Barenaked Ladies was sorely in need of some good times by the time it released its latest album, “All in Good Time,” in March.
It was preceded by what the Canadian group's Ed Robertson calls “a lot of kind of tumultuous times” — and he's not kidding. In July of 2008, co-founder Steven Page was arrested for cocaine possession in Fayetteville, N.Y., receiving six months' probation. The following month Robertson survived a float plane crash during the taping of a reality TV show, and in December of that year he lost his mother, Wilma, to cancer.
Then, in February of 2009, BNL announced that Page was leaving the group, only the second personnel change in the Canadian quintet's 22-year history but certainly a profound loss given his role as a chief songwriter and lead singer.
But the rest of the band — Robertson, multi-instrumentalist Kevin Hearn, bassist Jim Creeggan and drummer Tyler Stewart — opted to continue as a quartet. “All in Good Time” bowed at No. 23 on the Billboard 200 and No. 3 in Canada, BNL's best chart showing there in a decade, and Robertson says all concerned are “excited” about the band's current state and future prospects.
“We made a real commitment to each other,” says Robertson, 39, who put the group together in 1988 with school friend Page and is the voice of BNL hits such as “Pinch Me,” “Falling For the First Time,” “Easy” and the rapped portions of the chart-topping “One Week.” “On the heels of everything that happened, we said this has to be a good place to be or it's not worth being here. We need to be here because we want to be here and because we respect each other and like what we're doing.
“I think we shed a lot of negativity — and I don't point that just at Steve. I just think there was a lot of negativity and dysfunction in the band that's not there anymore thanks to some of the things we've gone through.”
Nevertheless, Page’s departure was a catalyst for BNL’s current renaissance. Though the announcement seemed abrupt, Robertson acknowledges that “nothing happens overnight” and the schism was in place well before it was revealed to the public.
“It was years, years, years of dragging Steve to the table and trying to get him involved, and he just wasn’t into it for a long, long time,” Robertson says of Page, who had released a solo album, “The Vanity Project,” and wrote original music for a Stratford Festival production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” both in 2005. He has a new solo album, “Page One,” coming on Sept. 28.
“It was a decision none of us took flippantly or lightly ... but we were a lot less freaked out than everyone else because, obviously, we’re inside it and we understand it.
“Certainly it was the end of an era, but things change out of necessity, and the creative process is always changing. I think people were fixated on, ‘Oh, how will they perform without Steve?’ To us that’s just a fun part of the challenge of being a band. That’s just what you do, y’know?”
Over the course of doing that, BNL has established a reputation for its sophisticated songwriting and cleverly crafted lyricism for songs both humorous (“If I had $1000000”) and poignant (“Call and Answer”) and all points in between, as well as for its galvanizing live shows. It’s netted six Canadian Juno awards, topped its homeland charts twice — with 1992’s “Gordon” and 2000’s “Maroon” — and had its big U.S. breakthrough with 1998’s quadruple platinum “Stunt.”
Along the way BNL also survived Hearn’s late '90s battle with leukemia and eventually parted ways with Warner Bros., its record company, and started its own label, Desperation, which became Raisin' for “All In Good Time.” The group also released a seasonal album (2004’s “Barenaked For the Holidays”) and a children’s set (“Snacktime!” in 2008), and it recorded an album of Page’s “As You Like It” music as well. So it was a formidable era to bring to an end in 2009.
“I’m really proud of everything Steve and I did together — in the band and as a duo before that,” Robertson says. “I had 20 years in a band with the guy, and ... 13 years of going to school with him before that. I’ve known him forever, and I embrace what we’ve done together and Steve still has our support — and always will have it.
“But it was time to change and start a new chapter, and that to me is something to be excited about.”
BNL was already working on new songs when the split with Page was announced; the group was also preparing a retrospective box set to celebrate its 20th anniversary, which has been tabled until the quartet edition of BNL gets up and running. BNL did play its first show as a quartet on March 7, 2009 at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., but getting to work in earnest on the album was “a daunting thing to undertake,” Robertson concedes.
“We did a lot of talking about what it was going to be like and how to approach it until we actually hit the studio and just started doing it,” he explains. “And then we just felt totally liberated and totally grateful to be in a rock band, making music. It was a huge energy shift, because one guy who had been there for a long time wasn't there anymore, and we really responded to it.”
BNL recruited “Gordon” producer Michael Phillip Wojewoda and set up in Toronto’s Canterbury Studios in May of 2009 with 28 songs ready — 18 of which were recorded and 14 of which made the final album. Fortuitously, the first song Robertson completed for the album was “You Run Away,” the lead-off track and also its first single.
“That song kind of played itself,” he recalls. “It was the most effortless song to record and arrange. It just kind of came out, easily. Usually when something gets talked about as a single, it totally ramps up the pressure and you’re just pulling your hair out. But this one was just the opposite.
“And what was nice about it was we were then just able to go make the rest of the record. Everybody was so excited about ‘You Run Away,’ it felt like we nailed it and took the pressure off the rest of the songs.”
With lines such as “I tried to be your brother/You cried and ran for cover...I did my best but it wasn't enough,” “You Run Away” — along with other songs on “All In Good Time” — has fans wondering if it’s about or directed at Page. Robertson understands, but says it’s not quite that cut and dried.
“Because it was such a major event for all of us,” Robertson notes, “everybody thinks they know the story and they’re drawing conclusions or parallels to all the songs. In some cases people are getting it totally wrong, in some cases totally right.
“Yes, I drew a lot of emotion from my long relationship with Steve, and it’s peppered throughout (the album). But it’s not a record to him or for him or about him. It’s tough to say, ‘That line is about Steve’ or ‘That line ins not about Steve.’ It’s a far more complex relationship than can be summed up or described by a couple of lines in a pop song, you know?
“Ultimately I think of the (Elvis Costello) song ‘Alison.’ I didn't know who Alison is. I don’t know if Elvis Costello is the narrator or a character. And it doesn’t matter; it’s a great song, well told. And that’s what I want ours to be, too.”
“All In Good Time” also continues the democratization of BNL that started with the “Everything to Everyone” album in 2003. Though Robertson is the primary writer, penning and singing lead on nine of the 14 tracks, Hearn handles three and Creeggan contributes a pair. “I think they felt really challenged,” Robertson says, “and the door was open and they stepped right in, both of them, with amazing songs.
“I think it was always difficult in their position as third and fourth fiddles, maybe,” he adds. “Steve and I were always so ... dominant. This record is a lot more like a band in that those guys’ contribution was every bit as valid as mine, and I think we got some beautiful performances and amazing songs out of it.”
And that investiture helped BNL decide to remain a four-piece and not try to replace Page, either on record or in concert.
“I think it just feels more like a rock band and less like two front guys with a backup band,” Robertson says. “I feel like everybody’s more engaged and connected to it, and it’s regalvanized all of us. I think fans are responding to that, too.
“The bottom line is change is good, especially in the creative process. There are still four writers and four singers and four multi-instrumentalists in Barenaked Ladies, so there’s a lot to draw on going forward. We’re really grateful we get to be doing this, still.”
Barenaked Ladies, Kris Allen and Angel Taylor perform at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 10, at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $48 and $28 pavilion, $28 lawn with an $80 lawn four-pack. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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