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Interview: Barenaked Ladies

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On October 5, 2006, members of the Canadian rock group Barenaked Ladies treated me to an interview in Cleveland, Ohio.

Some of the songs on your new album go as far back as Maroon.  What made you decide to re-record those now when you had such a large amount of brand new material?

Ed Robertson: Being on our own was really liberating, and there were songs that we liked then but we never really had time to realize them. When you’re on a label, they have a lot to say about what goes on the record. We were listening to a compilation of songs we had never released or at best were B-sides, just songs that fell through the cracks.

We were listening to a collection of them in a dressing room in Boston one time and Jim said, “I think this is my favorite record by us.” It was all stuff we had never put out there. So when it came to making this record and we weren’t dealing with a major label, we decided we wanted to take the time with some of the songs that had slipped through the cracks and see them through.

In what other ways has being king of your destiny influenced your music on this new album and its follow up to be released early next year?

Kevin Hearn: Being kings of our own destiny, how has it influenced our music?  When we made this record, we produced it ourselves and we weren’t under a time constraint from a big label. It influenced our music in that we could just do it the way we really wanted to and felt like doing it.

Ed: I think it’s allowed us to be more adventurous and more nimble maybe…

Kevin: That’s good.

Ed: Thank you. In a pinch it will rhyme with thimble.

Have you ever had a song which you thought just rocked, but when you presented it to the audience, their response was not what you anticipated?

Ed: Oh Yeah.

Kevin: “Happy Birthday”.

Steven Page: “One Week,” the first time we played it.

Ed: Oh yeah. (Everyone Laughs) The first time we played it, it just wasn’t very good.

Steve: And that was in front of 50,000 people at RFK Stadium in D.C.

Kevin: Wow, really? That was the first we played it?

Ed: Yep.

Steve: I remember the dude from the label coming backstage and saying, “Boy, that new song really needs some work, huh?”

Ed: That’s right. Yeah, we never know what the reaction is going to be. We have gotten better and better at understanding what it takes to play something live. We didn’t really rehearse "One Week," we just got on stage at RFK Stadium and tried it.

(Everyone laughs)

What about the other way around? Have you ever been surprised by how well a song was received?

Steve: I think songs that we didn’t put on the albums like “Powder Blue.” We discarded it and the fans always seem to like it when we play it live.

At the beginning of "Running Out of Ink," you can hear someone, I believe it's Tyler, saying “I quit!”.  Was that pre-planned or spontaneous?

Steve: That was spontaneous and we decided to keep that there, but you know that’s the thing about making records. It sounds like anything you put there is planned, no matter how blind it is. It was real, we just kept it because it made sense with the song.

Was that something the band really wanted in there or something Bob Clearmountain had a part in?

Steve: No, that was us. We just left it there on the tape.

Kevin: We cleaned up most of that kind of stuff before Bob started mixing, but that was something we all agreed upon.

Steve: Like for instance, we got rid of the 'one, two, one, two, three, four' at the beginning of “Bull in a China Shop.” Can you do that again for us Tyler?

(Tyler shakes his head no)

Kevin: And we got rid of the “There was a man”.

Ed: That’s on “Quality” right?

(Laughs)

Tyler: There was a man.

Steve, coming off your solo album (The Vanity Project), which was more laid back than some of the Barenaked Ladies' material, did you have some inner rocker waiting to come out?

Steve: I think I saved that for the live show, but there is stuff like “Something You’ll Never Find” and songs like that on this record that are more high energy.

Ed, Kim Mitchell did some guitar work on "Wind It Up,"  how kick-ass was it having him in the studio?

Ed: It was the most kick-ass imaginable. He’s my ultimate hero. He’s a guy who, after working with him and meeting him a bunch of times, I don’t think I’ll ever lose the fan-boy thing. I played so many of his songs in my high school band. He will just always be one of my heroes.

Getting to spend a couple hours with him in a studio, him liking my song, and playing on it was great. Actually it was sort of like going back to high school. Last week, I sat down and learned a Kim Mitchell guitar solo, which I haven’t done in about ten years. Good fun.

You recorded a vast amount of stuff with him, correct?

Ed: Yeah, we recorded like two and a half hours of solos.

How did you cut that down?

Ed: In the end, we just used pretty much one take on the solo and one take on the outro. We just cross-faded between the two. But there were a couple I was really drawn to that, to me. just screamed, "That’s Kim Mitchell playing guitar!". And that’s what I wanted on the record.

