Montrealer Sam Roberts is poised to be Canadian rock’s Next Big Thing, writes SHANDA DEZIEL
SAM ROBERTS walks into the green room at Vancouver’s Stanley Theatre with three bottles of beer in his hands. His girlfriend grabs one, and then his record producer and a thirsty comedian, leaving Roberts empty-handed. “That’s OK,” he says, “my stomach’s feeling a bit off anyway.” Must be nerves—he’s the opening act at the evening’s David Suzuki environmental awareness variety show, and he’s performing acoustically for the very first time. “No,” counters the native Montrealer. “I ate a chili omelette earlier today and can’t seem to digest it.” That other stuff doesn’t seem to bother him at all. Neither does the fact that down the hall, in a room of her own, headliner Nelly Furtado is holding court with a slew of TV cameras while Roberts and his guests are packed into one room with the other entertainers on the bill and then-mayor-elect Larry Campbell. Roberts just sees it as an opportunity to get the scoop on the city’s Olympic bid.
This December night, Roberts plays to a crowd who have no clue who he is. The audience isn’t even familiar with Brother Down, his first single and for many the song of summer 2002. Yet it doesn’t take much to win everyone over. “Well, all my songs are about chicks and booze,” he tells the 500 people, apologizing for his lack of environmentally themed material, “so I thought I’d try a cover.” He then bursts into an energetic version of Paul Simon’s not-at-aH-environmental Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, nailing that long whistling part with impressive accuracy. Shaking his mop-top like a latterday Beatle, and encouraging singalongs, Roberts makes a very good first impression.
As he retreats backstage to chow down on bite-sized brownies and pull back on a few beers, Furtado takes the stage. She bumbles through her performance, telling rambling, nonsensical stories, and while her voice holds up, she fails to engage the audience. People may have come to see Furtado, but they leave talking about Roberts.
Since then, buzz about Roberts has intensified—to the point where many see him as The Next Big Thing in Canadian music. The jeans-and-T-shirt rocker, who has the energy, charisma and dark curly hair (with beard) of a young Bruce Springsteen, seems to have the requisite fire. Two songs from his debut album, the six-track EP The Inhuman Condition, have made the Top 10 on radio and MuchMusic. The 28-year-old drew mostly sellout crowds touring Canada last winter. And, earlier this year, he garnered Juno nominations for best new artist and best single (losing to pop sensation Avril Lavigne).
Much is hanging on the June 3 release (June 17 in the U.S.) of his first full-length album, We Were Born in a Flame. His record company, the American branch of Universal, is hoping for a global reception not unlike the one Furtado got two years ago. “We have a saying,” says Avery Lipman, the New York executive who signed Roberts, “if you’re from Canada you’re either going to become one of the world’s biggest acts or you won’t be able to get arrested. There’s no middle ground—either you’re Celine, Alanis, Sarah, Avril or Nelly, or you’re the Tea Party, Matthew Good, Sloan, the Tragically Hip.”
Roberts’s gender and style of music place him squarely in the latter category—he even opened for the Tragically Hip on their last
tour. But his star quality and dynamism on stage are definitely of the former. “Sure, the females have been the biggest Canadian acts,” says Lipman, “but Sam will be the biggest male artist in the world. He’s going to buck the trend.” In fact, when it comes to Canadian males in the U.S. market, times are a-changin’. With Vancouver’s Nickelback and Ajax, Ont.’s Sum 41 ruling the charts alongside Avril, it seems our boys have broken the gender jinx.
Roberts’s music is an eclectic but cohesive mix of guitar-driven, straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll, keyboard-infused, drug-inspired psychedelic space jams, and soulful pop ditties— all infused with real passion. In his songs he emerges as the ultimate sex symbol, both a guy’s guy and a sensitive soul. In person, he’s a hockey-obsessed, dope-smoking dude, but he also opens doors for the opposite sex and refuses to let a woman, even one with an expense account, pay. It won’t be too long before perpetual rock groupie Winona Ryder sets her sights on him. Roberts, however, is more of a Gwyneth Paltrow man—“I just think she’s someone you could talk to,” he says, “but she’s too tall for me.” Plus, the budding celeb is pretty devoted to Jen Stornello, his girlfriend of 11 years.
