0
Posted October 9, 2013 by Matt in Tunes
 
 

Barenaked Ladies’ Ed Robertson: You just never know what’ll happen

Barenaked Ladies
Barenaked Ladies

It’s not hard to see the 2010 Barenaked Ladies’ album All In Good Time as one which captures the sound and scenery of a band reeling somewhat from the departure of a key founding member and working song by song to figure out the best way to carry on as a group. The 2009 exit of Steven Page (who left the band after a 2008 incident in which he was arrested and later charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance) is comfortably in the rearview mirror at this point. And the good news is that with the release of their new album Grinning Streak, the Ladies have come out on top with their best album in years.

Without question, they’ve rebuilt the house and made a return to writing songs certain to please longtime fans. Grinning Streak was written largely by founding singer/songwriter/guitarist Ed Robertson, who collaborated on several of the songs with Better Than Ezra frontman Kevin Griffin and also worked with songwriter Zac Maloy (formerly of The Nixons) on the first single “Boomerang.”

Collaborations helped, but it wasn’t an easy trip. Robertson struggled with the writing process for the album, wrestling with song fragments he was working on to turn them into completed pieces. It was a long road to get to a place where he felt comfortable.

The members of Barenaked Ladies are in a celebratory mood these days with the album up and out there and getting positive marks. We spoke with Robertson as they were getting ready to hit the road for the band’s current fall headlining tour. Understandably, he was in good spirits and it was a colorful conversation.

It seems like you’ll do almost anything to promote a new album. I just finished watching the elevator interview you did at 30 Rock in support of the new record. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done in the name of album promo?
We once played the opening of the Bunmaster bakery in the Scarborough Town Centre in our hometown. Now this was early days. Once in promotion of the first record, we played in a used car lot for some radio station remote somewhere in like New Mexico or Nevada. Basically, we have no shame when it comes to promotion. If it gets the name out there and it gets the word out there, we’ll play for the opening of your bakery or ride up and down an elevator with you.

Your ability to reel off impromptu versions of classic songs is legendary and it certainly is on fine display during that elevator session. Is there a song that would have stumped Ed Robertson if somebody would have called out for it?
Not a song that I’ve ever heard in my life! I have a pretty good memory for all things musical and lyrics and I can just sort of fake chords. Especially if it’s something that I liked at some point in my life or still like, then I can take a pretty good swing at it.

I just don’t care if I mess something up, so that frees you up a lot to just kind of go for it. 

Improv has been a big part of the band obviously through the years. When did you first discover that you had that ability to do that kind of stuff?
I think it comes from a lack of fear to screw up. I just don’t care if I mess something up, so that frees you up a lot to just kind of go for it. A lot of the time, I think when we do screw it up or when I screw it up, it’s kind of more fun for everybody involved. Then they know it’s real, you know?

But the improv initially came out of necessity, because when Steve [Page] and I started playing together in the late ‘80s, we didn’t have very much material. So we would just take requests from the crowd. We would do these nights at university pubs and we probably had a solid 40 minutes worth of material and we’d do three 45 minute sets. [Laughs]  So it would be “okay, well here’s the three or four songs that we know we’re going to play in this set” and the rest we’d just take requests. People would say “I want to hear that new Terence Trent D’Arby song” and we’d just go for it.

Certainly a standing gig somewhere would eventually lead you trying anything that might come to mind.
Yeah, absolutely. I think the audience really got off on the fact that it was quite obvious that we didn’t know what we were doing. That added an element of excitement to the show, both for the audience and the band. It sort of became a hallmark of the show and it’s what makes the show interesting for me, even now when we go out there night after night. I know the Barenaked Ladies’ songs are going to be great. We play all of the time, we’re a good band and we’re well- rehearsed. For me, the whole show is about the improv moments where I just never know what’s going to happen and I never know what’s going to come out. Sometimes it’s brilliant and people cannot believe that it’s not a song that we rehearsed for hours that day. Sometimes it falls flat on its face and I end up laughing hysterically. When I think back on a show, I don’t think about the performance of the singles or the hits or the album cuts, I only think about the moments of improv. But then people request those songs and I’m like, “That’s not a song! I don’t know it; we just made it up.”

