Sam Roberts The Exclaim! Questionnaire
Published Feb 18, 2014Sam Roberts has been misinterpreted for far too long. Since his 2002 arrival with debut EP, The Inhuman Condition, Roberts has been — for better or worse — the face of millennial CanCon radio rock. But Roberts — and the band that shares his name — were never meant to be that kind of band, because at its heart, the Sam Roberts Band are a groovy, wine-fuelled behemoth that just want to have a good time and be free and do what they want to do. And for Roberts, no one has ever understood that quite like Martin Glove (aka Youth), the British producer and founding Killing Joke member, who has previously worked with the likes of the Orb (Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld), Primal Scream (Riot City Blues) and the Verve (Urban Hymns).
"These are the bands that I draw from — the kind of palette — and it's a very broad spectrum," Roberts says, describing why he chose Glover to produce his band's sixth studio album, Lo-Fantasy. "All of a sudden I didn't have to explain that anymore, and I've always had to explain that in some way." Speaking at Toronto's SoHo House the day before a charity hockey game, Roberts spoke candidly about being a dad, what it means to be Canadian and taking his wife to the land down under.
What are you up to?
Man, I have three kids, I'm trying to hold onto a career in rock'n'roll — which is a challenge at the best of times, but a challenge nonetheless. My kids are young, they've got two frogs. One of the frogs eats all the food. I have to feed them four pellets twice a week. There's Nick and Sally. Nick eats all the food, but Sally eats nothing. So I've got this huge problem with my frogs. And I'm putting out a record, which is a tumultuous time in any band's life. It comes around a little more frequently then the Olympics, but when it does you just don't know what the future is going to hold. I'm on the cusp of that right now, where a month from now I just don't know what my life is going to be like. It's either going to be me trying to push something, or me trying to hold onto something as it moves faster than I can.
And maybe a dead frog.
Maybe a dead frog. Sally's going down right now, so I've got to deal with that too.
What are your current fixations?
I'm really into House of Cards right now. I just finished season one, and now it's left that void. It's the same void I'm still feeling from the end of season three of Game of Thrones, which filled the gap momentarily left by season three of Downton Abbey. So I'm basically chasing that cycle of trying to stretch out over a calendar year: as one show finishes, I latch onto the other one. So I've just finished House of Cards season one, and I'm emotionally coming to grips with the fact I'm not going to see it for awhile, and also everything that transpired. So that's the thing I follow more than anything else. Everything else is pretty vague, in that I can't remember what I did at the end of the day, because I'm a dad.
Why do you live where you do?
Because I always have. I've lived in Montreal my whole life. Home is a hard word to define, as you know, but it carries great weight. That indefinable thing that you crave carries a lot of weight in your life. I've been to a lot of places, but I've never been anywhere else that's felt like home. Maybe that's because I haven't given it a chance, but Montreal isn't like anywhere else really. If you spend any time there, you know it. There's just something indescribable about the place. It's not always positive, but even the negative is a positive in the end, because it sets it apart. The landscape is constantly shifting underneath. You don't know what Montreal is going to be like five years from now, or 20 years from now. I think maybe, just as I sort of enjoy the uncertainty of playing music, I enjoy the uncertainty of what kind of city I'm going to live in. Is it going to be politically tumultuous? Is it going to be a period of sort of Dionysian abandon? You never know what you're getting from Montreal. It's a great place to have a family, too. I haven't found any other place that's home.
Name something that you consider a mind-altering work of art:
I don't know any of the names specifically of his paintings, but I've really been getting into Gerhard Richter's paintings recently. Just the idea of his method I find akin to writing music, in that it seems to be full of accidents that come out as this seemingly well-intended whole at the end, but the process is something disjointed and random — to the inexperienced eye, anyway. I'll watch him splash paint on a canvas and take a metal beam and smear it all over, and at first you think, "Oh, he's messed that one up," and all of a sudden it grows into this thing. To me, that's a lot of what writing music is like. You take two seemingly disparate ideas and fuse them together just because and see what grows out of them. All of sudden you have this exponentially expanding experience based on these coincidences more than anything.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
My favourite show that I ever went to was Paul Simon live at the Montreal Forum during the Graceland tour. It was the first concert I ever went to on my own. I bought a ticket for it, took the bus downtown, went to the show, saw this amazing musical experience, and went home. I was too young to even drink. But we've played a lot of shows and some of them have burned their way into my memory. I think the SARS show that we played in Toronto in 2003 [commonly known as SARStock] comes back. You don't know that these things are momentous in your life when they're happening. I guess at that point, because of the scale of it, you knew that it wasn't something you were going to forget easily, but I still wake up from time to time on that stage in front of that many people. It was the only time — is the only time — that my eyes will ever see and feel that pull again. All I hear now when I look back is us playing so fast. We had 15 minutes and we were done in 12, because we were just on hyper-drive. And this was all before 11:30 in the morning.
