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Rank Your Records: Barenaked Ladies Vocalist Ed Robertson Puts the Band's Ten Albums in Order

The vocalist talks about the band's career which spans three decades, a few surprise hit singles, and a bunch of naked recording sessions.

by Mischa Pearlman
14 July 2016, 2:02pm

In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.

Everybody knows “One Week” by Canadian rockers Barenaked Ladies, if for no other reason than the huge test it poses when doing karaoke. Yet while that 1998 single is the band’s biggest hit to date, they have a catalog that spans 11 studio albums and almost three decades. There have been changes in recent years—where once Ed Robertson and Steven Page shared lead vocal duties, the latter left the band in 2009 to pursue a solo career. Since his departure, the band—completed by bassist Jim Breeggan, keyboardist/guitarist Kevin Hearn and drummer Tyler Stewart—has released three more records, most recently 2015’s Silverball. None of the tracks on that album were recorded in the nude, but that wasn’t always the case, as Robertson discloses. We got him, and his remarkable memory, to give us the rundown on the band’s extensive back catalog.

10. Maybe You Should Drive (1994)

Noisey: This was your second record…
Ed Robertson:
Yes. And definitely, easily my least favorite of all of our records.

Is that because you wrote fewer songs on this one?
I was just less engaged in general, and I think the band was quite fractured at the time. I think the overnight and runaway success of the first record had put us into a very strange place when it came time to make the “difficult sophomore album.” And I’d had some difficult times through there—my older brother had passed away in a motorcycle accident and it was just a very tough time for me. I wasn’t ready to go and make another record, and then the band wasn’t communicating well, the studio process was difficult. So, many things conspired to make that record a really difficult process for me, and as a result it’s hard for me to attach to the songs on that record.

I understand that. Was it not, though, the case that you could use it for catharsis? Or were you too consumed by everything to be able to do that?
I think that was it. I just didn’t really feel like writing songs, and the few songs I did contribute had been bouncing around for many years—I just hadn’t completed them. It was just a difficult time and when I listen back to that record now, all I hear is that disconnection that I and the band were experiencing at the time. There’s some beautiful recordings on the record, there’s no doubt about that, and a lot of fans have a lot of their favorite tracks on that record— “Am I The Only One” is on that record, and “Great Provider” is a great track and was a real staple of the live show for a long time, so there’s lots on that record that I like. I love the song “You’ll Be Waiting.” I think that’s a beautiful song. But mostly when I listen to those recordings, I just think, “Wow, we were not together at the time.” We weren’t ready to make that record, but we did it because we had to do it.

9. Barenaked Ladies Are Me/Barenaked Ladies Are Men (2007)

These records are two sides of the same coindo you see them separately or as parts of one whole?
I look at them as one giant process, because that’s how we recorded them. This is a case of: there is so much great music amongst the myriad songs on this record, but editing is your friend. I think the release of two records that looked similar and had a similar title was a great artistic idea, but it confused everybody, and it still confuses me, let alone the casual listener or someone at the record company or management. It was a good idea that, in practice, didn’t work, because it really just served to muddy the waters and confuse people about what record was what. But man, there are some great songs on those recordings.

If you had the chance to do it again as one album, you’d presumably do that?
Absolutely. I probably would have taken the best songs off each record and made it one record. I think we were feeling a little bit, at the time, like, “Who gives a shit? We don’t have to fit into this mold of 12 songs on a record and single, follow-up single, third single if it goes well.” We just threw that all at the door and said, “Let’s make a ton of recordings.” When we started to do it, we were thinking, “Let’s just put out four songs, and a couple months later we’ll put out another three songs,” and in the end it all got very confused and we ended up releasing two similar looking and sounding records. It should have just been one great record and instead it was two confusing really good records. We thought we were doing the right thing, and it was only with hindsight that we saw how confusing it all was. But here we are a decade later and we have all these great songs to choose from to play from, so the way they came out doesn’t really matter.

8. Gordon (1992)

This was your first “real” album which you made after your demo tape went Platinum, and from which you won a contest to record this record. That’s a pretty incredible story.
It was a very bizarre. We went from being a band that was told flat-out we would never get a record deal because we don’t sell enough beer—because people were actually going to the shows to pay attention to the show and listen to the band and participate—to making a demo tape to try to get a record deal and being refused by every Canadian record label, but then we just kind of became local favorites and ended up winning this local modern music search contest from a radio station in Toronto and they gave us a recording budget to make our first record. It was a bizarre time because we had this five-song cassette that was number one in the charts ahead of U2 and Madonna’s latest release. It was a cassette-only release.

