Interview: Chilling with Sam Roberts


If your read Sam Roberts’s Wikipedia page, you’ll see the man has quite a career behind him already, and many connections. It’s obvious then that there was no way we would miss him when he came to New York City this week, to play a gig at the beautiful Bowery Ballroom. Sam was really nice to sit down with us and talk about the genesis of the Sam Roberts Band new album Collider, which came out on May 10th via Zoë/Rounder Records, being on tour again and Justin Bieber. That’s right.

Modern Mystery: It’s been a while since you’ve been on tour in the US. How does it feel to be back on the road again?

Sam Roberts: Really good! Especially being here at the Bowery Ballroom. It’s the perfect setting and scenario for starting off a tour, just to be back in New York City and feel the energy of the place again and hopefully play a good  show tonight and set the tone for the rest of the tour.

MM: Which are you favourite cities to play in the US?

SR: It’s hard to say because there are the obvious choices: New York, San Francisco and Chicago… But there are a few other smaller cities. I love playing in Buffalo, NY. I really like playing in Pittsburgh. It didn’t start out that way but after years of thickheadedness and a refusal to take no for an answer, we sort of broke through and found a great, small, loyal following in Pittsburgh. And I love playing in Detroit. I’ve just got a great connection with that city. That’s just to name a few.

MM: What made you decide to record the new album in Chicago rather than at home in Canada?

SR: Aside from choosing Chicago, just the idea of not making the record at home was important to us this time around because I think it allowed us to break free from our day to day routines and not have that be a part of the mindset while making the record. Not having to answer the phone, not having the menial daily chores that suck some of the romance out of it. I feel like making a record should be adventurous, that there should be some sort of romance and strangeness to the process. So going to a place like Chicago and just sort of taking ourselves outside of the familiar and the comfortable, and throwing a bunch of Canadians in a big American city, kind of wide-eyed and having to find their way… We kind of hoped that it would bring some spontaneity and a different perspective to make the record. We’d been practicing these songs for so long too and you have a tendency to sort of get a bit too cemented in terms of your relationship to the music that you are playing and I think that if you go in the recording studio with that in mind, you have the tendency to play to not make mistakes rather than play to perform and to try out some sort of emotion in your playing. So being in Chicago, we tried to feed off of the city and tried to being that into the studio every day.

MM: You worked with Brian Deck on this album, who’s worked with Modest Mouse or Iron and Wine in the past. How did he get involved and how did the recording process for Collider differ from the other people you’ve worked with?

SR: We sent him demos that I’d been working on in my basement at home and he just came back with this extremely enthusiastic, encouraging response to the whole thing, so I was like, “Okay, he’s really excited about this.” And then a day later he sends me this email, 5-page long email, telling me everything that he would change in the songs, if and when he got his hands on them. That scared us off for a few minutes and we kind of went back and retreated to the band, you know, the sanctuary and were thinking, “this isn’t going to work, this guy is crazy! He wants to do what?” And we actually tried to do a few of the things and it made a lot of sense. A producer’s role isn’t to pat you on the back, it’s to bring their own perspective in or bring your vision to a new level or a level you can’t see yourself because you are so close to the music and you’ve been so involved in every step of its life. I think what he helped with most is to help us find simplicity in the songs, to not just try to throw layer after layer after layer in the record. If you listen to the record, it has a more spare, sparse sound to it so that when you do introduce woodwinds and percussion, they have room to make much bigger impact and that was definitely a new approach for us.

MM: You also added two musicians to the line-up for this album, Ben Massarella and Stuart Bogie, who have worked with TV on the Radio and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. How did they work into the band? What did they bring to the tracks they performed on?

SR: Well, great musicianship for one. Their lack of history with the music itself allowed them to think completely out of the box. So they would come in and Stuart specifically, he’d come in and listen to this music for the first time and was already coming up with parts. After his first listen, he’d have something to play for the chorus he’d just heard. So it was an incredibly spontaneous and immediate process. And to watch people who are able to adapt that quickly and to think on their feet like that was inspiring to us and I think it made us want to play differently as well and not be afraid of making a mistake but rather play to get the right feeling on the recording. Also, Ben and Brian had a past relationship of working together. They’re at that point where they don’t even have to really talk to know what the other one means.

MM: How do you translate what you created in the studio to the current live show?

SR: We’re in the thick of figuring it out right now. One of the first dramatic steps was to get a saxophone player to reproduce those parts on a daily basis. Stuart couldn’t be with us on the tour because he’s with Iron and Wine but he recommended a friend of his and we played one gig together in D.C. and it felt really good so hopefully there’s more of that to come. It’s mostly about getting the saxophone so we wouldn’t have to re-invent the songs.

MM: What is the inspiration behind the songs on Collider?

