SAM ROBERTS is a Canadian musician and songwriter, and front-man of the Sam Roberts Band. The Juno Award-winning outfit’s fourth studio album, Collider, was released in 2011.
NEIL OSBORNE is a songwriter, producer, and one quarter of legendary alternative rock band 54-40. He has over 2,000 live performances under his belt, spanning 30 years in the industry. 54-40’s thirteenth studio album, Lost in the City, was released in 2011.
NEIL OSBORNE—What was it like to grow up in Sam Roberts’ shoes with his parents and upbringing? And how did music shape that environment?
SAM ROBERTS—I grew up, with my three younger brothers, in a house that became louder and louder with each passing day. Maybe that’s why plugging a guitar into an amplifier made sense at some point. My parents had just arrived [in Montreal] from South Africa before I was born and we learned about the long winters and life in Canada together. We ate curry instead of turkey and didn’t wear shoes much as kids. Not because they were hippies, that’s just how people grew up in the tropical climate of Durban. They instilled a real love of music in us at a very young age. I started playing violin when I was five and my mom used to sit with me while I practiced every day – she never let me off the hook! Even as a teenager when I wanted to play rock ’n’ roll or sneak out of the house and learn to smoke, I still had to practice. They did this for all of us and it was probably the greatest gift they could have given my brothers and I.
NO—Tell me the story of your first guitar.
SR—Sometime in the early seventies, when my dad was traveling around Europe and getting into the psychedelic sounds of Hawkwind and Pink Floyd, he bought himself a Spanish guitar and learned how to play. He bought it for 10 bucks and he reminds us of the price as often as possible. As a kid, that guitar seemed enormous to me and the neck was about four inches across and very deep. You needed huge hands to play it. But after learning on it for a few years, getting used to that neck, switching to an electric guitar was like a dream.
NO—How did learning to play music change you and your lifestyle? Do you remember the first song you learned to play?
SR—Music made me, at once, more social and more solitary. Musicians at school or in the neighborhood would always seek one another out. We talked about music non-stop, copped our favorite bands’ styles, jammed, learned new chords and songs from each other. It was a real community with a “you either play or you don’t” attitude – custom-made for a teenager looking for an identity and a social life. At the same time, the more I learned the more I wanted to get better, and I spent more and more time in my room learning anything from Tom Petty’s Free Falling to Metallica songs (including attempts at finger-tapping solos). The first song I learned how to play and sing at the same time was Fools Rush In by Elvis Presley.
NO—And how about your first gig – what are your recollections of that experience?
SR—I was in a band called The Happy Death Men in grade nine. We played Between Planets by The Jesus and Mary Chain and Helter Skelter by The Beatles at our high school. I was playing rhythm and backing vocals. Our lead singer had a cheat sheet for the lyrics but his bangs were so long he couldn’t read it anyway. We were nervous but it was just about the coolest I’d ever felt in my life.
NO—When did you first realize the thrill of playing live and what did you make of it? How has your appreciation of that buzz changed with experience?
SR—When I was young, I had terrible stage-fright during every single one of my violin recitals. My hands would shake and the instrument would sound like a room full of crying babies. No matter how hard I practiced, I would get up there and fall apart. But when I played rock ’n’ roll with a band, it all went away. I wanted to be up there and I wanted people to watch me doing my thing. It was a complete transformation and I was hooked. Maybe because the memories of my early days remain so vivid, I still have a deep appreciation for the fact that I’m able to play a show and really let go.
NO—Is there something specific that creates those “special, magical, mystical gigs”? The ones where you have no idea you’re going to “that place” before you get on stage, but by the time you’re off, you know you’ve been with the gods on Mount Olympus. Are they triggered by something in particular?
SR—Are you referring to booze? The really drunken shows are usually the ones when you think you’ve gone to Mount Olympus and changed the chemical makeup of every single member of the audience forever, only to have your soundman say, “Phew, we barely survived that one, hey guys?!” Most shows have some merit, something you can take away from them that makes you want to keep going. But the truly great ones are a rare breed and I don’t know if I can say why they happen when and where they do. Those nights, the energy in the audience expands like an atomic chain-reaction. You can feel it building before you even get on the stage. Your first instinct is to try to harness it and bend it to your will, but you can’t. You have to join forces with the crowd and give off as much of your own energy as you take in.
NO—What about when you get pissed off during a gig – not that the fans would know – but when something has got you outta sorts and you can’t let it go for whatever reason. Do you feel that as you get more experienced you’ve learned how to level out the highs and lows?