It must have been very validating to have this album released properly.
Yeah, but we had no idea what we were doing. It was kind of surreal. If we’d had any wherewithal at the time, we never would have signed a record deal in the first place! We released a record and immediately sold a million copies of it in Canada, so if we’d been independent it would have been a very glorious year for the band indeed!

The first song you guys ever recorded naked, “King of Bedside Manner,” was on this record.
Yes! The very first naked track, which was a tradition that lasted until our early 40s, when we got tired of looking at each other naked, and then the naked track went away. It was really a fun tradition, but we’ve been on tour together for almost 30 years, so there’s literally no difference in us emotionally when we have clothes on or clothes off. It used to be sort of exciting, like, “Hey! We’re all naked! This is funny!” But we’ve been naked together so much now that it doesn’t change the vibe in the room at all.

What was it like the very first time you did it?
It was like a goofy prank. You can totally hear it in the energy of the song. The funny thing is, we weren’t just naked for the bed track, we were naked for all of the overdubs and everything to do with the song. So every time we worked on that song, everyone would get naked again. It was a very funny thing to start doing. And you know—the producer was naked, the engineer was naked, it was ridiculous.

7. Everything to Everyone (2003)

You got a little bit more serious and political on this album.
Yeah. I think that’s just where our heads were at and what we were writing. It’s very interesting to me to look at the tracklisting on Everything To Everyone and realize this is the record after Stunt and Maroon. It’s quite a melancholy record. “Aluminum” is one of my favorite songs, but I really don’t like that recording though. The demo we did of it is much better. I think we overthought it too much—we tried to make it too atmospheric and vibey when it should have just been a rock song. But there are a lot of recordings that I love on this record—I like “Testing 1, 2, 3” a lot, I like “Shopping” a lot, “Upside Down” is a great recording. We had a lot of fun making this record, too. The producer, Ron Aniello, is insane. He’s so funny and scatterbrained, and he always had an idea to try. Even if it wasn’t an idea we used, it was worth trying, because they were very musically informed. It was a really exciting musical environment. I love “For You” on this record—it’s still one of my favorite songs to play live. And I sang a lot more on this record, feeling more buoyed by the reaction to “Pinch Me” and I wanted to sing more and there was room for that in the band, and that maybe focusing so much attention on Steve had maybe been a bit of a failed experiment.

6. Born on a Pirate Ship (1996)

This record contained your first ever entry into the Billboard Hot 100 with “The Old Apartment.” Did that add more pressure after the struggle of the second record?
Yeah, but recording Born On A Pirate Ship was really fun, because we forced ourselves out of this expectation of success or whatever it was. Instead of trying to follow up the big success that we’d had with Gordon, we worked with the producer Michael Phillip Wojewoda again, who’d become a really great friend. We worked at this real indie studio at home in Toronto and really allowed ourselves to stretch out into some, I think, very interesting places with songs like “I Know” and “Straw Hat [And Old Dirty Hank],” “Spider In My Room,” and “Same Thing,” and then “The Old Apartment” ended up being a radio hit in the US which was a real shock to all of us. In making Born on a Pirate Ship, we had resigned ourselves to, like, “Okay, we’re not going to be this successful pop band—we’re too weird and quirky and we take too many left turns in everything we do.” And that’s what we like about our band. “The Old Apartment” though was just a straight-ahead rock song that I never imagined would be a hit. Our record company loved it and they worked that single for over a year, which never happens in modern music. We worked our asses off on that record for almost 18 months and we essentially went from unknowns in the US to breaking the Top 40.

And you felt more comfortable on this record than the previous one? You were in a better place?
Totally. I think the whole band was in a better place. We were all much more engaged, and I remember having a ton of fun making that record. There was lots of silliness and lots of good musical bonding. I have nothing but good memories of those recordings and there’s ongoing jokes from those recording sessions that still come up all the time because it really was a blast.

5. Stunt (1998)

You guys went stratospheric on this one. Were you expecting that to quite the degree it happened?
We knew that it was going to do well because “The Old Apartment” had charted and there was a lot of anticipation for the record, but I think we thought that meant we would debut in the Top 100 or whatever. At that time, people sold a lot of records and I think we ended up debuting at number two or three. It was way up there and we sold a couple hundred thousand copies for the first number of weeks consecutively. We knew it was going to do well, but we had no idea it was going to do that well.

