Sam Roberts Takes Us to Chemical City

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Since the first time I heard Sam Roberts back in 2002, he has always been one of my favorite artists. Recently we had the honor of meeting Sam when he and the band stopped into New York City for a show at the Gramercy Theater. Roberts is one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. It’s always great to meet one of your musical heroes to find out they are one of the nicest people around. Enjoy the interview, I sure did.

At what point in your life did you think that music was something you wanted to pursue for a living?

I don’t remember what the exact age was that when it transformed from being something that I did into something that I thought I could do to sort of meet life’s more practical requirements. I just knew that at some point, getting a job would interfere with me devoting the time I thought need to be devoted to playing music and writing music. So I think when I really started to get into the writing side of things and realizing that was something I could do, that I thought I could do, and then maybe if I stuck to it then other people would connect with me somehow. Before that I just played, I just played because it was a natural instinct for me to always want to have an instrument in my hand. I grew up playing violin back home in Montreal so I was always playing one thing or the other. I never really thought of  it as a career and then I started, teenage angst cracked in and I started writing my first few songs, talking about your lost loves, you’re in grade 9 and you realize that other people share your painful experience. Then I thought well maybe this is something that I can do. Then it took another 10, 12 years to make it a profession. I’m holding on tight. I’ve got my white knuckles gripped on the rings trying to stay on this bucking bronco.

You were known for playing in Northstar, but when you released We Were Born in a Flame people really jumped on it. Were you really surprised?

After so many years, like I said, of trying and not succeeding, I was shocked by success, absolutely. Because it would have been much more rational on our part to assume that well after so many failures, you’re just going to continue; Not that I saw them as failures I just saw it as sort of part of the inherent injustice of the universe that people really get what we were trying to do. I never really took the blame, I didn’t really want to take the blame. Maybe it was the songs, maybe it’s someone in the band, it’s always someone . else’s fault. Then something kept telling us to keep trying and trying and trying. It happened in the most unlikely fashion. A demo tape was mailed to a radio station in Ottawa, and there was two competing radio stations in town and we mailed it to both of them. One started playing it then the other heard about it and they got into a bit of a showdown. And from there it spread across Canada, it didn’t make much of a dent down here, stateside, but I don’t think we could have scripted that entry into the world of successful musicians. I have no idea how it could happen, so be ready for anything. 

What inspires you to write a song? Is it always personal, or is it a story?

Both. They’re obviously personal experiences that for some reason I feel compelled to write into lyrics and share with other people. I think we all need to get those things off of our chest, and  for me music is how I do that. But it’s not always that, a song is also a vehicle for storytelling. I guess to some degree I can tear myself apart. Storytelling is based on the things you notice when you wake up and when you go to bed at night. It could be anywhere. You have to be open to seeing, to translating, to recognizing an experience that’s worth telling a story. But I think that’s something I’ve been developing more and more. At first all of my songs were personal. Then I realized you can tell just as much of a story though someone else’s eyes without pouring your heart open.

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Is songwriting something that has always come natural for you?

No I had to work at it. I think if I looked back to my first few songs, my lyrics were very cliché, you probably heard them a thousand times before, but from any number of different  bands. It’s more about the drive to share something, and you can get better about how you go about the sharing. If you shy away from expressing yourself than you’re not going to be really good about writing songs. You have to hone your craft. I think it’s something I’ve gotten better at by practicing, but I still…you have to go back to the drawing board, with any craft. Not necessarily methodical about it but you have to practice at some degree.

Do you write any songs when you’re on the road?

No, but I gather stories, I gather the information. It can be a riff stuck in my head or a lyric or a line stuck in my head, a melody that repeats itself over and over and over again. When I go home I take that jumble of music and try to make sense of it.

Are you constantly writing songs or small handfuls for the record?

I think lately, before we started touring all the time which was 8 years ago, 9 years ago, I used to write…write a song here, write a song there, I had the luxury of time I suppose. But now  being on the road because I don’t write much while I’m on the road, I really have to make the most of the time when I’m not. I tend to write 10, 12, 15 songs, and that’s to me what defines an album. They have a cohesiveness, they reflect an unidentifiable piece of time not just bits and pieces. I like the unity that comes with that.

How long does it take you to record a whole album?

A long time! It does. Long gone are the days of Bob Dylan and Neil Young when they put out 2 records a year. There’s usually 2 years between record releases, so that’s become the average. A lot of that has to do with when the record comes out we go on tour. We’re on the road for at least a year, a year and a half. The last one I think took us about nine months from the beginning of the record’s recording. The next one? Your guess is as good as mine. I have no idea. I really don’t. I want to think it will be fast and efficient.

It never is.

I know!

What are the differences you see between Canadian music fans and U.S. music fans?

 We’ve had really good experiences on both side of the border, to the point where I don’t necessarily distinguish between them, I don’t think this is a typical Canadian audience, this is a typical U.S. audience. In our case there isn’t a noticeable distinction between the two because we have a huge audience in Canada, but when we play down here and we’ve been growing the past couple years, it’s just amazing. It’s rock and roll music and hopefully if you’re doing it right people are going to want to hear it.

One time I saw you play at this tiny music festival in Pleasantville, NY and I was like “What is Sam Roberts doing here?”

 Ohhh we’ve done some weird things! I remember that one! I got a photograph of us playing from behind the crowd. A woman knitting on a blanket, and the shot was taken between the knitting needles of me on the stage sweating it out up there. We’ll play anything for anyone who wants to listen.


 Such a weird choice!

