Sam Roberts Interview Part 3

A bit of my ignorance shows through with my next question, but I'm hoping for a certain kind of answer and so I chance it anyway. “I spoke to Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene a few months ago and he seemed very optimistic about the election of Barack Obama. Have you seen a change in Canada? How does that affect you guys?”

“The fact that Obama got elected has affected people everywhere.  Every country around the world is going to be benefit from that. We as Canadians are so closely connected to what happens here that it’s almost like an elected official in Canada. The president has that much influence over the course our country takes because we’re inextricably linked, economically, culturally, socially with the path the United States chooses. And under the Bush administration…well, at first it was great cause we had this prime minister who, while Bush was overturning all the things the Clinton administration had done in favor of his neo-conservative, religious…I don’t know what to call it really....something else…we had this prime minister who was legalizing Gay marriage and marijuana. He was on his way out, too, he had been prime minister for a long time. So he basically went around doing all these things…abstaining from sending Canadian troops to the Iraq War. There were all these things where as Canadians we felt this real separation, a sense of standing up for ourselves and for what we believe is right in the face of an enormous amount of pressure coming from the US, especially Post 9/11 America, to take a course we did not feel was right for Canadians, nor should it be right for Americans. And then he left and everything went to shit. Now we have a prime minister who is basically a lackey tagging along with every decision the Bush administration made. So to have a new leader in America, one who has finally managed to capture the people’s imagination and to do a politicians duty, which is to elevate the spirit and elevate our potential…that to me is what you hope every leader would aspire to. We hope for the same in Canada, but we’re glad that there’s someone setting the pace in Washington and our prime minister is going to have to navigate his way through disagreeable waters for his philosophical stuff.  I think we’re all really happy about that. But we keep electing him, so I don’t know…(laughs)”

“Despite the political climate, and despite everything really, there’s always been this sense of brotherhood amongst Canadian musicians. Everytime you’d buy a Canadian CD there’d be all these amazing collaborations and everybody would thank each other and just about everyone in Toronto wound up on Broken Social Scene records.”

“Just about. I think about half the population of Toronto has been on a Broken Social Scene album in some way.”

“What’s it like to be in the thick of this sort of community?”

“It’s wonderful. It really is. I mean we have some truly great friends who just happen to be very talented musicians who are making music that the rest of the world is finally paying attention to. It’s inspiring to us. It pushes us. We quickly learned, as of say 2002, 2003, when Broken Social Scene really cracked through and all the other bands started to make their mark as well that there was no just sitting around and resting on whatever laurels we managed to attain for ourself. It became very clear that to survive in the Canadian musical climate you had to be creative, you had to be ambitious, but not in a cutthroat way, just ambitious in the true spirit of what a musician ought to be; which is to feel that urge to do something and share it. And I think we’ve all benefited from that friendly competitiveness that’s come out of it all. To see that it’s possible. Because before, the only people breaking through were the Bryan Adams and the Celine Dions and none of us could relate to them in any way. There was very little to tell you that it was possible to come out of Canada. And that’s not even taking the music out of Canada. The most impressive thing has been the support we all get in Canada, as well. The fact that we can now go…cause Canada’s a big place and there’s a great deal of geographical separation and ideological separation as well between the west coast and the prairies and the east where we’re from. So the fact that we can travel coast to coast and find acceptance among Canadians and not have to be a glitzy American band in order to fill up a venue obviously means a lot to us. As Canadians, but it also means we can have a career. Which is good.”

“Talk to me about your collaboration with Angela Desveaux.”

“Yeah, she’s a great singer. She’s the Emmylou Harris of Montreal. She makes great records on her own and has a wonderful voice. She was singing on her own and in a band called the Sunny Best Band, playing country, both kinds of music, country and western. And so she was singing in that band and I always just loved her voice, so when I was working on “Words & Fire”, I could just hear it so clearly, you know? And she was kind enough to oblige.”

“Are there other musicians in Canada you’ve always wanted to work with, but haven’t yet?”

“I have to be very comfortable with somebody in order to want to make music with them. Theoretically there are a lot of people I know that are talented that could bring inspired ideas to a recording session, but I really have to feel…When we were making Chemical City, my friend Matt Mays came down, and he’s a friend of mine. We’ve been on tour for many, many nights together, and we’ve played music together. So when he was in Australia, we would sit around on the veranda playing the guitar, and I was working on this song “Uprising, Down Under” and it felt very, very natural. But if I were to say I want to work with this person or that person, it would take a lot…for me, anyway. I’m not really a collaborator. I like having the band and we all know each other. There’s nothing to inhibit the sharing of ideas necessarily and I like that. There’s no fear or self-consciousness. Cause music is a very personal thing and as much as we do it in a public forum, there are parts of it that are very private. And for me songwriting is still very, very private.”

“Talk me through your songwriting process.”

“It takes years. It really does. From the time that the idea first appears, the riff…it used to be much more instantaneous. I’d have an idea, I’d sit down at the four-track, buy a new high quality metal cassette and go. Nowadays, because I’m on the road so much, and I don’t write on the road, I don’t demo in the road, so I have an idea and it remains an idea. It’s a stem, a fragment. I’ll have a line I’ve written in my notebook, and I don’t even bother to try and make any sense of it. So there’s this marinating period that usually lasts the entire duration of the tour, a year, year and a half, and when I get home, I have to recuperate from the physical wear-and-tear of life on the road, and then, it just starts to come out. I used to do it in…well I still do it in my apartment; I go to a room in the back with some very minimal technology to get the ideas down and what I hope for more than anything is to just get the fever. Where I sit there and work for ten hours and it feels like five minutes and afterwards there’s this thing that didn’t exist before. I usually wait for that feeling. If I’m not feeling it, I don’t write.”

“You mention priests in your song lyrics in a few different contexts. Are these direct religious references; are they metaphors for something else? Where does that come from?”

“I went to Jesuit high school. So did James our Bass player and Eric our keyboard player. And actually Dave Nugent our guitar player went to a catholic high school so I think [priests are] just ingrained in our psyche as an authority figure so to speak, that we’ve always had in our lives and ultimately grown up with. Again, like a surrogate parent in a way that I’ve always had in my life. As an academic figure, I’ve been educated by priests, beyond the dogma of religion as well, so as with any authority figure there’s tension there, too. There’s always the doubting, calling somebody on their bullshit, and also trying to accept the lesson. I’m sure there will be more references to priests in the songs I write, I haven’t quite exorcised that.”

“Do you still stand by the sentiment of the line “Been dying since the day I was born?” [From the song “Hard Road” on We Were Born in a Flame]

“Yeah, It’s a physical truth, you know. It’s not necessarily up for debate. There’s different kinds of death, of course. In terms of the decaying of the spirit, no. That’s still alive and well and hopefully eternal. That’s what I’m trying to put into the music is the idea of the eternal spirit. But, uh, physically…we all know where we’re goin’. We try it to fight it off with good moisturizing cream.”

“And vodka?”

“And Vodka”

I get the wrap-it-up from Denton, the helpful, road weary tour manager; Denton did his best to make me, a perfect stranger, feel welcome. I chance one last fanboy question in closing. I get an inspired answer.

“How did you get the piano tone for “A Stone Would Cry Out” [the closing track on Chemical City]. I’ve tried to reproduce it and can’t”

“And you never will. There’s a very specific set of things that has to happen to a piano to get that tone. We were in Australia and there was this very old Australian guy who lived out in the middle of the bush and owned a piano shop. And we went up there one day and picked out a piano that sounded perfectly fine. He put it on the back of his delivery truck a week later after tuning it, supposedly. Then he brought it by one of the bumpiest roads you could imagine and dropped it off and the thing sounded the way that it did. It went from being a very normal piano to being a very irregular piano, but to me that is what gave the song it’s personality. That sound just kinda came out. A lot of times the instrument influences the way the song turns out. You could sit down with three different guitars and draw different things out [from each one]. We could have turned that song into an up-tempo, boppy whatever but the sound of that piano gave off…there was no question what it was going to turn into.”

“Well, I’ve tried and failed.”

“Yeah, you could perhaps try that. Take a normal piano, put it on the back of a truck, drive it down a bumpy country road for about 100 KM or so and see what happens.”

And there it was, the lesson I’d hoped to have taught to me without asking for it. Take a rock band, drive it down 100 kms of bumpy road, and you’ll get something much different from when it started. You’ll get something worn, unique, beautiful, and full of love. In essence, The Sam Roberts Band. 

No comments: