Ever since the early aughts, Sam Roberts and his eponymous band have been among Canada's most reliable names in rock. A persistent touring presence, the group has won six Juno Awards, including two Artist of the Year honors, and notched six albums in the top 10 of the Canadian charts, reaching No. 1 with 2008's Love at the End of the World. The group's latest, The Adventures of Ben Blank, incorporates influences as disparate as country, R.E.M., Britpop and gospel -- standard operating procedure for a band whose previous highlights range from jangly guitar rock ("Hard Road") to trippy acoustic jams ("Bridge to Nowhere") and dance-club coolness ("Shapeshifters").
But frustratingly, that kind of celebration has remained elusive in the U.S. Yet Roberts remains as optimistic as he sounds, speaking to Q via Zoom on his new album, how he keeps the songs front and center, and the eternal quest for the magic formula that might get the U.S. to share an ale or two.
I first found your music after I heard one of your songs over a PA in a retail store. I keep Shazam handy and there it was: "Youth."
I think most great music is discovered in retail these days. So when you're writing a song, you have to think about that as the sort of preferred destination: this is where you might reach out of the sky and grab somebody's attention. Unfortunately, it happens all too infrequently. So I'm really glad to know that that's how you serendipitously stumbled across our music.
Do you often get that kind of feedback, or feel that you need to re-invent yourselves for a different market?
We don't get feedback like this all the time from somebody such as yourself, who actually sort of then reaches out to us and says, "Well, this is how I found out about you." I think to your point, we are constantly in this state of creative re-invention. You're not necessarily thinking about it in terms of what is the practical outcome that's gonna result from this. It has to be a more natural outgrowth of your creative urges or impulses. But there's still that part of your mind that's always thinking "Is there a little hook at the end of the fishing line that's gonna go and snag somebody unsuspectingly?" So I really love hearing about it, because you want to think or you hope at least, that that kind of serendipity still exists out there and that something that you do can spontaneously cause a stir in somebody's heart.
I can read as much press as I want about the band and your accolades in Canada, but what has been your viewpoint as far as the U.S. is concerned?
If you spend too much time thinking about it, it can drive you insane. I might have to back up a little bit because I'm talking to you from the vantage point of somebody who has managed to establish a career in Canada. Even that's no easy feat. And I think that it's easy for me to take that for granted now. But if I were to put myself in the position of a band starting up here north of the border, connecting those dots to the point where you can say, "Okay, now, we have this sort of nucleus of a career that we can build on," it's a monumental task for any musician, regardless of where they are in the world.
I think America just represents this sort of ultimate puzzle when it comes to how to connect enough of the dots that you have something to build on. We've been throwing ourselves at the doors of the U.S. like a battering ram for 20 years. And I think we're essentially optimistic people because any little glimmer of hope or hearing your story, anything like that, I still latch onto it.
But to say, "Well, I think we now have some firm ground that we can stand on and try to build some kind of momentum," that has been elusive, to say the least. You're throwing your records out there into the ether and hoping that it falls on somebody's lap. Even in terms of shows coming down and touring there, we've toured all over the U.S. for many, many years. To hit that sort of place where it becomes a self-sustaining ecosystem? We've never gotten to that place. But not for lack of trying and certainly not for lack of continuing ambition. Every time we make a record, we're like, "This is the one, man. This is the song that's gonna break down that door. This is gonna be the master stroke." I'm glad that we've never let our lack of traction deter us from wanting to make some kind of headway there.
Well, there's no Plan B, which is sort of inherent in the risk factor of embarking on this kind of career path in the first place. You have to go all in.
From the first minute you start to waver in terms of your determination, you have to keep it at bay, keep it outside of this protected realm. You have to be very single-minded in a way. I mean, here I am. I have three kids. I have a family that depends on this improbable career choice. It's a hell of a way to live and to continue to live. But at the heart of it all is, it's what makes you want to get up in the morning. To your question about America: America is emblematic of that to me in a lot of ways. Getting up and still feeling motivated to try something else, some new idea, some new channel. Maybe trying to look for a perspective that I haven't seen before.
