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Barenaked Ladies Talk 'Grinning Streak,' Astronaut Chris Hadfield And 'Right-Wing Freak' Rob Ford

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BARENAKED LADIES
Barenaked Ladies still incredibly talented and still kind of uncool after 25 years, and they're cool with that. (BNL) | BWL

Barenaked Ladies are incredibly talented and kind of uncool. That's the basic view that's dogged this Canadian pop group throughout its 25 years in the business. A collection of jokers with a silly band name that few "serious music fans" pay much attention to. BNL are good, goes this refrain, but I hope they don't come up on shuffle when my buddies are in the car.

As if they care. This is the real story of the Barenaked Ladies: a quarter-century on the charts, sold-out concerts around the world, a lengthy list of hits, a legion of devoted fans and an endorsement from Paul McCartney himself. Who's cool now?

When founding member and co-front man Steven Page quit the band four years ago, it had looked like curtains for the Toronto-based quintet. But they surprised many people by staying together, picking themselves back up, and recording 2010's "All In Good Time."

Now, on the just-released "Grinning Streak," BNL sound as fresh and focused as they did in their late-'90s heyday. A collection of infectious melodies, clever lyrics and hopeful sentiments, "Grinning Streak" brims with the kind of playful energy that's always been the band's best asset.

HuffPost Canada Music sat down with frontman Ed Robertson and drummer Tyler Stewart for a lengthy chat about everything from Toronto's embattled mayor Rob Ford to their recent collaboration with Cmdr. Chris Hadfield while we was in space.

We can talk about Rob Ford later, if you want. But let's start with...

Ed: I don't think he did it, I mean actually murdered this guy.

No, give him the benefit of the doubt on that one.

Ed: Yeah, I know that he [ed. note: allegedly] smoked crack; I just don't think he murdered the guy.

We shouldn't totally rule out the idea that there's an elaborate multi-outlet conspiracy between the media sources, several different newspapers and online, all working together.

Ed: Right, the feasibility that a douchebag, right-wing freak was doing drugs, that's outlandish! It's a conspiracy theory.

Anyway, so "Grinning Streak" is the title of the record. It's a pun, obviously, but you're rarely funny for the sake of funny. There's always something underneath what appears to be a throwaway pun or joke. Are you talking about the way you're feeling right now, are you on that grinning streak?

Ed Robertson: This is bullshit. [Pretends to overturn table]

Tyler Stewart: [Laughs]

Ed: Ty came up with the title and it just hit me right away as exactly how I felt. There's something wry behind a grin, there's something confident about a grin. And that's how I felt about this record. I expressed what I was trying to say and then we pulled it off in the studio and I just felt so confident. When [Tyler] suggested the title "Grinning Streak" it just clicked in my head; it just made perfect sense. It's got a bit of swagger and confidence; it's not a laugh, it's not a smirk, it's a grin. It's like: we got this.

Tyler: We could be grinning at the fact that we're 25 years in and we're still together. We got through a real tumultuous time with the departure of Steven [Page]. We could be grinning at the fact that we get to make music for a living. And I think it works with where the band is right now. There's a certain confidence and, I guess, maturity. I said "maturity," usually you guys are the people that bring that up...

Oh, I know you're immature. I would never...

Tyler: Great, thank you. But usually that's something that gets said every time we make a record: "This is a more mature record for you guys."

But that's an important point. Your fans get the fact that this is not a novelty act. Yet the minority of people that aren't willing to see past the name [Barenaked Ladies] will see "Grinning Streak" as yet another joke.

Ed: Right, that's why we hate minorities. [HuffPost laughs, hard.]

The humour which is inherent in the way we relate to each other, in the way we communicate, in the way we relate to our audiences, throws some people off. If they just see that part of the band, they then go, 'oh well, it's a joke band or it's a novelty thing or whatever.' Anybody who's ever seen the band live or interacted with the band gets it. Humour is an integral part of the way we communicate as human beings and so it comes out in our music, but it's only one part of what we do musically. And thank goodness for it, we would have been together 25 minutes without humour, but it's 25 years because of it.

Q&A continues after slideshow

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I'm gonna butcher your lyrics so I apologize in advance, but I laughed out loud at the first line of the song that goes: "Talk was cheap until I started talking to professionals."

Ed: That's one of the first lines you [motions to Tyler] mentioned to me, as well.

It's really funny, but the joke is about going to see a therapist. You say a grin refers to confidence, swagger, but it can also mask some heavier feelings or beliefs. Are we talking about optimism or are we talking about reassurance, here?

Ed: I think it's both. With the last record we were just trying to stand up and brush ourselves off and move forward. This record is about finding your footing again and having confidence. I think it's a record full of optimism and hope, but it's also a very reflective record about the various ways you can find yourself flat on your face.

Tyler:
It's funny, the only way you get through things is by talking about them and by living through them. You can't bury it and repress it. I think the last album was getting a lot of those repressed feelings out; there were some pretty direct songs there, and now it's more like: Okay, we've gone there and now we want to keep doing this.

