Sam Roberts Band: Without A Map

By: Dennis Cook

Sam Roberts Band by JC McIlwaine
Few rock bands in the past decade have exhibited as steady and sure an evolution as the Sam Roberts Band. Gliding somewhere between riff-savvy classic rock and a modern sensibility a good deal away from such 1970s moves, Sam Roberts and his talented group have knocked out six albums, each a touch stronger and more clearly etched than the last. Their latest, Collider (released May 10 on Zoe/Rounder in U.S.), begins with a crusade and ends with a pair of contemporary blues, and all that transpires between these bookends is focused, exceedingly catchy rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s a listening experience that makes one wonder why the Sam Roberts Band aren’t as well known in the States as they are in their native Canada given how well they’d slot in next to 2011 chart-toppers like Foo Fighters and Mumford & Sons, except they make better music than either of these examples and most of the rest of the industry sanctioned rock today. In spirit, they aren’t far off from revered cult darlings Dr. Dog, though touched with a bit more polish and outright groove than their Philly lost cousins. And the band carries their quality onto stages, too, proving one of the most reliably energetic, engaging rock acts going. When Sam Roberts Band plays there’s a sense of happy possession in the room, the band tapping into any loose wild hairs in the audience and pulling hard. Their obvious passion and skill are deeply infectious, and they’ve got the tunes, vocals and other key components to really sink in once they’ve gotten their fangs into you.

We sat down with Sam Roberts to discuss their latest long-player, Canadian success and its role in the States, apocalyptic ideas and more.

new album
JamBase: If anything your band has gotten more intriguing and more full of hooks as you’ve gone along. It’s harder all the time to peg the Sam Roberts Band with the usual music writer equation of this band + this band – these characteristics + these adjectives = soundbite. It’s always great when one can’t place a band’s ancestors.

Sam Roberts: Then our plan is working! The strategy is finally paying off after all these years [laughs]. I can’t see why that happens, but hopefully it’s just a byproduct of years of doing this, where you gain an understanding of yourselves as a band where you’re able to use your influences without borrowing so completely from them that they’re clearly identifiable. That’s something we’re after and I hope grows deeper and more complex as we find our own voice as the years go by.

JamBase: The new record is one of the sharpest things you’ve released. It seems like anything that wasn’t deemed absolutely necessary was sheared away, giving the music on Collider a lean, pointed quality.

Sam Roberts: I credit [producer] Brian Deck (Gomez, Counting Crows) with a lot of that. He honed in on what’s essential AND took on the somewhat considerable task of convincing the rest of us why it was necessary to follow that path in order to get a song that was more powerful in its clarity. When things are more convoluted and have murkier sonics it’s hard to have the kinds of peaks and valleys this record presents.

The songs are determined to get their points across and make them in a really firm way. And it works. Each time I put this record on the individual parts establish themselves more firmly. The songs stand out individually but it also holds together well as an album.

Sam Roberts Band
Because making an album happens on two fronts, the micro and macroscopic views, on the one hand, you’re trying to treat every song with the right amount of focus and make them as good as they can be, but at the same time you’re trying to keep an eye on where the whole thing, collectively, is moving. That’s part of the trick, but again, making more and more records you’re better able to divide your attention between those two perspectives and make them work in conjunction.

How did you end up choosing Brian to produce this album? I’ve dug Brian since his days in Red Red Meat.

It just happened. I’d been listening to this great Califone record called Roots & Crowns last summer while I was making [Collider], and Brian produced it. His work with Modest Mouse and Iron & Wine has stood out as well. Then, I sent him off our demos and his response was so enthusiastic and positive in a constructive way, like, “I really like what you’re doing but…” and there’s a big “but,” like five pages of notes on what we could do differently.

That has to be daunting and cool at the same time.

Brian Deck
Exactly! It’s a simultaneous slap in the face and pat on the back. It was clear he thought really, really hard about it. And that’s why you work with a producer. Otherwise, why not just make your own records? I put a lot of work into my demos, and to have somebody come back and say, “This sounds really cool but…” is hard. But at the same time, if you really want to work with someone, to add their different perspective to bring the songs to another level, then you have to embrace that criticism and realize even if you’ve done all you can do for a song there’s still this other place it can go to. Then it becomes a leap of faith, a matter of trust that whoever you’re working with has the best interest of your songs at heart. And Brian inspired that kind of trust.

You’ve always been a great guitar rock band but there’s a brevity to the guitar attack on Collider that leans towards the groovier side of things.

