While I’m waiting to speak with Ed Robertson and Tyler Stewart of Barenaked Ladies, the music of Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters blares through the hotel diner. I hadn’t made the connection previously, but the chord progressions and pop techniques of the Ladies and the Foos are not unalike. So, when Robertson and Stewart slide into a booth to sit across the table from me, I bring up the similarities.
“Love that stuff,” Robertson says. “We love that stuff.” Adds Stewart: “Dave Grohl is the rock star my wife most wishes to sleep with.”
Good to know.
And then the conversation turns serious: “I just like it that Grohl came out of one of the darkest moments of modern rock history, as a positive force for rock-‘n’-roll good,” says Robertson, referring to the suicide of Kurt Cobain and the end of grunge-punk pioneer Nirvana.
That happened in 1994. The affable Nirvana timekeeper Grohl then stepped out from behind his drum kit and formed Foo Fighters, the radio- and video-savvy rockers who still rule arenas and amphitheatres.
A less tragic upheaval buffeted Barenaked Ladies in 2008 when co-founder Steven Page was arrested for cocaine possession. In early 2009, Page left the Ladies, leaving the long-running merry popsters less than jovial and with an uncertain future.
They survived, however, releasing the winning post-Page album All in Good Time in 2010. The record and subsequent tour was a circling of wagons. The Juno-winning troupe no longer had the nimble song-writing of Page, and no longer had the Page-Robertson back-and-forth interplay on stage. “We all had to up our game,” Stewart says. “There was more space to fill.”
Where All in Good Time was a regrouping, the Ladies’ new Grinning Streak finds the members emboldened by the storm-weathering and setting course with a renewed sense of confidence. “This record is the sound of the band opening up,” Robertson says.
But is it? The record, to my ears, sounds more like a Robertson solo record, made with outside producers and with co-writers involving guys not named Stewart, Kevin Hearn and Jim Creeggan. When I bring this up with Robertson, he protests a little. “I think Kevin and Jim each have songs on the record, just like the last one,” he says, referring to the band’s longtime keyboardist and bassist, respectively. “Don’t they?”
Not quite. On All in Good Time, Hearn and Jim Creeggan contributed and sang lead on five of the 14 tracks. On Grinning Streak, there is but one non-Roberston number – Daydreamin’, a blipping, jangling song about achieving one’s aspirations, from the gentle-hearted Hearn.
Robertson, as straight-talking and charming a man as you’ll ever meet in the music business, then shrugs off his domination. “It’s difficult,” he says, referring to the BNL songwriting balance, “we’ve got three writers, all with an ability to write great songs.”
According to Robertson – Stewart doesn’t offer an opinion – the other BNL songwriters are okay with his hoarding of credits. “I think it comes from decades of earned trust,” he says of his bandmates’ compliance. “We’re all trying to make the best record possible.”
Fair enough. Making the best record possible this time around involved the application of a contemporary pop aesthetic to Robertson’s melodic folk rock. For example, Odds Are, an upbeat number about life’s favourable probabilities, moves to a clapped, staggered beat not unlike the youthful rhythm of recent singles from Taylor Swift and Avril Lavigne. “We’ve always embraced current trends,” says Robertson, “but now it’s pretty cool for your 17-year-old daughter to say: ‘Dad, I’m really digging your new record.’”
Stewart nods in agreement. “Taylor Swift is on a lot, whether in our house or in our car, and you can’t help but to be influenced. Your kids own the radio.”
Well, they do. And times move ahead, with or without you. “Long tooth, time is marching on as I sing,” offers Robertson on the swamp blues of Keepin’ It Real, one of the pro-atheist tracks on the album. “You die naked, and they burn up your bones.”
In 1992, a group of tuneful suburban jokesters released their debut album, Gordon. More than two decades and 11 studio albums later, the run continues – an improbable grinning streak more or less intact.
Barenaked Ladies, with Ben Folds Five and Guster, plays Molson Canadian Amphitheatre, July 11.