An Interview with Sam Roberts in Which He Talks Touring, Festivals, Spotify and More

[Frequent contributor Juliette Jagger got to Sam recently ahead of the band’s performance at Festival D’ete to talk about the cyclical nature of life on the road and preserving creative headspace, the role of independent and major labels today, teaming up with Paper Bag Records and Québec’s deep-seated love for rock and roll.  .  Here’s what they talked about. – AC]

I want to talk to you a bit about the new record, Lo Fantasy, which came out back in February of this year. It’s your fifth studio album, so what was the writing and recording process like this time around?

Well, the writing is a very focused part of things but there’s also a long lead-up to it. There’s a period where you’re collecting music and ideas and thoughts in a very vague way, which has no context at the time, and that’s usually when I’m on tour. But, there’s no formal process to it while we’re on tour either because we are so devoted to that way of life, which is very fragmented. It’s not that the creative process ever really stops and starts––it’s an ongoing thing––but if you write music then chances are you are kind of writing music all the time in a way.

I find in my own case, writing music is something that requires a lot of dedicated time and attention so when the tour ends we usually take some time off to recuperate and find the desire again because, you know, you use it up. Once the desire comes back, those ideas that have been accumulating start to want to come out with a lot more force than you ever feel when your touring. That’s when you sort of sit down and say ‘okay, it’s time to work,’ and once it’s got ahold of you then it doesn’t let go until it’s done. That might be a year of your life but in my mind it’s still my favourite part of all of this. I love performing, obviously, I love being on the road with the band and I love the studio, but for me the moment of discovery––when a song becomes a song––is still what brings me back again and again and again.

The one thing that I think applies to creative people in general is the need to sort of compartmentalize areas of your life so that you can make time and headspace to sit down and actually create. The trick is, as you said, holding on once it grabs hold of you…

Exactly! You are in for a wild ride at that point. That’s why I need the sort of space and time and the right frame of mind and even stamina to sort of keep up with it and to see it through. At the same time the more you do it the more you realize that each element feeds off of the other and that they are all necessary.

I mean touring would become stale very quickly if you didn’t feed new music into the band’s vocabulary on a regular basis. There is no more exciting time––and maybe it’s because there is so much uncertainty involved with it––than when you’re sitting with a new record and trying to figure out how the hell you are supposed to play it. We put out our record in February and we’re only now starting to wrestle it down to the point where we feel like ‘okay we’ve got this one and we’ve got that one,’ but even then once in a while it throws you a curve ball. It’s like wrestling a wild animal to the floor, and trying to hold it down for ninety-minutes on stage.

You mentioned that touring is a very fragmented sort of life. I guess now that you’ve been doing it for so long there must be a cyclical quality about going into an album cycle or starting a new tour. Do you find yourself becoming aware that you’re entering those specific periods?

Absolutely. I mean there are patterns to it that are undeniable and there’s machinery at work as well, which is unfortunately a very unromantic way of looking at it but it is a part of things and you have to sort of steel yourself against that in a way. Although there is a purity to the experience of writing a song that you don’t want to be tainted in any way, you also recognize that if you want to take what you’re doing to the world outside of your basement that it’s going to be filtered through all sorts of experiences which don’t necessarily mesh with your idea of what it’s all about.

The first few times it’s exciting and I was happy to go through it, to sit and do every interview that came to me and to talk about it all because I felt as if I was bottling it up for a really, really long time. In the beginning, I almost didn’t realize how much I wanted to talk about the music we were making just to share it with someone. That diminishes with time for sure––the novelty of it––but honestly if anyone wants to sit down and talk with me about the music I’m making, I appreciate the opportunity because I realize it’s still such a rarity to be doing what we’re doing and to have people interested.

Let’s talk a bit about the fact that you guys put out your most recent album on Paper Bag Records. Now that’s pretty cool. How did that come to be?

Oh yeah. Paper Bag put out our first EP, The Inhuman Condition, which sort of got the ball rolling for us, a couple years ago on vinyl, so we jumped at the chance because they have such an amazing roster of bands and it was an opportunity for us to give new life that record. I guess we just enjoyed the experience of working with them so much, and as has been the case so many times in the past, our relationship with whatever US label we happened to be with at the time had come to a close, and Paper Bag sort of presented us with the opportunity to put our record out in the States and around the world through them.

