Admittedly, Canada's Barenaked Ladies weren't always in the best position to be taken seriously. First of all, there's that name, one of several tossed about when founding members and school chums Ed Robertson and Steven Page first conceieved the idea of forming a band. And then there's those early songs -- "Be My Yoko Ono," "If I Had $1,000,000," and "Brian Wilson" -- all lighthearted romps buoyed by effusive melodies, a giddy attitude, and a general sense of fun and frivolity.
Still, after 25 years, numerous hit albums and singles, sales of more than 14 million albums, multiple Grammy nominations, and eight Juno Award nods, these "Ladies" have earned the right to be taken seriously. Now down to a core quartet -- singer/guitarist Ed Robertson, bassist/singer Jim Creegan, keyboard player/singer Kevin Hearn, and drummer/singer Tyler Stewart -- the band recently released its latest album, the slyly titled Grinning Streak, a set of songs that's easily among its best yet. New Times recently had an opportunity to chat with Stewart and get down to the bare facts about the Barenaked bunch.
New Times: Let's begin by talking your new album. It seems that it boasts a bit more gravitas than what we may be used to hearing from the band.
Tyler Stewart: Interesting choice of words... "gravitas." Every time we put a record out, it's what journalists term "more mature sounding." In this band, we have that great paradox. Sometimes we sing about really heavy, important things, but we do it in either a tongue-in-cheek manner or a kind of happy musical manner, even though we're dealing with topics like suicide or domestic violence or whatever. That's one of the hallmarks of the band. But I think there's a certain amount of experience in it... Knowledge of the dark side, trying to emerge from the other side of it.
The title is kind of a nice play on words, Grinning Streak. But do people still think of Barenaked Ladies as a novelty band, despite the weightier topics you cover?
If people haven't gotten it by now, then they're never going to get it. At least that's the way I feel about it. When you name your group Barenaked Ladies, you're going to get a certain amount of snickering, but the band itself has always prided ourselves on great songs and serious musicianship and harmonies and all that kind of stuff, and we've always taken that part of it seriously. So it's kind of a double-edged song.
The humor and the wit are kind of how we interact with each other and how we get along and how we've managed to stay a band for 25 years. And that flows over into the live shows and the music and the videos and things like that.
However, we get down to some serious music as well, so that's what keeps us interested and into it after all these years. There's still a real sense of fun and mirth and mischief, but there's also a real sense of craft and taking what we do very seriously. And feeling grateful that we've been around this long and we still get to do it.
But is it frustrating that some people might not take you as seriously?
Years ago, we felt like we had something to prove in that domain, but not so much anymore. We prefer to let the material speak for itself. I don't think there's any real frustration with that anymore. We've made our bed, and we'll lie in it. I think the best thing anyone can do is come and see a live show, because that really sums up everything we do. You'll get it when you see us live. You'll get that mixture of laughs, commentary, all that kind of stuff.
Paul McCartney once said Barenaked Ladies were among his favorite current bands and that your harmonies are better than the Beatles' were. He also said he'd love to record with you someday. Are you aware of that comment?
I'm aware of that, but I'm not aware of whether he really said it or not. If he did really say those words, we're going to call Sir Paul next week. If he did say that, I think that's a real nice compliment. We're hoping that he heard what we strive really hard to do, with the vocal harmonies and arrangements always being a real hallmark of this group. So I certainly appreciate the comment. Even if he didn't say it, we'll take it.
You've namedropped other artists in your songs. Brian Wilson ("Brian Wilson"), Yoko Ono ("Be My Yoko Ono"). Have you ever met either of them and gotten their reaction to your tributes?
Ah, yeah, definitely. We met Yoko Ono and she was pretty psyched by the fact that we popped her name into the title of a song. Brian Wilson came by the studio in L.A. when we were making our album Marooned back in 2000, and we got to meet him. And we got to play at a tribute concert for him too, and that was pretty amazing. He's an interesting guy, and we're pretty happy that he was able to get back to his music and that he's in good health. The Smile record that he redid was awesome.
"Brian Wilson" was one of the most heartfelt and endearing tributes imaginable. It was quite touching actually. Hopefully, he felt the love.
He felt it so much that he covered that song live for a little while. That was a huge stroke for us. Wow. The guy we're singing about is singing the song about himself. [laughs]
How did you guys get commissioned to write that great theme song for The Big Bang Theory?
That was a beautiful, happy accident. The creators of the show, Chuck Lorrie and Bill Prady, happened to be at one of our shows in Los Angeles, and they were in the midst of creating The Big Bang Theory. And at the time, Ed had just happened to have read this book called The Big Bang, and he was talking about it during the show, which he's apt to do. So we made up this song on the spot, as we're sometimes apt to do, about the big bang and cosmic theory and cosmology. So Bill and Chuck were like, "We got to get these guys to do the theme," and they literally called us the next day, and away we go. Ed wrote the song, and we're really happy and honored to be a part of such a great and successful show. We met the cast and been invited to the set and played a couple of their parties. It's been great.
And you get that weekly exposure. That's especially impressive.
And now it's in syndication, so it seems like it's on every night now.
That's some nice royalty check, we're thinking.
Well, yeah! In this day and age, where record sales are partially nonexistent, it's a great thing to have. And also there's the fact that it's such a popular show. It's a pop-culture hit across the board. It's nice to be a part of everyday life like that. It's something that everybody hears all the time. We've been lucky throughout our career. We've had a number-one single and several chart hits. But to have something like that, so pervasive and everyday, is kind of cool.
So what can we expect from a Barenaked Ladies show?
One of the things that keeps it interesting night after night is this kind of spontaneous invention of songs and lyrics and what have you. It keeps you on your toes on the stage. That's part of the entry fee right there. Guaranteed.
After all your success, the chart-topping singles, the numerous awards and accolades, is it ever intimidating knowing that you've set such a high bar and that, in effect, you have to compete with your younger selves?
Well, as far as awards, I'm not sure that anyone gets too hung up on those. It's always nice to have nods from your peers and stuff. But for us, the band's been through its ups and downs, its high points and low points, a couple of personnel exits and things like that. So we feel really grateful that the people still care and come to see the shows and we can still get together and write and record great music. So it's more of a grateful thing that we can still do this after all these years and still be a vital band.
Is your Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavor still in production?
Yeah, up in Canada. "If I Had1,000,000 Flavors," a play on the title of our song "If I Had $1,000,000." You can't get it here. But the great thing about that was is that it's raising money in Canada for literacy for kids. So we're pretty happy about that. Every so often, I'll get a text or an email from a relative saying, "I didn't know you had an ice cream. It's really good!"
One has to wonder how they came up with a formula that ties into the band, other than the title, of course.
Well, they chose the one that had the most stuff in it. "If I Had 1,000,000 Flavors"... There's human hair, eyeballs etc. They managed to get all these ingredients in there.
Ummmm. Tasty! Of course, it would seem to be the ultimate mark of success to be able to say you had your own Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor.
[chuckles] There it is. That's the pinnacle. Absolutely.
WRMF Presents Barenaked Ladies and Whitehorse at 8 p.m. Wednesday, October 30, at Hard Rock Live at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Tickets cost $59, $49, and $39. Visit ticketmaster.com