It seemed like a natural progression. It felt like we were adding something to the songs rather than detracting by playing less. We’re making what we played count for more. It was really great to write guitar parts in that sense and leave it open for other things to play a larger role, be it the introduction of woodwinds, percussion or whatnot. The keyboards get more space here since guitars usually take up a lot of real estate. So, I don’t want to say we limited the role of guitars but we made different judgments about what they were playing.

One of the lessons I’ve learned the longer I write – and this is true for many crafts – is there’s real artistry in editing and saying more with less.

It’s a lesson of self-control, but at the same time, you don’t want it to feel stifled. That’s the trick of making this type of record. There’s restraint that needs to be exercised but the overall record should exude spontaneity and exuberance. It’s a bit of a contradiction.

The introduction of things like woodwinds, guest musicians, etc. means that you can say, as a songwriter, “Hmm, this one needs saxophone,” and it happens. That’s gotta be fun.

SRB :: Massey Hall :: 06.04.11
Definitely. There’s barely been a song I’ve written where I didn’t think horns or woodwinds would sound good. All of my past records have had really bad synth versions of the real things because I don’t play any of those instruments. For whatever reason, we usually let that stuff go in favor of other things, but with this one we made a very conscious decision to indulge this fantasy to the fullest. Of course, once you open Pandora’s Box there’s no stopping it, and [horns & woodwinds] ended up on half the record. It was, again, a matter of making space so these things could do what they do best, so we had to be mindful of that from the beginning.

One of the reoccurring themes in your music is apocalyptic/end-of-the-world scenarios. It’s fascinating subject matter but what draws you to it?

I think it’s just a state of mind that we’re not always conscious of but, if you take a step back, humanity exists in at almost every moment. It’s as much a part of our day as talking about the weather. We seem to be on the brink of total collapse all the time. You can look back on every previous generation and find evidence of it right there on the front page. Maybe it’s just how we’re wired, how our brains our connected in some way, that we live with the threat of apocalypse all the time. And yet we overcome and so much of what we do, so much of our creativity, so much of what flourishes in the world is born from a resistance to that very idea.

The great themes of creation and destruction are the poles and everything else falls in coordinates between them.

Sam Roberts by Chad Smith
There’s always that tug of war taking place. And the majority of our suffering is self-inflicted. It’s not an asteroid-based situation; it’s a man-made situation from war, environmental catastrophes, and so many different fronts you can’t keep up with it. And at the same time, we have this amazing capacity for altruism and love that thankfully keeps that in check. And life takes place between those two things.

Do you find being Canadian has an impact on your worldview? I’ve spoken with Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies about this a few times, and he says it does help shift one’s perspective being even just a few miles from America.

I totally agree with him on that point. We’re afforded a very luxurious vantage point being Canadian, at least in the last 50 years. I might not have had the same perspective if I’d been growing up in World War II-era Canada and was sent off to fight in France. For sure, at the moment, we’re fortunate to be a step or two removed from that front line and able to chronicle it, though largely from our imagination. A songwriter who has first-hand knowledge is writing from a completely different place.

One of art’s roles is providing a perspective that being inside these hairy situations wouldn’t likely allow.

Absolutely, and again, it’s a benefit of [this distance], among others.

As a rock band, what’s it like to come at the American market? In Canada, your previous album, Love at the End of the World (2008), won Rock Album of the Year. What are the challenges of bringing homegrown success into the U.S.? In my mind, Sam Roberts Band should already be radio staples here based on the quality of what you do.

Sam Roberts Band by JC McIlwaine
Well, we’re not. I completely put everything that’s happened to us in Canada to rest in the States. In fact, it could be detrimental to our success in the U.S. because it creates an impression of the band that we may not want. It’s something to be locked away when we come to U.S. If we were ever in a situation where we had to grapple with fame and fortune in the States, then we might have some perspective on it [laughs]. But those kinds of lessons are VERY far removed from our reality of coming down and playing for 300 people. Our success in Canada is just not valid here in terms of our touring life and presence on radio, where we’re basically starting from scratch. Well, not really from scratch, because we’ve put out a bunch of records and there’s growing awareness of the band.

That’s what I’m hopeful about for your band in the States, where each time you return the audience builds in each market you come back to. What you do is quality and there’s not enough of that in rock right now.

What you said about reoccurring audiences is really important and special to what we do. It’s rewarding enough to make us keep coming back and, through our own mule-like stubbornness, continue to nurture that seed, presence, foothold or whatever you want to call it so it grows.



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[Published on: 6/23/11]

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