It's interesting because I look at the categorization of your older music, and it often says "country." Now you're labeled "alternative rock."
I should probably be more in tune with that kind of thing. But it's a pretty radical misdiagnosis of what our early records sound like, especially our second full-length record called Chemical City, which is a sort of psychedelic concept album. Very much not country music, I would say. We were signed to Lost Highway Records out of Nashville for a while. So maybe that's where some of that came from. There are definitely elements to it. I'm not shying away from it, especially on our newer record. I think out of all the records we've ever made, the most country-leaning is the latest, The Adventures of Ben Blank.
[Thinks a moment] Well, there we go! I don't know why I've been busting my head trying to figure out the U.S. [Laughs]
With the name "Ben Blank," are you trying to pull a Sgt. Pepper?
Sgt. Pepper is a great parallel. But I was thinking more Chris Gaines, from when Garth Brooks went on his crusade for a bit there . He's probably one of the biggest music stars in the world at the time, and then all of a sudden, he pulls this strange rabbit out of the hat in the form of this alter ego: Eye shadow and sweeping indie rock hair, like pre-emo emo! And I thought, what impulse exists in Garth Brooks to create this?
So the idea of "Ben Blank" was born out of curiosity. Exploring this idea of self, re-invention and re-creation, regardless of how firmly set you are in who you are, and who you have been in the past, and keeping yourself open to the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and see the world around you through that refreshed set of eyes. To me, it became a compelling idea, a place to start writing music from.
Did the pandemic have a big effect on you, musically?
In terms of not having played shows for two years, and the wedge that it put in between one record and the next. All these sort of nuts and bolts issues that came out of it are just sort of undeniable. And for sure we feel all of the effects of that. We put out a record in 2020 [All Of Us], right as the pandemic was starting. That experience was like putting a little paper boat on the ocean and watching it go off, and not really knowing where it was gonna land or if it was gonna find a home at all. It was a bit disconcerting. You put two, three years of your life into writing these songs and making this record that you want to be able to see the connection that it creates with other people.
The song that you brought up — "Youth." To me, that was a song that I wanted people to bring into their lives. I wanted them to connect with it and I wanted to witness that process. Touring a new album affords you as a songwriter to be in that one moment where you get to watch it become part of somebody else's life. You get to share that communion. Not being able to do that during the pandemic was the hardest part for me.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but there are a couple of photos of the band recording in what looks like a living room?
It's basically a one-room studio. It's a music studio, but you've trimmed all the fat off of the recording process, which is, I think, essential to being able to make records in this day and age, given the fact that budgets are what they are, and the reality of putting a record out there into the world. It's not like you're gonna reap pots of gold from it, either. You have to strip it down to what's necessary. So we found a place and worked with a producer who has this great room. Everything sounds really good in there. We're in very close quarters. There's nowhere to go!
Do you come in fully prepared? Or does everybody contribute to the song as a whole?
We've come in with a fully formed song, and all the different parts are predetermined, but it's not fixed in the sense that there's always an openness to the possibility of new ideas coming in at the spur of the moment.
Oftentimes those are the most enjoyable bits of making a record. You put down the essential, and then you allow for those little sort of freak moments of inspiration or accident becoming your favorite part of the song. So I think we definitely have an open-mindedness to the whole thing. But the spirit of the song already exists in the final form that you're going to hear.
I've always admired musicians who can workshop their songs in front of an audience for a while before recording.
I can't. That process to me is like pulling teeth without anesthetic. I have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for anybody who has that level of humanity and patience in them. I was watching the Beatles' Get Back and we think of it as Paul's controlling everything. I couldn't believe the amount of restraint and tolerance and allowance for people to voice their displeasure, or their ideas, or whatever. I was like, even the Beatles were able to do that. And here we are. We're like, no. We don't talk about it. We'll sort this out later!
What has changed in songwriting over the years for you?
