Barenaked Ladies’ Ed Robertson on what Canadian celebrities do when they hang out

Barenaked Ladies’ Ed Robertson on what Canadian celebrities do when they hang out

In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.

The artist: Ed Robertson has been a member of Barenaked Ladies since its inception 25 years ago. The Canadian group basically owned light-hearted alternative radio throughout the ’90s with songs like “One Week,” “The Old Apartment,” “If I Had $1000000,” and “Pinch Me,” and the group has sold more than 15 million records. Granted, BNL has gone through some changes in recent years, what with the departure of key member Steven Page, but its core and fan base remains solid, and the band will be touring throughout the fall. The group’s latest record, Grinning Streak, is out now. 

“Boomerang” (from 2013’s Grinning Streak)

Ed Robertson: I haven’t heard that one yet, myself. I understand it’s quite good. [Laughs.]

It was actually my first trip to Nashville to work with pro songwriting guys. I had about 15 songs half finished for this record and I don’t know if I was procrastinating or feeling insecure about finishing the songs, but my manager suggested trying to write with some pro writing guys and I did that and it was a really cool experience. 

I wrote “Boomerang” in one afternoon. I was expecting to get into a room with these heavy writing guys but, instead, it was just guys from other rock bands. I wrote that one with a guy from The Nixons, Zac Maloy, and he was really excited to be writing with me. He was like, “Do that thing you do. I have this melody idea; just do what you always do because it’s awesome.” So that’s how that song came together. It started as a simple melody line and we wrote it in a couple of hours. 

The A.V. Club: Supposedly you guys were thinking of not even releasing Grinning Streak and just releasing a bunch of singles instead. Is that true?

ER: That’s very true. I think that stemmed out of me feeling that I had 15 half-songs, but no full songs, so do I need to finish 15 whole songs or can I concentrate on three or four and just get those done? I think we contemplated a way to kind of take the pressure off of how much writing I had to do, but when I started writing they kind of just all came out fast and furious and we had two records of material before we knew it. 

AVC: Do you feel pressure to write? Do you think, “Well, it’s been two years. Time for another record.”

ER: It more comes from playing live. We want to move forward and we want new material, but sometimes when we’ve been touring a lot and we get off the road, we’re not in the greatest hurry to start wood shedding, and I want to hang out with my family and do something else for a little while. So the last couple of years, I procrastinated more than I usually do and we got a little bit behind schedule in terms of writing. But it all worked out. 

“One Week” (from 1998’s Stunt)

AVC: How about another song you’ve surely never heard: “One Week.”

ER: “One Week” was a freestyle; I wrote it in like three minutes. It’s the only song I’ve ever written like that and I suppose I should write more like that because it’s our only No. 1 hit. We needed one song for the record and Steve [Page] actually suggested to me, “Why don’t you just freestyle it? You do amazing stuff onstage every night.” That sort of spontaneity and freestyle stuff has been a part of our shows since the beginning and so I just pressed record on a video camera that I had. There were actually extra verses, but I just sort of picked my favorite verses and the song was written live in about three minutes. 

AVC: “One Week” isn’t your biggest song in Canada, but in the States it’s a big deal. 

ER: Yeah, it was a huge hit. It was in commercials and movies and TV shows and it really radically changed the trajectory of our career. And it’s still a song that I like to do. It’s fun and silly and still challenging every night. 

I think we always looked at our records as something totally different from our live shows and when we made Stunt, that song was very indicative of what would happen in a live show. So it was the first time we sort of melded the two and it was a great step for the band because the live show had so much energy and so much spontaneity in it that we finally brought to the record so they didn’t feel like two separate things anymore. 

AVC: When you’re writing a song, how much do you think about what it’s going to be like live?

ER: I don’t think I think about that while I’m writing, but we definitely talk about it while we’re recording in the studio and when we’re kind of putting the finishing touches on songs. I remember on this record, when we were making “Limits,” Ty [Stewart] said this would be a great song to open the show with. And I thought he was nuts because it’s five-plus minutes and it’s got this jam out section at the end and I was like, “I don’t know if you want to open with a brand new song that’s almost six minutes long and has a huge solo,” but it’s actually been awesome and pretty fun. 

AVC: It makes sense. People are already excited to be at the show, and they’re excited to see you guys. 

ER: Well, in the past I’ve always felt like you have to come out of the gate with all the big hits. But it’s interesting to come out the gates with a brand new song and one that’s kind of long and demanding as well. 

“Brian Wilson” (from 1992’s Gordon)

AVC: How do you decide what songs to do live? For instance, you’re still doing “Brian Wilson,” which was written by Steven Page and he’s not with the group anymore. 

