Mechanical River's Joel T. Hamilton gets weird with Barenaked Ladies' Ed Robertson 

Strange Magic

click to enlarge True story: Joel Hamilton was once chased by a bear

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True story: Joel Hamilton was once chased by a bear

My name is Joel Hamilton. For some reason, my path lay out before me the opportunity to speak with a man by the name of Ed Robertson, guitarist/vocalist of Barenaked Ladies. The day of our interview, I woke up to a message that the call was probably not going to happen. I had at some point jotted down some questions that I might ask but really wanted the interview to be something other than me asking obvious questions to someone that probably suffers through this sort of thing multiple times a day.

Anyway, I was headed to West Ashley, where I had some yard work to do, and I did not bring those questions I had written down. So when I got a text that the interview was on, I was more or less forced to forego questions and roll with what I really wanted to do anyway: hang out on the phone with someone that I don't know and maybe try to create something unique for them or between us that felt like a connection.

One of the first things I did was tell Ed that I was with awkwardpiercings.com, which turned out to be a necessary icebreaker from where I was sitting, because I'm not used to interviewing people who wrote radio songs that everyone around me was screaming along to in their cars with the windows down back when I was in middle school. (Turns out Ed has a few awkward piercings he's been meaning to get.)

This is a snapshot of our 40-minute discourse, beginning where Ed defines magic and then we argue over the possibility of absolute facts.

Ed Robertson: Joel, did you say you were a magician?

(At this point, Ed and I have been talking for seven or eight minutes about yodeling, impressionism, and how certain words are easier to mix up when heard as opposed to being read.)

Joel Hamilton: What is magic?

ER: Magic ... is ... a repeatable, scientifically inexplicable phenomenon.

JH: Are you Googling this?

ER: No, I just made that up, and I believe there is scientific phenomena that appears as magic to an uneducated observer, and I'd sure like to be fooled. But I don't believe in ghosts or spirits or unicorns or fairies or psychic healing or auras. I believe in oral but not auras.

click to enlarge Ed Robertson (second from left) co-founded Canadian rockers Barenaked Ladies in 1988 - MATT BARNES
  • Matt Barnes
  • Ed Robertson (second from left) co-founded Canadian rockers Barenaked Ladies in 1988

JH: Would you say that — oh OK. Well, with an o or with an au?

ER: Yes, with an o — not the au. I don't believe that there are some people who are more in touch with their feelings, who can see lights wrapped around other people that other people can't. Because light is a physical property.

JH: Uh huh.

ER: That's where I'm coming from, Joel.

JH: So would you say that it somewhat depends on who is experiencing the phenomena, or who is engaging? Or who is phenomena-ing?

ER: Do you think observable phenomena is dependent upon the viewer ... the person observing? Or are people who see things that most people are not seeing, are those people maybe full of shit a little bit?

JH: Well, it's possible, but even that could be subjective, right?

ER: True!

JH: And, well, you said early on in this interview that you are a fan of facts, and well, I love the idea of facts. But I can't hardly wrap my head around the idea of any kind of absolute fact when it comes down to it.

ER: But there are absolute facts.

JH: Give me an example.

ER: There are many mathematical examples of absolute fact. The speed of sound is an absolute truism. The speed of light is a truism. The tenants of math are certainties.

JH: Well isn't it true that these things tend to break down whenever other factors change, like location or environment or gravity's effect on ...

ER: The speed of sound changes due to atmospheric pressure, but it changes to very prescribed measurements. You can calculate it, so I would call that a certainty or a fact.

JH: OK, but aren't we always living in a dynamic state of knowledge on the grand scheme of things, like if you were speaking within the time where atmospheric pressure was not known to change the speed of sound, then your understanding of that "fact" would be limited, not factual. And aren't we always going to be in some way limited by whatever undiscovered imminent insight that's about to change the facts as we think we know them? Should we all be in a constant state bracing ourselves for that? Or less beholden to what we think to be fact?

. . .

JH: Do you know what a springtail is?

ER: I don't.

JH: I've been raking leaves today and, well they're also called snow fleas, and by a friend of mine they have been called yard shrimp.

ER: Wow.

JH: They look kind of like, are you familiar with a roly poly?

