year. I can’t believe all the derogatory things people say about poor people, and all that does is just make me mad. It makes me want to work harder in those issues and that’s something I like doing.”
Music remains a huge part of Bif Naked’s life, with a new rock record currently in the works. It’s important to specify what she has up her sleeve in that Bif has taken to releasing music that suits her rather than label or (to some degree) fan expectation. In 2012 she put out Bif Naked: Acoustic Hits & Other Delights – featuring some unreleased pop material – and she closed 2014 with the release of the dance-pop single ‘Intellectual’ taken from her Jakkarta project with producer Jason Darr (ex-Neurosonic) in support of World AIDS Day. Bif’s only agenda is doing what she wants, when she wants.
“I was toying with the idea of doing a new rock record for a while. I was wondering if I should try to form a new band and become the Canadian Nightwish (laughs), but who cares? It’s all fun.”
“Music is not a revenue source,” she continues, “so I think that forces everyone to be more creative so they can put food in their mouths. It also gets people returning to the real reason they started making music, which is simply because they love it. I think the reward is still the same; a slice of pizza at the end of a gig because that’s all we can hope for (laughs). That really does remain the same regardless of what your catering budget is. Basically, any band on tour, all they really need to stay happy and stay on the road is be able to get in front of their fans and have a snack. I mean, I don’t think I know a band that doesn’t work for food.”
“You talk to bands all the time and I’m sure you find that the veterans who have toured and toured and keep touring come from a place as performers where the show must go on. That’s a great prerequisite for going through shit, whether it’s cancer or divorce or whatever it is. The show must go on. I think those people are accustomed to putting on a brave face and marching forward.”
Bif has done just that, albeit on a somewhat more sedate level since cancer became a factor in her life. She’s spent the last few years doing acoustic shows with her dearly departed guitarist Jacen “JD” Ekstrom (Crashscene, ex-Neurosonic), who passed away in November 2014. Popular belief was she’d scaled down from full-on rock shows – which require a great deal of strength and energy to sustain gigs night after night – in the interest of her health.
“Not at all,” she says. “It was primarily because JD and I were having too much fun, and it was easy to do. With JD, I had a timing with him for the acoustic shows. It was just so easy and so funny; he made me laugh on stage all the time. I think it was a gentle re-introduction to touring for me. The first tour we did together in 2009 I did three weeks after my surgery, and I was probably only six weeks post-chemo. I was not very healthy but I didn’t notice that I was sick because I felt so much better than I did six months before. If someone had told that I wasn’t going to feel 100% for another year-and-a-half, I would have said ‘bullshit’ because I’d convinced myself I felt great.”
“I did a full band show back in December 2014 at the Hard Rock Café in Vancouver where Doug Fury (guitars) joined me on stage because we’ve been writing this new rock record together, and it was like old times. I’m surprised I didn’t die of gig neck. We eased into it and it felt really natural. It was 100% awesome and playing with Doug again was great. I choked during the show when I dedicated ‘Lucky’ to JD. I got super-emotional and cried with the fans, but the show was phenomenal. It was so much fun. I loved it. I could have puked with joy (laughs).”
The Hard Rock Café gig marked Bif’s first show in years without JD – who died tragically from an aortic dissection – at her side. In January 2015 she held a tribute show in his honour to help raise money for JD’s wife and children.
“I have to commend Dave Brooks, who set it up. He got a lot of people there and we raised money for JD’s wife and family. It was incredible. I did an acoustic set and it was a warm, very from the heart event. The whole thing was very touching and I’m extremely grateful.”
With a new album in the works, Bif’s plan is to get it done before the end of this year and tour as much as she’s able once it’s released.
“I finally figured out that when I become reflective and upset and writing about being pissed off or emancipation, it’s going to be rock music. I write pop songs with my friends because I can. We can write a death metal song or a country song, and whoever ends up being the producer will produce it differently than someone else. I’m working with Doug Fury again and with a guitarist Alley Cat from a band called Soma City Ward. He has a very distinctive guitar style and writing with him has been a lot of fun. And it’s been in a completely different direction. I mean, if we could form a death metal band in Morocco that’s what it would sound like (laughs). It’s psychotic.”
“I’m pretty sure we’ll tour for the album,” she continues. “It’s fun to tour with that stuff and it’s great to do these new heavy songs. With pop music I love being able to put out singles and see my friends look at me, scratch their heads and go ‘Really dude?’ And then there’s my boyfriend, who is a guitar player, going ‘Where’s the solo?’ (laughs). That’s all in fun. Doing the rock record, that’s serious business and that’s where the serious touring comes in.”
“I was incredibly disillusioned after touring in 2009 because everything had changed,” Bif adds. “I did some of the Bodog Battle Of The Bands in 2007, got married, then went into cancer treatment, and when I got back out there in 2009 there were no more faces, just iPhones. I was weirded out, plus I felt really self-conscious because I had my chemo face, what I call moon face. There’s a really weird embarrassment and shame thing that comes with being in cancer care, but I saw some of these other women that I know going through the same thing and they’re working full time and have four kids, and I thought ‘If they can get through this so can I.’ I went back to work, but I probably went back too soon. This time I’m ready for it.”
And through it all Bif has been working on her autobiography. The idea is – or at least it was – to release it in 2015 assuming Bif ever stops adding to the completed volume.
“Oh, I’m fucked,” she laughs. “This is the problem: I delivered an autobiography that was probably 200,000 words over what I was supposed to deliver and it is an editor’s nightmare. Of course a lot of the stories I tell – I was a runaway, shooting drugs, there was some criminal activity – got struck from the book because it wasn’t cool. It’s very time consuming and tedious editing, and since I delivered the book my dog – who really was the love of my life, my child – died, my father died, I started living part time in Paris, and then JD passed away. So now, fuck, my epilogue is 100,000 words (laughs). It’s like the never-ending book. It’s insane. It would be easier if I could make it up.”
“I remember every single thing that happened in my life; I have a memory like an elephant. I remember meeting (label reps) Jon and Marsha Zazula for the first time, walking through their offices and seeing all the gold records on their walls – Metallica, Suicidal Tendencies, King’s X, Raven, Anthrax – it was a fantasy in my life come true. There was getting to know the guys in Annihilator, my first European tour with Keith Caputo, hanging with Type O Negative. There are so many stories.”
“I love having that history and I love knowing the guys that I know. Randy Black (drummer / DuskMachine, ex-Primal Fear – pictured below) for God’s sake, he’s awesome and still going strong. He’s a lovely person and he’s a perfect example; everyone that I’ve ever met in music, especially in metal and punk, are old school real deal people. They’re amazing, and having that history I could die happy and be completely joyful over the life that I had. All my fantasies came true.”
Following are links to causes dear to Bif’s heart that she takes an active role / interest in:
– AIDS Vancouver
– Battered Women’s Support Services
– Keep A Breast
– Angel Magnussen
– Paws For Hope
Bif’s music can be enjoyed and absorbed via the links below:
– ‘Rich And Filthy’
– ‘Henry’ (acoustic)
– ‘Back In The Day’
Check out my interview with Bif from 2009 here.