ER: Well, we have a ton of material, and we really just play what we want to play, but there are certain songs where we’re like, “Well, we can’t leave ‘One Week’ out of the set, we can’t leave ‘If I Had $1000000’ out of the set.” There are certain songs I think people would be disappointed if they didn’t hear. “Brian Wilson” is one that comes and goes in sets. We’ve been playing it on this tour, but it’s a song that we’ve played for 23 years and people associate it with the band and want to hear it and it’s a fun song to play. Even though Steve wrote and sang it, it’s a song that I’ve been playing and singing for 22 years so it feels very natural to play it in a show; it’s actually fun for me to play it. 

We just did the set list for the show tonight on the bus on the way to the venue. What we do is we print out a skeletal set list of the running order. For instance, the first three songs of this tour we’ve been playing the same every night. So we open up with “Limit” then we go into another new song then we play “Pinch Me” then we have three slots that we decide every day what we’re going to do there, then we have another two slots that we decide daily and it’s just, “What do you guys want to play tonight?” We have a one-hour sound check every day that just ends up being a rehearsal and we can try some songs that we haven’t played in years. We get lots of request on Twitter, so we just try to slot stuff in and make it an interesting show. 

“Pinch Me” (from 2000’s Maroon)

AVC: Speaking of “Pinch Me,” what was working with Don Was on Maroon like? 

ER: It was really cool. And it was very much the duo of Don Was and Jim Scott. Working with the two of them was incredible. Jim Scott was engineering and he was responsible for the entire vibe of the record and the studio and Don was really this musical intuitive guru who, I think, brought the best out of the band, and I think he was just really excited by what we were doing and really got into the process. He’s worked with so many amazing artists and bands and I think he just went, “Wow, these guys are cool and fun to work with” and he really invested in that project and it was a great experience. And he loved “Pinch Me” in particular. He was crazy about it and I had a lot of discussions with him about it. I remember him saying, “You’re a brave motherfucker, Robertson. I’m 50 years old and you’re saying shit that I’m afraid to face in myself now. You’re a brave motherfucker.” 

“Hello City” (from 1992’s Gordon)

AVC: One of the A.V. Club freelancers is a big fan, and he wanted to ask about “Hello City,” which he thinks exemplifies the notion that you guys are a different kind of band—you’re both fun and serious. You do ballads, and you do “One Week.” Is that something that’s a conscious decision?

ER: I think the only consciousness in that decision is to not shy away from expressions that don’t kind of fit with the pictures. I think we’ve been a confusing band for a lot of people. I would say the generalization, especially with the singles, has been to go more silly or upbeat, and if they haven’t been, we’ve made a silly or upbeat video to go along with them. Because of that I think a lot of people might have written off the band. And I don’t blame anybody for perceiving us in that way. 

But, ultimately, we just write what we write. Some of it’s very serious, and even in the serious songs, there’s sometimes an angle of levity. I think that’s just how we communicate naturally and to shy away from that would be, first of all, boring for me, but also it wouldn’t ring true to who I am or the way I relate to people or the way we relate to people as a band or the way we relate to the audience. Humor is a big part of it, but we also take our craft very seriously. 

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“Am I The Only One?” (from 1994’s Maybe You Should Drive)

AVC: One of your more serious songs is “Am I The Only One?” Can you talk about that a little?

ER: “Am I The Only One?” was a really strange ride of a song to write because I started the song about missing my girlfriend at the time who is now my wife and, in the process of writing the song, I lost my older brother in a motorcycle accident. So the song sort of became about the quirky, strange things that you miss about people and also how you see yourself reflected in the people in your life. And it’s who your family is and who your friends are that kind of complete you in some way and make you who you are and, without them, who are you? So it was a very therapeutic song to write and I love playing it live. 

AVC: What other songs have been therapeutic? 

ER: There are lots. Mostly when we’re playing live, I’m always pushing for energy; I want the show to be about energy. There’s a song I wrote about my mom on the last record, “Moon Stone,” and we’ve only played it a few times and I’ve never been able to play it without crying my way through the song. I really love it, I’m really proud of it, but it’s really hard to play. 

There are a couple of songs like that. I guess that means they’re successful or that you’ve tapped into something in yourself or expressed something, but they’re still hard to approach in some way. 

“It’s All Been Done” (from 1998’s Stunt)

AVC: But then you also have songs that are just pure energy. “It’s All Been Done,” for instance, has a chorus that’s just “Woo hoo hoo!” 

ER: There’s a bunch of songs that are like that and that one we’ve done a couple of times on this tour. There’s a great place for that kind of energy in the set. I remember talking about it with Steve when he wrote that song that he was like, “That’s all I really want to say is ‘woo hoo hoo!’ I want this song to be just about energy.” But I still think the verses are really clever. The song still has a journey to it, even though the chorus is really throwaway. 