ER: I'm not. You've taken me into an unknown land of yard inhabitants that I'm thoroughly unfamiliar with.

JH: Are you into that?

ER: Sure.

JH: Have you ever, OK so what if we get kind of experimental with this interview.

ER: Yeah!

JH: And we don't have to even use the word interview. OK, how much more time do you have to talk to me today?

ER: I have 10 more minutes to talk to you.

JH: OK, right before you called, I was trying to put together some ideas for conducting this time with you, and, well, I thought it would be nice to create some solidarity between us by maybe doing the same thing at the same time or at least both being inside or outside or both in cars.

ER: I like where you're going with this Joel, I like where you're going with this.

JH: So here I'm thinking maybe we could spend two of those 10 minutes — well OK, is there a room, can you get into a room by yourself and turn all the lights off?

ER: Done!

JH: You're there now?

ER: Yeah, but I can't turn the fridge light off.

JH: Is the fridge light exterior?

ER: It's a little like a bar fridge, and it emanates light from the inside.

JH: OK, that's fine, I have a little bit of light creeping in from this door that wasn't framed properly, so I'll call that my fridge light. And do you want to sit on the floor or in a chair or ...

ER: I'm sitting on a black leather couch, and it may not be real leather. I can't vouch for the material, especially 'cause it's dark now.

JH: OK, I'm going to bring my most comfortable chair in here so I can be more couch-y with my body. OK, so what if we spend two minutes not talking in a dark room — or two different dark rooms.

ER: All right.

JH: Are you into that? I don't think I've ever had that particular experience, so maybe we could share that experience, maybe new for both of us and ...

ER: But you're still talking ...

JH: I know, I haven't gotten this door shut. OK, so I'll start a timer, and we can just put our phones down on speakerphone so we're getting less radiation stuff.

ER: You know what? I already did that.

JH: OK, here we go. Two minutes starting now.

[2 minutes go by. Alarm rings. No one speaks for 20 more seconds.]

JH: That's two minutes.

[Pause]

ER: Wow. [Pause] You know what, I'm shocked that another band member didn't come into the dressing room at all that time. That would've seemed weird to them if they'd come into the dressing room, and I'm sitting here with the lights off with the speakerphone on not saying anything.

JH: Were you hoping that someone would walk in?

ER: No, I was just kind of enjoying the solitude actually. [Pause] I live a pretty bright, loud life, and to turn off the lights and to sit here with a little silence, that was pretty nice.

JH: That's great

[Pause]

ER: Joel, what do you think?

JH: What if we tried something, what if I say a word and then you say a word and then I say a word, and we do that back and forth maybe 25 times or something?

ER: All right.

JH: And then maybe we've written a poem together or something.

ER: OK now, are you reacting to the words I'm saying, or am I only reacting to the words that you're saying? Do you already have your words planned?

JH: No, I don't have any words planned.

ER: OK.

JH: But I don't know — that's an interesting question. Is it possible not to react?

ER: Well, it would be possible for you not to react if you had already decided what your words were going to be.

JH: Yeah sure, but in a scenario where nothing is planned ...

ER: You would just be reading a list. I would be reacting. But if you're just using a feed word as a jumping-off point and we're both reacting from there, then that's a different thing. Either way, it doesn't matter to me. The experience is actually similar for me.

JH: Well, I won't be reading any words, and I don't have any planned and maybe, do you want to start?

ER: Sure.

JH: OK.

ER: Fish

JH: Plant

ER: Dessert. Aw, fuck. See, I thought yours was "OK." It was "plant."

JH: I think we've got some serious lag or latency.

ER: If you're "plant," then I'm saying "salad."

JH: Try to sync up with me and say the same words that I'm saying and at the same time: One, two, three, four, five ...

ER: Watermelon

JH: Six, seven, eight, nine.

ER: Seven

JH: Ten

ER: Eight

JH: 11

ER: Nine

JH: 12

ER: Ten

JH: 13

ER: 11

JH: 14

ER: 12

JH: 15

ER: 13

JH: 16

ER: 14

ER: 15

ER: 16

JH: OK

ER: 17

ER: 18. You skipped 16.

JH: Did I?

