"There must be something in the air…"
Sam Roberts sings these words just before the first song on his first full-length album fades out into ether, conjuring that moment you experience every night in bed when your conscience shuts down in anticipation of the dreamlike delights to come. Sam Roberts may call Montreal home, but his music occupies a less definable space: the place between studious intellect and gut reaction; between psychedelic transcendence and the cold, hard truth; between fist-pumped, hockey-lovin’ hellraising and melancholic vulnerability. Or, in Sam’s universe, it’s the place where Rue St-Laurent intersects with Abbey Road.
His 2002 breakthrough EP, The Inhuman Condition (40,000 copies sold in Canada and still cha-chinging), was a heaven-sent prophecy from the classic-pop gods translated into street-level terms, and while there was no denying Sam’s way with ultra-addictive melody, he also displayed astonishing breadth in just six tracks, from knockout power-pop punches ('Don’t Walk Away Eileen) and moody folk mysticism ('Brother Down,' the official soundtrack of summer 2002) to extended psych-pop jams ('Where Have All the Good People Gone?) and middle-finger-waving rockers ('This is How I Live'). For those of us seeking something real amid the boob-jobbed divas and brow-pierced bohunks cluttering the musical landscape, Sam was almost too good to be true: an uncompromising, no-bullshit rock purist who could hold his own on the charts, and who’d absorbed the most important lessons of music history and updated them with a renewed sense of urgency for the here and now. (And hey, it didn’t hurt no right-minded girl would kick him out of bed for eating poutine.)
But as with every experience in Sam’s life, The Inhuman Condition was just another bend on the learning curve that leads to greater things: in this case, the 15 tracks that comprise Sam’s full-length Universal Records debut WE WERE BORN IN A FLAME. Though as easy as Sam makes it all look, his good fortune - both creatively and commercially - isn’t the result of some immaculate conception. "This record is not the product of the last year of my life," he explains. "It’s a product of the last 28 years of my life."
"There’s no road that ain’t a hard road to travel on"
To understand Sam Roberts, you have to backtrack to the day he picked up his first stringed instrument: a violin. When he was 4. "I actually kept taking lessons into my 20s, and I’m glad I did," he says, "because the discipline that it takes to play violin drove me to rock ‘n’ roll. The first time I picked up a guitar I was like, ‘Holy shit, I can actually play this in front of people,’ whereas with the violin I was shitting myself every single time I picked it up."
Like many kids, he experienced his rock ‘n’ roll epiphany in the place all dreams are made: the bedroom. “My friend lent me this amp,” Sam recalls. “It had camouflage fabric and a big metal grate in the front and it said ‘Ride the Lightening’ on top. I plugged in this old electric guitar, plugged it in and it made the nastiest sound I ever heard in my life. It was powerful. From that point on, I listened to music differently, and went from being a kid just listening to a Men at Work album to someone feeling music on a different level, where the hairs start standing up on the back of your neck all the time. It made me less analytical because it made me more appreciative of rock ‘n’ roll. And then one day, I just turned on a four track and recorded this song, the worst freakin’ tune you ever heard. It was about a girlfriend who died - I never had a girlfriend who died, but I just wrote this morbid little Morrissey shit: the coma failed and she kicked the bucket. I listened back and thought, ‘This is complete crap,’ and used that as a reference point and tried to make each song that I wrote if not better, at least a little less bad.”
Next came the cover bands ("Jesus and Mary Chain, Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses - the same shit I’m into now") and battle-of-the-bands bids, but as Sam says, "we were never good enough to get accepted into the shows, let alone compete in them. After that, it was like, ‘I think I might have written a decent song, let’s start a real band.’" Formed in 1993, Sam’s band William would eventually change its name to Northstar in 1996, but being a band of Anglophile pop fans in a Francophone culture at the height of grunge-mania, Northstar would shine ever so briefly before burning out. After its demise, Sam lapsed into a vicious cycle: day job, travel for months to escape day job, come back home broke, get another day job, etc. With his inspiration sapped and his old Northstar mate George Donoso off reaping critical success with Montreal indie darlings The Dears, Sam was faced with a tough choice. To quote The Shawshank Redemption, it was a matter of "get busy living or get busy dying."
"I don’t sing songs anymore/ I don’t feel young anymore."
