Conditioned cool from the pool to the stage: Sam Roberts comes clean

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This would be the first interview I’ve ever given to a guy who’s seen me in a Speedo,” Sam Roberts tells me as I’m jotting down notes to myself.   “It’s kind of humbling, actually...”

Humility is a concept we don’t always get to associate with fame and fortune.  Sam Roberts embodies it, and he allowed me to be graced with some of his as I sat down to interview him from his home downtown.  The release date for his new album, “Lo Fantasy”, is February 11 and it will be hitting the ground running with a lot of help from ‘Youth’.

‘Youth’, the monosyllabic name of The Sam Roberts’ Band’s new producer, has flipped the band on its head this past year, jarring them back into recording action, and soon enough, up on to the stage.

This will be Sam’s sixth studio album and we the young, either in chronology and/or of heart, or both, need to ride on his vibe because let me tell you first hand, it’s a good one.  After all, we’re all in this together...

George Bernard Shaw once said, “Youth is wasted on the young.”  If young, this expression has face-value standing as a condescending and pejorative expression that ‘old people’ toss around to be diminutive; it’s like ageism in a line.

For those of us no longer so young, it’s kind of got a good beat to it, and we can almost dance to it. 

We’re all in this together’ is Sam Roberts’ latest single release, and maybe these lyrics can lend some credence to the fact that ‘rock and roll’ is still alive and well, and no matter what, we all need to ‘keep moving, don’t stop...’

In a brilliant article entitled Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation published in Time magazine on Monday, May 20, 2013, Joel Stein writes about this ‘Millennial’ generation consisting, “depending on whom you ask, of people born from 1980 to 2000”.  He begins the piece saying “I’m about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow. But,” he continues, “I have studies.”

It’s a fair and balanced piece that I’ve been using in my classroom, as well passing unto and amidst my ‘old friends’. 

Stein writes about how English teacher, David McCullough Jr.’s commencement address last year to Wellesley (Massachusetts) High School graduates, which was a ‘twelve minute reality check titled “You Are Not Special”,’ has nearly two million plus hits on YouTube.  During it, he says, “Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”

The lyrics of Sam’s first single resonate with me, tapping along a similar vein. 

“…It's a phenomenon that goes on and on,

saying it right but you're doing it wrong,

tongue tied a fire inside,

caught like a deer in the headlights.

Slow down you're going too fast now,

a delicate dance, take your foot off the gas now,

don’t try making it last now,

sooner (or) later you're a thing of the past…”

Perhaps there’s a fire inside the ‘wasting youth’, or perchance they’re just tongue-tied. Either way, maybe they’re doing it wrong with their heavy foot on the gas, ‘YOLO’-ing and feeling invincible, blatantly and ignorantly unaware that, sooner than later, we’re all going to be a thing of the past.

What Stein suggests is chronically endemic of the Millennial generation is an almost insatiable desire to touch fame in one way or another.  According to a 2007 survey, he says; “…three times as many middle school girls want to grow up to be a personal assistant to a famous person as want to be a Senator” and “… four times as many would pick the assistant job over CEO of a major corporation”.

Knowing full well that Sam has three children under the age of 8 (two girls and, the youngest, a boy), I asked him about fame and how he sees it given the McCullough comment and his relative position on the ‘mountain’ of fame.

Roberts, an English Literature Graduate of McGill University, knew exactly what I meant in my line of questioning.  “Fame,” he told me, “is a relative thing.  We all have our moments of fame, but it’s also all relative.

“It‘s easy to get carried away, or to run away, as you feel its paradoxically equally repulsive as it is magnetic pull.  I’ve had an inconsistent relationship with fame, but I think that is exactly what it is: inconsistent.

“I remember my fantasy as a young musician was to play Clyde’s pub in Pointe Claire village.  Collecting $17 and beer tickets was hitting the big time.   My biggest dream then might have shifted to playing those other really cool venues like Club Soda or the Spectrum.  The biggest show I ever saw, as a kid, was Paul Simon at the Forum, but all the other bands I went to see were in small, intimate venues.

“That was the dream then.  I never saw being on TV, or near other famous people, or getting an award.  It was disconcerting to go beyond my dreams, as I have from time to time.”

Sam, by the way, won a Juno Award for Video of the Year in 2007 for his single “Bridge to Nowhere” off his second album ‘Chemical City’.  This never came up during our conversation.  Nor did the fact that apparently, his 2001 debut album, The Inhuman Condition was one of the bestselling independent albums in Quebec and Canadian music history. No, what came through most is that Sam just never lets go of his roots.

These roots keep him grounded. 

Family is everything.  Sam lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their three children.  The couple both grew up on the West Island of Montreal, and has been together since they were sixteen years of age.

Talking with me, Sam said, “I love talking with you Huntley, ‘cause you help me take a magnifying glass back to my past a bit.  Whenever I head back home I remember Mike Legare and I on our Raleigh and Red Baron bikes, up and down Cedar avenue; we were the ‘Raleigh Brothers Gang’, always chasing after those other guys on the Leader bikes (we called ‘em the Leader losers, but don’t print that).  These major rivalries honed our competitive spirit.

