Ed Robertson on the Barenaked Ladies breakup, his harrowing plane crash and starting over in Midtown
Admit it: You loved the Barenaked Ladies from the start. You were defenseless against their infectious tongue-in-cheek pop jams, their goofy lyrics, and you even kind of dug their more serious songs.
But as much as you loved their tunes about million-dollar paydays and Brian Wilson’s head, what really hooked you was the friendship of frontmen Steven Page and Ed Robertson.
So when Page left the band last year in the wake of his cocaine bust, it hurt a little bit more than you thought it would.
You worried that Robertson,the new-old face of the band, might not be up to the task of carrying the mantle of one of the country’s great musical acts without his counterpart one witty rejoinder away.
It was a thought Midtown’s Robertson had, too. “I certainly worried about that, but the moment we started playing, all those worries were gone,”says Robertson, ahead of the band’s Nov. 26 concert at Massey Hall. “I realized, [our fans] don’t care about our sh**, our inner emotional socio-political battles. They just want a good rock show.And we know how to do that.We’ve been doing it for 20 years.”
Twenty-two years, in fact. Hard to believe, since the origin of the band was more coincidence than long-term calculation. The year was 1988 and a teenaged Robertson found himself without a backup band a few days before a charity concert for the Second Harvest Food Bank at Nathan Phillips Square.
So he called on a friend from school with whom he shared an obsession with Rush and Peter Gabriel, a slightly wacky boyish humour and a serious musical intellect. As for the band name, it was one they had joked about before.
“We thought it would be our one and only gig. And here I am, 21 f**king years later, still in a band called Barenaked Ladies,” says Robertson with a laugh.
Robertson and Page hit it off, and before long were joined by local musicians Jim and Andy Creeggan and Tyler Stewart. In 1992, they released their first full album, Gordon, to wide acclaim and instant recognition for the hits that ultimately put them on the map, “If I Had $1000000,”“Brian Wilson”and “Be My Yoko Ono.”
Since then, the band has toured the globe, sold upwards of 14 million albums and gone platinum many times over.
That laundry list of accomplishments made Robertson feel OK about considering leaving the band after the split with Page. Plus, he had a number of other irons in the fire, including his experiences with his TV series, Ed’s Up, which followed Robertson as he flew his float plane to a series of odd and entertaining job postings around the country. So calling it quits with the band was an option.
“I certainly thought about it,” says Robertson. “[But] not for very long. The bottom line is: I love to do this. I love to get up onstage and perform these songs. I love the new songs and I love the old songs.We’re definitely in a new chapter, but we’re bringing the whole book with us. Everything has been re-energized.”
Returning to the studio proved good medicine for Robertson.Over 10 months starting in 2008, he had endured the turmoil of Page’s drug bust, lost his mother to cancer and crashed his plane in northern Ontario (all four passengers, including his wife, walked away unhurt).
Investigators were unable to determine a cause — they faulted neither mechanical issues nor pilot error — but said Robertson and his passengers were lucky to be alive.
And so when Robertson and the remaining members of the band (Jim Creeggan, Kevin Hearn and Tyler Stewart) returned to the studio in May 2009, Robertson brought with him the weight of those events. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“I think there’s a theme of rebirth on the record,”he says.“I think historically I would kind of veil the emotions and make them a little more literary and a little more distant from myself, and I think this record was a lot more cathartic in the writing, and it was a really great process for me.”
One song on the new record that has received much attention is “I Run Away,” written partly about the strained relationship between Page and Robertson and the efforts to salvage the relationship. “I tried to be your brother / You cried and ran for cover / I made a mess, who doesn’t? / I did my best but it wasn’t enough,”sings Robertson.
Writing songs without — and, in at least one case, about — Page allowed Robertson to dig deeper than in albums past. “It was great for me as a writer to explore ideas on my own,ideas that in the past I would have stopped so as not to finish without Steve. And with this writing process, I felt freed up to go to a lot of places on my own and at a time when I really needed to do that emotionally.”
Accompanying the band’s transformation was a change of location for Robertson and his family of five from the Beach to midtown Toronto — Rosedale to be exact.
Robertson had heard all the horror stories about the stuffy midtown district where residents trimmed their lawns with scissors and scowled at anyone not driving a Bentley or a Rolls. But upon arrival, Robertson, who made the move to be more central, says he encountered a completely different scene — a laid-back neighbourhood full of kids playing in the street,welcoming neighbours, easy access to trails and parks and plenty to do nearby.
“After the third couple we met said, ‘Rosedale’s totally not what we expected,’ I said, ‘Well, either we’ve all had misconceptions about Rosedale, or we’ve become the people we hated,’” says Robertson. (For the record, he hopes it’s the former.)
Of all stuff to do in the neighbourhood, none beats the lunchtime barbecue at Summerhill Market,the smell of which wafts into his backyard just before noon. Robertson admits to eating there three times over five days during a recent break between tour legs. He says he bumped into Roberta Bondar, Canada’s first female astronaut,there as well.“She was eating a hot dog. She claims she doesn’t usually eat hot dogs. But that’s exactly what someone who eats hot dogs would say,” jokes Robertson. As for the new-look band, Robertson is feeling every bit as comfortable and engaged as he does in his new neighbourhood. And while Robertson insists the split with Page was completely amicable, you can scrap your plans for a reunion any time soon. Were Page to walk into their dressing room and ask to play a set with his old bandmates, Robertson says his immediate reaction would be to scream, “Security!” Is he serious? Like all things BNL, it’s sometimes hard to separate the silly from the sincere. But given the band’s success with their current tour and given Page’s recent solo release, Robertson suggests there’s little reason to worry about such hypotheticals: “He wouldn’t, and we wouldn’t,” he says. “We’re on a very different trajectory than he is, and we’ve worked really hard on it.We’re very proud of where it is and what we’re doing with it.”