Who came up for the album cover concept for this new album? It’s great.
I love it too. It’s really simple, but I think it really speaks to the title of the song, because a grin is understated. It’s not over the top and it’s not [a] mallet over the head. I think it suggests a bit of insider knowledge. [Also] it’s that’s the extra added element that makes the cover work. I think the slickness of the album cover is a bit of a nod to [the fact that] we clean up when we have to. But anyone who knows the band knows that we’re not really a suit and tie organization.

The music on this album does hang together very well and there almost seems to be kind of a relaxed feel to it as well. To me, this feels like a second sophomore album for the band because it comes on the heels of an album where people had questions and were, I think, very curious to see how the band was going to move forward.
Yeah, I think so too. Frankly, the last record was just about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off and taking those first steps forward. We didn’t know what it was going to be like. There was a lot of overthinking and second guessing going on. I still really like the record and it has a lot of great moments, but we’re clearly a band in transition on it, you know?

Then we did a hundred shows as a four-piece—more than a hundred shows— and kind of got our confidence back or, as Justin Bieber would say, got our swagger back. I think this record just had us really on our feet and up and running again. We hit the studio with a great group of songs, worked with friends and made a really realized record that I think feels less like a second record. To me, it feels more like a band that’s 25 years old and has just incorporated all of its ups and downs into who we are.

After the reception to that record and subsequent touring, where did that leave you creatively going into this record?  
Well actually, writing this record was tough. On the last record I felt like ‘I’ve gotta show that I can do this still. I’ve gotta show what I can do writing and really stretch out and dig deep.’ I did it and put the record out and then I thought ‘well, now what do I do?’ There was a long period of many months on this record where I had a whole bunch of songs started and I wasn’t sure where to go with them. I don’t know if it was stress or just good old-fashioned procrastination, but it took a long time to get going on this material. Ultimately, I think it was just relaxing into it and just following the songs instead of trying to over-think it or telegraph where it was going to go or what it was going to be. Finally, I just said ‘fuck it, I’m going to go up to my cottage and take all of these little bits and follow them wherever they lead.’ Ultimately, it ended up in a group of songs that I think were really cohesive. Although they felt in the beginning like 17 or 20 totally different ideas, they really came together to be a body of work that made sense. So that was a nice feeling, because after spending many, many months stressing about these snapshots of song ideas, they really came together in a fluid way and in a really rewarding way.

Was there anything different about the overall process as far as the way you guys approached the most recent record?
Yeah, we worked with two different producers who were friends of ours from Toronto. Every process, we try to approach it all differently and I think we do that just naturally. But this one, particularly [working with] Gavin Brown, who we did the bulk of the record with, it felt really kind of guerrilla-style, with his production style. Gavin’s a real technical tinkerer guy and he would take radically different setup approaches to different tracks. This record felt a lot more impulsive and live. In the past, we’d get setup in the studio and we’d start rehearsing the songs, discussing the arrangement and we’d run through it. We’d start tweaking the sounds and we’d run through it again, things would change and mic setups would change. Gavin would kind of do it all in the reverse order. He would say, ‘Tomorrow, we’re working on such-and-such a track and this is my idea for the sonic setup of the track.’ So he and our techs would come in early and get everything setup so that when we started playing the first note of the song, he was already recording. It was a really interesting place to be because what we’ve tried to do in the past is really hone the song and then try and get the spontaneity out of the performance. Gavin, I think, really put us on our heels like “we’re goin’, so make it happen now!” It was kind of exciting and I think we really had to rely on our instincts and our comfort with each other to go “okay, this could be the take” even though it’s the first time we’ve played through the song. As many times as we’ve been in the studio, it felt kind of new and exciting and spontaneous in a way that it hadn’t before.

