ORIGINALLY POSTED ON STRAIGHT.COM, JAN. 7, 2009
By Steve Newton
When it’s time to make a new album, Sam Roberts likes to get outta town, as he did when he recorded his 2006 CD, Chemical City, in an old church in Byron Bay, Australia. For his latest disc, Love at the End of the World, the Montreal rocker had planned to lay down tracks in a houseboat while floating down the Ganges. But then the birth of a baby girl put the kibosh on that fantasy.
“It just felt with a two-month-old daughter at the time that that wouldn’t necessarily be the most prudent of parental decisions,” says Roberts, calling from a parking lot outside Quebec City during a 10-hour return trip from the Maritimes. “I still like that as an idea, though—it’s something that I’d like to pursue at some point.”
Whether Roberts will ever create a hit song while rolling on a river in India remains to be seen. What’s certain is that the arrival of his first-born child had a major effect on his new tunes.
“The change in my outlook and my perspective on things is essentially the core of what this record is about,” he explains. “I’m a worried parent, and that’s probably at the heart of any fears or paranoia about the future in this record—but also any determination to try to make it as good a future as we possibly can.”
The title track on Love at the End of the World confronts the environmental and military woes of the planet, opening the CD with a jangly blues-guitar riff that churns into two-and-a-half minutes of primal roadhouse boogie. It was the last song written for the album, which is the first release Roberts has recorded entirely in his native Montreal.
“I’d always associated travelling and being away with writing and recording music,” he points out, “so it was a strange thing at first, because I had to find that frame of mind again, despite the fact that I was surrounded by things that were very familiar. It forces me to look at things from a different angle, and as a songwriter that can be a powerful tool in and of itself.”
One of the topics Roberts touched on was the gun violence in his hometown. The super-catchy “Stripmall Religion” has its origins in the 2006 shootings at Montreal’s Dawson College, a school that several of his friends attended.
“It was certainly a wake-up call to all of us who live there,” he recalls of the shooting spree that occurred 17 years after the Ecole Polytechnique massacre. “You sometimes think you’re living for a higher purpose when you don’t have to grapple with crime and violence all the time, but then you realize, no, you’re just the same as everywhere else. The same human tendencies still govern our lives, just as much as they do in a hard American city or anywhere.”
As on “Stripmall Religion”, the raggedy fretwork of Roberts and long-time lead guitarist Dave Nugent propels Love’s first single, “Them Kids”, which the songwriter describes as a portrayal of a musician’s existential crisis: wondering how long he’ll be able to hang on to his career with the fickle audiences of today. So does the 34-year-old ever get to wondering when “them kids” might discover someone hipper than himself?
Judging by Love at the End of the World, Roberts has what it takes to stay in favour with those who made him big in the first place. The album is something of a return to the commercial sound of 2003’s We Were Born in a Flame, which boasted the singles “Hard Road” and “Where Have all the Good People Gone?”, plus earlier The Inhuman Condition EP hits “Brother Down” and “Don’t Walk Away Eileen”. Roberts claims that the move back to a more radio-friendly vibe after Chemical City’s dabbling in jam-band psychedelia wasn’t a conscious one.
“When we sat and listened to Chemical City,” he recalls, “we were like, ‘Well, there’s at least 10 singles on this record.’ But when I delivered it to the record company they were like, ‘Whoa, where’s the single?’ So that just shows how much I know about what will or will not get played on the radio.”
IN + OUT
Sam Roberts sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.
On the challenges of touring with an infant at home: “I’m not gonna lie to ya, it’s much more difficult. But you have to at least try to take something from that and use it towards what you do out on the road. So I don’t take it for granted when I’m travelling right now. This is something that I can really put everything that I have into, because I have to.”
On working again with Chemical City producer Joseph Donovan: “Getting ideas out of your head and translating them to somebody with any sort of accuracy can be the most challenging part of making a record. But Joseph and I go so far back: we played in a band together in high school, we played rugby together. And for whatever reason, when we talk about the songs and we talk about music, it seems that there’s a connection there.”
On his on-again off-again love affair with facial hair: “The beard’s back. You shave ’em and they just come back. What are you gonna do about it?”