Tyler, it is known you are an enthusiastic hockey fan and I don’t feel there is enough fan-based input on the rule changes and how they have effected the NHL.  Could you comment on that?

Tyler: Well, last night I learned the legal curve has been increased now, because I guess they weren’t getting the puck off the ice enough, which in the NHL is a little bit surprising. But I think the game is a lot faster and a lot more entertaining for fans. All we have to do now is get television networks interested in the United States and maybe someone like ESPN to rejuvenate the NHL. Because it’s the most exciting it’s been in 20 years easily.

And as far as the curve, especially for European players, eh?

Tyler: Well, the thing about European players is they're from Europe.

(Laughs)

What is more difficult for you, writing the instrumental or the lyrical parts of songs?

Jim Creeggan: I think it is easier for me to write an instrument part to a lyric that is already there, because there is something to play off of or emotionally play into. I think the hardest thing is coming up with something out of the air or an idea.

Ed: We tried the reverse process on the last record. We tried sort of jamming through ideas then coming up with lyrics and it felt like the lyrics were kind of graphed on. I think we work better when we come up with lyrics than when everybody instrumentally adds their part.

About lyrics – where does the "bank full of nuns" line from "Bank Job" originate from?

Ed: I don’t know. I was thinking about, you know, movies like Reservoir Dogs and Capers and such, and I thought it would be an interesting way to foil a bank robbery.  Just with confessionary camouflage.

So we should take that song at face value?

Ed: Yes, it’s a true story, true story.

Did you anticipate so many barenaked air guitarists participating in the contest to be in the “Wind it Up” video?

Ed: That’s been really cool watching some of those, actually. I’ve personally watched at least fifty of them now.

Tyler: Wow!

Ed: Well, they're good. I don’t normally watch the whole thing, but if they're really good I do. But, there are some really cool ones. There was one I watched recently and I thought it was pretty run-of-the-mill. It was these three guys just air guitaring; two guitar players and a bass player. I thought it was pretty average until I realized it was all the same guy, and that he had actually done video compositing. He just went for suitably different looks. Not radically.

Tyler: My favorite so far is that one kid. He’s pretty great.

Ed: Yeah, there's a kid, I don’t know his name but, he starts with saying, "Testing, one, two, three," then he has a snippet from “Too Little Too Late.” There's been some really cool submissions. So we actually made a video to that song in L.A. with actors and stage sets and that’s coming out this week. And then we're compiling a fan video of all the best air guitar.

How is the video being released?

Ed: The video we made is being released first on Yahoo! as a Yahoo! exclusive for 24 hours or something on October 10th. Then it will be up on our website and I think it will be in heavy rotation on MTV right away. They're going to sandwich it in between the Real Life, the OC, and Gilligan’s Island.

Does MTV play music videos anymore?

Ed: Nope, they do play Gilligan’s Island now, but few people know that.

How has Podcasting affected how you communicate with your fan base?

Steve: Well, just like how we don’t Podcast anymore, we don’t communicate with our fan base any longer.

(Everyone laughs)

Ed: Podcasting is excellent, but it's time-consuming and we’re on the road now. It is becoming harder and harder to get it in. You had a great idea (talking to Tyler) the other day to do a Podcast on the train from Washington D.C. to New York.

Steve: Then we didn’t do it.

Tyler: We played cards all the way. I want to know how you Photoshopped your head into the Big Green Egg smoke hole?

Steve: I didn’t. My friend took a picture of me. I was grilling and lifted it up and he took a picture through the smoke hole of the Big Green Egg.

Tyler: That’s very cool.

What is the Barenaked Ladies card game of choice?

Ed, Tyler, and Kevin: Euchre.

How much time goes into making a Podcast?

Ed: It’s real time. We just talk for however long it is.

Steve: It’s the putting it together and adding links and music and the editing and stuff like that. Takes me an hour and a half.

Ed: Yeah, that’s the extra hour and a half or two hours extra at the end of the fifteen minutes of talking.

What older Barenaked Ladies songs need more banjo in your opinion?

Tyler: "Alternative Girlfriend."

Ed: "Million Dollars" doesn’t have any banjo on it, does it?

Steve: Yeah.

Ed: Does it? Who played it?

Steve: You know what — what version has banjo? Is it the Yellow Tape, or the Pink Tape. No, the CVC version has banjo.