You’re singing the bulk of the lead vocals on this album. I think some folks might have expected that to happen on the last album. What were the creative drivers behind that decision?
You know what, that’s always a difficult thing. Ultimately, our band is a real democracy and everybody gets a vote and everybody gets a say. Everybody has a voice in it, even when it’s me singing. It’s very much a collaborative effort of how the song turns out–everybody has a ton of input into the production of the song. You have this huge group of songs, everybody writes and everybody contributes, and you have to make a decision of what’s going to go on the record. You desperately want it to just be the best songs that go on the record. But that’s a hard thing to decide. Because Jim’s [bassist Jim Creegan] songs are great, Kev’s [keyboardist Kevin Hearn] songs are great and things can take a turn in the studio where they become completely different and you never know how that’s going to turn out. It’s difficult on everybody’s egos when a song gets left off or when one song gets chosen over the other. This record happened to be [one with] the bulk of the songs sung by me. But there were five songs that Kev was singing and five songs that Jim was singing. It doesn’t mean they’re not as good as the songs that I was singing–it’s just the way it went down for this record. It’s always difficult. It’s difficult on any group dynamic. I think it requires a level of trust between the group members to say ‘this is what’s best for this record at this time.’ I’m just always really conscious of what everybody brings to my songs. My songs are pretty circular and simple until Jim and Kev really build the arrangements. I think it comes from comfort with each other and trust in each other to go ‘yeah, you’re singing this song but it’s still Barenaked Ladies and it’s all of us and we all contribute.’ It’s not that it’s not difficult. It’s still a difficult line to walk, but it’s one that with experience we get better and better at.

You co-wrote “Boomerang” with Zac Maloy—how far do you go back with Zac?
We did gigs together back in the mid to late ‘90s when Zac was with The Nixons, but I didn’t know Zac at all. It was actually in [the process of] sort of feeling stalled out with all of these song ideas that I had, I thought maybe I’d try some co-writing in a way that I’d never done before. I primarily wrote with Steve for 20 years, so I only really had experienced that co-writing dynamic. I’ve had a few other examples, but very few. I thought, ‘I’m just going to go to Nashville and write with some pro cats and just see what comes of it.’ I just kind of wanted to get the creative juices flowing. I went down there specifically to write with Kevin Griffin. We had done some shows together recently and kind of hit it off and we seemed to have very similar sensibilities. So I went down there to write with Kevin and said to my manager, “I’ve got an extra day that Kevin’s not available—find me someone else to write with.” They suggested Zac Maloy, so it was really just kind of a shot in the dark. I had an extra day and got together with Zac and had no idea how it was going to go. ‘Boomerang’ came together really quickly and effortlessly. It was a total pleasure.

I like to embrace the great things about electronica and dance and pop, but incorporate it into a more traditional and melodic song.

I’m glad you mentioned Kevin. What does he bring to your songs?
Kevin and I have a very similar sensibility, actually. A similar sense of humor, a similar sense of song structure and what I like about Kevin is that he’s a real traditional songwriter and a guy in a rock band in the same way that I am. And, like me, he really appreciates pop sensibilities and the influence of modern hip-hop and dance music and stuff. You know, we’ve both got kids and that shit’s on in our cars and in our houses all of the time. There’s a lot that drives me insane about it, but there’s a lot that I love about it. So what I like to try and do—and I think that Kevin and I are the same in this—I like to embrace the great things about electronica and dance and pop, but incorporate it into a more traditional and melodic song. It drives me insane when I hear a song on the radio and I go ‘there’s no fuckin’ song there—that is only production—that is all that is.’ So what I want to hear is that kind of production on an actually good song. There’s people out there doing that—like Bruno Mars—I think Bruno Mars is fucking awesome. He’s doing that. He’s taking actually great songs and putting all of that killer production into them. For me, it’s about finding those hooky things in it and trying to apply it to a more traditional rock song.

At least you know if this band ever goes sour, you can have your side business: Ed Robertson Teaches You About Bridges and Pre-Choruses.
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly!

