Sam Roberts Band: Another Vintage Weekend at Jackson Triggs
By David DeRocco
Sam Roberts can make you dance. Sam Roberts can make you think. Most of all, Sam Roberts can make you proud to know that artists of his calibre can sustain a two-decade long career in Canada making the kind of thoughtful, compelling rock for which The Sam Roberts Band is known.
Take the title track to 2016’s TerraForm, for example – a story of escape from the ashes of a dying world. “Terrforming is the idea of going to another planet and making it viable for humans,” said Roberts. “For this record, I saw it as planting the seeds for that same sort of renewal in your own life – that regardless of how much you have broken the parts of your life along the way, there is always the chance to start over.” Try gleaning that kind of lyrical storyline from a typical Alicia Cara chart topper.
When it comes to starting over at Jackson Triggs, however, Roberts is happy to have been invited back for a three-night run that kicks off the winery’s popular summer amphitheatre series. Sipping wine after a Thursday afternoon sound check, Roberts took the time to chat with GoBeWeekly about the wonders of merchandising, the joys of writing a new album and the merits of playing a winery instead of a whiskey distillery.
GOBE: You're back for another kick-off at Jackson Triggs. That's a true sign of summer in Niagara.
SAM: This is our first real outdoor start of the summer gig. We were outside in Vancouver in April but that’s a west coast phenomenon. For the east coast it’s the start of the season.
GOBE: Well I’m sure over the course of the last two decades you’ve played some less than stellar venues. Where does this one rank and what are some of the reasons you come back.
SAM: (Laughing). This one is definitely way up there in terms of the well-healed venues we’ve played. This is naturally beautiful. It’s accommodations far beyond what we’re accustomed to, especially in the greasy punk rock bars we play in the U.S. and other parts of the world. This is a real treat for us.
GOBE: I’ve seen you perform there the last two years and you always look you’re having a good time there.
SAM: Indeed we do. This is a special treat and far from the norm for us. Needless to say we milk these three days we have here for all they’re worth.
GOBE: Do you pump up your rider so you can walk away with a couple extra cases of wine?
SAM: There’s no end to the wine here. Again, it’s a very dangerous place for a band to be.
GOBE: I’ve been there for quite a few shows and depending on the band playing there definitely can be a wine and cheese vibe sometimes. Given the choice would you rather play to a crowd indulging at a winery, a brewery, a whiskey distillery or, after July 1st, perhaps a big hemp farm?
SAM: Oh, you know, all the above. And it’s the band’s responsibility to break whatever norm may exist, and that’s right across the board. From the wine and cheese set who may be twirling a chardonnay in one hand and eating a piece of brie in the other, to the stoner crowd who are maybe too introspective at times, to a whiskey crowd who can be so over the top the bottles are flying at the stage. It’s up to the band to set the tone for the night. I think when we first played here at Jackson Triggs we didn’t know what to expect. It was our very first show at a winery of any kind. But people were up and dancing within a couple of songs that first night and we thought, well hell, why can’t this just be like any other show and let’s just approach it like we would playing in a festival or a rock and roll bar. We’ve taken that road ever since.
GOBE: A lot of artists, Canadian bands and international stars, have started releasing their own private label wines. Have you considered releasing a Sam Roberts’ vintage given your connection to the winery.
SAM: We already have our own beer, so we went down the beer road when it came to putting our name on anything. Whether wine is in the future or not, I say ‘never say never.’
GOBE: Well you’ve got the wine glasses under the merch section of your website so you’re already set.
SAM: Those are actually our beer glasses. They’re our avant garde shaped beer glasses. Don’t be deceived. That’s called our tulip beer glass (laughing).
GOBE: When you were a young artist did you ever imagine Sam Roberts’ name on a baby onesie or a set of beer glasses in the merch pool?
SAM: No, that’s pretty much the last thing that crosses your mind when you’re trying to make your way in the musical world. As things progress – or regress depending on your point of view – you learn to expect the unexpected. Anything can happen. I will say it was a shock to see our band logo on a onesie for the first time, equally so on a beer glass. But you can get used to anything.
GOBE: Maybe it’s because there are people who may have created that baby while listening to the music of the Sam Roberts Band.
SAM: Well that’s the hope you know. We’ve had some very pregnant ladies come out to our shows and say they want their baby to hear our songs and feel the energy of a show from the beginning. In some cases we’ve seen those kids growing up alongside the band. I love it when I see things like that happening.
