Barenaked Ladies frontman Ed Robertson talks about their first album without Steven Page; plus, watch new video 'You Run Away'

barenaked-ladies_320.jpg Image Credit: James Minchin Barenaked Ladies — everyone’s favorite band of macaroni-dodging, occasionally-rapping, old-apartment-visiting Canadians — haven’t had the most cheerful time of it lately. The string of misfortune began with original co-frontman Steven Page’s arrest on drug charges in 2008, which were later dismissed. That same year, other co-frontman Ed Robertson crashed his single-engine plane with his wife on board; luckily, everyone walked away. In December of 2008, Robertson’s mother passed away. And in February of 2009, Page officially left the band “by mutual agreement,” and has since gone solo.

With four men now left standing on their pirate ship, the Barenaked Ladies are sailing on, releasing their 11th studio album, All In Good Time, on March 30th in the U.S. (Canada, you get yours a week earlier.) They’ve just debuted the video for first single, “You Run Away,” which you Mixers can watch embedded right here after this Q&A with Robertson, in which we discuss everything from Page’s departure and the challenges it presents to his country’s much-maligned-in-these-parts Juno Awards, with a special shout-out to Nickelback. He was, quite honestly, one of the most pleasant conversationalists we’ve encountered via phone in a long while. Enjoy.

Entertainment Weekly: We are here to talk about this new album, and the horribly traumatic times that led up to it. Would that be a mischaracterization, or was it really as bad as it all reads?
Ed Robertson: You know, the last year has been amazing. But the year previous to that kinda sucked.

The more you talk about it, are you realizing, Oh man, this sucked worse than I thought when I was in it? Or were you aware the whole time it was sucking?
Oh, I was fully inside of it at the time. I was noticing all of the suck.

In what order did these three major events occur, with Steve leaving the band, and your mom passing away, and your plane crash?
Well. I would include Steve’s arrest in the events. So it went arrest, plane crash, mom passing away, and then parting ways with Steve.

First of all, I’m really sorry. But was there a point in there where you thought about just chucking the whole thing?
For 20 minutes, yeah, kind of right around the new year of 2009. It just seemed like there was a lot of negativity swirling around. But it was about kinda taking stock and going, Man, we’ve done a lot of really great things with this band. We’ve gotta find a way to do it and enjoy it again.

So what was the key?
Rediscovering positivity and the creative process. Enjoying the shows, and enjoying the music. It was a real kind of rebirth moment for us, I think.

Did you question your ability to continue to be a band without Steve? Was there a point you thought about going and being something else other than the Barenaked Ladies?
No. I mean, we really felt like the soul of the band was intact, you know? And what we wanted to do was continue forward. We didn’t want to become someone else. We wanted to redefine who and what we were, and move forward.

How would you characterize the soul of the band?
It’s a spirit of adventure. And that comes out in live shows, with all the improv and spontaneity, and it comes out in the studio with a willingness to just go to different places.

A Canadian friend of mine gave me Gordon freshman year of college, and I’ve always associated you guys with fun and happiness and the spazzy joys of your concerts. And it’s weird to think about the Barenaked Ladies being in any way sad, if that makes sense.
Yeah, I get that. We have presented ourselves that way, historically. The singles have always been high-energy or slightly goofy songs. But the records have always had another side. There’s always been depth to the band. It’s just not ever been something we led with. It’s funny — every review of every one of our records since the second one has been, “This is a much more mature record for the band.” Which means, “I don’t really think of these guys this way.” It’s seriously been every review since 1993. We’re mostly to blame for that, because we lead with goofiness. But I think people see our shows and realize there’s a lot of sides to it. I don’t blame people for missing that depth. I don’t have the time in my day to think of a band that I’m not that interested in and go, “Well, maybe I’ll check out the rest of their catalog, just to see if I like it.”

Do you feel cornered by that reputation?
Well, no. We never felt cornered by it because we always had such a huge fan base of people who got it and responded to it. The fact that the critical press didn’t “get” the band, it’s sorta like, Eh. It’s too bad, but we’re okay with it.