THE DAY AFTER the Suzuki show and some late-night partying, Roberts drags himself into Vancouver’s Mushroom Studios, where he’s recording the new album. The focus is still on his stomach. Despite the previous day’s undigested chili omelette, Roberts put back a Philly cheesesteak in the early morning hours—and it sits like a rock in his gut. Getting down to work is not going to be easy— and he may not even be able to play hockey later tonight. (During his stay in Vancouver, Roberts joined both a musicians’ and a stockbrokers’ league.) The day starts at noon with a joint and some consultation with producer Brenndan McGuire, best known for his work with Sloan. As McGuire turns to the computer, Roberts turns his thoughts to lunch. Cheesesteak be damned, he’s up for ordering Chinese and settles in to watch music videos, getting up to leave only when his own comes on.
In no hurry to get to the recording, Roberts reflects on what can only be described as his Cinderella story. In the spring of 2000, he travelled to Pembroke, Ont., from Montreal for a few weekends in a row and recorded a collection of demos at the home studio
of his friend Jordon Zadorozny, front man for alt-rock band Blinker the Star and sometime Courtney Love songwriting collaborator. Roberts played The Inhuman Condition for a few major labels, but they paid him no mind. Brand new Toronto indie label MapleMusic Recordings, however, thought it was special. Maple picked up the EP, which was never meant to be released. Then Universal Records, which does Maple’s promotion, pushed Brother Down to radio stations. The song scored an unbelievable amount of play on major stations across the country during its first week. It wasn’t a fluke. The next single, Don’t Walk Away Eileen, made its way up the charts as well, and the third song from the EP, Where Have All the Good People Gone?, recently delivered to radio, seems to have the same potential.
Of course, the majors came to their senses. “We first took notice when tracking the progress of our own bands in Canada,” says Lipman. “And I’m seeing this guy Sam Roberts kicking the dirt out of all our guys. Around the same time our Canadian counterpart sent us the record. We got on a plane literally the next day.” Lipman and his brother watched the band play an outdoor show at the Vancouver Grand Prix that Roberts calls “horrible.” But the execs were sold. “I’m not a hockey fan,” says Lipman, “but in Vancouver, Sam was wearing his Canadiens shirt onstage, and there was a lot of fans of the Vancouver team. I admired Sam’s courage taking on the opposing side, head on.”
Lipman also liked the fact that he could take an already-tested single, Brother Down, and introduce it to a whole new audience in the U.S. and beyond. Lipman proudly recalls: “We said, £We’re not leaving town until we have a deal.’ ” Roberts signed with Universal to make a full-length album—which includes all three singles from the EP—for an amount he’s not about to disclose. “It’s way more money than I ever thought anybody would ever pay me to make music,” he says. “Originally what I thought I wanted to get was $15,000 Canadian; that’s what I was shooting for until last summer. Then I bumped it up to $30,000.1 would have been very happy with $30,000—and we kicked $30,000’s ass.”
Lipman laughs at Roberts’s low expectations. “We had this nice little record-signing ceremony,” he says, “with Sam, the band, his family and close friends and about a dozen executives from New York and Toronto. Our head attorney is a big hockey guy and had managed to get a signed photograph of Luc Robitaille. We presented it to Sam, and I swear he was more excited about the photo than doing the contract.”
