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Barenaked Ladies tell us about the time they met Trump

November 7, 2017

We talked to the iconic Canadian band about their new album, the state of politics, and the most Canadian song ever written.

Whether it’s because they resonate so deeply or because they composed the soundtrack for the times, there are some bands that become definitively entrenched in the musical landscape of a culture. Something special sets them apart; something about their way with prose and melody that continues to just get it, that speaks, that reflects, for decades or generations. For us — for Canadians — we’ve certainly got a few who comprise that roster, who are ours. The Tragically Hip, for one. Rush, another. Blue Rodeo. 54-40. The Guess Who. The list goes on.

Barenaked Ladies, too, are part of that pack. Formed in Scarborough in 1988 by Ed Robertson and Steven Page, the Ladies first received widespread acclaim with their 1992 studio debut Gordon, which produced hits like “If I Had $1000000” and “Brian Wilson.”

Their distinct combination of wit and poignancy have led them through a near three decade-long career peppered with multiple Juno Award wins and Grammy nominations. Who else could shout out Kraft Dinner in one breath and then contemplate melancholy shades of success in the next? Even after Page left the band in 2009, the heart of the now-quartet (Robertson, Kevin Hearn, Jim Creeggan, Tyler Stewart) has continued to beat strongly, keeping their knack for catchy hooks intact while allowing themselves to keep growing artistically and experiment with various styles. Their forthcoming — and 15th — studio album, Fake Nudes, is as eclectic as ever, playing with folk, atmospherics, pop, and rock. 

“Everybody knows we’re not a nation without flaws and we have deeply serious wounds to address, but I think we, more and more, sit in a place where it’s possible to address those wounds.”

“I think being Canadian gives its artists a unique perspective,” Robertson muses, speaking over the telephone from Sarnia — the Ontario city they’ll play that night on their Canada 1 Five Oh tour (their current nation-wide jaunt that name-checks Canada’s milestone sesquicentennial birthday and also celebrates Gordon’s 25th anniversary). “You know, it’s like being Kiwi or being Scottish — you sit next to this world force and you analyze the things they do and then you sarcastically comment about how you would have done it so much better. I think it allows you the conveniences of a giant while being distinctly separate and other, and I think it breeds great art. It always has. I think, for me, being Canadian connects me to that lineage of great art and comedy and a culture that is rich and varied. Everybody knows we’re not a nation without flaws and we have deeply serious wounds to address, but I think we, more and more, sit in a place where it’s possible to address those wounds. And I feel like we’re watching our neighbours to the South grow more divided and I think that offers us a perspective that there are other possibilities.”

Of course, it’s difficult for conversation not to drift towards today’s troubled political climate. When writing for Fake Nudes — the title both a poke at their band name and a reference to Donald Trump’s war on the media — concerns inevitably seeped in. 

“You know, it’s a deeply unsettling time we live in,” Robertson says. “This is not an overly political record, although there are certainly lots of lyrical moments dealing with everything from political oppression to racism. You can find all of that on the record, but it’s not overtly political record, it’s a new Barenaked Ladies record. I think what’s funny about the whole fake news thing — you know, anyone at any distance can’t believe what’s happening. When any media outlet is at all critical, it’s deemed ‘fake news.’ It’s almost — if it wasn’t so scary, it would be quite comical.”

“I remember standing there at the moment where an executive assistant or a production assistant or something was explaining to Donald Trump that, ‘This is the Barenaked Ladies that we told you about, they re-arranged their tour schedule to be here, and they just flew in across the country to make this possible.’ And he stepped over to the band and just said, ‘This’ll be great for you guys,’ and then walked away.”

The band has met Trump before. A couple of times, actually, when they were featured on The Apprentice in the finale of season five. In the episode, cast members were tasked to host the band’s benefit concert for World Wildlife Fund. The Ladies had re-worked their entire touring schedule to accommodate the series — after all, Robertson says, it was a big opportunity for a band to get featured on a large network television show. Trump, though, wasn’t exactly gracious.

