Q&A: Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies

Canada's witty superstars return with their darkest effort

Ed Robertson Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

It's been one week since Barenaked Ladies guitarist and singer Ed Robertson has had a free moment to talk. He's at home in Toronto, during a break in rehearsals as the Ladies prepare for their global campaign in support of Maroon, the stronger, darker follow-up to their massively popular Stunt. That album exploded on the basis of the Robertson-penned and –sung Number One smash, "One Week," the greatest song ever to name-check LeAnn Rimes, German easy-listening bandleader Bert Kaempfert and the sushi condiment wasabi. Along with Steven Page, Robertson writes and sings those witty, endlessly tuneful songs that have made Barenaked Ladies unlikely superstars from the Great White North.

If Maroon – produced by Don Was – seems deeper and more philosophical than Stunt, that may have less to do with the rigors of pop success than with the life-and-death situation they faced when Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn discovered he had leukemia, shortly after the completion of Stunt. And should Maroon not be enough new Barenaked Ladies for you, look for Barenaked in America, a documentary about the band, directed by their good pal Jason Priestley.

The lyrics to "If I Had $1,000,000" inspired fans to throw macaroni and cheese at you guys. Aren't you begging for trouble with a new single called "Pinch Me"?
Luckily, the fans don't get that close to the stage – though I want them right at the front edge. I don't mind if they pinch my toes.

Does "If I Had $1,000,000" mean something different to you now that you're rich?
No – certainly when we wrote the song we thought we'd never have any money at all. Steve and I were just singing together for fun and to make each other laugh. And now we're twelve years into a very fortunate career. I still enjoy playing that song. It's about still buying stupid little things whether you're wealthy or not. And I still buy stupid little things.

Any recent idiotic acquisitions?
I bought a production cel from the original Lord of the Rings animated feature – that was $100. Even better, a Fisher-Price Happy Apple baby toy I found at a garage sale for twenty-five cents. It's an old baby toy that's featured on our song "When You Dream." When you shake it, it's got bells in it, but they're beautifully muted by the closed-in plastic. They stopped making them – perhaps they were a choking hazard or something. Now I find them on eBay.

Tell me about Brian Wilson's visit to the studio, which Don Was arranged while you were making Maroon.
That was bizarre. It was a textbook postmodern moment: Brian Wilson entered the studio to play us his version of our song "Brian Wilson," and asked us, "Is it cool?" He looked me straight in the eye, and I was like, "You're asking me if your version of our song is cool? It's fucking unbelievable."

Were there any other famous visitors?
Bette Midler was hanging around quite a bit. Don's working on her record, and she was popping in periodically, going, "This is fabulous. I love this stuff."

This album digs a little deeper. There's a song called "The Humor of the Situation," but you guys seem more serious.
That's probably true. I don't think this record is any darker than any of our other records, but maybe it's a little more personal, and perhaps that makes it feel closer to the bone. There's more "I" and "me" and "you," as opposed to "he," "she" and"they."

Clearly, this record has more of a life-and-death sense of the world.
Well, we've certainly been pretty close to it, but I don't think this is a morose record.

For the record, who's the Cute One in Barenaked Ladies?
Kev.

And how is Kevin doing these days?
He's doing great. He did this record with us. He's been touring with us. And he looks amazing. He's playing great. Basically, Kev's back. He's been cancer-free for two years now, and he's rocking.

What was the first record you ever bought?
"The Gambler," by Kenny Rogers. I'm loving the new Wyclef record that features Kenny Rogers. It's amazing to hear Kenny going,"Yo, this is Kenny Rogers, and I'm chillin' with my man Wyclef."

As a live band, you guys are known for your covers. How likely is it that your beloved Hall and Oates medley will return?
Oh, very likely. I love Hall, and I also love Oates. I was an Oates man for a long time, then I switched over to Hall.But finally, you've really got to realize it's the magic combination of Hall and Oates.

Lastly, did you ever squeeze any good Shannen Doherty stories out of your buddy Jason Priestley?
Jason is very diplomatic – not even diplomatic – he's really a very charitable guy. He rarely disparages anyone. Trust me, we dig – we totally dig. And Jason's like, "No, she's fine. She's cool." He's not a dirt-slinger. I think he's had his share of dirt slung at him. He's a gentleman.

Were you a Jason man, or did you prefer Luke?
Oh, fuck yeah, I was a Jason man. Of course, he's a Canadian boy. And that hair, those eyes – come on.