So you don’t feel like monkeys who keep having to play “One Week” to make people happy.
No. I love that song. Humor is part of how we relate to each other, and how we perform. It’s another totally valid side of the band.

From a practical standpoint, how does Steve leaving affect your ability to do some of those songs live?
It’s been a shift, but a really exciting one. Steve’s departure left us with four multi-instrumentalists, and four singers, and three songwriters. In terms of reinterpreting a bunch of the old catalog, it’s actually been kind of fun and invigorating. 99 percent of those songs were co-writes with me, so I feel like I’m just reinterpreting my own songs.

He had a very specific vocal personality, though.
Oh, absolutely. I’m proud of everything we did together. But now we’re on different trajectories. It’s been fun singing those songs myself. It’s been a shift and an adjustment, but it’s been a positive one. A creative change.

What song has been readjusted the most, with someone new in the lead vocal?
The one song that’s been a tough nut to crack is “Brian Wilson.” The first time we tried it in rehearsal it was like, Wow. We sound like a Barenaked Ladies cover band. I think we need to take it from a different angle. It’s also one of the few songs that’s just a Steve Page song, not a co-write. We’re trying to find our footing. People want to hear it.

Is “Break Your Heart” gone now?
Oh, I could perform the song. I’m in no hurry on that one. [laughs] I was already reticent to play it when Steve was in the band.

Why?
It’s just one of those songs. Sometimes songs drop out of the set for a while until we get re-interested.

Are you and Steve speaking across your different trajectories, or has there been a fade-out?
There’s definitely been a fade-out. I’ve made some shots across the bow, trying to reach out a few times, but it’s a difficult time period. I don’t have any ill will towards him, but it’s a difficult time to bridge.

Do you miss him?
No. Not in a way that would make sense to anybody.

And now I have to say, What do you mean?
Well, I don’t miss him in the context of the band. Performing, making music, writing, recording. It’s not as a band member that I miss him. It’s — you know. I’ve been around the guy since the fourth grade. I still feel tied to him and responsible for him.

There’s a naivete that those of us who aren’t in bands have about these sorts of relationships. We’ll probably never understand.
And I have no desire to illuminate that weird thing, you know? [laughs] I think it’s sort of like, I sure like sausages — I don’t want to see how they’re made.

Let’s talk about the new record. It’s definitely your most mature work yet! I’m kidding. For those who haven’t heard it yet, how would you explain the change in your sound?
I think for me the success of the record is that it still sounds like us. But it sounds like us more raw. It’s more rock in places, it’s more emotional in other places. I think it’s got the sonic center of the band — people will know immediately that it’s us. But I think they’ll be surprised with where it goes.

What song do you consider its heart?
I think “You Run Away” is indicative of the emotional center of the record, though I don’t think it’s indicative of the sonic center. There’s the spacious dreaminess of “Northern Lights” to the rock of “I Have Learned” — it’s got everything in between.

Do people need to know your traumatic history in order to appreciate these songs?
I don’t think so. We’re trying to convey emotion, and the backstory sometimes illuminates where that’s coming from, but I don’t think anybody needs to know that. Ultimately we want to make an enjoyable listen that communicates ideas. I think about the specificity of the Elvis Costello song “Alison.” It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching portrait of a moment in a relationship. I don’t know who that woman is, or if Elvis Costello is the narrator, but I don’t care. It’s a great idea, beautifully conveyed.

All right. I want to give you the chance to respond to a couple of potshots I’ve taken at your band over the years. I’m very fond of you guys, but I mocked your Ben & Jerry’s flavor.
What did you say?

Oh, just that it seemed sort of silly to give you one now. That maybe you should have gotten one, say, in the ‘90s.
Yeah. We did get one in the ‘90s.

You did?
Yes.

What was it?
It was called Cherry Garcia.