The last record had more of a "breakup album" feel, this one doesn't. Like the song "Odds Are" with its "everything's going to be alright" chorus.

Ed: I think it's because we experienced it almost falling apart. And [we went into this] knowing what it takes to work on a relationship and to build your way back up to the place where you can confidently stand again. The longevity of this band and the success of this record is in a large part a testament to that hopefulness and that ability to not just stand up but kind of pick each other up. I think it's a real strong suit of the four of us, I think, to be able to weather that stuff.

Tyler: And the willingness to do it. One of the things that can creep into any relationship, especially a long one, is complacency. I think for a lot of years we ran on autopilot. It happens when you have the same cast of characters and you reach a certain level of success and comfort.

What about your fans? It's been several years, but it must have been traumatic for them, the break with Steven Page.

Ed: The reactions were very different in America and in Canada, you know. In Canada, it was a national crisis.

Tyler: Alright, these guys are done.

Ed: I think because people identified so closely with the story of the band and the characters of the band in Canada and feel very attached to the history of the band, I think it was a much bigger deal. People weren't aware of the first ten years of the band in America, you know? So there we're just another band that sells a bunch of concert tickets and has had a bunch of hits. And when we went back and played as a four-piece, people came and saw us and said, 'Oh, this is that band that I love that plays all those songs I like.' It wasn't an issue, frankly.

For the real hardcore, hardcore fans it's still a thing, obviously. But the options weren't to continue as a five-piece or continue as a four-piece; the options were to continue as a four-piece or not continue.

Q&A continues after slideshow

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For fans it was: Can they still write together as well as a group without that input?

Ed: You're totally right. The last record was fraught with second guessing and introspection and it really felt like I had something to prove or shoes to fill or whatever. And I think the success of the record, the success of touring the record, gave me the confidence to just write a record this time and not feel insecure about it.

When you're filed in a record store, you're in the pop section. Alongside Carly Rae Jepsen and Justin Bieber. Do you embrace pop as a description for your music or do you run from it?


Tyler:
When people ask me what kind of band I'm in. I don't say rock band, I say I'm in a pop band.

Ed: Yeah, but it's come to mean a very different thing that is certainly not what we do. But what I like about the word pop is it means current, and in many ways it's just a sonic description and a description of something that's trending now.

Tyler: Disco was pop.

Ed: Ultimately, pop plus 10 to 12 years equals street cred. Like all the hipsters will be going to see Pet Shop Boys as they go around this summer, and they were the epitome of pop.

Recently you guys enjoyed a huge YouTube hit with your collaboration with Cmdr. Chris Hadfield, co-writing a song with him and recording it while he was in space. What did it mean for you guys to be able to get involved with something like that?

Ed: You know, when Chris asked me to write that song with him, I didn't think anyone would ever hear it, you know. He just said I'm gonna be up on the Space Station for a number of months and I want to try some recording up there. And I thought it was just for him. And then some people got word of the fact that we were writing together and it sort of took on a new life. But honestly when we finished the song I was really proud of it. It was a great experience writing with Chris, and then because we were making our record, it was one of too many spinning plates.

And then we go into this studio and there's an excited high school choir there; the choir master's written this great vocal arrangement. Chris is on the screen, on the ISS [International Space Station], and everyone around is just staring in wide-eyed wonder. And all of a sudden it sort of washed over me, and I went: "This is fucking awesome! What's happening right now is amazing!"

But I schlepped myself down to that studio thinking: "Oh fuck, I've got so much to do!" It's one of those moments where you have to stop yourself and go: I'm just so fucking lucky to be here right now. And we did it and I was so blown away by the outpouring of positive reactions. And still people email me, 'Oh, my sister-in-law's cousin's schoolteacher in Kanata and here's the 800 students from grade three to six singing this...

Tyler: There's a jazz combo. There's a university band. There's a string quartet playing it.

Ed:
Somebody translated it to Cree and here's them performing it.

Tyler: I think there's something about the wonder of space that's still there, that Hadfield reignited in people because he was so immediate. Because they've been going up to space stations for years: yeah, 'whatever', you know? Until something blows up nobody cares. But this reignited this worldwide obsession with space, and wonder.

Ed: I think he really earned people's trust and respect, too, the way he put himself out there to inform and engage people, but also entertain them and inspire them. Chris has just been so 'engaged', is the only word I can say. He took his time up there to communicate with people.

Tyler: Well, I think it's the beauty of the lyrics, too, that [they're] simple. There're some scientific facts in there but there's also the feeling of what it's like and he managed to convey that. And his singing style, his [fragile] delivery, it's kind of [Gordon] Lightfoot meets [Neil] Young or something.

Ed: And it's just so cool that there's a folk singer in space! It's not 'robot man' up there, it's a folk singer.

But isn't that what's so wonderful, that he somehow made space "pop"?

Ed: He brought this approachability to it and this rootsy folksiness. I said to Chris's brother, Dave, "He's so proficient and professional and accomplished and he's so impressive, and yet he seems like the guy who winterizes your boat at the marina."

And Dave said: "He's that guy too. He just winterized my boat!"

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