Sam Roberts, coming up for air

Hopeful, clean-shaven and three albums old, CanRock’s friendliest face is looking to love at the end of the world

Sam Roberts and his band will be headlining this year’s Frosh Week Concert tonight with fellow Montrealer friends The Stills.
Image supplied by: Supplied
Sam Roberts and his band will be headlining this year’s Frosh Week Concert tonight with fellow Montrealer friends The Stills.

If the hope-tinged apocalyptic title of Sam Roberts’ latest album Love At The End of The World wasn’t already a tip-off, actually chatting with the shaggy-haired rocker confirms what his down-to-earth lyrics and jangly guitar music suggest: Roberts is a nice guy.

When I called Sam Roberts, he greeted me enthusiastically as he navigated between sidewalk and street, driving himself and all his earthly possessions through Montreal. He was in the middle of moving and had just pulled over to do the interview, the din of angry honking motorists and their noisy engines in the background.

By the time you read this, hopefully Roberts will have settled into his new place—just in time to rush off and play tonight’s Frosh Week Concert at Fort Henry with friends and fellow Montrealers The Stills. The Kingston show comes right after his appearance at small town Amerstburg’s wine festival and just before the band embarks on their largest European tour, where they’ll make stops throughout Spain, Germany and the UK.

With his one foot planted firmly on Canadian soil, Roberts may still have the heart to play small towns, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t harbour big travelling dreams for his band. A well-worn touring veteran who has crossed Canada countless times, Roberts said playing other countries, though rewarding, is a new game altogether.

“The challenge for us when we’re working outside our home territory is just to get into the room. In the States, for example, we’ve pushed to play there for the last five years and it’s not necessarily to the fanfare we enjoy north of the boarder. The fans we’ve made down there are due to our stubbornness,” he said.

“We have a fraction of the amount of press, radio play, media coverage or whatever it may be. But once you’re up on stage you just play for whoever’s there and forget about that. … It keeps your band focused on playing well, because if you do stay focused and forget about all the things you don’t have, good things comes from that.”

This determined approach to performing carries over to making the music in the first place. The band may enjoy their status as staple CanRockers, but this wasn’t always the case. Starting when he was 18, Roberts pursued making music his career like it was his only option for the next 10 years, only to finally break radio and television waves in 2002 with the flyaway hit “Brother Down” from his independent EP The Inhuman Condition.

“There was no choice. I just pursued it and pursued it. I never gave into the temptation of making more money by getting a better paying job,” Roberts said.

“For, like, 10 years it didn’t work. I tried to get my career of the ground. I tried to get people to listen. For whatever reason I felt like I had to and then one day the door opened and I ran in before it closed again.”

Now, three full-length records later, Roberts still has a job. He seems to have grown into his role as the heart-and-soul rocker of the national scene and grown up a bit since the days of We Were Born in a Flame’s straightforward, head-nodding tunes like “Don’t Walk Away Eileen” and even the loose-feel of 2005’s quasi-concept album Chemical City. Love At The End of the World still retains that feel-good rock vibe Roberts is known and loved for by his fans, but the record’s a little more polished in execution.

“Musically, it’s less meandering. It’s a little more focused and sharper edged. I think we’ve pushed ourselves more on this record musically than we have in the past,” Roberts said.

“When we finished, it was like coming up for air. I felt like I’d been submerged for a long time. Previous records did have that feeling, but this was the most engrossing—it just sort of pulled us all into it and spat us out at the end.”

The product of this process is an album that serves as both a warning and celebration of life on this planet with a steady and tight musical direction. “We sow the seeds to our own destruction. We are responsible: It’s not Mother Nature who deals us the harshest blows—it’s ourselves,” he said.

“At the same time we have this incredible capacity to do good and do beautiful things, making music being one of them, and that’s where the hope comes from. You have to find the places where the hope’s still shining. I guess that’s a natural human instinct to find the good despite all of the shit that’s flying at us all the time.”

