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Barenaked Ladies on longevity, Geddy Lee, and why Canadians are funny

Barenaked Ladies
(Image credit: Raisin’ Records)

“We’ve never been easy to explain,” says Barenaked Ladies frontman Ed Robertson. “But that’s made it very free for us to do whatever we do.” 

Detour De Force, the band’s latest album, continues their category-defying blend of goofy humour, catchy tunes and deft musicianship, with singles like Flip and New Disaster commenting playfully on contemporary issues.

We caught up with Robertson at his home outside Toronto, surrounded by guitars and his collection of vintage pinball machines.

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What does the Detour De Force record mean to you? We made a record we felt strongly about, a tour de force. But Detour De Force was a great play on words, for the detour that everybody had to take through the pandemic and lockdown. 

How did you approach making it? 

It’s always just ‘follow the song’. Sometimes the songs are silly, so the arrangements are bombastic and fun. Sometimes it’s a very vulnerable lyric and it needs a delicate touch.

You borrowed Geddy Lee’s Moog Taurus bass pedals. Tell us about your relationship with him. 

Geddy is somewhere between my surrogate father and imaginary big brother. I love him so much. I was in the studio with him yesterday for a super-secret project that I can’t talk about. When Barenaked Ladies were inducted into the [Canadian Music] Hall Of Fame in 2018, they said: “Give us a list of who you want to do the induction.” We said: “Geddy is number one, two and three.” 

When it came time to make this record, we discussed using Taurus pedals, and were like: “Where are we going to find those?” Jim [Creeggan, bass] said: “Could we ask Geddy?” It wasn’t just another instrument laying around in the studio. “There’s my guitar, there’s Jim’s bass and there’s Geddy’s Taurus pedals.” They’re like sacred objects [laughs].

Barenaked Ladies are part of a rich comedy tradition in Canada. What makes Canadians so funny? 

I think it’s being your upstairs neighbour [laughs]. We’re the Scotland of North America. We sit perched above a world superpower, and get to talk about how we would’ve done everything better. 

After thirty years, what do you think accounts for the band’s success and longevity?

There’s not a road map for what we did, because it was so filled with luck and timing. But the one thing we did was to keep playing live. We played clubs, the tree-planting ceremony for the local green initiative, the opening of a local bakery, the Christmas party for my mom’s office. We said yes to fucking everything!” 

What do you think the next year will bring? 

I’m optimistic about the future of the band. We’re at a point where we got nothing to prove. What I’m pessimistic about are external things: social media, civil discourse. But you know, we just did our first public show in over a year this weekend. And I thought: “Fuck everything that isn’t an audience in a room, being entertained by a band that is grateful to be there and enjoying every minute of it.” 

Yes, there were hassles and protocols and covid tests to get there, but we left feeling excited and elated. And nothing else really matters but that.

Detour De Force is available now via Raisin’ Records.