Toronto

Barenaked Ladies frontman Ed Robertson on his 'out of control' pinball collection

The lead singer and guitarist for the bestselling band, which will be inducted this weekend into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, shares his passion for collecting, fixing, and playing his personal collection of 25 pinball machines.

Playing pinball has 'given me another community outside of music that is really fun,' Robertson says

Ed Robertson, vocalist for the Barenaked Ladies, has amassed a collection of around 25 pinball machines. Most of them are in his basement, where he plays with friends and family. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

It'll be one weekend of Pinch Me's for the Barenaked Ladies.  

On Sunday, the bestselling Canadian band from Scarborough will not only be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, but will reunite with co-founder Steven Page for a special performance at the Juno Awards. It will be the first time they play together on stage in 10 years after Page left the band.

When the Barenaked Ladies, now in their 30th year, first heard about their upcoming award, frontman Ed Robertson shared with CBC Toronto's Dwight Drummond that he was "freaked out" in the best way possible.

Ed Robertson from the Barenaked Ladies is obsessed with pinball machines and he gave CBC Toronto host Dwight Drummond a tour of his collection. 4:03

"I was kind of in shock for a day because despite the success of the band, I think we've always kind of felt like underdogs. We've achieved all this success but we've kind of done it our own way," he said.

To mark the weekend, the guitar will likely not be the only thing Robertson's fingers will be playing in celebration. That's because not only is he a gifted musician, he's a bit of a pinball wizard too.

'It's the geekiest thing possible'

Robertson is an avid collector, fixer, and player of pinball machines. He has a personal collection of about 25 machines, including modern ones like The Walking Dead and some that even date back to the 80s like Ali. Most of them are kept and played regularly in the arcade-like rooms in his basement. His band even has a machine for the road when they're on tour.

The musician first got hooked on pinball as a York University student playing machines at the campus pub. The game eventually became an obsession when The Barenaked Ladies started playing shows in clubs. After playing a gig, since Robertson doesn't smoke or drink, he would go looking for machines to play in local coffee shops and laundromats.  

This is one of three walls that house Ed Robertson's pinball collection in his basement. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

"It's the geekiest thing possible. I would play Star Trek: The Next Generation pinball machine for hours," he said. He laughed about how to this day, his fans still know where to find him after a show — at the nearest pinball machine.

"It's been a really great thing for me because it's connected me to a whole community of people — collectors and tournament players. It's given me another community outside of music that is really fun, really vibrant and cool."

'Little things will break'

Gone are the days when Robertson would call upon professionals help to fix his various machines. After a few times of paying close attention to the technicians working to bring his games back to life, he was convinced it wouldn't be too hard to master their handiwork.

"If you're really going to be serious about getting a pinball machine and collecting, you have to get comfortable working on them because little things will break," he said.

Ed Robertson shows CBC Toronto's Dwight Drummond how he is his own technician when it comes to fixing his pinball machines. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

He now knows how to take pinball machines apart and has the tools and parts to replace lights, flippers, and plastic sleeves on the coils. His daughter taught him how to solder after learning how at summer camp.

While Robertson admits his collecting habit has "definitely gotten out of control for me," he calls himself a player-collector and says if he's not playing a machine, he'll get rid of it. So far he's sold around 30 machines and notes that they hold their value.

He can buy a machine for between $1,800 and $2,000, play it for a year and then sell it for the same price he paid for it.

"They release like three or four pinballs a year. Unfortunately, I buy most of them." 

Robertson's wife supports his hobby because ‘it’s harmless and it makes him really happy.' She gave him this custom-made sign as a gift for his pinball room. (Sannah Choi/CBC)