“My father (Alan) used to ferry us to and from Terra Cotta.  He was my soccer coach until I was 18.  It was either Terra Cotta or Lakeshore Pool, where the lifeguards had their own honing qualities…”

I got to be Sam’s lifeguard.  True story, and this leads, of course, to how I have seen him in a Speedo.

I remember well the Roberts’ clan.  Not only were they a really, really good-looking group, they were ridiculously talented, and even more absurdly humble and kind.  No matter what, Annette and Alan handled their four boys: Sam, Dan, Tom and Alister, with a practiced cool.  A conditioned cool that never betrayed the impossibility of what they did.

“They were always on the move at an impossible pace, when I think back on it,” Sam reminisces, “They made it look effortless, always, as they shuttled us all from piano, to violin, to soccer, to tennis, to swimming…

“This is who I am, though.  I work with my children as my parents’ guided all of us.”

Asked about the seeming mystifying schedule of his chosen career/lifestyle and how he tries to maintain an iota of familial normalcy, Sam offers simply, “It’s all a balance thing.

“Taking a magnifying glass into my past, like seeing any old friend, offers a small rewind to the often buried significant moments of our lives.

“I know that I’m most fortunate to have lived where I’ve lived, and been with the extraordinary people I’ve been with.  And I’m lucky enough to keep having them come back into my life, offering me more of these rewinds…

“Back to my kids, and my family, it’s got its tough times, but as I’ve grown in the industry, I know how to reorganize myself and the tours, around what’s most important, in the long run.

“I hate calling what I do a job, cause most of the time, it sure doesn’t feel like one.  But being away from my family, when I have to, sure reminds me that it IS a job. I remember the balance though; for the past year and a half, while I’ve been writing ‘Lo Fantasy’, I’ve been home, every day, driving to ballet, practicing violin.

“Now on tour, I’m away from home a maximum of ten days at a time, as opposed to the four months of constant touring we used to do.  I’m older now, so I know how to pick and choose my battles better.”

Youth has not been wasted on this not-so-young-anymore Montreal based West Islander and his band mates.  No, they have a wicked thing going.

“It all comes back to brothers and Speedos,” Sam tells me. 

James Hall, bassist, and longest standing member of The Sam Roberts Band, brother to Canadian Olympic rower, Thomas Hall, is the co-captain of the team.  He and Sam grew up on the same soccer team together.  James’ mom used to holler at him while he picked clovers on the field, and flirted with the passing airplanes constantly buzzing overhead, “Jamie, get your head in the game”.

“James’ status in the band,” Sam says, “aside from being my friend, is to be the older brother to Josh (Trager, the drummer, youngest, and newest member, since 2005).  Like younger brothers, Josh gets away with nothing.

“James and I keep each other in check because, well, we’ve seen each other in Speedos; we’ve got nothing left to hide.”

Eric Fares and Dave Nugent make up the rest of the band, and I asked about how they all feel about the name of the band being what it is.  I mean, I had always wanted to ask a Rock Star how they settled on naming themselves… themselves.

If I offered up my name as the name of our band to my band mates, I think I’d still be bleeding.

“Well, when I was in University, my first band, ‘NorthStar’, split up.  I just kept on writing music.  My friend Eric had set up a little duct-taped recording studio built in his apartment, actually situated under his elevated bed, if you can believe it, and we recorded a demo, called ‘Brother down’.

“Shortly after, my friend Dave Spencer, who shared a wickedly common love of music with me, asked if he could ‘be my manager’.  We were out at a club, both sets of our friends just merging, meshing and having fun.  He told me he was a Communication student at Concordia U, and I asked him if he’d ever managed a band before.  He said no; so I said ok!

“He’s been our manager ever since.”

Sam and Jenn also travelled extensively, a constant shared passion.  While they were in Morocco later that year, he got an email from ‘manager’ Dave saying: “’Brother Down is getting some air time up here.”

“I told him to ‘keep me posted’, and sure enough, two days later he called saying, ‘Sam, you gotta get back here, it’s getting real play.”

The demo was credited to the band named:  “The Sam Roberts Band”… and the name stuck.

I’ve covered (sung) ‘Brother Down’, I tell Sam.  My little story here is that every time my band ever played it, I would insert myself in a little fantasy where Sam would come in, see us doing his song, and take over the mic.  And then I could be, with no small tip of my hat to the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, ‘Almost Famous’, man.

It’s a good dream.

“See,” Sam replies, “That’s the ultimate form of flattery.  You can’t really get much better than that.   I’ve been in clubs all over the place, and then a band comes on playing something I’ve written, and I’m like, ‘I recognize that song…’

“The drag,” he continues, “is that often they end up sounding just as good.

“Half the art of this ‘job’ is making it all seem so inaccessible to the world.”

The Sam Roberts Bands’ latest album, ‘Lo Fantasy’, will be in stores on February 11.  Go get it.  It’s more than accessible for our world.

And who knows, there might even be a picture of Sam and James in Speedos.

Life Lessons with Huntley Addie.










Organizations: Time magazine, McCullough, McGill University Club Soda Red Baron NorthStar

Geographic location: Wellesley (Massachusetts), Terra Cotta, Pointe Claire Chemical Quebec West Island Montreal Morocco

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