“The Creative Well Won’t Run Dry”: A Q&A With Sam Roberts

Photo: © Paul Labonté

Sam Roberts, of Sam Roberts Band, has been a steady player in the Canadian music scene for well over a decade. From the scrappy and determined roots of his first EP, the artist has gone on to critical acclaim, with a host of Juno and MuchMusic awards to show for it.  

Having recently finished touring his latest album, Terraform, the busy artist took a break to chat with us about his earliest influences, choosing a band name, and an era we’re hereby coining the Sam Roberts Calendar Year.  

What or who instilled your first love of music?

Tough to pinpoint one person or thing…it’s always been a big part of my life. I do remember specifically a moment when my parents insisted that I pick up an instrument and start taking lessons. I didn’t realize at the time, first of all, how strict my parents were going to be about it! But also [how that choice] was going to define my life in so many ways. How much I look to music, even for an identity. How I dressed, how I saw myself, from that moment.

I picked the violin and took classical lessons my whole life. I still take them, actually. But eventually it became a love of rock and roll music.

How I earn a living, how I support my family…It all started on that fateful day in the late 1970s.

Your parents were South African immigrants who moved to Montreal just before having you. How did their journey and decision affect your upbringing?

It was a huge part of my life…For any people growing up in Canada with parents from another country, you have one foot in the old world and one foot in the new. And you’re sort of learning about Canada together.

As I was growing up, as much as I was learning about Montreal—the city that I was growing up in and [have spent] my life in—as well as the rest of the country, my parents were learning about it at the same time. It’s strange to be—not on equal footing with your parents, but to undergo that process of awareness or learning together.

At the same time, we had a huge family in South Africa, so it was always a really big part of how we thought of ourselves and how we felt that we belonged as well. Certainly the music itself from South Africa has played a huge role in how I write music, and the music that I love and the music that I listen to in my own time. I’ve always been greatly influenced by the music from there.

Who were your favourite musicians and musical influences when you were growing up?

I was basically hungry for any new music that I could find, but at first that all came from my dad’s record collection. He had this big pile of vinyl records, and I would just sit there and go through them — and then when I got to the bottom of the pile, start all over again. He was into some really cool stuff—he still is— but he was listening to a lot of the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Kinks, Rolling Stones records…But then he also got into psychedelic rock. He spent time in England in the early 70s and got into bands like Hawkwind… really drone-y, psych rock bands. So I kind of got a mixed bag of an education when it came to the music I was listening to as a kid.

Why the name “Sam Roberts Band”? Did you ever think of calling the group by another name?

Oh yeah! We had a lot of different names over the years. Our band started in high school. Three of us have been playing together since then, and going back to high school…we would change our name once a week. If you can’t find success, the only possible reason or explanation in our minds was that our name must be wrong, not that the music was bad. Rather than changing the way we wrote songs, we would change the name. And we soon figured out that wasn’t the case.

At a certain point after we graduated from university, that was the first time I think we really felt the pressures from the so-called ‘real world’ starting to knock at the door. And parents who had always been very supportive, and still continue to be supportive, started looking a little bit more worried about where we were going with our lives and [wondering] how much more time could we possibly devote to this band at the expense of starting to pursue actual careers and other things.

During that time the band went on the one hiatus I would say we’ve ever had. It just so happened during that year that I recorded the songs that became the EP, which was called The Inhuman Condition. At the time I had no band. I wasn’t playing live on stage with anybody. But of course, as luck would have it, it was that collection of songs that ended up sparking peoples’ interest and getting played on the radio for the first time, and basically launching our careers.

So I was a solo artist at the time and recorded the songs on my own, (well, with my friend Jordan Zadorozny, that is.) I was Sam Roberts. There was nobody else to attach a name to at the time. But of course, as soon as that happened, the band got back together. But it was too late then. Things had already started moving.

Was there a particular moment in your career that you now reflect upon as your ‘big break’?

For sure — that was the one. The strange thing was, we had taken the six songs that made up The Inhuman Condition and had mailed them out to every single record company in Canada, and had tried to court any kind of interest. And we had been flatly rejected by every single one of them.

A friend of ours, who would sit quietly in the corner of my friend Jordan’s basement—his parents’ place—while we were recording, took the music without us knowing it and mailed it out to two Ottawa radio stations. And it was somehow through doing that that the DJs found the music and decided to take a chance on it, which quite honestly doesn’t happen very often. They started playing the songs, and people started reacting to them, calling in and wondering who it was. And it grew out of this very spontaneous, almost accidental thing.

So if I were to pick somebody who probably didn’t know they were going to play such a huge role in it either, it’s this guy Matt LeMay, sitting in my friend Jordan’s basement, who took it upon himself to send the music to these radio stations.

You now have six albums under your belt. Looking back, was there an album that still holds a special place for you as the most personal or most challenging?

They say you have twenty years to write your first album and six months to write your second. I’d agree with that formula; that rang very true at the time. Going into the first album was easy, because I had all of these songs stored up and I could select the best of them and make an album.

With the second record, I literally had to come up with something from nothing. In doing that, you sort of have to learn to find something new in the way you write music, or in your creative process. Being able to work under the gun — I’d never had to do that before. I’d never had expectations placed upon me, either by myself or by other people, and certainly not by a public.

So I think that second record, Chemical City, which we made in Australia…I feel like I had to fight for that one almost more than the other ones that I’ve made. Because of that I feel more protective of it or something.

What song do you get asked to play the most?

I mean, there are songs that we know we’re going to play anyway, so people don’t ask for them. But I would probably still say it’s “Brother Down”. Going back to the beginning, the one that started it all — which is fitting, I suppose.

How has your music changed over the years?

We’ve always felt sort of unattached to any one particular version of ourselves, as musicians or as a band. And because of that, we’ve always felt free to explore what moves us as music and worry about whether it’s going to move other people later.

That’s not to say that we haven’t had stress and panic over the records that we’ve made. That absolutely has existed, and that’s a part of it as well. At some point you just go, will this be accepted by other people? But I feel that when we sit down to write music or to record music, that’s very far from our minds. We’ve really just been able to trust our own instincts over the years, and that has led to a lot of different avenues and paths along the way. I feel like it’s still open-ended, and because of that, it’s easy to think of ourselves as doing this for another thirty or forty years. If we’re still alive, that is! The creative well won’t run dry. We’ve never drawn from one stream all the time. A lot of water metaphors in there!

When can your fans expect your next album? What sort of direction do you feel that you’re heading in, musically?

Well, it’s funny that we’re talking to each other today. Today is the first day of the new cycle for us. This is an imaginary cycle, by the way. It’s not a season that you can set your watch by, or anything.

Our tour for the last record sort of officially ended last Friday as we see it. We still have a few shows to play here and there, but in my mind now the energy and focus of the band, and myself, anyway, goes into writing new material. Once that starts, it’s kind of hard to stop. It also means that I have no idea when or what’s gonna happen, or when anything will be ready or heard by anybody. Nothing exists at this point. It’s all just a big blank canvas, which is what the beginning of every record feels like. It’s obviously exciting, but it’s also daunting to think that that canvas has to be sold.

Well, it’s a pleasure to be speaking with you at the beginning of the Sam Roberts Calendar Year.

Yes! What’s the date? September 25th!

You’ll be performing in Kitchener at the Bingemans’ Oktoberfest Kool Haus on October 11th. What can your fans expect to hear at the show?

The last time we played at the Kitchener Oktoberfest we played “Roll Out The Barrel” with polka king Walter Ostanek. I mean, literally anything could happen.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.