Interview

It’s Been 20 Years Since “One Week”: Ed Robertson Looks Back At Barenaked Ladies’ Mad Hit

Two decades ago, smooth jams ruled the pop charts. Usher, K-Ci & JoJo, Next, Brandy and Monica, Lauryn Hill, and Divine were just some of the R&B acts who topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1998. But amidst all the slick beats there emerged a goofy, lite rap-rock jam that was so undeniable, it managed for one week to interrupt the extended reign of Monica’s solo smash “First Night.” The track was Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week,” written by Ed Robertson, who readily admits it’s a weird song whose success was a total fluke.

“One Week” appeared on Stunt, the Canadian folk-rockers’ fourth album released 20 years ago this Saturday. BNL were already a Juno Award-winning sensation in their home country and had seen some success on American college radio, but it was Stunt that really broke them in America 10 years into their career. “One Week” went on to soundtrack hit movies (American Pie, 10 Things I Hate About You), videogames, and TV shows (the band performed it in an episode of The West Wing). It lent whimsy to marketing plans for the Mitsubishi Lancer and Mac OS X Server. “Weird Al” Yankovic turned it into a parody song about The Jerry Springer Show.

The short and spritely “One Week” is full of non sequiturs, but it isn’t entirely nonsense. It begins on the chorus (sung by Steven Page) which describes a couple in a fight. The protagonist is too stubborn to apologize, but knows it’ll blow over like it always does. In between the jaunty refrains, though, are the reasons this song was always polarizing: a rapped series of jokey, rapid-fire pop culture and brand references that don’t relate to each other nor the narrative. Robertson, the band’s co-founder and current frontman, had been known to improvise raps during Barenaked Ladies concerts and created the verses as an intentionally silly freestyle.

Mid-‘90s media was steeped in self-reflexive humor and knowing meta gags. Seinfeld had Jerry and George landing a pilot for a TV show about nothing. Scream featured a character who rattled off horror film clichés. The timing was right for a hit that mentioned contemporary songwriters like Sting and Leann Rimes.

The following summer pop radio kept the random namedrops coming with LFO’s ridiculous “Summer Girls” (which referenced Michael J. Fox, Kevin Bacon, and Abercrombie & Fitch) and Blessid Union Of Souls’ “Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me For Me)” (Jim Carrey, Cindy Crawford, “that guy who played in Fargo, I think his name is Steve”). Even New Radicals’ brilliant “You Get What You Give” seemed to shoehorn in mentions of Beck, Hanson, and Courtney Love for no reason. All these acts could now be considered pop history footnotes, but Barenaked Ladies didn’t exactly meet that fate.

In the wake of “One Week” BNL garnered a few more Hot 100 hits and went on to write and record the theme song for The Big Bang Theory. Earlier this year they were inducted (by Geddy Lee!) into the Canadian Music Hall Of Fame, where they reunited with Page who had left the group in 2009. The band is currently wrapping up their Last Summer On Earth tour with ’90s alt-rockers Better Than Ezra and last week Stereogum caught up with Robertson to discuss chickity China, “dans la maison,” and all the other references we didn’t catch 20 years ago.

STEREOGUM: Take me back to early ’98 when you were recording Stunt. After the surprise success of your live album, what were your goals heading into the fourth LP?

ED ROBERTSON: We could feel a lot of momentum building, because Rock Spectacular had done really well as a live record and we had our first American chart success with “The Old Apartment.” Finally cracked the Top 40. I think it made it to #40, but that’s still top 40. [Laughs.] The American label was involved kind of for the first time in our career, which was like 10 years on for us. I think there was a palpable excitement from the Reprise people.

STEREOGUM: How and when did “One Week” come into play. Had it been percolating for awhile?

ROBERTSON: Well, I had the basic structure of the song, the choruses, which is kind of this silly deconstruction of an argument between two people who actually really like each other. The kind of stubborn argument that drags out over a week. I had that, and I wanted to do some kind of rappy verses but they always sucked every time I tried to write them. It was finally Steve who said, “Why don’t you just freestyle it, like you do in every show? The freestyles you do off the top of your head are better than the stuff you’re trying to write.” I wasn’t very sophisticated at that time in terms of the whole home studio or recording equipment. So I set up a video camera and I freestyled like four verses and I edited those down into the two verses that became “One Week.” So our biggest single ever, our #1 single, was written in three-and-a-half minutes.

STEREOGUM: I’ve seen some of those cut lyrics —  “Luke Skywalker gotta big hunch/Hey that’s my lunch/Yoda’s a really really old guy” — but is it fair to say the final recording is pretty close to what you laid out on that videotape?

ROBERTSON: Yeah.

STEREOGUM: And I take it you didn’t recognize it as a hit.