When it came time to make the album, Universal offered to send Roberts to a studio in the tropical locale of his choice, with any of today’s hottest producers. Roberts, in keeping with his nature, went low-key. The day I visit the Vancouver studio he’s decided not to work on the album at all; nor does he plan on singing. Instead, he and McGuire lay guitar and percussion tracks for a cover of Paul Simon’s 1980 song Late in the Evening, to be used on a between-
album EP or a CD single. For a guy who commands the stage, he’s a bit self-conscious in the studio. And not only with journalists. He’s rigged up a barrier of blankets in the recording area so his producer and Mushroom staff can’t see him sing. Then there’s his fear of the Record button— McGuire has learned to secredy start rolling long before Roberts says he’s ready. At other times, Roberts gets lonely—and has taken to dragging his guitar into the tiny control room just to have some human contact as he lays down tracks. It’s at these times he misses his band the most.
Roberts may be marketed as a solo act, but
he’s most definitely part of a band, consisting of Dave Nugent (guitar), Eric Fares (guitar/keyboard), James Hall (bass) and Corey Zadorozny, brother of Jordon (drums)—all old friends and veterans of Roberts’s earlier groups. And yet he’s decided to go it alone in the studio, playing guitar, piano, bass and violin himself. (The drums are provided by Roberts’s long-time friend and former bandmate George Donoso, now with Montreal indie darlings the Dears).
But he’s invited the guys out for a week
toward the end of the process. “I’m just glad they get to come here and put their two cents in. I don’t think they’re particularly into doing bed tracks anyway—playing the same guitar line 30 times. They get to come in and do guitar solos and shit like that. That’s what everyone remembers anyway.” The guys in the band back him up, swearing he’s not some Billy Corgan-esque control freak. “When we got there,” says Fares, “Sam had done the bulk of the work, which is great. You could tell that Brenndan and Sam had been at it 20 hours a day or something ridiculous. We went there to give Sam moral support more than anything else. But he left all
these things open for us to do, just so we could put our stamp on the record. It was one of the nicest things I’ve ever seen.”
ROBERTS GREW UP in the Montreal suburb of Pointe-Claire, the child of South African parents. “My mom came here during Expo ’67,” he says, “when Montreal was like the centre of the universe. She went back to South Africa, saying, ‘You’ve got to see this place.’ I was born three weeks after they arrived [in 1974].” Sam, the eldest of Alan and Annette Roberts’s four boys, started violin lessons at age four (and studied until he was 20). “I was a geek,” he says. “My first concert was probably Itzhak Perlman.” But he did discover rock as an adolescent, joining a series of groups. In Grade 8, he played guitar and sang backup in The Happy Deathmen. “We did Bauhaus, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Tom Petty covers,” he recalls.
Attending a private Catholic high school, Loyola, in Montreal’s NDG neighbourhood, Roberts and his friends trained in every day from the suburbs. “Hanging out downtown shaped us in a lot of ways,” he says. “We all started dressing like mods.” By university— he attended McGill, where he got a B.A. in
English—Roberts had graduated to lead singer and songwriter, and started the Britpop-sounding Northstar. The band enjoyed limited success with college radio and small club gigs, finally breaking up in 1998. Then Roberts went travelling. “If I wasn’t going to make it in music,” he says, “I wanted to be a writer for National Geographic.” But what he affectionately calls “that bitch rock ’n’ roll” still had designs on him.
NOW HE’S MADE the one thing he’s always dreamed of, a professional, studio-produced album. The three singles from the EP have been re-recorded and only slightly changed for We Were Born in a Flame. While the new CD doesn’t have the raw energy of the EP, it’s one of the most melodic rock albums out there, with touches of late Beatles and early Oasis. And while he’s not yet a Springsteen-, Simonor even Gord Downie-calibre storyteller, he does capture the malaise of a generation. As their titles suggest, the first four songs—Hard Road, Brother Down, Where Have All the Good People Gone? and
Wreck of a Life—are downers in different tempos. But Roberts doesn’t come across as a whiner, as so many of his contemporaries do. The rest of the record is a real mix. Every Part of Me, a bouncy stroll through his idyllic childhood, is followed by Dead End, a pounding number about being the family screw-up. There’s fun to be had in the psychedelic excursion of Higher Learning. And Taj Mahal, a gorgeous, soaring, violin-andpiano ode to a lost love, will have arena rock crowds searching for their lighters. Meanwhile, many of the tracks are laced with Canadianisms, and there are even a few verses sung in French.