Do you know what it was about this record that made it do so well? Why did it connect with people?
We had worked so hard touring on Born on a Pirate Ship and [1996 live album] Rock Spectacle and we had really made a lot of friends all over the US. We’d gone into every radio station with acoustic guitars and gone to every record store and into the head office of the record company, and all the regional people from the record company had come out to see the band, and I think there was this overwhelming feeling of, “Hey! These guys are awesome live, they’re really nice, they’ve already been big stars at home in Canada and they’re working their asses down here,” and I think it made everybody rally behind the band. We’d laid all the groundwork and everybody was rooting for us, so when that record came out, everybody realized that their secret band that they loved and nobody knew about was everybody else’s secret band that they loved and nobody knew about. And it just went through the roof. On release day, we were supposed to do an in-store appearance at a record store in Boston. They announced we were going to do this acoustic performance six weeks before the record came out and apparently they got 3,500 hundred calls on the day they announced it. So the guy at the record store was like, “Shit, we can’t have 3,500 people at this record store, maybe I should try to find a bigger space.” Someone at the mayor’s office heard and they were big fans, and then local radio stations got onboard and leading up to the event, we thought we might get 10,000 people—which we were like, “Oh my God, this is going to be insane!”—and it turned out 80,000 people came out for the record release. We stayed signing autographs for five-and-a-quarter hours after the acoustic performance in City Hall Plaza in Boston. And again, that was a moment where the whole town sort of rallied behind us and thought, “Wow! These guys are amazing. They came and played acoustically and then waited ‘til every single person who lined up got their CD signed.” So I really think it was a case of people rallying behind the band and us not disappointing them.

We have to mention “One Week” though. That was a huge, huge single, which must have had some impact on the way the album sold.
Yeah. “One Week” was so strange because I really assumed it was going to be a b-side when I wrote it. I thought it was the kind of thing we do live, the goofy silliness of our live show, but that it wasn’t for a record. And when our A&R said they wanted to lead off with “One Week,” I actually thought she was making fun of me. But the label really wanted it to be the lead-off single and I said, “No, we can’t!” because we’d been totally ridiculous and over-the-top with “One Week,” making it so silly, and they were like, “No, it’s going to be the focus track.” I couldn’t believe it. The flipside to that is it was so quintessentially Barenaked Ladies, but I didn’t realize that at the time. That part of us which I thought was just part of the live show—the aspect that enhanced the records but wasn’t the focus of the band—we soon realized was what people loved about our band. It was definitely an awakening and it really gave us confidence to be who we were. The unprecedented success we’d had in Canada early on, which was almost completely contained inside Canada, was like a dress rehearsal for success later.

4. All in Good Time (2010)

This was the first record you made after Steven left the band. What was that like?
It was a combination of things. It was wonderfully liberating and exciting to be making a record with a totally new creative dynamic in the band, and at the same time it was really fucking nervewracking, because we wanted everybody to understand what we were capable of, and we knew that there would be a lot of criticism right out of the gate kind of no matter what we did. Even if we made an amazing record, people would say, “It’s not the same without Steve,” and we wanted to say, “Yeah! It’s not the same without Steve. It’s different. And we love it.” We went back to working with Michael Phillip Wojewoda, who we did Gordon and Pirate Ship with, so that was a place of comfort and stability for us, and I’m super proud of that record. There are some amazing recordings on it, and to understand the stress I was going through at the time and still pull off that record, I’m really, really proud of it.

Did you feel the weight of responsibility more on your shoulders because it was you as the main guy and you weren’t sharing it with Steven?
Yeah. That was an enormous responsibility, but my bandmates were incredibly supportive and I think it was a very galvanizing record for the band, despite all the pressure and anxiety that I felt—not about our ability to pull it off, but about people’s ability to recognize our ability to pull it off. We still struggle with that eight years on. It doesn’t matter what I post on Facebook—thousands of people go, “That’s awesome! Can’t wait to see you guys!” But there’s always a handful who say, “It’s not the same without Steve.” And I want to go, “What do you think is harder? Typing ‘It’s not the same without Steve’ or a career as a rock musician for 28 years?” Of course, I’m so fortunate that I have this incredible career—I can’t resent or lament the fact that some people love the first record better than anything I’ve done since, because I know that there’s tons of people, myself included, who love the work that we’re doing now more than anything we’ve ever done. We’ve picked up fans, we’ve lost fans, we’ve had some fans all the way through, and ultimately I can’t worry about any of that because what matters to me are the other guys in the band, the show I do and the songs I write, and they matter to me—and that’s all they need to matter to.

3. Maroon (2000)

After the success of Stunt and “One Week,” and what you said about that, did you then feel you had freedom to do exactly what you wanted to do on this record?
Absolutely. And heading into Maroon, I was a little bit nervous because we were going to work with Don Was and Jim Scott, legendary names. We started the pre-production sessions with Don Was, and I don’t know if this is secret producer chops or whatever, but Don was so into the songs. He was raving about the emotional intricacy of songs like “Pinch Me” and “Sell Sell Sell” and “Conventioneers” and he loved them. And it took him, for me, from this legendary record producer to a collaborator who was really into our band. And Jim Scott is the greatest vibe in all of the recording industry—he’s the most soulful, sweet, supportive, incredible engineer. So that record just got off to a great start—Don gave us all this confidence and always had great ideas to make the songs better and Jim Scott made everything sound fucking amazing and also had us laughing constantly. So that was a great session. I felt, on that session, that we had achieved the success with Stunt and it was our chance to just go have fun and make a record. I didn’t feel pressure to repeat the success of Stunt, I just felt like, “Okay, we’ve made it, and now we’re working with these giant rock guns at studio in LA.” I think I felt vindicated with Stunt and it took the pressure off.

Why did Steven sing most of these songs?
It was very calculated, actually. I wanted Steve to be more of a frontman and more front and center, so he sang a bunch of songs that I had written and brought to the band. And it actually kind of ended up backfiring a little bit, because of the few songs that I sang on the record, “Pinch Me” ended up being the single and doing really well. I think that was emotionally difficult for Steve, because he was like, “Fuck, now I’m singing all the songs but it’s the Ed song that’s the single.” It was definitely the plan—I wanted us to have an energetic frontman who could really work the stage while I was stuck at a mic playing guitar, and I didn’t really care who sang what—Steve and I wrote most of the songs together, so I didn’t care if he sung them or I sung them, but I think it ended up being difficult for him emotionally when “Pinch Me” became a big hit.

2. Silverball (2015)

This is your most recent record, so how different was it making this compared to the Buck Naked demo tape almost 30 years ago?
It’s a world of difference. We decided on Silverball to continue the good vibe that we’d had on Grinning Streak. We worked with Gavin Brown again, so we knew what we were in for in terms of the process, and for the first time in maybe ever, I had no trouble writing whatsoever. I felt totally confident and I felt excited to make this record. There was zero consternation about it. Recording Silverball was a breeze. It was so much fun.

That must be a great feeling after doing this for so many years.
Yeah. We’re at a point in our career where we’re very aware of how fortunate we are that we love what we’re doing, but also that people still give a shit and they come and see us when we play live. So I feel this gratitude and encouragement, because all we have to do—and I was saying this to the guys the other day—is go play good shows, which we’re really capable of. We really excel in that department. And that’s all we’ve got to do—do good shows, make good recordings and enjoy ourselves. I feel like the spirit of why you start is the way we’re feeling again, like, “Fuck, this is fun!” And nothing else matters, because it’s all happened to us already.

1. Grinning Streak (2013)

So you number one is the album you made before the last one. Which you recorded in a bunch of different places, right?
Yeah. We worked at Jim [Creegan]’s home studio and we worked at a place called Noble Street in Toronto and we did it over a period of a couple of sessions. One track, “Boomerang,” we did with a guy in LA, but we actually did a couple versions of that song. Overall, this record was a blast to make. All of the anxiety and stress and All In Good Time had melted away and it actually took me quite a long time to write—I think I’d been so stressed out All In Good Time that when we finally accomplished it, I thought, “Okay, we’re capable of doing this. Now what the fuck do I do?” I remember saying to a good friend of mine, “I’ve written so many songs and done so many shows I don’t know what to write about anymore and I don’t know who’s listening and I don’t know if they care. I just don’t know what to write.” And he looked at me and he said, “Yeah, but it beats hanging drywall, doesn’t it?” It really put things into perspective for me, like all I have to do is write some songs—enjoy yourself and write some music. And this recording was super fun, and that’s why Tyler called it Grinning Streak, because we felt like we having a great time and reaping the rewards of the hard work and anxiety that we’d felt. We felt like we’d been through the ringer and were on the other side of it.

And 25 years after you formed, you’re still having fun. That’s not bad.
I’d say more fun than ever, actually. And it’s not just that we’re having fun, but we’re in a position to appreciate what it means to be having fun at this point, because we’ve done all the nail-biting, we’ve done all the showcase gigs where it could be your big break, we’ve had all the awards and accolades, so now we’re on the other side of it going, “Fuck, we’ve had a great career. Who cares if we have a charting single or get an award or achieve some sort of sales figure?” You know what’s a really great achievement? A 28-year career. We’re coming up on 30 years, which is insane to me. That’s the incredible accolade—put Grammys and Junos and Billboard Awards aside, I’ll take the three-decade career any day.

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