ER: You did, you fucker, Joel! You can't fucking skip 16!

JH: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.

ER: I'm not going down this road with you again. You know how upset I get about mathematical truisms.

JH: You said watermelon!

ER: I did.

JH: Why?

ER: The last good meal I had was a delicious watermelon and watercress vinaigrette salad that I ate in Boston at a little restaurant called State Park.

[Pause]

JH: That sounds delicious.

ER: It was delicious. It had very thinly sliced purple onion in it. It was a near perfect meal.

JH: I think we're like, I think we have about two and a half seconds of lag.

ER: Really?

JH: But I don't know if I skipped 16. I mean I guess I believe you.

ER: You did. Review the tape.

JH: Oh I will, Ed.

[2.5 seconds goes by. Ed laughs.]

ER: Joel, I want to say that it has been an unexpected joy, this interview.

JH: I'm glad, I have also experienced joy talking with you.

ER: We're winding into our last minute, and then I'm going to have to hop off the phone.

JH: Do you want to try some more words?

ER: Is there anything you need to know about adding acids to water or um, you know, book recommendations, or desert island albums?

JH: Have you ever been chased by a bear?

ER: I've never been chased by a bear, but I have experienced a bear in close proximity in the wild.

JH: What's the difference between naked and nekked?

ER: Geography.

JH: How would you define the word ladies?

ER: How would I define ladies plural or lady with a y?

JH: I guess ladies plural, if you can.

ER: Um, I believe that ladies has a connotation of finitude or proper dress or something, manners ... it has an implication of finery in manners. The implication is the female of our gender yet in the adult and in the expression of — I don't know that I can do better than that, Joel.

JH: Have you ever tried scream therapy?

ER: I never have, I'm a singer, and screaming is really bad for singers. Although, as a coincidence, after I finished watching Game of Thrones last night which we had DVR'd during our show, when we stopped watching it, the original movie, Scream, was playing on HBO. Was that similar to scream therapy?

JH: Oh, that might be some form of scream therapy. Were you thankful that people came to your show instead of staying home to watch the show that you wanted to watch?

ER: Um, I bet you a lot of people actually did stay home to watch it.

JH: OK, now I wonder.

ER: But I certainly was glad that other people realized that you can tape these things and watch them later.

JH: Yeah, that helps. But I wonder if there's any reality where HBO lets you broadcast that show behind y'all live, when it's airing live for the first time, behind you while you play music?

ER: Yeah, I bet you that could be worked out with a simple licensing fee. The problem is, both Kevin and I in the band are hardcore Game of Thrones fans and we can never decide whether to sing "Peter-dinklage, Peter-dinklage, Peter-dinklage" along with the start of the show, or do we sing "tits-and-horses, tits-and-horse, tits-and-horses?" It just, it depends on the night. It depends on how we feel. My point being though, if that was playing behind us, I would be too distracted. I need to focus on the show. And if I caught it out of the corner of my eye, I might be distracted from the show. And I don't want that.

JH: OK, well I was thinking y'all would maybe sit down and never look behind you.

ER: That's, see, that's a little more performance art.

JH: Uh huh, and you could take it one step further.

ER: Is the audience hearing the audio from the show or just our music or both? Because there could be some serious dissonant things going on.

JH: Well, that could be nice, and I guess you'd have to make that decision. But I was originally thinking you would mute the audio from the show. But also, it could be interesting for y'all to turn around and watch it with everyone else, while y'all make music. New music.

ER: Or do alternate voices. On the fly. Without knowing what the real dialogue was.

[2.5 second pause]

JH: "Peter-dinklage, Peter-dinklage, Peter-dinklage"

[Ed laughs]

ER: Joel! Fuck, we've gone way over time, and I have another interview to do.

JH: Oh my god, I'm so sorry Ed!

ER: This is what happens when I get lost in a ridiculous conversation.

JH: [Laughs]Well, thank you for spending time with me.

ER: Thank you for this interview. I'm baffled and amused by it. I hope you got something you need from it. Joel, I spend almost every interview getting asked exactly the same questions and giving, well, I try to make the answers as unique and spirited as I can. But to just have kind of a ridiculous conversation for 35 minutes has been a, a breath of fresh air, shall we say.

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