Sam Roberts is a Canadian rock songsmith from Montreal, QC who has been playing in bands for more than twenty years. Earlier this summer, his breakout EP The Inhuman Condition — one of the biggest successes in Canadian independent music history — celebrated its twelfth anniversary, and earlier this year, the Sam Roberts Band released their fifth full-length studio record, Lo-Fantasy. Sam Roberts Band played the Tumbler Ridge Golf & Country Club on Sunday, August 10th, and after the show, Peace FM's own Justin Morissette was fortunate to chat with Sam about seeing the country through music, the stigma that Lo-Fantasy is a "dance record", and finding a home for lost songs.
Justin Morissette: First of all Sam, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me.
Sam Roberts: My pleasure Justin, welcome to our dark trailer. We are in the dark here, in a trailer, backstage at the Tumbler Ridge Golf & Country Club, and I can’t see you, but I can hear you.
JM: Well you just wrapped up a great set here at the Tumbler Ridge Golf Course. This is your first time in Tumbler Ridge… You’ve probably played a great deal of outdoor shows over the course of the summer, a bunch of different festivals and whatnot, but is it a little bit different to get outside up here in the Great Northern Wild?
SR: This is a real treat for us as a band. All the hard work that you put in, sort of getting your career going, getting a head of steam, getting your music out there and getting the band on the road as much as possible… Finally you get to come to places like this, some of the most beautiful places, a little bit out of the way perhaps and maybe the kind of community that we wouldn’t otherwise necessarily get a chance to come and visit. But here we are, we get to come play music for all you people. Couldn’t ask for anything better, really.
JM: I know they tried to get you to play Grizfest in Tumbler Ridge last weekend, is that what caught your eye about the place? What brings you this way?
SR: We have a good friend here, Graham [Johnson, who owns the golf course], who’s been sort of pioneering our band anyway, getting us into some of the more northerly communities. He was the first guy to bring us into Grande Prairie in Alberta, and places like that. So coming out here to Tumbler Ridge hopefully is just opening the doors to pushing further and further north. There are all these places that we feel we need to see, and I don’t care if 50 people or a thousand people come out to see us play, we’ll show up and we’ll put on a show.
JM: It's safe to say you’ll come back this way again?
SR: Oh, absolutely. I think we’ve broken the ice now you know, now we have a relationship.
JM: Let’s talk about the new record a bit, Lo-Fantasy. It came out in February of course — great album, let me say that first of all. The buzz around it seems to be that it’s the Sam Roberts Band "dance record". Is it fair to call it that?
SR: I think there’s always been a sort of rhythmic or dance element to even our more rock & roll oriented songs, they’ve always had a heavy rhythmic underpinning to them. I think we just let it bubble to the surface a little bit more. For me, it’s what I look for in music. Whether it’s electronic music or listening to a Rolling Stones record, what I gravitate towards — aside from melody, obviously, and lyrics — is definitely the rhythm.
JM: I was gonna say, that dancy rhythm — and you mentioned it right there — has kinda always been a part of your sound. A song like “Them Kids” for example isn’t off the new record at all, and it’s pretty well all about getting the crowd moving.
SR: Absolutely! And I think back, even the first song we ever had played on the radio, “Brother Down". That song was built around the beat. A song like “Where Have All The Good People Gone?” too, some of our biggest radio singles have all been very rhythmic in their nature. I think people end up hearing the words, or they hear the riff, but as a band I think what we respond to the most is what keeps us moving. And that’s what you want to see in the crowd as well! I think maybe over the years we’ve just sort of honed in on the fact that what we like about our shows is when people are dancing, and that feeling of everybody just forgetting whatever it is that’s bothering them, whatever ails them, physically, emotionally, whatever. They come to a show and they just let it all go, and I think you get to that place through moving, through dancing.
JM: Was it just a matter of introducing more synthesizer this time out? Why does this one get the dance focus?
SR: I don’t really know. I think our last record had a lot of it too, to be honest with you. And to be honest with you, the way people describe our music… I can’t put too much importance on that. It’s how I feel about it, and how we as a band feel about it, and what it brings out of us. There were songs three records ago that I think are just as dance-oriented as this one.
The synthesizer doesn’t hurt though. I think the fact that we were all born in the 70s and grew up in the 80s, when the synthesizer sort of came into its own… We’ve always associated even rock & roll or pop music with a heavy synthesizer presence. We just allowed it to come into the foreground [this time] rather than being just a texture in the background.
JM: And it seems like there’s a lot of bands who are doing that at the moment. When you look at a bunch of the new records, especially in Canadian music, that have come out in the last year or so, Hannah Georgas’ last record is very synth-heavy. Tegan and Sara also. And that second example [2013's Heartthrob] is definitely a band that kind of lost their sound in that transition a little bit. Lo-Fantasy still sounds like a Sam Roberts record. Were you at all concerned going into the process that that might not be the case?
SR: I don’t think that, as a songwriter especially… If you’re going to write a song, a strong song, it doesn’t matter how you wrap it up necessarily. The song will come through. And that, to me, I’m always on high alert for that. If I feel like I’m losing a song to the method of delivery, then I’ll scrap it and start over again. So if it becomes more about the fact that it has synthesizers in it or it’s sort of an attempt at a new direction or texture, then I’ll go back to the beginning. You have to be able to play it on an acoustic guitar. If you can’t play it on an acoustic guitar then chances are there’s not much of a song at the heart of the whole thing. I’m still very much, I think, a songwriter at heart, and how we wrap it up is a different story altogether.