At first I was thinking how the hell are three people going to get this job done when so many big companies have sort of, in a way, failed? Over the years, we’ve had so many resources at our disposal but it’s never sort of connected in the right way in certain places. They [Paper Bag Records] sort of just stepped up and said ‘we think we can do this,’ and sure enough those three people some how seemed to have the strength of an army and a long reach as well.

See, we had built this thing up in the States––and elsewhere in the world as well––that we’re very protective of in a way because it was all through elbow grease, it was never through a song on the radio opening doors for us or any of the other traditional avenues in terms of instant hype and gratification. It was really about touring relentlessly for the last twelve, thirteen years or so and slowly generating interest in the band––the radio started to come around as a result of that. So, here was this thing that again, we felt very protective of, and we were handing it over to Paper Bag. Actually, we didn’t really hand it over [laughs], they just sort of grabbed it and said ‘we’re going to do this,’ and they hit the ground running. They have done an amazing job for us.

See, I find that relationship so interesting because you guys have also been working with Universal Records for quite some time now. It seems as if more and more rock bands are choosing to partner with independent labels in addition to major labels where possible. I think we’re now seeing that there is great value in having an independent in your corner and that perhaps that is a more ideal situation for a lot of bands these days. 

Yeah, we’ve been on Universal since pretty well the beginning. They’ve done an amazing job with everything we’ve ever put out in Canada, but in other parts of the world where we didn’t have that song that could climb the charts at radio and provide that sort of soft landing, you really need people who can get in there and dig and work and stay devoted to a project even when it’s not yielding the result you’re looking for. That’s just not the strength of a big label at all. They are amazing at managing something that’s already working but in order to start something, that’s a completely different thing that requires a totally different focus and different level of dedication to detail.

You know when you’re juggling opportunities? And that is a great problem to have and a great place to be, especially if you’re on a major label, but it you’re trying to create opportunities then that’s a different story. You need that attention to detail. At that point, you’re tour posters matter, your street team matters, your artwork, your photographs, the way you present a band and the amount of passion with which you speak of that band is incredibly important. That’s the thing about Paper Bag and that to us has been exactly what we need in the US and in Europe as well.

It’s the old saying, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” and that same kind of divide exists within the labels right now because they are just sort of becoming this one big label that can manage the top echelon bands that have those sorts of needs. But, the smaller labels are becoming much more fiercely independent and self-reliant then they ever were before.

It’s really an interesting time for the independent labels because being on an indie label used to send a completely different message. It used to say: ‘you’re on the right track but you’re not there yet.’ These days, I see more and more bands gunning for indie labels because they know that with their support they’ll not only get that attention to detail but the opportunity to grow and develop, potentially fall on their ass and still flourish.

Oh it is great but at the same time, at some point something has to give because you can’t just have these massive bandswithout any sort of structure to it if anybody is going to have a career, you know?

I think the nature of the indie / major label partnership is such that the majors have the resources, and bands definitely need that, but the indie’s provide that extra bit of care, which is equally as important.

It’s just a case of what does the major label require of them in return for their services and does that compromise what the indie label sort of set out to do in its mission statement. I think when you corrupt that part it almost spells the end right then and there.

Both sides have what they need to get out of the equation but the indie labels have to be the stronger of the two because they have so much more to loose on every project. When you see the investment in sort of dollar terms in the sense of what an indie label actually puts into promoting an album or trying to establish and build an artist, it’s staggering, even though in the eyes of a major label it’s nothing.

I think maybe there is more of a disconnect for those working at larger major labels right now because perhaps it’s not their be all end all in the same way it might be for three people working at an indie label…

I think it’s become more of a be all end all for people at the major labels because the gravy train sort of stopped rolling years ago and they’ve lived under the constant threat of loosing their livelihood for the last ten. That being said, I don’t think it’s made them braver, there are far fewer chances being taken than are needed, and again that’s where an indie label is much more likely to step in and say ‘I really, really believe in this.’

Being that we are talking about how much music has changed, and maybe you can tell me if I’m on point with this, but there is an element of your songwriting that pops up from time to time, one that you can hear even as far back as on a song like “Them Kids,” and that’s the idea of speaking to the changing face of music as it’s happening around us. How have you guys been directly affected by those changes since the band first broke?

I think by acknowledging it and sort of singing about it in a way, you deal with it and can move on from it as well. That’s why I like to sing about it from time to time, and hold up a mirror to it and to our own experience, and then forget about it and not worry about the nature of it at all. That’s just been a way to get through it because it has been a tumultuous time and it’s not just a changing of the guards it’s a complete overhaul.

From one album to another you never know what the landscape is going to look like or what the mechanisms for putting out a record are going to be by the time you put out your next one. I mean, by the time we put out our next record, say two years from now, things will have completely changed. Physical retail will have all but disappeared. Even on this one, it felt almost like we were holding on to this dinosaur sinking into a tar pit, when it came to still manufacturing CD’s. But, by the next time we put out a record that will be gone and it will have been replaced by something else.

Even now, the whole idea of streaming music, it’s been so slow to catch on in Canada that it hasn’t become anything you can really hang your hat on yet, you know?

Like Spotify just now coming to Canada…

Exactly. All these other countries in the world have been so far ahead of the game on that, we’re just so slow, so you just don’t know what conditions will exist when you put new music out. But anyways, it’s just sort of something we’ve addressed in our music and made light off just to acknowledge that it has to be water off the ducks back other wise the whole thing, creatively speaking, will grind to a hault.

I’ve always thought that was one of the cooler things about your songwriting. It’s so subtly delivered and it’s wrapped up in something that’s going to thrive on the radio, but when you sit down and really listen to the lyrics, you realize what it is your actually saying and doing there.

Well, you never know right [laughs], you can hope to wrap something up subtly and yet it can go completely unnoticed all the time so it’s always appreciated when somebody recognizes that it’s there.

Okay, let’s talk quickly about Festival D’ete du Québec. You’re from Montreal so maybe you can explain to me why this is the case, but I can’t get my head around how well this festival is run. Even being from Toronto myself, this level of quality is not something I’ve ever experienced. Just being present in the city right now, I get a strong feel for how much Québec loves rock music. 

It’s an interesting thing because it is unknown by so many in Canada just how much passion there is for rock and roll music in Québec. With that said, it’s a daunting task for any English speaking band to try and come and crack into this because it is a protected market in a way; it doesn’t just hand itself over to you.

For us, playing this festival this year is a culmination of sorts because we are finally playing a big outdoor festival show in front of lots of people on a summer night. That’s something we’re normally not used to. Last time we were here it was March and we were tramping through the snow to a club gig.

I don’t know if it’s because it’s a government town or because there is such a pride in celebrating culture, but they just know how to get things done here.

Even just taking a look at the basics of this festival, the fact that it’s eleven days long and that not only can you get a ticket for a messily $78 bucks, you can share it with a friend…

Yeah it’s really amazing. I was just talking to this guy at this coffee shop in Montreal that we go to all the time and he’s from Québec City originally. He was just saying ‘man it’s expensive now, it used to be five bucks,’ but it was also just local bands playing and now it’s obviously grown, now we’ve got Blondie, Billy Joel and Lady Gaga, which is a completely different story. But yeah, I think the idea is to keep the festival not as separate entity but as something that works within the daily life of the city, and I think that really is a novel concept in a way. So often festivals are removed to their designated areas and quarantined grounds where as here, things take place in the heart of the city.

What is it about rock music that works so well here in Québec, that maybe doesn’t work as well elsewhere in other cities such as Toronto?

Well, I think it does work in Toronto, for example we just had a great show at the TURF Festival, but when you look at the numbers, it just seems to pail in comparison to the overall population. When you look at a town in Québec you think, ‘man, they can play in that size venue and there’s only 50,000 people in the city.’ But, I also think that there is a priority placed on culture in Québec that looses politician’s elections when they go up against it. Most recently, the conservative government made a huge blunder in proposing cuts to arts funding and that cost them what they were hoping was going to be their strongest showing ever. Here people are very protective about music and art in general, and with that comes a level of celebration you don’t find elsewhere.

That is really the biggest thing. There is a clear celebratory atmosphere that I think I’m just not used to seeing in Toronto.

You know, “joie de vivre,” the expression exists for a reason right? That’s why living in Montreal or Québec is a very different way of life. Even though there are so many similarities and parallels between our cities and any other city, there is a different heart beating in the middle of it.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38170 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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