Songwriter Interviews

Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies

by Amanda Flinner

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I'm a little bit worse for wear
Got a little bit more grey hair


That's Barenaked Ladies' longtime frontman Ed Robertson launching into the stadium rocker "Get Back Up" with bandmates Tyler Stewart (drums), Jim Creeggan (bass), and Kevin Hearn (keyboards). The Canadian rock band has endured a lot since forming in 1988, from personal tragedies to health issues to contentious band dynamics (former co-lead Steven Page split in 2009, leaving Ed as the sole frontman). One of the constants has been Ed's voice as both singer and songwriter; his penchant for spontaneous wordplay has been the backbone of many a BNL hit.

I been dunked, I've been kicked around
Now I'm ready for the big rebound


"Get Back Up" is the set launcher for the live album BNL Rocks Red Rocks (released May 20, 2016), recorded at the famed Red Rocks amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado during the band's Last Summer On Earth 2015 tour. The LP is a collection of their greatest hits, including "If I Had $1000000" and "The Old Apartment," and later fare like "The Big Bang Theory," "Odds Are" and "Duct Tape Heart." They also join Colin Hay for a spot-on rendition of Men at Work's #1 hit "Who Can It Be Now?" with Violent Femmes' Blaise Garza nailing one of the most recognizable sax solos of the '80s.

Before Barenaked Ladies hit the road again for their nationwide Last Summer on Earth 2016 tour with guests OMD and Howard Jones, Ed spoke with Songfacts about the science behind The Big Bang Theory theme and the story behind one of their often-misinterpreted classics.
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): I see you'll be going back to Red Rocks in June. Had you ever gone there as a spectator before you got to perform there?

Ed Robertson: No, the very first time I was there, I think, was for an eTown show, maybe a benefit show. It had something to do with eTown, which normally tapes in Boulder, Colorado. It's like an old-time radio show. It's hosted by Nick and Helen Forster and recorded at the Boulder Theatre in front of a live audience and they feature an environmental hero of some sort and bands and authors and stuff and it's very cool.

So the first time we were there was like a multi-band thing and we just did a small set as part of a long evening and then we've had the good luck to headline it several times since.

Songfacts: I've never been there, but I'm told there's something mystical about it.

Robertson: Yeah, it's just this gorgeous amphitheater hewn out of these red foothills and the band looks up into the mountains and the audience looks down through the red rocks at the stage and out towards the lights of Denver in the distance. It's just a stunning vista.

Songfacts: And there you are singing a song about the creation of the universe ["The Big Bang Theory"] in the midst of all that. That must be a cool feeling.

Robertson: Yeah, it's pretty awesome.

Songfacts: So by coincidence or by fate you read a book about the Big Bang [Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh] before landing a gig to write the theme song for The Big Bang Theory. The Wikipedia version of the story says the show runners were in the crowd when you did a freestyle regarding the book. Is that part true?

Robertson: Yeah. That's absolutely true. I had just finished the Simon Singh book, and I made up a song about red shifting galaxies and about dark matter and about our expanding universe and, you know, just sang a silly song about it. Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady had come out just as fans to see the show and afterwards got in contact and said: "We're developing a show called The Big Bang Theory, and you have to write the theme song."

Songfacts: That's a crazy coincidence.

Robertson: Yeah, incredible serendipity at work.

Songfacts: Did any of those freestyle lyrics make it into the actual theme song?

Robertson: I don't think so. Not that I know of because those improvs just sort of happen and they never happen again. Unless they get recorded I have no idea what gets said or what gets sung in them so it's unlikely any that of it made it.

Songfacts: Were you able to see the opening sequence before you wrote the theme?

Robertson: Yeah, they sent a temporary opening sequence that had the montage of all the facts and imagery sort of spinning out from a Big Bang-type event. But they really kind of left it up to me. They said, "We want you to cram as much information as you can into about 30 seconds and try to get as many factoids in as possible," and that was it. They were a total pleasure to work with because Chuck Lorre is actually a songwriter and musician himself so he speaks the language of music. It was really easy to work with those guys.
Chuck Lorre wrote the theme song to the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV show, a bit of trivia referenced on a Season Two episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Songfacts: Did you get it right out of the gate?