GOBE: Well that must be one of the joys of being an artist, hearing the stories people share with you about the impact and effect your music has had on their lives. Even myself, I was working at Y108 when you had just released “Don’t Walk Away Eileen,” and I unfortunately had just ended a relationship with a really lovely Eileen and I had to listen to your song in heavy rotation every day. All I could think was ‘who writes a song about an Eileen?’ That’s not a rock song name. I cursed you daily Sam.
SAM: I apologize for the serendipity there. As we’ve learned, especially writing songs, you learn over the years. As you’re sitting in your basement, you’re writing about your own life or using your imagination to tap into other people’s experiences, or perhaps even creating fiction in a way, and you don’t know who’s going to be out there listening to the songs eventually. And you can’t think about how those songs are going to become intertwined with other people’s experiences in their lives, in their stories and their past and their futures. Inevitably they do, to the point where now when I sit down to write a song I try not to let it sway what I’m writing, but I do recognize at least that those private, personal moments in a basement will become something, a part of somebody else’s story. You do feel a sense of responsibility I guess when you’re writing because of that.
GOBE: What’s inspiring your lyrical imagination these days. I imagine you are working toward a new release in the near future.
SAM: Yeah, we’ve been working on a record for the last four or five months. I’ve always got one ear to the ground in terms of what’s going on with the times that we live in. And certainly there’s no shortage of fodder right now. If you want to take a snapshot of the world in 2018 you’re not going to be short of material. Then there’s that other part of it that you hope exists outside of any specific point on a chronological scale, that it’s just speaking to the human experience and what it means to live your life as fully as you possibly can, and the roadblocks you encounter along the way. Those roadblocks often times are the same that people in the 15th century encountered, or people 500 or 1,000 years from now will live through too. That’s just being a person and being alive. I think a lot of what I come back to is trying to grapple with that, trying not to explain it necessarily but trying to reflect my own experiences with those things. Often times I use almost a short story form or fiction form to try and express those ideas through other characters, so it doesn’t always have to be autobiographical.
GOBE: You speak about the human experience. One of the wonderful things about the Jackson Triggs series is its support of War Child. Were you aware of the charity before your first gig here in NOTL?
SAM: Yes we were. Actually, we’ve had a connection with them going back deep into the band’s history. It’s just added an extremely important element to what goes on here at Jackson Triggs; that an organization like War Child can in any way, not just benefit from the auctions of instruments or get to meet the band stuff, in the sense War Child gets much needed funds, but it’s also the awareness for people who didn’t perhaps know what they do. By coming here they get to learn about them and hopefully go away with a little bit extra, more than just a show and some wine and a nice night under the stars.
GOBE: As you work toward releasing a new album, would you ever record at a track a day pace like you did recording your first EP release. Would that ever interest you.
SAM: Well we did that a couple albums ago. We put out a record called Lo-Fantasy in 2014. We recorded the record in 12 days. Not by our choice. The producer we had chosen to work with, who chose to work with us, said he only had 12 days available, so we had to have our shit together. We went in there and recorded live off the floor. It had all the urgency of our early recordings I thought. It was interesting to get back to that, having spent the better part of the last 20 years on stage where in the beginning the whole idea of a live performance in a studio setting was terrifying to us. We actually felt more at home and enjoyed it very much. That’s definitely something we’ll keep going back to. It’s also kind of nice to get really really deep into a record. I think of records like Dark Side of the Moon and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, albums like Sgt. Pepper, where there was a lot of careful consideration. I kind of enjoy see-sawing between those two things. One where you spit it all out on the page, and one where you measure your songs a little more carefully. I think we’re definitely at that end of the pendulum this time around.
GOBE: What’s the best part of being Sam Roberts these days, on either a human level or artistic level. Where do you find your greatest joys at this stage of your career.
SAM: Aw, man, honestly, on an artist level I’m looking out at it right now. I’m looking out at the vineyards of Southern Ontario right now and I get to go play music. It’s not the first time we’ve been able to do this. The other part of it is that I’m just glad the curiousity or the ambition hasn’t faded or diminished. If anything, it’s intensified as the years go by and I’m always looking forward. I’m always thinking what the next record is going to be, what the next bend in the road is going to bring to our experience of this whole thing. There’s never been any part of this journey where we felt we’ve been treading over the same ground. It’s constantly shifting under your feet. If you gravitate toward this way of life you couldn’t ask for anything better than that, to have an unpredictability bound up in the nature of what you do.
For a full schedule of the summer concert series, visit: http://www.jacksontriggswinery.com/
To learn more about War Child Canada, visit: https://warchild.ca/