SR—When you first start playing gigs, disaster can strike at any time. Either you screw up a song so badly that it is beyond any hope of salvation, you break all the strings on the one guitar you own, or the monitors squeal with every note you sing and the house soundman is playing pool. You take everything personally; if things go wrong you can’t believe that anyone in the crowd could have enjoyed the show. But after a while, you start to realize that nobody out there gives a shit, as long as you don’t give a shit. That’s the true spirit of playing in a rock ’n’ roll band; you let it go… all of it.
NO—I never do vocal warm-ups and have only canceled one gig due to illness. My only ritual is a single malt scotch and a “rock with what you got” attitude. Do you have a vocal warm-up or pre-gig ritual of any kind?
SR—I’m also on the scotch program, or an Irish whiskey. I tried tequila for a while but it makes me very forgetful. I did warm-ups for a few tours, but I invented my whole routine and I think it did more harm than good. Some nights, all the tools are there. On the ones when they’re not, you try to do everything else a little better and hope that it all comes out even.
NO—When you play your hits live, do you notice the crowd seems to hear what they know from the record or radio? In other words your voice could be raspy, the sound could be shit, your guitar could be out of tune, and yet because it’s a hit song the crowd inhabits it and doesn’t seem to notice the problems on stage?
SR—That’s the beauty of those songs. Those are the moments when the crowd gives itself over unconditionally. People sing, they dance, they hug strangers… so when you trip over your mike cable and it comes unplugged, well, thankfully everybody knows the words and they take over singing duties while you get your act together. I’ve had a few insane wipe-outs, gone ass-over-tea-kettle, knocked myself out, and when I stood back up nobody had even noticed. The song was doing the work.
NO—From hanging out with you guys a couple of times it’s clear you have an excellent band culture. My band has inside terms like “same guy different body,” referring to the drunk person who has suddenly found courage to walk backstage uninvited, or “early and often,” which means drink now because the gig looks like it’ll be harsh, and “I like surprises,” which refers to going on stage without sound check. Care to share yours?
SR—We have a whole language of code invented by our former drummer Corey Zadorozny. It is highly effective and it applies to almost any situation. Our most oft-used term is “hot one,” which refers to that flash of fear that shoots up your spine and creates an instant sweat on your forehead the moment panic sets in. When your car starts skidding on ice towards the rear-end of the stopped car in front of you; when mistakes on stage are loud and obvious; when a crowd gets hostile, or worse bored, you get a “hot one.” Our other favorite is “F. O. A. D.” but you’ll have to decode that one on your own, folks.
NO—I assume you are home and between album cycles, which means you’re working on new material. I’ve got all these half song ideas floating around with loads of potential. Sometimes I try and force it and suddenly it’s not so good anymore, so I wait. How do you handle nurturing ideas before committing to them?
SR—My first instinct is to work on the newest ideas that come to mind. They are usually the most urgent and the ones I’m most driven to see through to completion. But as you say, there are some that stay with you for ages, they are muddy and undefined but they have a nagging potential which prevents you from tossing them out. Those are the ideas where I wait for lightning to strike (which sometimes means that they never get written at all) – a guitar part, a melody or lyrics to give the part a chance to become a whole.
NO—One thing my band likes to do is change up the recording process – any early thoughts about an approach to the next record?
SR—I’m writing a little differently for this next record. Really trying to make the demos something to chase after rather than just sketching out the skeleton of a song and waiting to fill-in the details in the studio. Once there is a first draft of everything, we’ll get together and try to come at the songs from a new angle, to see what else we can squeeze out of them. The producer you end up working with will put their thumbprint on the whole process as well and that part is still up in the air.
NO—My bass player (Brad Merritt) and I did an interview recently where we took opposite sides on the “is the album dead?” issue. As a creator and artist I much prefer a collection of ideas or songs that properly reflect my relationship to the world. Having said that, once the stuff is written I put on my deliveryman cap and may just release singles or an EP. Where do you stand?
SR—I am a staunch supporter of the album! I want to create songs which are bound together by a finite time period and set of experiences in my life, and yet which speak to a universal truth. I’m drawn to certain sounds and rhythms and words at different times in my life giving each record its own color. The album weaves a thread that ties you to the songs, pulls the listener in, and makes them want to hear what the next chapter will bring. The great albums, even though they were born out of a specific time and place, give us a better understanding of life as we live it today.
NO—And finally, since The Lab loves to look good, what’s your take on footwear – sneakers or boots?
SR—Sneakers all the way. Boots make me fall all over the place… Thanks for the great chat, Neil! Always a pleasure.