We interview Sam Roberts!

Geoff Vendeville

As part of U of T’s frosh week and the orientation festivities hosted by UTSU, Canadian rock star Sam Roberts performed a free concert at the back campus behind University College on Friday, September 9. Touring in support of his recently released album “Collider,” the set was mainly focused on new material while still offering some classic cuts such as “Brother Down” and “Don’t Walk Away Eileen.”

We managed to sit down with Sam Roberts for a beer and a quick interview, in which we discuss his new album, the perks of playing campus crowds, and the Canadian rock and roll dream.

Here is a partial transcription featuring the highlights of the conversation. Additionally, a full recording of it can be heard below.

the newspaper: Do you play campus crowds and frosh weeks often?

Sam Roberts: I’d say we probably play about two or three a year. It could be anywhere. We could go out to the University of Alberta. We played them out in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. We’ve gone down to Maine and played them in the States as well. Western, that’s another school we played at a lot and we had some great frosh week gigs there as well. So this week in particular always seems to be dedicated to playing on campuses.

And you enjoy it, presumably?

I do. Because after a while, strangely enough, it just started to sink in that this often times is a person’s very first rock and roll show. Just because you’re 18 or 19 doesn’t mean you’ve been hitting the clubs. Music lovers, perhaps, and some people have, but for a lot of people this ends up being a real memory of sorts in that it’s their first time being exposed to live music. So with that comes a sense of responsibility all of sudden to make sure that these shows are good ones because you can make some lifelong fans playing these gigs.

Well that worked for me because you were one of my first rock and roll shows back in 2004 when you did the Toronto Islands with Sloan.

Yep. I remember that well. And that’s exactly my point. So often, that’s what these events are about. And you end up having people say, “I saw you in my frosh week 10 years ago and I’ve been following you ever since.” And more importantly you’re just turning them onto music in general at a time in their life when music is very important. It was very important to me when I was at university in terms of offering me a counterbalance or a moment of peace from the turmoil and hubbub of university life.

What’s the reaction to the “Collider” tour been like?

I think the rhythmic nature of this record has really sort of given a new dimension to what we do on stage. All of a sudden we’re able to shift the show in a different direction every night, and that’s really important for a band who’s trying to keep an audience really engaged. If we went back and I think if we made the same record over and over and over again, the show would become so samey from start to finish that it’s hard to create that sense of a journey. Whereas now with “Collider” we can turn on this new sort of perspective and all of a sudden you draw people’s attention in a completely new way. They move differently, they’re engaged with the band differently, so it’s been working really well so far.

You can’t just reiterate the exact same thing. There’s no question that there’s a common thread between all of our records. I mean it comes from the same people. We’re not changing personnel; I’m the same person when I write. When I sit down and write a song, I’m still drawing on the same life experiences. Of course your perspective changes with time and with age, but I still have the same general relationship with the world around me as I did before, and in that sense the music will still follow a certain path. It’s just how you choose to encapsulate it. What pill form do you put it in before you try to feed it to people? That’s the interesting part of making records.

Have you had the same band and been working with the same musicians?

Same guys since high school. So if you extend back another decade before we were even remotely known by the Canadian public, we were still the same guys. Plotting and scheming in basements and garages back home in Montreal trying to figure out how to make it work. Even in our university life when we were at McGill, we were so distracted at times from what we needed to be. I should’ve been reading Wacousta or Huckleberry Finn, but I’m writing songs and scribbling lyrics and drawing guitars. It’s very much that quintessential rock and roll dream. It’s hard to get anything done when you feel that there’s this big part of you that’s unfulfilled. And everyday I laugh to myself at how lucky I am that this is what I get to do.

With your friends!

With my friends! My best friends in the world! And we’re here together, and we travel. To think of all the places that we’ve gone to and seen, and the people that we’ve met, the level of appreciation that we’re shown everyday for what we do. It feels scary, sometimes, that we’re given that much of a voice, and that you can have that much of an impact on people’s lives, and still enjoy it.

Tell us about the new album, “Collider”?

Well, it was written in a basement. It didn’t have particularly auspicious beginnings, it was just one of those things where winter settled in in Montreal and I went down in the basement and started writing music because our tour had ended and I had all these songs that I’d been bottling up for a long time and I really wanted to flush them out and see what would come. And the first song I wrote was “Streets of Heaven,” which may be the biggest departure from anything we’d done prior to that. It started off with a folk riff that could’ve easily, if I had followed that guitar line in its more natural course, led to a completely different record. But because I added a more sort of groove oriented dance beat to it, it basically set the blueprint for the whole record, in a way.

So you built the entire record around that one song?

That one song, that one idea: that it was all going to be based on rhythm. I don’t like to force songs into a mould, necessarily, if they don’t want to be that. But with rhythm you can do that, in a sense. You can make sure that every song has a very strong rhythmic identity, and that was my plan for the record; if I had one, that was it. They’re still all about different things. Every song is about something different, and there’s different instrumentation than we’d ever used before.

From album to album, is this the same approach you use?

From album to album, I never remember what I’d done for the last one, to be honest. It had been three years since I’d sat down to write “Love at the End of the World.” I was living in a different house at the time. I had no idea what I’d done for “Chemical City” before that. I don’t write every day, so there’s no continuity. I write when I’ve got the urge to write a record, and I sit down and I’ll write. So if there’s cohesiveness to the records, it’s because I write them all in a fairly limited time frame.

That enthusiasm has to translate well into your shows and into your work.

I still think the shows are getting better and better, because for some reason we’re getting hungrier and hungrier for something, I don’t even know what it is that we’re going for. It’s not fame and fortune, it’s just something. It’s this thing that you’re chasing.

When we were kids growing up, it was, “Yeah, I want to be in a band. I want everybody to know who the hell I am, and that’s what’s important.” And then that didn’t happen for a long time, and then by the time I was in my mid-twenties I was like, “I don’t give a shit if I play for fifty people, I just want to play music. So just give me the chance.” Then it becomes desperate, and it’s just like, “Give me the chance to play, and I’ll show you that I can do something worthwhile.” And then finally we get the opportunity and it’s like, “Okay, well here it is: you got a song on the radio and a tour with the biggest band in Canadian history planned. What are you going to make of this?” And of course we started off here and we’re playing for 22 people or whatever it is, and it’s like, “Okay this is going to be hard.” Just because you’ve got this chance, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to work. And we spent the last ten years figuring out how to hold on to it, but still thrive, still be creative, still grow as people and as musicians. And yeah, I think it’s for that reason that we’re still so engaged in that process. It’s like, “Alright, what’s next? What’s the next record going to be? How’s the next tour going to be better than the one before?”

So what does the future hold for Sam Roberts?

That is a good question; I wish I could tell you. And if you have any clues, let me know too. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.

Is there anything else you would like to say to us?

No, thanks for chatting. And long live the independent university press! It’s an important voice, keep it alive and well.

We’ll do our best! Thank you so much!

My pleasure.

Recording of Sam Roberts interview

– The track from beginning to 5:22 is “The Pilgrim” by Sam Roberts off of the album, “Love at the End of the World.”

– The interview with Sam Roberts runs from 5:22 to 24:36.

– The track from 24:36 to end is “Streets of Heaven (Promises, Promises)” by Sam Roberts off of the album, “Collider.”

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