 It was hot and humid and in the middle of summer, and people knitting, playing softball behind the stage. Not exactly your quintessential rock and roll festival moment, but it keeps it interesting I guess.

 How has the relationship changed within the band over time? You’ve seem to be playing with the same guys for a long time.

Since High School, you know. We’re obviously at the core of how we’ve managed to keep going and how we managed to stay excited about this opportunity to make this our life. To do this with your oldest and best friends is just meaningful to all of us. It allows us to have faith and be able to keep it together. It’s a positive force in our lives. So many bands have the seed of self destruction sewn into the heart of them whether it’s crashing with creative ideas or egos, or just the grueling lifestyle of being on the road and what that can do to you psychologically, it can drive wedges between people. It’s hard to live like that with anybody. So I think we’re very fortunate that we strong friendships that we value above and beyond any success we may or may not get from the band, so as long as we keep that in clear focus and make sacrafice. It’s hard when you grew up playing soccer with someone and allow the petty differences to interfere with that. It’s good because I know at least the guy’s got my back and vice versa. We don’t know how the next batch of songs are going to go, or how the next record is going to go, or how is it going to be received, will it be received it all? There are so many burdens, so many questions all the time that we can’t answer, but if you can trust in the people that you play with then it’s above and beyond the call of duty.

What’s your favorite part about being in the recording studio?

 Just those moments when something appears, as if by magic out of nowhere. Something that didn’t exist before. Forcing it’s way into a musician’s hands, through the people that are playing them, a voice, whatever it may be. That spark, to me, it’s magic, and it’s what you create, it’s why you always create, for it to be something. After the record and you’ve been there for 12 months or a year, then you’re ready to get back onto the road. For the first few times that it happens, there’s nothing quite like it. The song didn’t exist before, and all of a sudden it’s great.

 What’s your favorite and least favorite parts about being on tour?

 Well there’s the stuff you can talk about and the stuff that’s best not discussed! The hardest part for me is being away from home. I got two kids, and I’m married and I’m out here. I do it for me because it’s a passion of mine, but also now I’m doing it for them. It’s how I earn a living, it’s how I pay the bills. It’s a responsibility now that comes with it that at least gives me a sense of there’s a purpose beyond my own. It’s a fantasy to do what I do but at the same time in fulfilling that, I’m kept away from them. Even if it’s only for 2 weeks, kids grow up really fast in two weeks. So I just have to make up for it when I’m home, but I do love when I get to be home I’m there from morning to night. I like it.

 Do they go to your shows?

They do, they have those big headphones. When I just had my one daughter it was easy, but I have 2 now and it’s double the trouble.

You’ve won 6 Junos, do you ever get surprised by your recognition from the industry?

I think everybody fantasizes it. I’m not going to lie to you and say I don’t think about that. But giving an acceptance speech at an award show, like anyone else I fantasized about it. But we were so wrapped up in trying to get a break, once you’re involved in their pursuit for long enough, you stop thinking about those crazy fantastical moments, and have mini dreams that evolve from day to day. I forgot about that dream for a long time, and then all of a sudden it was ours. We had a hit song on the radio, and then a few of them, and then the next thing you know we’re giving a speech. Our first two years were so full of information and life experiences I’m still trying to untangle them and find out what the hell happened. Walking up there to accept it is just something. I think because we felt we really worked hard for it, that was our reward. A tip of the hat for sticking with it when we could of so easily thrown in the towel and stopped everything.

What’s your favorite song you’ve ever written?

That’s a hard one!  Every record I’m like “That’s the one, that’s the one!” I never know what will stand up for the test of time for me. Maybe “Bridge to Nowhere” if I picked a song out of hat right now. It’s hard. I like “Waking the Dead” too on the new record. But for me personally, it’s a song that’s more direct and personal. The one that’s closest to me.

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You’ve done some great collaborations with K-Os and Mistress Barbara. How did you get involved in those?

When it comes along it has to be a song that I feel a connection to. Not just for the sake of doing it. K-Os and I are old friends, so that came pretty easy. He’ll bring me into the studio and fall asleep on the couch. I’ll do my thing and he’ll take what I’ve done and stretch it any which way he thinks is a good idea. Mistress Barbara just kind of contacted me like “I’m from your hometown, I’m a DJ” and I really liked the song and I was happy to do it. I like to get outside of what I’m doing. It’s rewarding. I’m happy people ask me.

What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you in tour?

Ah probably hitting a deer with our bus. It was one of the most jarring moments. In Northern Ontario and we were all pretty traumatized as we saw it flying into the highway, into the air. BANG! Like Rudolph the red noise reindeer. Then there was the time we were kidnapped by Albanian clowns.

I’m afraid to ask…

Yea you’re better off not knowing all of the details. Heavy duty clowns in Montreal.

Who’s your all time favorite artist?

 That’s a hard question, because it changes all the time. One day it’s Bob Dylan, another day it’s Ray Davies. If I listen to a great Kinks song I’m like “Kinks are my favorite!” if I listen to Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan then that’s my favorite. That’s a great thing about a record. My Dad’s record collection shaped some of my singing and songwriting. I got into The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, that was what was going on when I was a teenager. But I was into the Charltans, Spiritulized. Something about being a teenager and your music of the moment identifies you. Then it becomes your whole world. You chose your friends  based on your music, your clothes, everything, the way you talk, everything.

 10 years down the line, where do you see yourself?

Probably in the basement in the Blender Theater here still doing it, I hope. Actually I do see myself retired I Florida playing shuffleboard, prematurely perhaps, in a crushed velvet tracksuit. I’m prepared.

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