[laughs a lot.]
No. You know, every time I saw a Ben & Jerry’s flavor that was associated with rock n’ roll, whether it be the Phish Food, or the Dave Matthews one, I thought, Oh, that’s kinda cool. That’s neat. I like ice cream. I’m in a rock band. Honestly, that was the extent of my thought train. Oh, that’s kinda neat that they do that. I wish those people liked our band. So when they came to us and said, “Hey, we’d like to do a flavor, would you guys be interested?” I was like, Yeah! They offered us a royalty for the ice cream, and that seemed sort of crass, so we donated it to a charity. It’s a fun little thing to do and it raises some money for a literacy program in Canada.

Is it tasty?
It’s a little too over the top for me.

It’s got a million flavo(u)rs, dude!
I know. I’m a vanilla man. I like the high-end vanillas. The vanilla bean.

That’s very Canadian of you.
This sounds like a follow-up joke to that, but I like to put –

Don’t say gravy.
I like to put maybe a tablespoon of maple syrup on my vanilla ice cream. And I make my own maple ice cream as well. It’s pretty darn good, if I say so myself. My neighbor has a sugar bush, so I use his maple syrup, fresh cream, little bit of milk. It’s good.

Wow. That neighbor is handy. Maple syrup is crazy expensive right now.
Not when you get it from Roger.

The second thing I’ve given you and your whole country crap for is the Juno Awards. I think you guys get nominated whether you put a record out or not. Would you care to defend them?
Well, the Juno Awards, if people aren’t familiar with them, are Canada’s version of the Grammys, except they’re far more important than the Grammys. They’re what the rest of the world looks to.

That would explain all of the Nickelback nominations, then.
[laughs] You know? We have a comparatively small industry that has produced a disproportionately large amount of successful, hugely influential artists. Our Juno Awards is our chance to celebrate that in our own country. Whether it’s Leonard Cohen or k.d. lang or Joni Mitchell or Neil Young, or Nickelback or Sum 41 or Avril or Sarah McLachlan, or us… It’s a huge list. And it’s our chance to have our own little rock n’ roll party.

You’ll be glad to know there were many defenders when I cracked on it, telling me I didn’t understand. Not many people stuck up for Nickelback, though.
You know, I always do.

That first freakin’ single is still one of the best rock songs of the last 10 years.
It’s so great! It’s got that weird little melody change, that unexpected little thing…

The soft-loud-soft…
I do love it. They’re nice guys, and they put on a good rock show. This isn’t about just defending my fellow countrymen. I met those guys when they first started out, and they were super nice, and then when they were huge stars, they came up to me at the Juno Awards as the same fans that had approached me 10 years earlier. So I like them. I always defend them.

All right. Wrapping up. At this point, you’ve experienced seemingly all the highs and lows that a band can experience. What remains on sort of the dream list for you?
The previous year was a year of contemplating that. We’ve done the things people want to do in a rock band. So when things get really s—ty, what? Do you try and do those things again? For me, it was about just shifting my thinking, shifting my focus, and realizing, it has to be its own reward. We have to go back to making music because we love to make it, and performing because we love to perform. If the accolades come, then they need to be icing on the cake. But we need to enjoy the cake we’re already making.

Comments (51 total) Add your comment
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  • Casey

    It’s not the same without Steven Page.

    • Katie G

      sadly, I agree… they lack something without his voice

      • Wallace

        The album without Steve hasn’t even come out yet…

        It will be different, but if you listen to the samples on Amazon right now, it sounds killer.

      • maribob

        FAIR Weather fan!

    • maribob

      Things will never be the same…but Steven should not be presented as the glue to the band. He’s obviously chosen YOKO and drugs over his family, friends and band. Let’s stop giving him the time and start allowing the band to be what it can be today. These guys are such amazing artists. We’re team BNL. Thank you to all of the band for standing up and taking on these trying times. You are BNL!

      • Denise

        I agree whole heartedly with maribob. Steven had his special talents but so do the rest of them. He alone was not BNL. He will be missed but they will be just fine without him. I’m anxious to hear the old stuff made new by BNL 4! And I’m grateful I get to see them in Nashville!

  • Chevy Heston

    Great band and this guy comes across like a good dude. Good for them for moving on!

  • Bill

    I love BNL and was sorry to see Steven leave the band. I wish the guys the best and look forward to their next album. That first single is brutal!