Roberts seems to cover this ground on the title track as well as the songs “Fixed To Ruin,” “End Of The Empire” and “Stripmall Religion.” But the first single “Them Kids,” which is Roberts’ first song to debut at No. 1 on the Canadian charts, comes across as a more personal anxiety about aging in the music industry. “It’s about me and people like me, musicians, trying to find a place for themselves that isn’t going to disappear,” Roberts said.

“The kids are who you rely on to sustain your career, fuel what you do. They’re fickle in your eyes and they can turn on you and they can forget and move on to the next thing,” he said.

“As you get older you get further and further away from being a young person with that ‘fuck you rock and roll’ attitude that was so unconscious at the time.” “You want to show them the light, something that’s pure instead of this sort of plastic media construction that tend to dominate the airwaves, television, you name it.”

Despite the sort of old man, “damn kids” trope Roberts’ comments conjure, the album veers away from didactic. It’s kind of playful. Roberts’ concerned lyrics slip in under the layers of bouncing melody, lively guitars and lead guitarist Dave Nugent’s classic rock-inspired solos. As usual, Roberts can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“That tension [between light and dark] is part of what makes good music, you know? To never give yourself over to one extreme or the other. To let them fight it out, lyrically and musically.”

Interview with Sam Roberts: Extended Excerpts

On making the video for “Them Kids”

“It was like being a character on ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’ I think. Five hours of make-up and a complete transformation. It was really spooky for everyone, including myself to see this make-up that was so thorough and so incredible to see. Even people standing right next to me were completely fooled and drawn into the make-up.”

“Then we went out to the bar and I was dressed as this 100-year-old man. I was arm-wrestling my buddies and the people were probably wondering who this old guy was hanging out with all these young guys.”

“We had a lot of fun with it—probably the most fun video we’ve ever made.”

On the term ‘Canadian Rock’

“We’ve travelled coast to coast more times than I can imagine and connected to people more times than I thought was possible. If that’s a label, or whatever, I wear it proudly. I certainly don’t see it as a negative thing.”

“You’d like to think the music transcends national boundaries. I don’t make music for Canadians—I make it for people. It’s one of the great connecting forces in the world.

To limit music to our own national boundary doesn’t make sense, on my part, anyway. That’s why we feel compelled to go to Europe and the states and wherever.

You are a missionary of sorts, not that you need to bring a message of social consciousness. You’re going out there and sharing a message: music. … That’s something we all try and keep at the forefront.”

On his musical beginnings

“Well, I started playing the violin when I was four or five years old. My parents picked the violin and from then on, I can’t remember not having an instrument in my hand. I loved it and I hated it. I wrestled with it, like so many young people do when they’re learning how to play and suddenly it turned into songwriting.” “I wanted to say things in my own way. I was a teenager when this happened.

I think it’s typical for people to start writing around then—that’s when you’re thinking other people’s ideas aren’t the same as yours. So oftentimes that’s when the songs start coming out for the first time.”

On the first taste of success

“Well of course, there’s disbelief at first, fear and suspicion that it’s just a hallucination. But it’s a real thing and as such you have to take care of it and push it forward and make the right decisions.”

“Once that initial phase of not really believing this is happening comes to a close, you have to treat it, not in a practical way, but in a way that guarantees that it lasts. We went out on the road. We played and played and I did all my interviews, taking care of the details and being involved in everything—not leaving everything up to everybody else.

Not getting carried away by your own delusions of grandeur. Doing all those things right has allowed me to keep people’s trust and allow me to make the music I want to make

without having to give it up to the producers or people who think you should sound a certain way because it’ll sell.”

“We try to be on the ball with the nitty-gritty. If you do that you’ll be able to stick around longer than some of the one-hit wonders.”

On the end of the world

“We seem to be racing towards the brink. Part of the questioning in this record is ‘Is this a natural part of the human condition, pushing ourselves to the end?’ I’m pretty sure if you asked people in the 70s if they thought the end was nigh, they’d say ‘Yes.’ It’s a universal part of human experience.”

Roberts plays tonight’s Frosh concert with The Stills at Fort Henry. Tickets are $20 from Destinations for students (includes transportation) and $25 for the general public.

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