Tyler: That’s right. I don’t think Gordon does have Banjo. It has Bob Wiseman on accordion, Dave Allen on violin, and everyone in Toronto on vocals.

Steve: Except for Paul Myers.

Tyler: That’s right.

Ed: He’s not bitter about that, though.

Steve: No!

Tyler: Well, just ask him. He will be done telling you about it… in a million years!

(Everybody laughs)

Steve: “These Apples” has banjo on the record, doesn’t it?

Ed: Yeah.

Tyler: What’s the song you did with the slowed down banjo sped up?

Ed: “Back.”

Tyler: You sound like a wicked banjo player on that.

Jim: For “These Apples,” didn’t you do one picking part at a time?

Ed: No that was “Jane.” Oh, maybe on “These Apples” I did that.

Jim: Because it was an actual banjo.

Ed: Yeah, maybe I did the slide stuff and then did the don bing don bing dong bing.

Jim: Yeah, you separated it.

Kevin: “I’ll Be That Girl” has banjo on it.

Ed: Yeah, but the question is what could use more banjo?

Tyler: "Crazy."

Ed: Just the album Gordon could use more banjo.

Steve: “Old Apartment.”

How many different instruments were used in the making of this album?

Steve: Seventeen … I have no idea.

Tyler: Someone should count.

Ed: Well, I’ve got acoustic… I’ve got guitar.  Let's just call it guitar. I played banjo. Kev, what are you at, nineteen?

Kevin: Really? Mandolin, guitar, piano, organ, accordion, clavinet, synthesizers, saw…

Tyler: Hammer.

Kevin: Melodica. That’s about it.

Ed: Jim, bass.

Jim: All five-stringed instruments: Violin, viola, bass (electric and double), cello, and the horns: were baritone sax, alto sax, tenor sax, trombone, trumpet, clarinet, piccolo.

Tyler: We’re at nineteen right now, nineteen plus Ed, right?

Ed: Nineteen, altogether.

Kevin: I had nine and Jim just said ten. So that’s twenty-one altogether.

Jim:
Recorder.

Steve:
Twenty-two.

Kevin: Harmonica.

Ed: Harmonica. Twenty-three.

Tyler: Bongos, maracas, shaker.

Jim: We’re talking about instruments.

(Everyone laughs)

I believe the shaker is an instrument.

Tyler: Drums.

Steve: The bird sounds on "The New Sad," or is that just Kevin singing it?

Kevin: Bird sounds.

Can you elaborate on the meaning of the line "Deliver me from my friends," from the song "Take It Back"?

Ed: Yes….Would you like me to?

Yeah.

(laughs)

Ed:
I thought post 9/11 that one of the first people who said something I admired or who said something worth saying was John Cougar Mellencamp. He surprised me by saying something to the effect of obviously our brown brothers and sisters are very angry about something that we’ve done and we need to try and understand what that is.

Steve:
Who said that?

Ed: John Cougar Mellencamp. He said we should put a whole bunch of energy into finding out why they're so mad at us. So that line is trying to figure that out and try to disassociate myself from whatever acquaintance or friend has pissed someone off to the point of blowing up my family and being able to say, "Whatever it is, I’m sorry".

What made you come to the decision to release the new music the way you did with the multiple physical and digital collections of the 29 songs?

Steve: You guys (fans) were waiting for it and we didn’t want it to end up in the living room buried. We just wanted to make sure people had accesses to it and they can do with it as they wish.

Tyler: We were tired of saving music for occasions that were never going to arrive.

What other songs in the past do you feel got lost?

Ed: "Powder Blue" is a big one.

Kevin: "Inline Bowline."

Steve: "Yes, Yes, Yes."

Ed: "And I Can, I Will, I Do." We thought, oh this is going to be great for a soundtrack of a movie that no one's ever going to ask us to put this song in.

Steve: We did four songs for the greatest hits album and only put two on, and the other two were left to sit.

Kevin: "I Don’t Care Anymore" was one.

Jim: That was on Greatest Hits, wasn’t it?

Steve: No, but we’ll put it on the box set.

Do you have any idea when you're looking at that being released?

Tyler: A year from just before Christmas, hopefully.

I know songs are like children and you love them all the same, but if you could save just one of the new songs from an impending doom, which would you save?

Ed: I’d choose my son Arden. Oh, songs or children?

Songs.

Tyler: I’m telling Hannah and Lyle.

Steve: I’d say "One Week," so it continues to have a career.