Robertson: I did. It was amazing. I actually wrote almost the entire thing in the shower one morning. I came up with the basic melody and most of the lines. I got out of the shower, made a really quick scratch demo just using GarageBand on my laptop, and I sent it to them and they loved it. Actually, they loved it so much they wanted to use that demo that I recorded like with a towel wrapped around me at the cottage. They loved the demo.

The only change they wanted was, I used to go [sings], "...We built a wall (we built the pyramids), Math, science, history, unraveling the mystery, that all started with a big bang. It all started with a big bang... BANG!"

So, I tagged the last line, like sang it twice. And that was the only comment Chuck Lorre made. He said, "Can we just not do the turnaround tag at the end, just go straight to 'It all started with a big bang... BANG'?" And I was like, "Yeah, no problem." That was it. That was their only comment on the song.

Songfacts: Did you know ahead of time that you were going to do the single, too?

Robertson: No, that came after. The plan was to write the theme song and then when everybody loved the theme song so much they said, "Hey, what do you think about expanding this into a full-length song?" But we didn't actually write the full-length version of the song until the show was already on the air.

Songfacts: You've been singing it for quite a while as part of your live sets, right?

Robertson: Yeah, in fact we just threw it into the set one night. We were playing at Universal Studios in Orlando and we thought, "Oh, let's just throw it in the set and see if people like it." And it went over huge and it's become a total staple in the set, like I can't imagine not playing it now. People love it and it's great. It's become a real asset to the set.

Songfacts: And where did the line "The autotrophs began to drool" come from?

Robertson: I was Googling "early organisms" because I wanted to get basically from early single-celled organisms up to like way along the evolutionary chain in one line. So, I tried to get from autotrophs to mammals between "the autotrophs began to drool."

The idea is just to mention the earliest kind of organism that sounded interesting and then get to sweating and drooling, defecating things, in one line.

Songfacts: Your lyrics have been analyzed a great deal. Is there one line from any of your songs that everybody gets the meaning wrong?

Robertson: Yeah, but I like that actually. There's a line in the "Big Bang Theory" song. When we went to Comic-Con, two of the writers from the show came up to me and they said, "OK, we have an argument going on about what the line is."

The line is:

The oceans and Pangaea, see ya, wouldn't wanna be ya.

One writer thought the line was:

The oceans said, "Pangaea, see ya, wouldn't want to be ya."

I said, "It's 'The oceans and Pangaea, see ya, wouldn't wanna be ya,' but your line's better."

So, I sometimes sing the line he suggested because I think it's better than the line I wrote. It was the oceans that broke Pangaea apart, so it's a great line.

Songfacts: Do you get any weird interpretations of the songs, too? I see them come up in comments, like people throw domestic violence accusations at "The Old Apartment."

Robertson: Yeah, that's a commonly misunderstood one. People think that it's a disgruntled ex-partner breaking into the apartment to mess with the current relationship of his ex. But it's actually about the building. The couple has moved on together and the guy is going back and he's pissed off that the people have changed this place that is special to him. So, the anger comes from, "Hey, this was my home, why did you mess it up by changing all these things?" So, that's what that one's about. A lot of people think that that's about an ex-relationship but it's actually about an ex-abode.

Songfacts: And was that based on real people or a real place?

Robertson: Yeah. When Steve and I wrote that we talked about returning to our childhood home and seeing that they've cut down a tree or just little things that people do when they change a place. They sometimes change the thing you remember the most about it because they don't have the same attachments to the physicality of the place that you did, you know.

A neighbor of mine at the lake bought a cottage from a family that had been there forever and they said, "We don't care what you do to the place, but you can't touch this tree because we planted this tree when our son was first born. We don't care what happens as long as you don't touch that tree." And they left and they never came back.

My neighbor, Jeff, said to me, "That tree's got to go." It was really messing up the plan that they wanted for their new place, and they didn't care that the tree is from these people who used to own the property, like it's this special tree to them. There's 1000 trees on the property, right?

