Barenaked Ladies co-founder and frontman Ed Robertson.

Barenaked Ladies: Owning their legacy

The Canadian pop-rock icons head to UVic's Farquhar Auditorium Jan. 15

“Barenaked Ladies might be the coolest uncool band in the world.”

Ed Robertson, lead singer for the Canadian pop-rock icons doesn’t mind trumpeting the latest Twitter review rooted in the popular belief that BNL might not be trendy, but they know how to get the job done.

“We get that sentiment a lot,” says Robertson, on the phone from Toronto. “People come out to shows or they’re dragged to shows by friends or significant others and they go: ‘Holy shit. I didn’t think I liked that band, but that was fucking awesome.’ … That’s the strength of the band: in a live show, we can really communicate to people what we’re all about and all the confusion of ‘What is this? Is it funny? Is it serious? What are they trying to pull here?’ goes away. It all just makes sense.”

Ed Robertson (guitar/vocals), Jim Creeggan (bass/vocals), Kevin Hearn (keyboard/guitar/vocals) and Tyler Stewart (drums/vocals) have gone multiple platinum in the U.S., racked up Grammy nominations, two Billboard Awards, a ton of Junos and sold some 14 million records, but have never cultivated that rock star je ne sais quoi. Barring a few years in the late-’90s, when the band was on the rise with now-departed co-founder and frontman Steven Page, being seen as cool was something the guys never aspired toward – and a title they were never to land, Robertson says.

From the first show he played with Page, for which the two did zero rehearsing, they took a much different tack.

“We just got up and had fun and improvised and that’s what people really responded to,” Robertson says. “It really taught me a lesson in what performance is and what’s really entertaining. Seeing people enjoying what I was doing and realizing it was me enjoying what I was doing, making them enjoy what I was doing – that was a real light switch for me.”

Before that formative late-’80s performance, Robertson had been a keen teen band player in Scarborough, Ont. He diligently prepped and played in what he describes as decent cover bands – that somehow fell flat. With the chemistry of the Page-Robertson songwriting machine set to explode, the antics of the five young guys turned prolific. Twenty-five years later, following some very dark days – which saw Page’s 2008 arrest for cocaine possession and split from the group, as well as Robertson’s survival of a float plane crash while he was at the helm – Robertson has once again undergone a similar metamorphosis.

Rebuilding after the loss of a key creative force saw four guys – three of whom still sing and song write, and all of whom actually want to be there – struggle to find a new balance in the group. They trudged through initially sounding “like a Barenaked Ladies cover band,” with Robertson at the mike full-time, until the 43-year-old eventually discovered the key to moving forward with a renewed appreciation for his time on stage.

“It’s believing in the music. It’s believing in the band. It’s believing in the songs, believing in the legacy of the band – just owning all of that. A small, but over-arching change I made in my own head was to just be really proud of the band and proud of what we do. … When people say: ‘I really like your band,’ I say ‘Thanks, me too.’ It accomplishes a lot in one statement. Yeah, I fricken like what I do and if I wasn’t in this band, I’d listen to this band. I meet far too many people who are too self-deprecating about their music.”

Grinning Streak, their latest record, validates Robertson’s decision to trudge through the trying times. He sees their 12th release as their best yet, and though the band is filling theatres rather than arenas these days, they’re as committed to the live show as they’ve ever been. Hence the third tour in support of the record.

“It was certainly a huge transition and one that we were all afraid to make at first. It involved an awful lot of second-guessing and over-thinking and when we finally got down to making music and performing in the way that we had for 20 years, it just fell into place. There was certainly a long period of reflection and transition and self-doubt. Everybody grew into new positions in the band and it freed up a lot of space, emotionally and musically for everybody.”

Despite immense challenges, the husband and father never wanted out.

“It was difficult to continue, but I feel really strongly about who we are and what we do and why we do it.”

Defining just who they are depends on who you ask. Like any band whose releases span a quarter-century, they represent a lot of things to a lot of people. They’re the first of a recent spate of artists who listened to their fans and canceled their SeaWorld show in the wake of the emotionally charged documentary Blackfish; they’re quick to laugh at how misguided their first album cover was – “the worst cover in the history of music,” according to Robertson; and they’re family guys with kids not far off the age they were when they first won over audiences. Barenaked Ladies are also men who embrace the fact that despite decades of creative growth, If I Had $1,000,000, which Robertson penned in high school, remains among their most recognizable. He still plays it at every show.

“I feel like that’s the audience’s song. I wrote it when I was 18 years old and it’s amazing the way it resonates with people,” he says. “It’s not like our first record was really goofy and novelty and throw-away. It certainly had that element to it, but that was just a part of what we were doing and it still is. We still have a silly element and that sense of humour is intrinsic in how we communicate, not just with each other, but with our audience. It’s fundamental to the band. Without that, I think being in a rock band would be awfully boring and I think that’s how it seems for a lot of other bands.”

The track was on the aforementioned graphically challenged Gordon, a record that also included songs weighted by heavy undercurrents, notably Brian Wilson, a song Page wrote about depression as a teen. The song would foreshadow Page’s lifelong struggle with mental illness, mania and self-medication, a facet to his life he began speaking about publicly following his arrest.

For Robertson, that darker element remains in the writing. For listeners attuned to the marriage between Page’s often emotionally raw vocals with the accessibility of tightly knit harmonies and guitar heavy melodies, it comes with an undeniably different sound. And for Page, now carving out a much quieter career as a solo artist and no longer in contact with Robertson, the door to the studio appears open.

“There’s nothing that makes me go: ‘Oh, I’d love to get together with Steve again and try some writing, because I did that for 20 years, but I don’t think working together again is out of the question at all. We did a ton of great stuff together. There’s a lot to be proud of there and there’s a lot of material there that we created together. There’s a lot of living left to do. I’m a never say never kind of guy.”

In no hurry to disturb the current status quo, Robertson continues to write at his lake house northeast of Toronto, to stay grounded in his marriage of 20 years and to embrace the not-so-new era for the band. It’s a time when, despite the wisdom of experience, sheltering himself from adulation and maintaining a private life still takes constant attention along the quest for continued success.

“I think we made our best record and I think we’re doing some of the best shows of our career. That is success in and of itself. The record sales are nowhere near where they once were. We’re not playing in arenas and selling out stadiums anymore, but we’re walking off stage having had a great time,” Robertson says.

“My primary responsibility is to make good music and put on entertaining shows. As long as I keep doing that, what people think about it or feel about it is out of my hands.

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