[Gestures behind his chair] This is my hot room here, where I've got guitars and a piano and synthesizers, and I can start with any one of those instruments and see where it takes me. But I don't have a fixed method. I do set up kind of weird restrictions and parameters around songwriting: it can't be longer than three minutes and 30 seconds, or it can't be shorter than five minutes and then you give yourself these kinds of imaginary boundaries as a tool for making that blank page seem a little less blank.
Are you uncomfortable if you're figuring out "I got a jam going here for like two minutes straight and I don't know if I'm ever gonna get off this chord. How am I gonna end it?"
That's tape, cut! I do that a lot. The song will just end abruptly. There's no fade-out. It just sort of stops.
What happens in the course of a gig?
That's a good question! You could do a whole piece on the fate of the fade-out! It's a lost art in a way. Some songs you just want the listener to feel like the songs never end. There's not supposed to be a conclusion. You're still on that train, and it's still going. Even when it's gone. But I think it's one of the great things that sort of separates rock and roll records from classical. All classical music resolves itself. In the orchestra, everybody slows down at the same time, and it either ends on a quiet thing, or it ends at a big crescendo. If it's Beethoven, it's a big two, three last chords, or whatever it is. But rock and roll acknowledges that there's just some things that in your heart, have to keep going. You want to feel like you're still riding down those tracks.
Do you feel like that can resolved through the sequencing of songs on a release?
Thinking about vinyl, thinking about that kind of tangible physical relationship with listening to an album. I definitely think about that. I'll think about side splits when we're sequencing a record, even if one out of a thousand people are going to consume it that way. Because to me, that's how an album becomes an album, instead of a wash of songs that are going to be digitally blown to the wind whichever way people choose to listen.
The title of The Adventures of Ben Blank seems to hint that we're about to go on a trip.
Yeah, you're forcing people to think of it as an album. That to me is how I want people to listen to this music. Obviously, as a songwriter, you have to make sure that every song can stand on its own two feet. And when you're making a record, it sort of falls on you to create a compelling enough thread between the songs that people do want to listen through in this case all nine songs, and to feel like they've gone somewhere, either come back to the same place or hopefully landed in a completely different space.
Do you have plans for an expanded edition?
We've done it. One record, [2014's Lo-Fantasy] we did a remix, a full-on electronic version of the record that kind of came out simultaneously. I love doing stuff like that.
You know, that's the kind of thing that I love about this record. There are nine songs on it, and there are only nine songs. So there's not a whole bunch of other information that we didn't include in it. If we're going to do anything like that, then it's going to have to be something on the more creative front. Do a full-on dub remix or run the tape backwards!
What have your long-time fans been like? Are you stunned to see someone who's been with you for 20 years and now bringing their children?
There's a part of you that loves everything about that. The fact that they've been with you and that you've stayed connected through your music with them for all these years. Then there's the other part of it which is like, "Oh, my God! We're getting older!" We've been doing this for a long time, you know, which brings on so many different kinds of emotions.
Like if someone called out for a B-side?
We had this one song called "Hot Metal" about driving down the 401 highway here in Canada. We've never played that song since that time, because we wrote a bunch of actual songs. You know, not a 25-minute excuse to do dueling guitar solos and whatever else that we could do to fill up the time. So once in a while, people will shout out "Play 'Hot Metal!"
So again your first reaction is, "Man! That person was there in those days! That's amazing!" The second part of that is, "I can't believe they like that." And then the third part is you getting panicked. None of us can play guitar that well anymore. You know, our skills are atrophying!
Would you say then that "Hot Metal" is kind of your "Free Bird?"
I would feel insulted if nobody shouted, "Play Free Bird!" you know. It's a rite of passage.
Speaking of doing concerts, who's punishing you for doing Canadian gigs in February and March?
There's a very strategic answer to that. It's that no other band is nuts enough to go out there on the road at that time of year. So if you got to fill up a concert hall and you're willing to go through the ordeal of driving along the TransCanada Highway on a cold night, then you kind of have the run of the town.
Is this called character building?
At this point, I have to assume that 99% of this is character-building and that one sliver is redemption for all of it!