SameDiff BNL

Music: The Anti-Drug

By SHARI WATERS, Teen Music, January 8th, 2001.

Barenaked Ladies Interview

The BandEd Robertson is the guitarist and vocalist for the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies. Since their 1992 debut, Gordon, BNL gained a steady following in the United States and earned the band their first-ever gold record, Rock Spectacle, in early 1998. Their latest recording, Maroon, has recently been released by Reprise Records.

One of the most interesting things about your band is that you guys don't look like pop stars. You look more like people who work at the public library.

We're the anti-pop stars.

So what were you like when you were in school?

Both Steve and I were in this kind of accelerated learning program, so we were kind of already geeky. We were already the brown-nosers who got beat up by the other kids. There was kind of a weekly fight in the schoolyard where one of us would be smashed to a pulp for being smart. The program was in a regular public school — we had different teachers and different classes, but we ate lunch and walked around the schoolyard with everybody else, and there was a lot of resentment there.

Did you ever care?

I did. You know, I had to go out of my neighborhood to go to this school, and I didn't want to be one of the smart kids. I left my best friends behind, and I think I cried for the first month I went, in grade 4. But it quickly became a very rewarding place to be — spiritually, you know. I did care, though. The resentment always bugged me — I thought, "I'm not a geek. I've got a Harley T-shirt too. I like the Police."

People won't stop calling you a "novelty" band.

I think we're a novelty band in the same way that the Beatles were. — And I guess it's fair to say you've grown in a way that's similar to the Beatles. This last record (Stunt) is an "older" record. It's darker and more complex.

Was that a conscious effort?

No. We're just ten years older. We've been touring nonstop the whole time and Steve (Page, guitars and vocals) and I have been writing together for eleven years. I think there's a difference between "novelty" and "novel." I like being novel. I don't think we're novelty. Weird Al is novelty. But I like weird Al.

But even in the songs on the record that contain a complex message, there's a sort of irony, isn't there? Like "Alcohol?" It's actually a funny song.

It is, and I liked it right from the start when Steven played it for me, because it doesn't really state its position. It sounds like a party song, but it's quickly evident that it's very dark. I like that you need to think about what's going on there. It certainly is about the joy of imbibing and having a great time, but it's also about the darkness that can go along with that, and the destruction and the lack of responsibility that can result.

What happened to make Steven write that song?

I think it's not necessarily a specific thing. I think I've had a lot more experience with alcoholism than Steve has, in a personal way. But Steve knows me like a brother, and a lot of my experiences are shared with him. I'm sure he's drawn a lot on my experience because I grew up with a lot of alcoholism in my family. I don't drink myself — actually, I never had a sip of alcohol until I was twenty-seven. And now I have the occasional glass of wine or cocktail, but I've never been drunk. But I've seen it rampant in my family, and I lost my brother in a drunk driving accident. It's a senseless thing. Here it is, 1999, and people still drink and drive. It was about five years ago, and for me the most difficult thing was that nobody could accept that alcohol was involved — "Oh, no. He couldn't have been drunk. Doug could hold his liquor." It was like, when everybody else gets killed drinking and driving, they're idiots, but when it's your brother or your best friend, there had to be some mysterious force involved? I felt like saying to my family: "Look. He was drinking. He drove. And now he's dead. And that's what happens." It was hard enough in the first place, losing my older brother, but then to see the denial in the family, I was like, "Wake up, people. This is why they're putting money into anti-drinking and driving campaigns. It kills."

Recommend a song other than "Alcohol" that shows you're more than a novelty band.

I would say from this album, take a listen to "Call and Answer," or "Told You So." If you want a song that's kind of loosely what I was just talking about, you could listen to "When I Fall," off Born on a Pirate Ship, or "Am I the Only One?" off Maybe I Should Drive.

In Canada, you were this overnight sensation, sort of the Canadian Beatles...

I'd say we were more like the Canadian Menudo.

...and then you had to go through the slow, steady process here in the U.S. Can you compare the two?

The difference is — especially in Canada — we didn't actually get famous that fast. The country is so small, and the industry is so young and new, that nobody noticed that we'd already toured across the country four times and had a huge fan base before we had any kind of mainstream success. We were overnight successes, ten years in the making. It's kind of like it was here, really — we released "One Week" and everyone said "These guys, Barenaked Ladies, just came out of nowhere." Well, we'd already toured America twelve times. There are overnight successes — they happen — but we were never one of them. I've got the scars to prove it.