INTERVIEW: Sam Roberts Band
One of the many portraits of Canadian rock n’ roll, Sam Roberts is a tireless soul. The Quebec native has released several studio affairs, bestowing rare gems such as “Brother Down” and “Bridge To Nowhere” and has recently released Collider, his first under the SAM ROBERTS BAND moniker. Stuck in a van bound for Washington D.C., lead guitarist Dave Nugent provided a bit of insight into the new record while touching on Osheaga Festival and the role of a rock musician.
You sang backup in the group’s performance on QTV of “Streets of Heaven (Promises, Promises)”, do you sing much on stage during the new songs?
Yeah, on almost every song that we have on the new album, myself and Eric Fares (keyboardist/guitarist) have been doing a lot of background singing.
Would you say you’re as comfortable singing as you are playing guitar?
Oh my God, I’m not comfortable doing either of those – especially both. Sam has been a great kind of vocal coach and a guitar coach at the same time. We’ve worked a lot together.
Did you do both when you were growing up?
I never played guitar until I was about 16 but I was involved with musical theatre so I guess I was singing – but we know how that turned out.
When you did take up guitar, did you see yourself as someone who could do both or did you see yourself as more of a Slash/Joe Perry type?
I think I probably wanted to be more of a Steven Tyler than a Joe Perry. I did like being at the centre of the stage a lot. But, as I started playing in bands I realized that with playing guitar you can be on the sidelines a little bit. Which is okay; a lot of the time I don’t want to be in Sam’s position.
For the last few albums, the band seems to have been releasing songs with strong political/social messages. Do you think you’ve continued with that on this album?
I think we have. I can’t comment specifically on the lyrics because those are Sam’s, but I know that he is at a different point in his life where he’s dealing with a family. He had to dig deep down inside whenever he was in the basement of his little place – after changing a bunch of diapers – and find what he wanted to write about. He looked at himself and the times, and I think he realized what was important to him would be important to a lot of people. We always want to keep the music relevant.
In a world where there are so many conflicts and popular uprisings, what do you think is the role of the rock musician?
I don’t know – what is the role of a musician at any time? I think they fill the role of helping people sort of temporarily escape from their troubles. I know personally that when I’m down I love turning to a great record or a movie or a painting and letting it kind of help me escape for a period of time.
What records and books help cheer you up these days?
Right now the book I’m reading is Game Of Thrones. which is a straight high-fantasy book, obviously about pure release and escapism into lands of nether years. With music, I’ve been enjoying basically anything that James Hall, our bass player, gives us to listen to. He’s very tapped into music.
“It’s a big moment to play two nights at such a venue in Toronto. With all the history there and luminaries like Neil Young.. we’re lucky enough to play in the same place.”
How did the saxophone become such an important instrument on the album?
I think it was something we always wanted to do or have on our record. There’s two or three songs where we had that in mind and that were written around maybe having a sax part. I think when we got a player like Stuart Bogie, an instrumentalist from New York, into the studio, he was able to just take over and really jump feet-first into a bunch of songs and lay stuff down. There’s also a lot of clarinet and flute; he can kind of play everything.
He’s doing a lot of things throughout the record in the back. It was him that kind of jumped in and added in all these woodwinds that sort of inhabit everywhere. There’s a lot of stuff in there that’s textured and all over the place. Stuart’s special like that, it was a no-brainer to have him involved.
Do you agree that there is kind of a “disco” vibe in the song “Streets of Heaven (Promises, Promises)”?
I think there’s definitely a lot of influence from that kind of world. What was that song that we were saying influenced it? Remember that song? Oh yeah – P.M. Dawn – there’s a lot of that band in there that we were rolling with. Last summer, midway through Sam writing most of the songs on the record, I remember him telling me, “this is just something that I’ve never written before, with this kind of vibe”.
Was it based off of a lyrical hook or a guitar part?
It, like a lot of the stuff that Sam writes, started with guitar. Then he kind of works around that.
“Partition Blues” and “Tractor Beam Blues” are the two last songs on the new record; what’s your own personal relationship with the blues?
I love it; it’s the roots of all of rock and roll. A good friend of ours, one of our old crew members, was a great blues guitarist and we would hear him play quite a bit. He opened our eyes to a lot of great blues players.
So your introduction to blues has actually been somewhat recent?
Yeah, it kind of has to be honest. I listened to more INXS when I started playing guitar, unfortunately to say. But, you know, better late than never
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Pembroke, Ontario, a small town northwest of Ottawa. It was a very small area, just around 10,000 people. I moved to Montreal to attend university and began playing with the group then. That was back in 1996.
Isn’t there a big Celtic music festival there?
There is a fiddle contest, yeah! Oh God, I grew up going to that every Labour Day. An extra 20,000 people came into our little town and my friends and I would go chase around girls from across Canada and around the world. Seeing and being part of a festival like that really made me crave being involved in music. It’s really a special, open and honest kind of music. Even though it’s not the type we play, I still love it and that environment.
Osheaga is a big festival coming up that will have people flocking to Montreal – as someone who has lived there for a few years, are there any unique spots you could recommend for attendees?
Definitely go up to the Plateau Of Montreal around St. Laurent, Mount Royal and Mary Anne; that little neighbourhood up there has great shops and amazing bars. There’s a bar called The Sparrow that’s on St. Laurent just north of Fairmount and it’s one of my favourite bars; great bartenders and really good music. And then, definitely check out Old Montreal. There’s nothing else like it in Canada, so those are two places you need to hit.
You’ve got two dates at Massey Hall in June; what does it mean to you to play at such a renowned venue?
I haven’t played there before and I’ve actually only seen one concert there. But, I’m really, really excited. We all are. We put one up and it sold really, really quickly and we just decided that we had to do another one. It’s a big moment to be able to play two nights at such a legendary venue in Toronto. With all the history there and luminaries like Neil Young.. we’re lucky enough to play in the same place. I think I’ll remember that for a long time.
[Dig this interview? Find more music news and videos by following us on Twitter]