Ed: We can only choose one song?

Jim: I’ll take "Millions Dollars."

Steve: Out of the new ones, you wanna know?

Yeah.

Steve: I like "Adrift."

Jim: "Sound of Your Voice."

Ed: I’m going to go with "Home."

Tyler: I’m going to choose the dark horse.  I like the song "One and Only."

Ed: Kev?

Kevin: umm…

Tyler: Call it "seren-dip-ityyyy."

Kevin: I’ll Say "Home."

Were any of the new songs difficult to get recorded?

Ed: "Easy" was actually the most difficult, contrary to its name. We talked about it in one of our Podcasts. It was really difficult to get the bridge in that song. I think in the end it benefited from all the…

Tyler: (interrupts) That’s a funny Podcast.

Ed: What? That’s right. I forgot about that.

Tyler:
That’s a f****** sucker punch. My kind of joke.

Ed: I think it benefited from all the work we put into it, which is nice, but that and maybe "Everything Had Changed." We tried really hard to record that over a few years. It was a last minute change of approach that facilitated the song and became totally one of my favorites.

Tyler: Do you wanna do that one today? I remember practicing that song on the way back to Toronto.

Kevin: Practicing your finger snaps.

Did we count that instrument? Do claps and cowbells count?

Tyler:
Twenty-five instruments.  Is there a cowbell?

On Kevin’s "Another Spin," isn’t there one at the end?

Kevin: Oh yeah! Good going, man!

Ed: That’s the percussionist's job to mention that.

What do you guys bring to live shows that make them so popular?

Ed: Baked goods.

Kevin: Crack Cocaine.

Jim: (yelling) This is great! I’m Great!

Kevin: Spirit and fun, humor, and good songs.

Steve:
Moderately priced.

Ed:
Energy, intimacy. I think the fact that we engage the crowd we’re playing for and treat them as the unique people they are. I think of people like that and it keeps it fresh for us. The fact that we know we're on stage in Cleveland or we’re on stage in Grand Rapids or wherever we are and we tend to know a bit about the town and the people who are there and every show is different. I think that is what keeps people coming back. That and the donuts.

Speaking of donuts, what’s your favorite episode of all time from Red vs. Blue?

Ed: Speaking of donuts (laughs) — that’s good. Well researched. Well, my favorite episode of all time from Red vs. Blue? There’s a lot.

Favorite episode or quote? We will open it up.

Ed: I don’t know if you saw us on the tour when they did a bunch of bits for the show?

I saw the one on Youtube for when you’re cleaning up the cereal.

Tyler: They're a bunch of dudes, dude.

Ed: Those guys are so funny! Actually, my greatest Red vs. Blue moment was after a show in Austin, Texas. Those guys came on the tour bus and we played a game of multiplayer Halo, but the other guys' voices you're listening to are Church and Sarge. It was just amazing.

Jim: Were they good players?

Ed: They were amazing. They destroyed me. I ended up joining their Red vs. Blue X-Box live Clan, but I was a total liability. Out of all of their episodes, the first one is still one of my favorites because it’s so sublime.  It’s the idea in a nutshell and it set the tone for the rest of the series. It gets so ridiculous eventually. I liked it best when it was all in game, when they weren’t adding any animation. Though some of that stuff is really funny; I liked it best when it was all in game.


At interview’s end and after mentioning that I was an aspiring musician, Mr. Ed Robertson took off to retrieve a guitar to show me how to play the song “Sound of Your Voice,” which I had been trying to figure out since the album's release. After my mini-lesson, we were invited to stay and watch the guys rock out during a radio station performance.

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About Josh Phillips

  • http://www.butterflyfiction.com/journal/ Connie Phillips

    Congratulations! A link to this article now appears on our Myspace Profile page.

  • Melissa aka the boss

    Great interview, minion! I am impressed by how articulate you sound, and what a great job you did asking awesome questions. And I’m jealous that you got to meet Bare Naked Ladies!!!
    :>

  • http://craig.dubculture.co.nz/blog Craig

    Well then, can you share the secrets to Sound Of Your Voice? I have the basic outline worked out, but I’m sure there’s something I’m missing…

  • Josh

    I really only was shown the intro it starts on the A chord but add middle finger third fret on the B string and ring finger 4th fret on D and pull those two notes off if that makes sense.

  • Marie

    Congratulations on such a great interview! Thanks for sharing and I wish you much success in the future!!