It took a while for the band to make its way to the US . . . the first album had come and gone. Why?
Well, you know what, I think the success was so huge in Canada at the time that we really had to spend the time up here and work. In ‘92 we did the largest sold-out tour in Canadian history. We played 76 dates in Canada on a tour. We don’t have that many cities in Canada! It was a crazy time. Our first record went diamond in Canada, so we just had a lot of work to do up here. And then after that, we thought “okay, we’re a small country and we just had a very big piece of pie up here and there’s not a lot of pie to go around,” so from that point, we started focusing all of our energy on the US. That was a difficult thing to do, because we were a sold-out arena band in Canada and we were coming down to America to play in clubs again. So as much as it was a difficult step down, it was what facilitated career longevity for us. Your star comes and goes pretty quickly in a small country, but the United States just has the population to actually support a career.
I’ve heard that tour was a struggle, financially. Did it take a while to build things up for the band here?
Yeah, we worked incredibly hard from about ‘94 until ‘98 without making any money. I can remember being on the phone with my manager in ‘96 or ‘97 and saying “I’m away all of the time and we’re doing three shows a day.” Because we’d do an in-store appearance and then we’d do a soundcheck party with contest winners from the radio station, which basically was an hour-long show in the afternoon and then we’d do the show at night. [We were gone] 18 months at a time for tour legs and I was going insane. I had a young daughter. I called my manager and I was like ‘I don’t know if I can do this. I could be making more managing a Wendy’s near my home. I’m always gone. I love doing the shows, but what’s going on here?’ I remember him saying ‘just hang in there, things are turning around and things are good.’ Sure enough, like three or four months later we started to actually climb up the charts and see some results.
As a fan, Maybe You Should Drive was such an intriguing album to get as album #2. It wasn’t necessarily a left turn, because I think that the previous album had shown the depth of the band, but that second album definitely pulled back the curtain even further. Can you talk about where things were at for you going into that album ?
I think we really felt like we had to put the musical and lyrical side of the band forward. Because even though the first record was full of [songs like] “What A Good Boy,” “The Flag” and “Brian Wilson,” there was a lot of very intelligent material on the record and all people saw was the goofiness. I think we felt like we had to really consciously put forward the other side of the band. I think some people saw it as too radical of a shift. But we always had the live show to fall back on to show the many sides of the band. I think live is where the band has always really shone. I think in a lot of ways, it takes seeing the band live to really understand the band.

What are your thoughts when you look back at 25 years+ of this band?
In many ways, I’m shocked that it’s been 25 years. But when I think about all that’s transpired, I’m shocked that it hasn’t been longer. [Laughs] It has been such a remarkable run. I love this record and love playing this stuff live and I’m just so grateful that 25 years in, it feels as good as it’s ever felt. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

Upcoming 2013 Tour Dates

OCT. 9

OCT.10

OCT.11

OCT.12

OCT.16

OCT.17

OCT.18

OCT.19

OCT.21

OCT.22

OCT.24

OCT.25

OCT.28

OCT.29

OCT.30

NOV. 1

NOV. 2

NOV. 3

NOV. 4

NOV. 6

NOV.25

NOV.26

NOV.27

NOV.28

NOV.30

DEC. 1

DEC. 2

DEC.12

DEC.13

DEC.14

State Theatre – Minneapolis, MN

Uptown Theater – Kansas City, MO

Peabody Opera House – St. Louis, MO

Palace Theatre – Louisville, KY

Lakewood Civic Auditorium – Lakewood, OH

Beacon Theatre – New York, NY

Sands Bethlehem Events Center – Bethlehem, PA

Tropicana Casino – Atlantic City, NJ

Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead – Munhall, PA

Indiana University Auditorium – Bloomington, IN

ACL Live at The Moody Theater – Austin, TX

L’Auberge Casino Resort – Lake Charles, LA

Ruth Eckerd Hall – Clearwater, FL

Hard Rock Live – Orlando, FL

Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino – Hollywood, FL

Tivoli Theatre – Chattanooga, TN

St. Augustine Amphitheater

Tennessee Theatre – Knoxville, TN

Lincoln Theatre – Washington, DC

UB Center for the Arts – Buffalo, NY

Manchester Academy – Manchester

O2 Academy Leeds – Leeds

O2 ABC – Glasgow

Picturehouse – Edinburgh

Indigo2 – London

The Institute – Birmingham

The Academy – Dublin

NAC Southam Hall – Ottawa, ON

NAC Southam Hall – Ottawa, ON

NAC Southam Hall – Ottawa, ON


Matt

 
Matt Wardlaw's enthusiasm for music seems to know no bounds. In addition to Whopperjaw, you may have seen his name pop up in the Riverfront Times, Popdose, Cleveland Scene, Ultimate Classic Rock, Blogcritics and other entertainment-focused pubs. And yet he still has time for his own Addicted to Vinyl site, where he blogs about music he loves and things that he hates because, as Matt says, he's "equal opportunity like that."