While they play well at home, the numerous Canuck references may not help Roberts break into the U.S. market. It’s hard to imagine heartland Americans joining in on the chorus to Canadian Dream: S-O-CI-A-L-I-SM is here to stay/S-O-C-I-A-L-I-SM is the only way. “We’re telling the story of who we are,” says Roberts. “We happen to be Canadian, that’s ingrained in us in every way—the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we speak. Whatever we do has to be a very natural expression. If we feel an outburst of Canadian coming on, so be it. Maybe the people in Tulsa, Okla., aren’t going to like it; I don’t really know.”
Nor does he seem to care that much. After all, his band has toured with the Tragically Hip, seeing first-hand the kind of career you can have when you’re completely ignored stateside. “You gotta see the guys from the Hip,” says Roberts. “They’re totally still buddies and they hang out every night and they go out for beers. They’re not like the bands that show up and leave in different cars. I’m thinking down the line, and I want to still go out for beers with the guys in the band. I want to be hanging out on a Saturday night watching the game.”
Still, Roberts and company promise to do whatever they can—in clear conscience—to become a world-class act. Onstage, at least, Roberts pulls out all the stops: Mick Jagger swagger and hip-shaking; beer-guzzling, foulmouthed antagonism; and the mid-set, emotionally charged claim, “I bleed rock ’n’ roll.” And if small-town American audiences are looking for something to sing along to, there’s nothing more universal than the chorus from Brother Down: I think my life is passing me by.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth for Roberts these days. Since finishing We Were Born in a Flame, he’s taken
a vacation to Panama, toured Canada, opened for Swedish rock band the Soundtrack of Our Lives on the U.S. East Coast, and gotten totally wasted during Juno weekend in Ottawa. Three days after the Junos, Roberts and I meet in Montreal. He says he’ll pick me up at my hotel at “five on the dot.” He arrives at 5:05, pretty impressive for a Montrealer, and absolutely amazing for a rock star. Driving his mother’s Subaru to the increasingly trendy Mile End part of the city for a café au lait, he’s still reeling from the past weekend’s festivities. Roberts admits to having been overwhelmed and overindulgent; he was cited in the Globe and Mail as being too drunk to give an interview. “I felt like the rookie. I wasn’t prepared for the scrutiny. I was more worried about slipping on ice than I’ve ever been in my life. It consumed me, like the fires of Mount Doom.” Then there was the band’s first—and not terribly impressive—nationally televised appearance. “We had eight dress rehearsalsonly at the Junos is there eight sound checks,” he recalls. “And then we’re the only band that has sound problems. I can’t figure it out.” Outside the coffee shop, a stranger on a bike pulls up and tells Roberts how much he enjoyed that very performance. “Wow,” Roberts says when the guy rides off. “I’ve been freaking out for two days, but maybe people at home saw it totally differently. That makes me feel so much better.”
Later in the afternoon Roberts is tucked into a corner at Le Pistol, a popular bar on St. Laurent part-owned by his younger brother Dan. Guinness in hand and watching Dan play pool, Roberts really relaxes. After all, there’s much more to life than Canadian music awards. Like hockey. It’s the first night of the playoffs, and he’s worried about conflicting schedules. “It’s the most important time of the year, when you put whatever you’re doing on hold.” He’s only half-joking about blowing off his upcoming responsibilities—a video shoot, and travelling to New York for last-minute tweaking of the album. “If you don’t cheer for the teams you want to win, then there’s no way they’re ever going to win. It’s all up to the spectator on the couch at home.”
Just as the first game is about to start and it looks as if Roberts could hunker down at the bar for the night, his cellphone rings. Turns out there are some things even more pressing than hockey or rock ’n’ roll. Sam Roberts has to go and pick up his mom. I?]