“If I Had $1000000” (from 1992’s Gordon)

AVC: You talked earlier about how you improvised “One Week”, but “If I Had $1000000” was a song you wrote at summer camp.

ER: Right. I actually wrote it on the bus on the way back from summer camp. I sort of wrote it to entertain all the counselors or all the campers on the way back from camp. All the lines were just silly lines about stuff that happened at the camp all week. Like, “If I Had $1000000 / I’d buy you a new hat / Because Peter threw it down the outhouse.” “I’d get you a life jacket because you almost drowned.” 

Anyway, I got back and called Steve and said, “Kids loved this song. You have to hear it, it’s this silly little thing; we can make up all the lines in between, but its got a fun little chorus.” And so when we went into the studio, every day when we made that record, we’d record the song, then we’d do a version of “If I Had $1000000” and just make up the stuff after the chorus every time because we wanted it to feel like it was fresh or not rehearsed. 

That’s the way it’s been live for every single show for the last 25 years. We’ve improvised our way through that song and even though we played it at every single show, it doesn’t get boring because the audience is into it and we’re having fun and goofing around and it just feels like that song is for the crowd.

AVC: It does feel like a celebration. Thankfully, the throwing food thing doesn’t happen anymore, right?

ER: It’s a vast celebration. I’m glad the throwing stuff has petered out because I got hit in the face with a box of Kraft dinner and I’ve gotten hit in the nuts. It’s just brutal. 

AVC: Supposedly it was the cheese powder that was really bad because it would get hot and smelly? 

ER: Well, yeah. And some people would actually cook the stuff and throw it onstage or throw the powder all over the venue and it would get all over our gear and it stank. 

AVC: You guys aren’t GWAR. You shouldn’t have to use tarps.

ER: I got hit by a piece of a steak at a GWAR show in New York in about 1991. 

“The Old Apartment” (from 1996’s Born On A Pirate Ship)

AVC: “The Old Apartment” landed you guys on Beverly Hills, 90210, which was a big deal at the time.

ER: Oh, it was a huge deal at the time! 

AVC: How did it happen? 

ER: Jason Priestley started coming out to our shows when we were touring around California and he came to about three or four shows before we met him. We’d be backstage at the show and say, “Was that Jason Priestley in the audience again?” He’d just be in the crowd dancing or singing and stuff and about four shows in, our security guy came back and said, “Jason Priestley wants to come back and meet you guys and say hi.” So we actually hung out whenever we’d go through L.A. and he’d be like, “Oh, you guys are so great and I just wish more people knew about you.” And we said, “Well, maybe you should have us on 90210.” And he said, “You would do my show?” We were like, “Uh, yeah! We would do your show!” He basically spearheaded that whole thing and pushed to have us on the show and then he offered to direct the music video for “The Old Apartment” and literally marched it in to VH1 and MTV and said, “This is the first time I’ve ever directed a music video and these guys are great and you should check it out.” So he was awesome for us. 

AVC: He’s from Canada as well. Did you bond as Canadian celebrities?

ER: Oh, definitely. We support each other wherever we are. 

AVC: Really? Is that true?

ER: Absolutely! Are you telling me that if you were in Switzerland and you met another American in a small town you wouldn’t be like, “Let’s go do American things together?” That’s what Canadians do. 

AVC: What kind of Canadian stuff do you do? Eat Tim Hortons and watch hockey?

ER: Yeah, exactly; definitely hockey. All the Canadians in L.A. play hockey together. All the actors and all the comedians and stuff have organized hockey leagues and they play in Los Angeles. 

“Be My Yoko Ono” (from 1992’s Gordon)

ER: I think it’s just a cute love song that’s sort of saying that you shouldn’t blame anybody for The Beatles breakup. If John wanted to hang out with Yoko Ono, it’s kind of cool that he wanted to hang out with her rather than be in the greatest band of all time. 

“I Know” (from 1996’s Born On A Pirate Ship)

ER: “I Know” is a lot of fun. I had a blast writing that song. It sort of started when we were touring around, and it’s about the kind of guy that would approach you after the show. He’d say, “Dude, that was awesome! So great! Me and my buddy love you guys, the set was so great.” And you’re like, “Oh, this guy is cool, he’s really into the band.” Then he’d be like, “What are you guys doing? We should find some chicks we can bang!” And you’re like, “Uh… I don’t really relate to you.” Or he’d say something totally racist or misogynist, and you’d be like, “Wow. You seemed like a cool person until that thing just came out of your head. Your face made those words into a sentence.”