SR: Everything and anything. Life. You know, I have a family, I have three kids… The inspiration is what you live and how you deal with the things you live and what is around you.

MM: What’s your songwriting process? How do you decide how to tell a story?

SR: It’s funny because this is my job and I do need to organize time to write a song. I have to put a lock on the door so the kids don’t come in. I like writing under that kind of pressure, I like deadlines, I like creating with a sort of pressure on my shoulders. It tends to focus my thinking in some way as well. You’re not able to have these meandering ideas that never get checked. I like having structure like that. But then again, so much time goes by between writing that I’ve kind of forgotten whatever method I had for the previous record, but that’s how music evolves for me. If I implemented the same structure for every single song that I ever wrote, I think they’d end up sounding a lot more alike. So in this sense, every time I sit down to write a new record, I’m not chained to the last one necessarily and that’s how I like to make music. One record, I might start with drums and bass and move on from there to add the vocals right at the end; another time I’ll make a more concerted effort to write lyrics right at the beginning and shape the songs around the lyrics. This record was really about shaping the rhythmic patterns of the songs and letting everything feed off of that. So in terms of the lyrics and which words you end up using and how they roll off your tongue to fit into that pattern was important for this record in particular.

MM: How did you get involved with the Young Artists for Haiti benefit? It was quite surprising to see you alongside Justin Bieber and Drake. Did that make you hesitant or apprehensive at all?

SR: Not at all. I didn’t realize the scope of the event before going in there. I really had no idea who I was going to be keeping company with. I know K’naan, who was the mastermind behind the whole thing and who wrote the song. He sent me an e-mail because we were all, a lot of us were heading over to Vancouver to play concerts surrounding the Olympics. So I didn’t know what was going on. I got off the plane, went to the studio, I knew my part that I was supposed to sing. When I first arrived, there was myself and maybe three other people. So I recorded my bit, came out and what had a fairly empty room was now of, like you said, just about everybody: a lot of people I know, Canadian bands that I’m friends with or that I’ve toured with over the years and then a few surprising faces, you know? I think that was the beauty of the whole effort really, how it wasn’t necessarily about one type of musician. It was a very inclusive process and I think it came out really really well and did a lot of good in the end too. It made a big impact in terms of getting Canadians to stay connected to the issue and reminding of the event long after it ceased to be front page news.

MM: How do you feel fans have reacted to Collider so far?

SR: It’s funny because this time around I started looking at our Facebook page whereas during our last record I didn’t even know how to log on [laughs]. And with Twitter as well, there’s so much more immediate response to it and it’s been really great! A lot of people say things that I love to hear like, “I had to listen to this one three or four times before I got it,” and I think this is that kind of record. I don’t think it hits right over the head right away. And I think every record we make is like that in a way, where you just have to sit with it for a bit for it to reveal its true nature. And also then your relationship to the song is allowed to evolve overtime and isn’t just  a flash in the pan experience.

MM: Is that kind of response part of the incentive to keep writing complex, powerful songs?

SR: You shouldn’t let your self get too far ahead of yourself that way either and I don’t want to say that it would make me stick to one way of doing things because I think that when you sit down and write, you have to feel that freedom to do whatever comes naturally to you at the time. My favorite songs to write are the simplest songs, it’s just that they’re harder to come by. Strangely enough.

MM: After this tour, what’s next for the Sam Roberts Band?

SR: This tour is just starting so right now that seems SO far away that I can’t even fathom. I want to be on the road for quite while with this record because it feels really good to play and I hope that it brings a new element to our live show that will keep people coming back. At the same time, I’d prefer not to put out records every three years, which is what happens when you’re on tour for a year and a half then all of a sudden, you find yourself with a great deal of time. I want to make more music than I’ve been making in the last few years. I feel the urge to do that. So it’s a bit of a balance and I haven’t quite figured out how to strike that balance yet.

MM: Do you have some recording equipment in the tour bus?

SR: No, nothing. I don’t even bother because I know that’s not going to happen. And that’s what I mean when I say there’s so much time between writing. It’s not just making a record but actually writing. I finished writing this record last summer and I haven’t written a song since. It’s already been almost a year since I wrote a song. I collect ideas, I’ve got a lot of ideas but I still have to do all that work to turn those fragments into a song. So, I just don’t write when we’re on the road. You’ve got to be up for the show and it’s hard enough to stay focused on that one thing. Some people are amazing; you walk in their bus or their van or their hotel room and they’ve set up a studio and they’ve got two hours and they’re working! I have the utmost respect and admiration and envy for those people because they make a lot of music, but I’m just not one of them. I need peace and space  and if I don’t have it the ideas just don’t come, you know.

The Sam Roberts Band is touring the US and Canada for the next three months so check out their website HERE for tour information.

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