ROBERTSON: Well it’s such a weird song, right? I thought it would be a bonus track or a b-side. It was one of the last songs I submitted to the record company and when Sue Drew, who was our A&R person at the time, said, “We wanna lead with ‘One Week'” I actually thought she was joking. I thought she was making a dig at me, like this is the stupidest fucking song I ever heard. Which I would’ve agreed with. I labored over so many songs on that record, and tried to make them, you know, super deep and meaningful and soulful and tried to nail them emotionally, and then this totally ridiculous song that I improvised, that makes no sense at all, goes to #1.

STEREOGUM: You say it makes no sense at all. The chorus makes sense to me, but there’s debate online as to whether the verses relate to the narrative.

ROBERTSON: Absolutely not. It is a hodgepodge of pop culture references and inside jokes. I can tell you where every single line comes from and what it means, but they don’t relate to each other, and they don’t relate to the chorus.

STEREOGUM: Have you seen this theory online that the song is about a man who kills his girlfriend with a golf club?

ROBERTSON: I have actually.

STEREOGUM: You wanna debunk that right now?

ROBERTSON: It’s hilarious but inaccurate.

STEREOGUM: Let’s break down some of your lyrics: “Chickity China, the Chinese chicken.”

ROBERTSON: It’s a reference to my favorite hip-hop track of all time, A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario.” It’s Busta Rhymes’ first big appearance. Leaders Of The New School had a following, but Tribe was much bigger. And Busta’s second entry, part of his verse, is “Chickity-choco, the chocolate chicken.”

'One Week' changed my life because I used to be the Million Dollars Guy, and now I'm the Chickity China Guy. - Ed Robertson

STEREOGUM: You got two Busta Rhymes references in this song if we count the “hot like wasabi” line.

ROBERTSON: Right? Anyway, I said “Chickity-China the Chinese chicken” and I was improvising and it made me think of what was a big news story at the time, which was avian bird flu. So the next line I said was, “You have a drumstick and your brain stops tickin’.” That’s what that line is. It doesn’t make a lot of sense! It’s a nod to Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest and a topical reference to avian bird flu virus that was killing people.

STEREOGUM: Very ’98.

ROBERTSON: Ripped from the headlines as it were.

STEREOGUM: Not ripped from any headlines was the Bert Kaempfert namecheck. Which is followed by a little horn flourish.

ROBERTSON: The reason that’s in there is Kev [Hearn, BNL’s keyboardist] was always playing Bert Kaempfert in the dressing rooms. Like this German big-band composer, and so the line “Bert Kaempfert’s got the mad hits” — we sampled that horn sting from a Bert Kaempfert record.

STEREOGUM: That’s a sample?

ROBERTSON: Yeah, we had to clear that sample.

STEREOGUM: Good for him! What are some other easter eggs we might be missing?

ROBERTSON: There’s a lot. I mention the Chalet Swiss — there’s a funny thing in Canada, because we’re a bilingual country, most of our products and restaurants, on top of the name, they also incorporate the French name. So like, Cap’n Crunch cereal we will jokingly refer to as [with a French accent] “Capitaine Cruuuunch” because the French is written right under it. And sometimes with restaurants like Swiss Chalet … Swiss Chalet is like, um … what do you guys have that’s closest to Swiss Chalet. It’s like … a rotisserie chicken…

STEREOGUM: Boston Market?

ROBERTSON: … Yeah. Except only rotisserie chicken pretty much. It’s very passable and it’s very good and it has this mysterious salty gravy dipping sauce that everybody loves. But it’s the fact that the sign, instead of saying Swiss Chalet and then the French — Chalet Suisse — it says “Swiss Chalet Suisse.” So it’s like, if you’re English you’re supposed to skip the French word under it. If you’re French you’re supposed to skip the English word on top of the logo.

A post shared by Swiss Chalet (@swisschaletca) on

STEREOGUM: Perhaps this is related: why when you’re watching X-Files are you “dans la maison”?

ROBERTSON: So The X-Files theme goes [hums X-Files theme]. We were X-Files maniacs and this was back in the day when there was no streaming, stuff wasn’t available, but we met someone at Fox and they gave us like a 3’x2’x2′ crate of VHS copies of The X-Files so as of ’98 we had every episode on VHS on the bus. So after the show we would get on the bus and we wouldn’t say, “Hey do you want to watch some X-Files?,” we wouldn’t say, “Hey ya wanna put something on the TV?” We’d go [to the tune of X-Files theme] “dans la maison la maison la maison…” Which was just singing The X-Files theme with the French for “are you in the house?” like, “are you ready to do this?”

STEREOGUM: Ah that’s why “dans la maison” echoes after you rap it. I should’ve assumed.

ROBERTSON: It’s so inside! Such foolish minutia. It was an actual Barenaked Ladies ritual.

STEREOGUM: That was your afterparty.

ROBERTSON: The glamorous shit you don’t hear about.

STEREOGUM: You ended up playing with David Duchovny on The Tonight Show after the album came out.