The funny thing was, though, it was always a joke, like, "That tree is going, eventually the tree is going." He cut down the tree the hour that the couple came back to visit for the first time. I've actually got a photograph of the woman holding her hands against the side of her head and making the "Oh no!" face just as the guy with the chainsaw is walking away and Jeff is standing there like, "Oh fuck!" It was so awesome.

Songfacts: Oh man, you can't script something like that. It's unreal.

Robertson: I know. It was amazing.

By the time Barenaked Ladies first topped the US Hot 100 with their rapid-fire tongue twister "One Week" (where it stayed for, you guessed it, one week) back in 1998, they had already been superstars in their native Canada for years, thanks to the popular indie recording The Yellow Tape and their platinum-selling debut, Gordon. They released two follow-ups, Maybe You Should Drive and Born On A Pirate Ship, before Stunt - containing "One Week" - crashed the Billboard charts in the US and UK.

Songfacts: When "One Week" hit number one in America, were you kind of hoping it would drop out the next week so it could stay true to the title?

Robertson: No, I was thinking that I maybe should have called it "Fifty-Eight Weeks," but the title was more prophetic than I ever could have hoped.

Kevin Griffin is the frontman and primary songwriter for the alt-rock trio Better Than Ezra. He's also a good friend of Ed's, and has brought his songwriting skills to a number of BNL tunes, including "Duct Tape Heart," from the 2015 album Silverball.
Songfacts: We recently talked to Kevin Griffin about some of your collaborations, like "Duct Tape Heart." How did you guys first get together and what was that dynamic like writing together?

Robertson: We had done shows together over the years both as Barenaked Ladies and Better Than Ezra, and then also Kevin Griffin just solo opened for us a few times, and we just hit it off. When I was looking to experiment with some other writing partners, my manager suggested Kevin and we just have a really easy dynamic together. It's really fun.

It's smart and funny and challenging, and I think we both push each other in a really great way. I've never written with anyone more effortlessly than I write with Kevin Griffin. Every time we get together we get good results. I think we're batting like nine for nine now or something. Every day we'd set aside to write together, we get what I think is a great song out of it. It's a great relationship.

Songfacts: Another one you and Kevin did together was "Get Back Up," but I'm guessing the Muhammad Ali bit was all you on that one.

Robertson: It's funny, I often talk about writing that line and how fun it is to write with Kevin Griffin because he said to me, "What's that saying, like it's a standing eight count or something, you know, like when the boxer's just like kind of drunk on his feet, kind of punch drunk?"

I said, "Oh, yeah, that's a good idea." So I wrote:

Standing eight and I'm on the ropes
Knees givin' but I won't lose hope
Not the second coming of Muhammad Ali
But can I get a 'WOOT' for the boxing imagery?


I sang the line to Kevin and he just stared at me and then he said, "Goddamn, you really are Ed Robertson, aren't you." It was a really fun moment.

Songfacts: "If I Had $1000000" dates back to when you had to eat Kraft Dinner. What have you thought about that song as your financial fortunes have improved?

Robertson: See, that was back when I had to eat Kraft Dinner. Now I choose to eat Kraft Dinner. That song, it was about being in love and being maybe a little bit extravagant but not losing hold of what's important. Ultimately it's just about celebrating your good fortune with someone else, and I think I've stayed pretty true to that. I haven't bought any of the ridiculous things that we sing about in that song [like a llama or an emu].

That song has kind of taken on a life of its own. We've played it every single time we've ever played a live show. We have never left it out of the set except for I think we played a fashion show in Germany once where we only did three or four songs, and we figured all the German people wouldn't understand what the hell we were singing about anyway, so we didn't play "If I Had $1000000." I think that's literally the only time we haven't played that song during a live set.

It has become its own thing and people sing along and it represents a time and a place for so many people. It's oddly a song I don't get bored of. It brings such joy to the room that it's hard to not enjoy it. There are other songs that I get bored of and so we remove them from the set or we re-interpret them or whatever, but "If I Had $1000000" has been played at every live show since about 1988 and I'm still not bored of it.

It's pretty amazing because it's just not about me, that song. It's for the audience. It's a celebration of a night being together and we all sing this song, and it indicates that the show is coming to a close.

May 20, 2016.
Check out the Barenaked Ladies' official website for tour dates and to get BNL Rocks Red Rocks.

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