What have been your career highs and lows?
If I think about the number of times we got turned down... but maybe that's not a low, though. In the end, maybe everything worked out the way it was supposed to work out. But it hurt at the time. It was frustrating at the time and it almost capsized the ship, because you can only be told "no" so many times before you say, "Okay, maybe this isn't going to happen."
But the thing I hate the most is when I deliver a record and it's not heard for what it is. People bring in their preconceived notions of who you are and what you do, and they start interpreting your music based on that. That drives me crazy, to the point that I just don't read it anymore because I don't like that. If I know that that's not what the experience was, if I know that's not what the thought that went into it or the emotion behind it... I guess that's the nature of music journalism, so essentially that means I should just stop reading it.
So I did that. But at the same time you take those negatives and you develop a thick skin. If you want to keep going, if you want to pursue this not just for five years, but for ten years, and go on and on, you need that to happen. So all those low moments that have caused so much grief and self-doubt, essentially yeah, have galvanized, not just me as a songwriter, but my band as well, to go on and do this. The highlight is the fact it still exists. It's almost nothing short of a miracle that we're still doing this. It's a yin and yang. You need the shit to hit the fan from time to time to see how well you survive it and how you overcome it in some way. There have been so many bands, so many people, that I thought were going to be around forever and have fallen by the wayside for so many different reasons.
Music isn't just like a passing fancy for me. It's your DNA revealed in the same way your skin and your eyeballs are. It's inextricably bound up with your being, your person, and you're revealing that to people, to strangers. So when you get a good old-fashioned tongue lashing, it hurts man. There's not other way to describe it.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
I've had lots of shit. "Commie!" That was a great one. Like, "You commie bastard!" We have a song called "Canadian Dream" and the refrain is spelling out the word "socialism" near the middle of the song. But again, that's not even a bad one. What was funny about that was that it was such an '80s American insult.
What should everyone shut up about?
Polar vortex, man. It's just called cold. In Canada we call it cold.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I can be pretty stubborn, and that's not always a good thing. It's good to be stubborn in music, but not good to be stubborn with your family. The traits that help you in one way are sort of a disservice in another. And also single-mindedness, which I think is sort of a vital part of making a career or life for yourself in music. Single-mindedness is not always the best answer to anything. Open-mindedness is an ideal state in some ways, but it doesn't always give you the fuel to bear down on a problem and fix it. But yeah, I can be too single-minded, and that spills over to everything: my relationship with my friends; my relationship with my bandmates. So I have to learn how to temper that. Again, as Ricky from Trailer Park Boys would say, maybe that's getting two birds stoned at once. It might be kind of helping me make a life playing music.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
I play the violin, so on Sunday I go see my teacher I've been taking lessons with since I was four years old. My daughters go with me and we take our lessons together. Maybe go play a bit of shinny hockey outside. If it's the summer time, just go putter around in my vegetable garden for a little bit — and if I had to grow food for a living, my family would have starved a long time ago. I'm not very good at it, but I try anyway. Then we go to my parents for dinner and my brothers come over and we shoot the shit. Then the kids are asleep in the car by the time I go home. All I have to do is carry them to bed.
What advice should you have taken but did not?
I think there were some chances in the States back in the day with our first few albums coming out where I was too precious about it. It was still in the day where the word sell-out was thrown around a lot more, so you were always worried about selling out. Like, in the '90s it was almost impossible not to sell out. You do this, you're a sell-out, you do that, you're a sell-out. It was just like this threat from everywhere. So I kind of went into the 2000s with this "Don't be a sell-out" mentality. Meanwhile, it was getting harder and harder making a living doing music. There were fewer and fewer opportunities. Napster was taking over; even that seems like this antiquated term now, but at the time it was very real. But I still didn't want to be a sell-out, because that's the worst thing you could be. So I think we may have hurt ourselves, just not taking opportunities. Having your song on a show or a TV commercial at the time was still pretty questionable. Maybe it would have helped us. So we've taken the long road to build our way back to what a few of those opportunities would have provided right from the beginning. Again, stubbornness didn't serve me that well at that time.
