Rock steady Sam Roberts
by Ryan McNutt
In an era when popular music is often criticized for its soullessness, Sam Roberts, BA’98, stands apart.
Even when the Montreal-based songwriter and Sam Roberts Band frontman is in full-on ‘rock and roller’ mode, there’s a warmth and naturalism to his music that stretches through a decade of hit records, from his breakthrough EP, The Inhuman Condition, through his new album, Collider. Along the way, he’s contributed more than his fair share of standards to the Canadian song catalogue: “Brother Down,” “Don’t Walk Away Eileen,” “Bridge to Nowhere” and other radio gems that resonate long after they leave the airways.
And all of it still surprises the six-time Juno Award winner.
“I mean, when we put that first EP out anything could have happened – it could have been a flash in the pan,” he says. “I never envisioned what we have today. And I’m not talking about fame or success, I just mean the depth of our career to this point, the fact that we’re still so independent-minded and still able to go out there and have more of a mass appeal; it’s a recipe I never thought we’d be able to come up with.”
Collider, the latest ingredient to that recipe, is Roberts’s first album in three years and the first to be fully credited to the Sam Roberts Band. Though he’s long represented his outfit as a proper band whenever possible, his early success came during a period when he was working mostly on his own, making the singer-songwriter perception hard to shake.
“We stuck with the name for a long time. And you know, the truth is that it does reflect, somewhat, the reality of this band, in that I do write the songs and I’ve been at the forefront of the band for a time. But I think that role is becoming shared, for sure. People who’ve followed the band over the years recognize the role that the other guys play, whether on-stage or now more so in the studio as well.”
Reflecting that shift, Collider is less riff-based than previous albums, instead focusing on groove and rhythm. On tracks like “The Last Crusade” and lead single “I Feel You,” you can hear the work of bassist James Hall, BA’98, at the forefront, and the album features more horns than ever before. It was recorded in Chicago with Brian Deck, who has produced albums for Modest Mouse and Iron & Wine.
“He’d made records that I thought treated rhythm in an interesting way,” says Roberts, adding that Deck entered the sessions full of suggestions. “That’s what you want from a producer… to push you and challenge you to think outside your own box. And he definitely did that.”
These days, one of Roberts’ challenges is balancing life as a working musician with home life, where he has three young kids, the newest joining the family in April.
“On the one hand, it’s very difficult, obviously, because you’re away for long stretches of time. The flip side of that, of course, is that you get to spend all of your time with your kids when you are at home. It’s something that we’ve been working at for the past few years, trying to find that formula that works on both fronts.”
He’s doing better at balancing priorities now than he did at McGill, when he acknowledges that the band, by far, took too much precedence.
“We started playing a lot more gigs then, and conspiring rather than studying as much as we should have,” he says in a half-guilty tone. That said, his studies in English literature still had an influence on his work. “The sheer number of books and creative information coming and going was definitely feeding directly into what I was writing about. I was moving on from being an angst-ridden teenager writing about lost girlfriends to trying to consider, I guess, more fundamentally human problems.”
And through it all, there was Montreal: the only city Roberts has ever called home, and the city that still inspires him today.
“During that post-university period when we were struggling to make ends meet, we still felt completely within our rights as citizens of Montreal to be pursuing this thing that was quite unlikely. And I think that’s something that’s not just accepted by people in Montreal, but encouraged; that creative pursuits, a creatively-based life is as respectable as being a stock broker or a lawyer. And I think that’s a rare, rare phenomenon in today’s world.”