Sam Roberts to play AshevilleCanadian rocker knows how to stay hungry
Watching Canadian rocker Sam Roberts live on stage is something. There’s an energy, an urgency that lets you know this guy is giving it his all. He sings and strums as if nothing else in the world matters except for that very moment. And when all is going right, he can make you believe it, too.
This electricity doesn’t just come from his material, though his strong indie-rock tunes can be contagious. It’s also derived from the fact that Roberts, 37, still feels that he has something to prove. That’s how he likes it.
“It’s not like we just sort of waltz in and play shows wherever the hell we want to, to whoever we want and just expect people to show up,” he said, speaking for the rest of The Sam Roberts Band. “There’s still a lot of pressure, and we still exist and make music under the gun. And that’s how I want to make music. I think that’s how you make good music and music that still has some relevance.”
It’s a mindset quite familiar to Roberts, who was pretty much unknown for years in his native Québec, let alone the rest of Canada, until his 2002 single “Brother Down” hit it huge in the Great White North. Ever since, he has been a big player in the Canadian rock scene and an increasingly familiar character to American audiences. His latest release, “Collider,” has had an especially strong following, and can be heard on community and college stations throughout the US, including Western North Carolina’s own WNCW.
Roberts doesn’t let himself feel too comfortable about all this, however. Instead, he feels lucky.
“There’s no other way that I can feel,” he said, describing how few and far between the opportunities are to make one’s mark as a musician.
For him, the tide really began turning at the most improbable time — when he was sleeping under a foosball table. He was in his mid 20s then and had just returned from a pilgrimage to Los Angeles, where he had unsuccessfully shopped around a demo. His band, Northstar, had broken up as many of the former members had decided to seek the shelter of “real” jobs. Roberts could have done the same, except for the fact that he just really didn’t want to. Instead, he moved in with a friend who let him sleep in the living room (and under that foosball table), and he kept writing. “Brother Down,” then just a demo, came out of that period. A year or so later, he decided to rerecord the tune and a few more in a friend’s basement. Roberts sent the CD to a local radio station, which to his delight and shock, started playing the album.
“And within three or four months from that point, the song ‘Brother Down’ was number one in Canada, and that was it,” he said. “That started my career. It could just as easily not happened.”
But it did, and it set a standard for everything that would come later in Roberts’ musical life. He wasn’t a construct of a music studio and wasn’t being groomed by any bigwigs when “Brother Down” hit Canadian airwaves in a way nothing has since. Because he became popular with his own song on an independent label, he was able to create a presedence for creative control that still stands today.
“And we’ve just held on really, really tightly to that ever since,” he said.
That’s a big deal, especially in a world as volatile as the music business. Even after consistently winning several Juno Awards (the Canadian version of the Grammys) over the last decade, Roberts doesn’t romanticize the uncertainty of his chosen profession. He knows what a rough go if it musicians are having all across the industry. But he’s not making music for the job security. He’s doing it because if he were to go out and get a standard 9-to-5 gig, he would be the “most unhappy person I know,” he said.
Heading The Sam Roberts Band isn’t so much about being a rock star as it is about making music, which has been part of him for decades. Ever since he was 12 or 13, writing songs he knew were bad and covering everything from Elvis to Jesus and Mary Chain, he has loved being in a rock band.
“It’s not what I want to do. I feel it’s something stronger than that. It’s an impulse that goes deeper than that. It’s been driving me since I was,” he said, pausing with a little chuckle, “I don’t want to say a kid, but a lot younger than I am now.”
As he looks toward a future in a shaky industry in a dicey economy, he doesn’t feel blindly confident — and he doesn’t want to. As an artist, he dreads the idea settling in and getting self assured. He’s not looking for smooth sailing.
“It’s those moments when you pivot away from that or you shift away from that that something important happens to you,” he said. “Those are the things, those are the times that really matter, how you grapple with those has a huge impact, in essence to find what happens to you down the line or the course that your life will follow.”
For Roberts, those moments are when the best music is made.
The Sam Roberts Band will play at The Grey Eagle in Asheville at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 29. Zeus will open. For more information, visit www.thegreyeagle.com or www.samrobertsband.com.