Throughout their 25-year career, Barenaked Ladies have always seemed like a band that's up for being in on most any joke. Video of a recent promotional interview found BNL singer-songwriter and guitarist Ed Robertson riding up and down the elevator at New York's historic 70-story building 30 Rock, fielding song requests from surprised passengers and regaling them with snippets of not only favorites from the band's catalog, but also familiar classics from Bryan Adams, Journey and Michael Jackson.
Of course, hard work and tireless self-promotion are nothing new for the quirky Canadian group. Calling from his Toronto home, Robertson recalls an early gig in which BNL played the grand opening of a bakery in their hometown of Scarborough, Ontario, and performed at a 1992 live radio station remote from a U.S. used car lot tied to promotional work behind their debut release, Gordon.
Even as they were finding huge commercial success in Canada with Gordon (which sold over a million copies), it would be a while before the group would match that success financially. They might not have been eating the Kraft dinner that they so famously referenced in "If I Had $1,000,000," but as Robertson remembers, it was very frustrating waiting for the accounting to match up with the fame that they had achieved.
"We worked incredibly hard from about '94 until '98 without making any money," he says. "[We were gone] 18 months at a time for tour legs and I was going insane — I had a young daughter. I called my manager and I was like 'I don't know if I can do this. I could be making more managing a Wendy's near my home. I'm always gone and I love doing the shows, but what's going on here?'"
Management urged Robertson to hang in there, telling him that success was just around the corner — and indeed, it was. On the strength of the bouncy breakout hit "One Week" (which sailed all the way to the top of the Billboard Top 100) the band's 1998 album Stunt went big and finally made Barenaked Ladies a household name. From there, it was smooth sailing for the band, which delivered a string of successful singles and sold-out concert tours. Everything seemed good until Steven Page, Robertson's longtime co-conspirator who shared songwriting and vocal duties in the group, was arrested in July 2008 and charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance after being caught with cocaine.
The band parted ways with Page early the next year and continued under the Barenaked Ladies name. The appropriately titled All In Good Time album, released in 2010, feels like a portrait of a band that was understandably in a period of rebuilding. Today, Robertson too acknowledges that the album certainly was their attempt to find their sea legs and move ahead.
"Frankly, the last record was just about picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off and taking those first steps forward," he says. "We didn't know what it was going to be like. I think there was a lot of overthinking and second guessing going on. I still really like the record and it has a lot of great moments, but we're clearly a band in transition on it."
The newest Barenaked Ladies album, Grinning Streak, finds the band in a better place. In fact, it just might be one of the best albums of the band's career, and it sits comfortably next to its best-known work and stands tall as a Barenaked Ladies album despite the absence of their former collaborator. "I think this record just had us really on our feet and up and running again," Robertson says. "We just had our confidence back and hit the studio with a great group of songs, worked with friends and made a realized record. To me, it feels more like a band that's 25 years old and has just incorporated all of its ups and downs into who we are."
Robertson credits much of this confidence to the 100-plus shows they did as a four-piece pre-Grinning Streak, which helped the band "[get its] confidence back — or, as Justin Bieber would say, [get] our swagger back." That attitude will no doubt be on display in Cleveland, a place that's always occupied a special place in BNL's collective hearts. The band first visited the "Land of Cleve," as Robertson calls it, in late '94 and early '95, when it played a pair of instantly sold-out shows at the old Odeon concert club in the Flats. Anticipation for the shows was high because it had taken nearly two years and two albums for the band to make it to the city, despite heavy radio support from stations such as the now-defunct 107.9 The End.
Today, Robertson says that the extended courtship was nothing personal; it just couldn't get the necessary time away to do it because of the heavy demand for the group at home. "The success was so huge in Canada at the time that we really had to spend the time up here and work," he says. "In '92, we did the largest sold-out tour in Canadian history. We played 76 dates in Canada on a tour. We don't have that many cities in Canada! It was a crazy time."
A quarter-century after the band first formed, its career and success remain remarkably intact. Robertson definitely shares the incredulous feeling that BNL is still getting better, both live and in the studio.
"In many ways, I'm shocked that it's been 25 years. But when I think about all that's transpired, I'm shocked that it hasn't been longer," he says, laughing. "It has been such a remarkable run. I would say what I am most proud of is that this last tour is the most fun I've had in more than a decade in the band. I love this record and love playing this stuff live, and I'm just so grateful that 25 years in, it feels as good as it's ever felt. That's pretty amazing, when you think about it."