Canadian rocker Sam Roberts is very down to earth for someone who has performed in five different countries in the last six months, including Spain and the United Kingdom. He and his band return to Winnipeg for the first time in three years, performing at the historic Burton Cummings Theater on Nov. 19.
If you're a canuck, you've heard his songs and heard his name countless times on the radio, but speaking to Roberts reveals absolutely no ego or rock star accoutrement. Instead, Roberts is a nice Canadian boy. He just so happens to be a six-time Juno-winning rock star.
Tony Hinds: How have you found the American and European audiences on this tour?
Sam Roberts: We've been playing for American audiences for basically just as long as we have up here. They've got a lot of history with the band. It's been getting better and better down there. The story and the relationship gets deeper and deeper. And we've been playing over in Europe for quite some time now, but you're always surprised when you're really far away from home that people know any of your songs, let alone sing along to every word and treat you as one of their own.
TH: How are audiences responding to the new songs from Lo-Fantasy on the tour?
SR: This record kind of draws people in on a first experience of the band live, because it's such a rhythmic record. It's like people have a tendency to start moving and dancing before they even realize what the hell is going on. It's a bit of a Trojan horse record in that way. I think the fact that we recorded this record right off the floor, it made it really easy to get up there on stage and pull it off. To feel like the record wasn't controlling you, that you're in control over what you're doing on stage, especially in the early shows. Normally, when you're playing a new record, you have to wrestle it to the ground to try to find a way to take it from the studio onto the stage. But this has always been a live record. And because of that, I think that transition was a lot easier for us as a band and I think the crowd responded to that. In the recording of the album, there was a decision made to try to bring the feeling of seeing the band live on stage and the experience of listening to the record closer together.
TH: So after so many years, do you consider yourselves an 'established band'?
SR: I think those are dangerous waters to be treading. When you think of yourself as established or that you've arrived somewhere, it suggests that you don't have to work and struggle to not just maintain a foothold in the public eye but also to dig deep, to find new ways creatively of making music. To think of yourself as established, you start to become rigid, you start losing that liquidity in your songwriting, that ability to adapt to changes in your life, to adapt to new things that are happening in music, being able to draw inspiration from the things that happening around you. I want to always feel like I'm in an up-and-coming band and that we have something to prove and that we're not quite where we want to be. You need to set yourself against that idea of being established.
TH: Is that a problem that you've seen other artists run into?
SR: Absolutely! This is a constant point of conversation amongst myself and my band mates. Especially of the pitfalls to avoid. Like, all of a sudden, you feel like you can rest on your laurels and that your fans are loyal enough that they'll never desert you. I think that what happens then is the creative fire at the heart of the whole thing diminishes when it's not pushed and when it's not challenged. You have to be very mindful. There are countless bands and songwriters who I think got to that point. It's hard to say if it was because the well ran dry or, because they started to accept the idea of who they were. But I think their music suffered as a result of that.
TH: Your parents are from South Africa. Did you spend a lot of time there growing up?
SR: I did and I still do. If not every year, every couple years. I think musically it still plays a huge part in how I think about songs. It played such a huge role in my life in every way. My parents were literally weeks off of the boat when I was born. While they were discovering what it means to live in Montreal and what Canada was and is, I sort of learned all about it at the same time. It's a very common Canadian story in a way. But for me, the whole idea of South Africa... the whole idea of family was there. Because we didn't have the same thing here. We didn't have that connection. That connection grew over time but in the beginning, it was still very much, 'That was home and this is a place we need to learn about.’
TH: You won two Junos for Love at the End of the World. Are awards something that you put much thought into? Are they important?
SR: Well, they're important when they happen. You can't take away from how it feels to be recognized by that many people for having made a contribution. The danger comes when you start to allow that to infiltrate the creative process. I think you have to keep the two things separate. It has to be a reward and not an objective. As long as you can differentiate between the two, you can keep the purity that creative side intact. But as soon as you start making anything, I'm not just talking about awards... if you're trying to write a song that you know will get played on the radio, that you know will appeal to a certain audience, or demographic, then you're undermining the creative process. I think it's something that you have to take great care not to do. You should care about the art of it. The times we've won Juno awards, I can honestly say were some of the best nights of my life. There were so many times when it was so unlikely that any of this would happen. Because we didn't come to this when we were 18 or something. I was 27 by the time we first signed a record deal and got our songs played on the radio. There was plenty of time in between where there was enough doubt that this would ever become a reality to make us want to hang up our skates, so to speak.
TH: Having won, what's it like to not win a Juno? Is that an alright question to ask?
SR: Of course, absolutely. It didn't feel great! It's funny... Our first EP was nominated for a couple, which was very rare because it was an EP but it had a couple big singles on it. It sort of launched our careers and sold a bunch of copies. We were up for a Juno and we didn't win. It wasn't a great night, that's for sure. But then, the next year we put out We Were Born in a Flame and we won three and we thought: 'This is amazing!' Then the next time, we put out Chemical City and we didn't win any. (laughs) And then we came back with Love at the End of the World and we won a couple again. It's always been a bit on and off. And then, Collider? Nothing. And this one? Who the hell knows. We've basically learned that it's anything but predictable. You always want the best for not just you, but everyone you're with. When you have won a Juno, you how much it means to your band mates and everyone that works so hard for you. Your family, your friends. It's an incredible validation. It doesn't necessarily validate the art but it validates the effort.
TH: Do books or novels ever influence your songwriting?
SR: Absolutely. I could be reading a book and it could just be a word I'll come across, or it could be something in the story that all of a sudden takes on a musical shape in your mind. One of my favourite books is called A House for Mr Biswaa by V.S. Naipaul (which is featured on Time Magazine's 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century). I love Graham Greene. Words don't just give you the story, they can give you the melody or a chord progression and evoke ideas. I think that's something you need to be open to. When we're on the road, we'll sometimes just go to a museum or to a movie. Anything to keep your mind as open as possible. Those experiences can sometimes lie dormant for months and months but when you're in a dedicated space and frame of mind to write music, those experiences come back to you.
TH: You mentioned movies. Any examples jump to mind?
SR: One of my favourite movies is Withnail and I, which goes back to not just the struggling artist but also, the struggle within the artist. It's like, as much as you want to overcome it, you realize you need it. Your art needs it in a way. I just think it's one of the all time classic movies. Anybody who has wanted to live outside the box, so to speak, has at one point shared some of that story.
TH: Yes! I love Withnail and I! It's actually a very rock n' roll movie.
SR: I agree, there are a lot of parallels. If you're a struggling actor or a yet-undiscovered, tortured author or poet, that we all share that one common predicament which is to somehow take this thing that you know is important but you have to turn it into something material and tangible. You don't have to. But if you don't, it means you have to go work a nine to five job and relegate that other part of you to the weekend.