Sometimes we’re timely when we don’t even mean to be. Or know we will be.
Late last year, for example, the Sam Roberts Band — who are, by most analytics, the best rock act this country can currently lay claim to — released their sixth studio album TerraForm.
As well as being another pretty tasty slab of modern guitar rock, the record tackles the theme of moving forward into the light, into something positive and leaving behind a broken, flawed, dark and, perhaps, regrettable past.
The title track, for example, is about, as frontman and songwriter Sam Roberts has stated, “the idea of going to another planet and making it viable for humans.”
It’s worth noting that it was written and released before a certain someone took office down south. A certain someone who may very well ensure that the idea of terraforming be a plausible reality if not a necessary one.
So. Yes. Timely.
“This is foreshadowing a very dire, near future,” Roberts said last year before TerraForm even dropped.
Well, be that a few days away, next month or a year from now, we can at least enjoy and singalong to his view of where we’re headed — both the bad before the good — with 11 more songs of Robertsian goodness, recorded at The Tragically Hip’s Bathouse studio just outside of Kingston.
Prior to his band’s Friday night performance at the Grey Eagle Event Centre, Roberts spoke with theYYSCENE about the record and the ideas behind it.
Q: Congratulations on a pretty excellent album. It’s another fine entry into what’s becoming a pretty diverse catalogue. Like the previous ones, this has a different sound and a different feel to it. How much did producer Graham Walsh (from Holy Fuck) bring to the proceedings?
A: It’s hard to overstate it, really. The role of the producer as our band goes along, it seems to vary so much from one record to the next. On our last record (the almost Manchester dancey Lo-Fantasy) with Youth, his involvement was very much as an instigator, trying to dredge out performances, sort of getting under our skins, challenging us in terms of performance, in terms of attitude. Graham’s role was different. It was more measured in terms of — it’s hard not to be more measured than Youth — but we really connected on a sonic level. I think that’s what drew me to him in the first place, was his wide palette of material in terms of how they sound and how the records are put together. Because the songs were pretty thoroughly hashed out in the arrangements and everything so it wasn’t necessarily a case of having somebody come in and hammer them into shape with us. It was more of, “How could we capture this to create a feeling and emotion through the sounds.” Graham seemed like the perfect person.
Q: You talk about the feeling — there is a very organic feeling to the record. You’ve said that it’s a lot of love songs, but I get a sense of darkness to it, hanging over everything. Is that reading too much into it?
A: I think it’s love as it actually is, not as starstruck love, but love through all of the different shades that it takes on. And I’m not just talking about love between two people on their journey through life, I mean love as it weaves it’s way through your life, through your children. Again, “family” is a word that we throw around, but it’s an incredibly complex organism, it’s always changing, always challenging you to find new ways to be better, to find new ways to love people. There’s often a darkness in there, in that, as much as there is the light — and everything in between. And I wanted to acknowledge that in this record, as truthfully as I possibly can. That’s the kind of love that I’m living, you know?
I think that was the whole change for me in making this record was looking outwards a little bit less, looking at the world a little bit less. The previous two records was worrying about the kind of world that we were making for our kids, my new children, my new family that I had. And now it’s about looking inwards, looking at ourselves, holding up a mirror to our own lives, trying to find ways to reinvent and renew within our own lives. Not necessarily to escape, it’s not about escape at all, it’s more actually about truthfulness and seeing it with as much honesty as you possibly can and recognizing where it is that you’ve gone down the wrong path and how there’s always an opportunity for redemption, there’s always an opportunity for hope and there’s always an opportunity to turn back if you’ve gone the wrong way. I think these songs, that’s the whole idea of TerraForm came from, to create and recreate and recreate and recreate and have a sense of optimism in that.
Q: That’s far too thoughtful. I’m not used to that from musicians.
A: It doesn’t happen all the time, Mike. Sometimes I just want to eat hotdogs and not think about anything.
Q: Sonically, you referenced the last record and Youth. Did you try to get as far away from that as possible? Was this a reaction to that — not only in the producer you picked, but the tone and the material?
A: I don’t think so. I really just addressed these songs as they came out. You get this feeling of how it wants to be captured. I don’t mean to refer to songs as these living and breathing organisms with a will of their own, but sometimes that’s the way it feels. You can interfere in songwriting. And by that I mean I mean you can put too much of that kind of thinking, either try to avoid what you’ve done in the past or trying to go somewhere in the future, and doing things interfere with the song coming out. And if there’s one thing that I try to take from whatever experience we’ve gleaned over the years is to get it to interfere as little as possible. So, for whatever reason the conditions in my life and my bandmates’ lives have changed as such that, as I’d expect them to over the last few years, that this was how we wanted to make music now. And I’m assuming that it’s going to be different a couple of years from now whenever we get a chance to sit down and write another record. But, you know, it’s hard not to reference yourself sometimes because your experience is the only one you have (laughs) and the only thing you really and truly know. But that being said, you can over-consider it — either trying to emulate it or trying to avoid it, it’s dangerous territory. You’re better off wiping the slate clean and say, “OK, here’s 11 songs: what do they want to be?”
What makes you feel good when you’re writing music? That to me is the only barometer that I’ve ever followed — what’s moving me, what things excite me when I’m writing that make me want to continue in pursuing that path. And if it doesn’t make me feel good I usually turn back.
Q: I do have to ask you — speaking about where the album was recorded and speaking of the first time I ever saw you, which was opening for the Tragically Hip in 2002 — about your thoughts on Gord Downie and what he and the band have meant to you.
A: You saw that first tour. We were an inexperienced band trying to figure out how to be a good band, and we were apprentice at the time to the best band that you could ever hope to learn from. And I have my doubts, I hope that I would have been able to find my way to where we are today, but I don’t know if we would have had we not learned that lesson. And not just when we first met in 2002, but the tours that we did after that, time we spent with them not onstage, just as friends and as people — I never came away from one of those nights without having seen something I knew was very important. That continues to this day. I saw them in Ottawa on the last month of the tour … and, again, it sort of revealed the gap that still exists between them and almost every other band, between how much of yourself you’re putting into your performances every day and what is the limit of that, and they always seemed to be at the absolute limit. That, to me, is something that we have to aspire to. And I always will.
The Sam Roberts Band perform Friday at the Grey Eagle Event Centre. For tickets and information please click here.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. Follow him on at Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He likes beer. Buy him one.