JM: You weren’t worried at all about making U2’s Pop, for example?
SR: You know, I don’t worry about a whole hell of a lot when I’m writing. And maybe that comes from the fact that I’m in my basement at home, and the rest of the world sort of ceases to exist and I don’t necessarily weigh the consequences of every single decision I’m making musically. I just go with what’s moving me at the time, and what makes me feel good. You become your own barometer for whether a song is moving in the right direction or the wrong direction. It’s a bit of a selfish process to be honest with you, but it’s only when I bring it to the band and play my demo for them that it becomes real, in a way. Before that it’s just you and your music, and it’s all pretty… I don’t know. It doesn’t have the weight of consequence attached to it, and I enjoy that the most. That to me is the most freeing part of the whole thing, where you really feel like you can do whatever the hell you want, whatever moves you, whatever comes to you. It’s only when you get up onstage and you’re like “Oh shit, I gotta play this song in front of people now,” you know? Then it becomes real, then it becomes something tangible.
JM: Lyrically, the album seems to be a lot about loss. Loss of relationships, the past, loss of a sense of self almost. Is there an irony in putting that kind of personal loss of a sense of self into the lyrics when the music is about as sure of itself as its ever been?
SR: You know, yeah, maybe there is. And I think that the tension between those two things is important, the fact that you say one thing and the music makes you feel another way. I think that’s always been a part of what we go for, of what I go for as a songwriter, is to have this sort of uplifting rhythm or melody, and yet at the same time you listen to the words and it’s talking about the end of the world. I think that’s something that I enjoy. I like that, that you’re challenging yourself to go to a place, to confront something and ultimately, hopefully, you come back from it better off, or at least unscathed.
In this case, I think you’re absolutely right, a lot of this record is about dealing with the fact that we all change. Our relationship with who we are as people, with ourselves, changes over time, and we grapple with that from the minute you become conscious of it to the day you die, really. But it’s not a negative, it’s just a part of life, and it’s part of growing as a person. I’m just doing it through music, but I think ultimately there’s a redemption… I *try* to get to a point of redemption, I don’t always succeed, but I always try to get to a point of redemption at the end of every song. Because I’m still here, and I still love what I do, I love my life, I love my family. I’m not ruled by despair in any way. But you have to let whatever despair you feel come into your songs at some point, so that you can get to the heart of it, and deal with it, and look at it straight in the eye and wrestle it to the ground before coming back from it.
JM: We’ve kinda dived into the songwriting process here… You’re definitely an artist where it seems when you listen to the record, just about every single song could be a single. You talked about how if a song starts to get away from you, just scrapping it and throwing it in the trash. Is the fact that that’s true, and I believe it to be, a reflection of what the refinement process is like for you, so that every single song on the record belongs on there?
SR: Yeah, and I think that that’s something where it depends on your approach as a songwriter, as a band. Some people are more comfortable writing 40 songs, and then they cull the herd down to 12 or 13 or 14 songs. Whereas for me, I try to just go in and build it one piece at a time until I have thirteen songs, maybe fourteen, and it ends up being a twelve-song record. I’m more comfortable with that approach, knowing that I’m really putting everything into every song that ends up being written, and that the ones that don’t get written aren’t supposed to be written, because they weren’t very good to begin with. Or maybe there’s pieces of it and I’ll cannibalize it later, I’ll take a riff or a line or something and use it down the line. But now, it’s just not its time. Or now, it doesn’t belong on this record and I’ll just keep it to the bare essentials, basically.
JM: Or there’s a song like "Broken Teeth", which comes out just weeks after the record drops...
SR: And that one hurt the most! That song hurt the most, honestly. Because it was at the absolute dead-center of this record, and it’s crazy that it’s not on it. It’s crazy that it’s not on this record. [someone brings Sam a drink] This is why we come to Tumbler Ridge! [laughs] But no, getting back to "Broken Teeth", I think that sometimes you have these songs and you build everything around them. And that song, it was like I built the whole idea of what the record was going to be around it. And then Youth came in, our producer, and all of the sudden [the record] started to take on a new sort of sonic complexion. And then you look at it, and you try to create continuity on all fronts: thematically, musically, melodically. And you’ve got this one song that’s supposed to be there… It’s supposed to be there! But all of the sudden it’s sort of sticking out in the wrong direction. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but sometimes it pulls away from the record as an experience — something that you can listen to from start to finish. And we just could not fit it back into the fold.
JM: Do you regret that?
SR: I do! I do. I do. I do. I listen to it now, and I know that it doesn’t belong on this record. But you also don’t want to just set it adrift. Because there’s nothing in my mind that’s a worse crime than having a song that you’ve cared a great deal about and just sort of throwing it out there to the wolves, so to speak, and not giving it the context that it needs. So that particular song now, I want to build a little EP around it with maybe five songs — all the stuff that didn’t make the cut from this last record, or different versions of different songs, and there’s some pretty different versions of things — to just have an EP to give it its own place, a proper place, not just say “Oh here’s a song, and, y’know, we let this one go.” Because to me, they’re precious, because I don’t write a whole hell of a lot of them.
JM: Well this has been super insightful, Sam. I want to thank you so much for your time, and Tumbler Ridge and the South Peace thanks you for being here.
SR: My pleasure. Thanks for coming to my very dark world back here and sharing the back of the trailer here with me for a few moments.
Lo-Fantasy is available now wherever music is sold these days. Go buy it, ya dummy.