“I remember standing there at the moment where an executive assistant or a production assistant or something was explaining to Donald Trump that, ‘This is the Barenaked Ladies that we told you about, they re-arranged their tour schedule to be here, and they just flew in across the country to make this possible.’ And he stepped over to the band and just said, ‘This’ll be great for you guys,’ and then walked away,” Robertson laughs. “There was no, ‘Oh guys, thanks for being here’ or, you know, ‘Oh wow, you guys have come a long way, thanks for doing this,’ whatever. No. It was just, ‘This will be great for you guys.’”

While they’re mostly subtle, one more obvious political moment on Fake Nudes comes on “The Township of King”:  a beautifully gentle, folksy number that describes a yellow bird warning of a forthcoming urbanization and paints an affecting portrait of the damage the commercialization of land can bring. Our land, itself, is celebrated in myriad ways throughout the album as well, starting with “Canada Dry” — a big, wistful love letter to the country that mentions greats like Joni, Neil, and Gord Downie in the chorus. It’s one of Robertson’s personal favourites, too. 

“I think it might be the most Canadian song of all time,” he says. “I mean, it’s about mentioning all those things that we’re proud of, it’s about feeling the loss of the people that leave us, it’s about reminding people of all the beauty that’s up here, despite the reality of the snow and the cold and the harshness of the landscape — it really is a beautiful place to be. And a really beautiful place to be from.” 

Fake Nudes also includes notable features from fellow Canadian artists: Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle and Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy on the aforementioned “Canada Dry” and Polaris Prize-winning throat singer Tanya Tagaq on “Flying Dreams,” an album highlight with acoustic strums, fluttering keys, and Tagaq’s evocative incantations. Robertson calls her a force of nature. “It was thrilling to hear her put stuff down on our record,” he enthuses. “It was exciting. Watching her perform live is so captivating and so spellbinding. It’s exciting, it’s just plain exciting. We’re just super proud that she performed on our record. She’s an amazing talent.” 

“I’m at the point in my career where I really don’t care what anybody thinks, in the best possible way.”

The Ladies came into their longtime-honoured Noble Street Studios in Toronto with about 70 tracks prepared. “I had written over 30 songs,” Roberston adds. “Kev had written — Kev is always writing. Like, at any moment, there’s just songs falling out of Kevin’s pocket that he forgot he’s stuffed in there.” Robertson admits he’s not always this prolific when preparing for an album: in fact, this was the first time he had this many songs going into a record. What contributed to that flow of creativity was feeling, in many senses, that he’s at a place in life where he’s truly happy.

“I mean, I was trying to explain to a friend of mine the other day that I’m at the point in my career where I really don’t care what anybody thinks, in the best possible way,” Robertson says. “I’m not trying to impress anybody, I’m not striving for some accolade or some arbitrary benchmark. I feel like the band has proven itself a million times over, we’re 29 years into our career and we’re firing on all cylinders and we’re enjoying what we do. I feel like my biggest responsibility is for the other three guys in my band. I want them to like the songs, I want them to like the record, and, if we do that, then other people will find it. Or not. That’s not the important part of it, you know? It’s very liberating, it’s very empowering to go in and make a record for yourself. And I think it’s what a lot of bands do with their first record. Certainly they have something to prove, but they’re making the music they’re excited about. I don’t know, I feel like it took me a long time despite all of the success that we’ve had, it took me a long time to get comfortable again to feel like I could just write for the sake of processing emotional things and make music for its own sake, and not be stressed out by the possible outcomes.”

Robertson says his main focus now is writing great songs and doing great shows for the people who come to see the band live. Indeed, the simple things that sustain a band’s endurance — and plants their roots even deeper into homegrown culture. “I want people to walk away from a show and feel like they had a really special evening and they made a good choice in spending it with us. And I want people to listen to the record and go, ‘Wow. These guys sound really confident and they really got it figured out,’ because that’s where we’re at.”

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