ROBERTSON: [Laughs.] That’s right. He got in with us on shaker egg.

CREDIT: Chris Haston/NBC

STEREOGUM: Did he sign all the VHS tapes?

ROBERTSON: He did not but I recently found an autographed headshot of Gillian Anderson in an old box. I was looking for stuff for the Canadian Hall Of Fame. We were inducted this year so they did a big BNL exhibit and I was digging through old stuff, boxes that I hadn’t opened in ages, and I found an autographed headshot from Gillian Anderson and it just said “A dog? Really?” Because I’d confided in her that I had named my gorgeous Rhodesian Ridgeback redhead dog Scully after Agent Dana Scully who I was deeply and madly in love with.

STEREOGUM: Did you ever get a thank you or acknowledgement from Birchmount Stadium?

ROBERTSON: No! And that’s a funny thing too because we drove past that every day to go to rehearsal for the record and it’s kind of a Scarborough landmark. It’s where we all competed in track-and-field meets, but there’s a huge sign out in front of it and as people do in towns and famous buildings and stuff, it’ll say like “Gainesville, Home Of Tom Petty!” They do that thing. So it says “Birchmount Stadium, Home Of The Robbie.” The Robbie is an invitational pee wee soccer tournament. It’s the tiniest, most obscure thing imaginable. Birchmount Stadium, home of the thing you’ve never heard of.

STEREOGUM: You got McG to do the music video. He was a really hot video director at the time, having done clips for Korn and Sublime and Smash Mouth. Have you seen it recently?

ROBERTSON: I have. I watched it recently and I smiled the entire time because I remembered a pitch meeting where McG was literally jumping up on the conference room table desk to describe the panning shots and the motorcycle jumps. He was a hot new director at the time and he was just a kid in a candy store. He was like, “We got a budget? Let’s do some stupid shit!” He had just done the Fastball video, which I thought was great. He said it [originally] had a shot of the guitar going off the building, which was a big fuck-up because they broke a nice guitar and put a hole in a $30,000 airbag.

STEREOGUM: And eventually you got a call from Weird Al. As I understand it, he likes to get the songwriter’s blessing even though he doesn’t need it legally.

ROBERTSON: That’s one of those pop-culture touchstones. It’s like “Yeah, it’s cool we got nominated for a Grammy, it’s cool we got a number one, yeah we sold out Madison Square Garden and that’s cool.” And another one of those things is “Yeah ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic did a version of one of our songs.” For a few decades there, it was like if he satirizes it, it must be a big hit.

STEREOGUM: Setlist.fm can be inaccurate but it says you actually sang this song live for the first time 20 years ago today, in Switzerland. Does that sound familiar?

ROBERTSON: Wow, no. [Laughs.] I think the actual first time we ever played this song was at RFK Stadium if my memory is correct, some big radio station festival thing and I remember Green Day was on the bill. They closed the show and we were only a couple before them…

STEREOGUM: Was it HFStival?

ROBERTSON: Yes! That’s exactly what it was. That I think is where we debuted “One Week” at HFStival.

STEREOGUM: How’d that go?

ROBERTSON: Not very well. [Laughs.] I remember the show went great, like the show was awesome and the response to the band was awesome. But with “One Week,” it took us a long time to figure out how to do that song live. It’s so high energy, but the rapping is actually really reserved and understated. There’s a lot of layers sonically going on to make it sound like that hit single. When we played “It’s All Been Done” it sounded just like the record because it’s very straight ahead. But “One Week” was a real production piece and it took us a long time to learn how to play it and make it sound good live.

STEREOGUM: When you performed at some of these shows the summer after the album came out, Greg Kurstin was playing with you. He’s a celebrated superproducer now, working with Adele and Sia and Paul McCartney. Do you ever see him around these days?

ROBERTSON: I wish! Yeah well one of Greg’s first projects, Geggy Tah, opened for us for about six weeks in America in the mid ‘90s. So we became friends then and when Kevin got sick [Hearn successfully battled leukemia after recording Stunt] put a call in to Greg and he toured in America and Europe with us, all over Germany opening for Bryan Adams. Greg’s one of the most incredibly gifted musicians I’ve ever collaborated with, and he’s a lovely guy.

STEREOGUM: Since it became a hit, have you ever left “One Week” off a setlist?

ROBERTSON: I would say I can’t recall not playing it in a live show in 20 years, but it’s possible.

STEREOGUM: You have to play it.

ROBERTSON: Yeah, we’ve pretty much played “If I Had A Million Dollars” at every show since 1990 and I think we’ve played “One Week” every show since 1998. Everything else comes and goes.

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A 20th anniversary digital edition of Stunt is out today on Spotify and Apple Music. If you like “One Week” check out “Barenaked Ladies’ ‘One Week’ But All Of The Instruments Are Replaced With ‘It’s Been.’