For Sam Roberts, the winter of 2000/2001 was “the winter of my discontent.” Sure, pretty much every winter in Montreal is miserable, but this time, it wasn’t just the temperatures that were hitting rock bottom.
“I felt my clock ticking,” Sam says. “I was 25, trying to scrape through winter without committing myself to a job. You don’t come home after working 50 hours a week and say, ‘I’m going to write a couple of really great tunes about a world that I have no connection with whatsoever because my head’s up my ass because I work 50 hours a week.’ And in this particular winter I was like, ‘Holy shit, I don’t know if I’m going to make it through this one.’ But instead of saying, ‘Alright, it’s been a nice ride, but the dream is gone and now I’m going to get a job and make ends meet,’ in that moment, I turned it into ‘Alright, now I’m really going to live for music.’ I don’t know what the compulsion behind that was - but right after that very personal moment where I made that commitment, things started going well for us…”
"S-O-C-I-A, L-I-S-M is the only way"
Despite what this line from the song 'Canadian Dream' (one of the new album’s highlights) implies, Sam isn’t trying to pass himself off as some Commie radical. He’s just the kind of guy who, when he sees a brother down, lends a hand to pick him up. It’s a socialism based on love and respect, not taxation. Because Sam knows he wouldn’t be where he is now without old Northstar buddies Eric Fares (guitar) and James Hall (bass), and recently acquired mates Dave Nugent (guitar) and drummer Corey Zadorozny (drums), all of whom kicked Sam’s ass back into gear in early 2001, when Sam and his new band debuted at a well-received Canadian Music Week showcase.
"Writing good music isn’t really enough; you need the magic the band brings to the table," Sam says. "I wrote ‘Brother Down’ in that period, and while people reacted to it as a song, it wasn’t until that band element entered the picture that it took off. I’m just not a good loner. I like walking down the street with the guys in the band, I like the laughs and the stupid inside jokes and arguments and having people that you’re sharing the best fuckin’ times of your life with."
In 2002, the hard road finally led to the gold: a publishing deal with Universal, a domestic label deal with MapleMusic for The Inhuman Condition, rapturous reviews, non-stop airplay for 'Brother Down' and 'Don’t Walk Away Eileen' on radio and TV, high-profile opening stints for Oasis and the Tragically Hip, an international record deal with Universal… and, most importantly for Sam, the recording of his first full-length album with producer Brenndan McGuire (Sloan) in Vancouver.
"This is a higher learning"
The unique production process for WE WERE BORN IN A FLAME was strangely appropriate for a classically trained prodigy who says his true love is "dirty fuckin’ rock ‘n’ roll." Sam and Brenndan hibernated for a month to prepare the songs ("the only collaborating I like to do is writer to producer," Sam says), old pal Donoso was called in to lay down drum tracks and then the full band arrived to "lay down some of the shit we do live over top of it." And so we’re treated to electrifying, &"more ballsy&" new versions of 'Brother Down' and 'Where Have All the Good People Gone?'; intense rockers like'“On the Run' and 'Dead End' (a candid account of that wintertime low); epic pop-narcotic head trips that evoke Sam’s love of early ’90s Brit shoegazers ('Climb Over Me,' 'Taj Mahal,' 'Canadian Dream'); and also some of Sam’s most beautiful, honest and romantic songcraft to date (the aching waltz 'Wreck of a Life,' the French-kissed 'No Sleep').
It was a long, hard road to get here, but with WE WERE BORN IN A FLAME, Sam opens up countless new creative paths for himself, earning the freedom to travel down any one he chooses, and the confidence that his fans will come along for the trip… wherever it may lead.
"This is my first record that a whole bunch of people are going to hear, and either I could be like ‘Alright, here I am! Here’s Sam, people! Ready or not!’ or I could sing about my life and the steps it took to get here," he says. "Though I refuse to think of it as purely autobiographical. I never just write songs about myself - it’s always a combination of me and trying to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. It’s fiction, in a sense. This is my short story, it’s a four-minute long short story set to music. Lyrically is where I can really take it in a direction, make it really feel like this is no one’s idea but my own, whereas our music feels like a nice, old, warm worn-out coat you can put on, but you’ve patched it up in a new way."
And it’s time to bundle up… because there must be something in the air…