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
Well, I mean, it's my wife, so I'd have to say snoring for that one. But a bandmate who puts themselves outside of the collective is poison. I think that's sort of what we've tried to maintain, is this sense of five individuals acting as a whole. It's a struggle, because my name's in the band name, and I get preferential treatment for a lot of different things out of necessity and by design in a lot of ways. But the second somebody started living for something other than what our mission is, which is to make music and keep making music and make the music we want to make for as long as we possibly can, they would be culled very quickly, I think, because it's such a fragile thing and so easily polluted. You just can't have it. That and snoring.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
That's an ever-changing picture. When I grew up — my parents are from South Africa — I didn't know what Canada was. I knew what Montreal was, I knew what Montreal in the west island was. It was a very small world back then. I knew more about life in South Africa than I did in Canada. But as I get older, my definition of the place has changed. Being in a band puts you in this position where you're not just going to Winnipeg and Saskatoon; we're going to these really small, out of the way communities. That's where you have to work to find the thread that joins you there living in downtown Montreal to that person living in rural Saskatchewan. So what is the thread that joins the two of you together? That's a very tough thing to put your finger on and define. In my experience it's been — the truth — hockey, weather, cold. But more importantly, it's the things we're not afraid to stand up and say in the face of adversity over time. Canada has always taken a very strong stance on the international level when it comes to sticking up for something that you feel is unjust, and that's something that we have to preserve more than anything. That's always under threat, because it's so much easier to bow out to the powers that be. For somewhere with a small population the size of Canada, I think we have commanded — in the past — a great deal of respect in the international community for not being afraid to take the hard stance on something. You see that everywhere you go. If it's not the definition, it's the glue. And that's something we need: a lot of glue. We've got a lot of real estate to keep together.
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
Men at Work's Business as Usual. One of the best records ever made. I love that record so, so, so much.
What was your most memorable day job?
I worked in a bleach factory. That was a shit job, man. That was one of the worst jobs you could ever imagine. I worked on the assembly line basically, and they couldn't open the windows, because when you make bleach you create a gas that if it were to leak out into the environment would kill half of the population of the city. So they had to keep the place sealed up. Middle of the summer in Montreal — it's like 40 degrees in there. I had to wear goggles because of the fumes and the goggles would fill up with sweat and then you'd have to dump them from time to time. Bleach was splashing all over your clothes; I went through a pair of pants every couple of days because it would just corrode through the front of your pants. Meanwhile, I'm working with these ladies who are in their 50s and they were lightning fast and I would be struggling. I'd have to hit the emergency button to stop the machine. Then one day I got so nauseous from the fumes — I'd already been reamed out umpteen times by the boss; told me I wasn't cut out for this line of work — and I hit that panic button again and I went into the bathroom, barfed my brains out, took off my apron and walked out the door. And that was it. That was the first, but a close second was delivering furniture. That was pretty bad too.
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
In deep trouble.
How do you spoil yourself?
Man, not enough. I bought a Ford Mustang back in the day, but I had to sell it because I had kids. That was the last thing, and that was 12 years ago. Sign a record deal and bought a car. I was like, "I'm a free agent!" That was great.
I spoil myself with wine. Middle-quality wine, but it's mainly about quantity. After a bottle or two it's pretty much all the same ballpark.
What do you fear most?
I have children and I have to embrace and fear the future in equal measure. That's a recent thing. I used to fear all sorts of failure on my own part, or whatever, but I don't feel that anymore. It's all about them now.
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
Oh man, that's a real tough one, because I've been with the same women since I was 16 years old. We've been together 23 years now, so that's a floating target. You know, put on "Down Under" or "I Can See It In Your Eyes." That'll do it every time.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
We met AC/DC and I couldn't believe how small they were. They were very, very tiny people, but all of them though, like it's a rule that if you're in AC/DC you have to be a certain height. I found that very strange, but completely understandable at the same time, and it made me question whether or perhaps my bandmates were too tall to be in our band. Maybe that's the answer to the other question: that the only way a bandmate could get kicked out is if he's too tall. Let's keep it all on the level.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
I'd like to have Glenn Gould over for dinner — I would not ask him to take off his cutoff finger gloves — and I would serve him fish curry, because that's our family dish.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Honestly, my parents love that I do what I do. My dad's a huge music fan and my mum loves music. As long as I don't go off the rails, they're very cool with it. Maybe I need to go off the rails at some point? Maybe when I'm 50 I'll have, like, a wild midlife crisis, and if you combine a midlife crisis with, like, a rock'n'roll lifestyle and mentality, that could lead to some really troubling stuff. So let's reserve judgment from mom — for now anyway.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
"Caccone" by Bach played on solo violin, performed by Itzhak Perlman if he's still alive.