  • stan

    I would say the same thing as Casey, except NO DUH, IT’S SO OBVIOUS!!! It’s never the same when a frontman goes, especially one who you’ve played with since “the 4th Grade”.

    But people change. All the best to Steven, but I know BNL will be awesome because it was a band of excellent musicians, not the Steven Page and His Large Band Show. So suck it up, toss back a Labatt’s Blue, micro a box of Kraft Dinner, and rock on!

    • Casey

      No sh!t no duh, but in the real sense of things not being quite right as it were. Of course it’s not the same and there are many bands that have replaced members where I eventually warmed up to the new lineup. However, I’m saying this will be harder.

  • snee

    i love ed and the boys, but i sure miss steven. i love the mix of his voice with ed’s.

    • Casey

      Yeah that’s the thing I’ll miss most, their harmonies.

  • Gill

    Ed was always as much a part of the band as Steve. Just listened to the first single and loved it-actually though it sounded a little like a Marc Jordan song( Ed’s voice as well)-great crescendo. Side note, about 15 years ago I saw the “Ladies” at a small club in Halifax. Later I got a chance to talk to them, Ed was very pleasant, Steve could not be bothered. hopefully good things continue to happen to good people.

    • cheeseooo

      Ya…I’ve heard on numerous occasions (even by his new “yoko” girlfriend in a recent interview) that Steve can be kinda a jerk in real life to his fans. I’ve NEVER heard a bad word spoken against Ed – he always seems approachable and totally considerate. I’m sure Ed will be great as the only frontman for BNL now – what he lacks in Steve’s unique vocals he makes up for in his own great vocals and great improv/interaction with the band. Go BNL!

  • stevenjaba

    To BNL – life long die-hard fan here. Just wanted to say I’m floored by the new song. Actually made me cry. Excellent job. Please tour in the US soon – we miss you!

  • Zo

    Love Ed, and great interview. I’ll be open to hearing their music without Steven.

  • J

    I’ve always been partial to the Ed-heavy songs anyway. I love the single and I’m looking forward to the album.

  • Kate

    I grew up in Detroit and I love that when I go home, I always hear at least one or two BNL songs on the radio. I never got to see them in concert until they played Taste of Chicago last year and, I have to say, one of the best bands I’ve seen live! I’ve always loved their music and cannot wait to catch them on tour again!

  • sam

    Sorry to say it, but they are really bad without Steven. Sometimes the show really can’t go on.

    • Rodney

      Your opinion is worthless. No, they won’t be the same, but they’ll still be BNL.

    • sauld

      How can they be really bad without Steve when half of their songs are sung/written by Ed (and occasionally Kevin and Jim)? And note that most of those songs are the ones that made them famous! [One Week - written and most memorable parts of song (i.e. the verse) rapped by Ed, Pinch Me - written and completely sung by Ed, etc.] Answer me that foo!

  • bmfc1

    I read every BNL interview and article and this was one of the best. Big kudos to Whitney!

  • Beth

    Meh, who needs Steven? I’ve always loved Ed, and I’m psyched that he’s the lone frontman now.

    • klynb

      I’m not happy that Ed’s the front man…if they have to stay together, let Jim sing lead. And yes, Jim’s much better looking.

      • Edchick

        Your comment is so funny! Ed and Jim are great singers. If you have a problem with Ed please just keep it inside cause we’re all sick and tired of your rude words.

    • tooodo

      Honestly, until I heard that Steve left BNL, I thought that Ed was the only frontman. I think it was because all their most famous songs (One Week, Pinch Me) that they reran on TV all the time were more than half sung/written by Ed. In that case, I think BNL will be just fine w/o drugsy.

  • Beth

    And by the way, is it just me or is Jim getting much better-looking as he ages?

    • Donnna

      Yes, and so is Ed :)

  • Lynn

    Ed has always been my favorite. I can see them having trouble with several great songs from Gordon, not just Brian Wilson. I think What a Good Boy, Box Set, and New Kid have to be retired without Page. It’s sad, but BNL are still awesome as ever and have an arsenal of non-Page-centric songs that rock. Like the new song too.

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