Music News

Northern Exposure

Montreal's Sam Roberts is looking forward to performing in Colorado, even though the state is associated with a pain that's lingered within him for the better part of a decade. As he readily admits, he was crushed when, during the mid-'90s, goalie Patrick Roy deserted Roberts's beloved Montreal Canadiens in favor of the Colorado Avalanche, and he hasn't fully recovered yet.

"It's not so much that I begrudge the Avalanche for the two Stanley Cups they won when Patrick was there," he insists, only semi-convincingly. "But you've got to understand that the Avalanche used to be the Quebec Nordiques, and they were our rivals right through the '80s. It was like, not only did our best player leave, but he left to play for our arch-enemy. So there are a lot of politics that go way back -- and when he left, I think every Canadiens fan believes it was the catalyst that led to a decade of really terrible hockey in Montreal."

Things have gone much better of late for Roberts. As he puts it, he's as big in Canada "as any five-feet-nine individual can ever be" -- and even though this comment is meant as a joke (as are his claims to be yours truly's long-lost relative), he's got evidence on his side. During April's Juno awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys, We Were Born in a Flame, an excellent disc that was recently released stateside thanks to Lost Highway Records, was named the year's best album over the likes of Nickelback's The Long Road. In addition, Roberts trumped competition from fellow Canucks Nelly Furtado, Celine Dion and Sarah McLachlan on the way to earning the top-artist Juno. Such acclaim has helped Flame spawn three hit singles in Canada and sell well over 100,000 copies, the platinum standard north of the border.

So how much weight do such achievements carry in America, Sam?

"About 145 pounds," Roberts says with a laugh.

Clearly, Roberts isn't overly impressed with himself. When he's asked about opening for the Rolling Stones at SARS-stock, a 2003 Toronto benefit concert that drew a throng of almost 500,000, he quickly points out that he was "about thirteenth on the bill." (The official SARS-stock poster ranks him eighth, behind AC/DC, Rush and Justin Timberlake, but ahead of the Flaming Lips, Sass Jordan, the Isley Brothers and Dan Aykroyd.) Likewise, he refuses to whine about having to build a fan base from scratch in America after conquering his homeland.

"You have to love playing music, whether it's to a crowd that knows all the words to every song or a bunch of people who are looking at you like you're crazy for the first three songs -- which happens on a fairly regular basis," Roberts says. He mentions a gig with his band (currently guitarist Dave Nugent, guitarist-keyboardist Eric Fares, bassist James Hall and drummer Corey Zadorozny) at a Pittsburgh restaurant where diners "wouldn't even break stride between the salad and the barbecued chicken to look up at us. We were like monkeys in a cage, trying to get anyone to pay attention, but we were only a distraction before the main course. An unwanted hors d'oeuvre."

Not that Roberts admitted defeat. "We use that kind of thing as fuel," he declares, "and once you get to the point where they can't help but pay attention to what you're doing, that ends up working to your advantage. You make a deeper impression that way."

Of course, Roberts has more than persistence going for him. Flame is filled with impressive songs that cover an extensive range of styles: insanely infectious power pop ("Don't Walk Away Eileen"), neo-psychedelia ("Taj Mahal"), mid-tempo jangling ("Brother Down") and plenty more. Yet he prefers a more basic descriptive, as he makes plain in "On the Run," an old-fashioned raveup in which he hollers, "I bleed rock 'n' roll/And I would die for rock 'n' roll." In this age of cynicism, such declarations may strike some observers as corny, but Roberts isn't embarrassed in the slightest.

"I probably will die for rock and roll -- and I'm not talking about getting speared in the gut by a guitar or wasting away at the hands of Jack Daniel's," he says. "The idea is that you put your whole life on the line -- everything you care about, all that's dear to you -- to make music. And in every way, I feel like that's what we're doing."

Early on, Roberts seemed bound for a very different sort of music career. The son of South African parents who relocated to Montreal circa 1974, just in time for him to be born a Canadian, he began playing the violin at age four and continued taking lessons into his twenties. For a time, he considered making classical music his profession, but decided against it because "the discipline it takes to play the violin every day was sometimes too much to stand, especially when you're thirteen or fourteen. You're stuck in your bedroom making the cats in the alley whine when you want to be outside lighting off firecrackers or setting things on fire." He still knows his way around the violin -- he's responsible for the strings on "Taj Mahal" -- but these days, he's more of a guitar man.

Upon graduating from Montreal's McGill University, Roberts concentrated on a group called Northstar. He disappeared from the music scene for a year or two following Northstar's 1998 collapse, but The Inhuman Condition, an independently issued EP from 2001 that contained a nascent version of "Don't Walk Away Eileen," garnered critical plaudits and sold well enough to capture the attention of Universal Records' Canadian division. Shortly after Flame, his debut for the imprint, chalked up its Juno victories, Lost Highway, one of Universal's U.S. branches, came calling. "We'd been talking with some other labels, but Lost Highway was the first company that really fit what we were looking for," he notes. "Although I'm sure they wouldn't mind an instant hit, they didn't expect one, and they were fine with allowing us to develop at a speed that's true to the kind of band we are -- a touring band."

Roberts is working hard to gain a foothold in America, but his thoughts are never far from Canada. The chorus of "The Canadian Dream," a track that was left off the U.S. version of Flame, contains the lines "Socialism is here to stay/Socialism is the only way," and he doesn't mean that ironically. "In Canada, we make the lives of our neighbors as important as our own," he says. "It's not just the celebration of the individual. It's the celebration of the collective."

He won't be lauding the Montreal Canadiens for a while, given that National Hockey League owners have locked out players over a labor dispute. In his view, the interruption, and possible elimination, of the NHL season "is a huge mistake, because hockey's in such a fragile state. They need every fan they can get."

When it comes to Colorado, Roberts knows the feeling.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts