“Music is hardcore man. It takes hardcore people to wanna play music” – Sam Roberts

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Did you ever listen to a really great album and wish that you could call the artist and ask him all about it? As soon as I heard “All Of Us” by the Sam Roberts Band I had so many questions. Released on October 16, almost all of the tracks were written pre-pandemic yet have an eerie feeling of longing and nostalgia. The youthful angst that we fell in love with almost 20 years ago on “We Were Born In A Flame” has now matured into a more seasoned and meditative energy.

“I can see that I have changed

But I feel like I’m the same wide-eyed child

Won’t you take me there again

So I can see the way I did

back then for a while”

(Youth)

With deep reflection and complex lyrics, Sam Roberts has proven that creating music does not get easier with age but it definitely gets richer. With influences ranging from Paul Simon and AC/DC to Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti “All Of Us” has that inclusive quality that reminds us why Sam Roberts songs evoke such powerful emotions to such a wide range audience. Songs that need to be listened to as well as sung along with.

Our phone conversation took us all around the world and through 6 decades of musical history. What was supposed to be a 20-minute talk regarding his latest album ended up as a humorous yet introspective discussion that lasted over an hour. Rambling confessions of our mutual appreciation for the genius of David Bowie and detailed accounts of our obsession with the Jail Break video by AC/DC were blended with some very insightful childhood memories which made me feel like I was talking to an old friend rather than someone that I had never met.

SR- It’s strange because my mother’s name is Annette. It feels strange to even say it. I won’t call you mom I promise.

MR- OK, things are getting off to a strange start. (I laughed and realized that my list of serious questions was going to take a different route, so I began by a confession.

MR- I always feel a little stalker-ish when I’m going to interview someone because I end up learning things about them that they don’t know that I know.

SR- Right, did you know that my mom‘s name was Annette?

MR- No, actually I found out that we have something in common. We both got our BA’s in English Literature from McGill.

SR- Is that right?

MR- Yes but we both took different paths.

SR- Well I’m glad that at least one of us is writing.

MR- You are actually using your degree because you do write songs.

SR- Yes. It was my love of reading that led me to do my degree and that always plays a big role in how I write, why I write and looking to change the way I write. I’ll often find answers in books. I don’t think that songwriting has always been an offshoot of it. It wasn’t when I was a teenager. But certainly now when you’re trying to make sense of the world around you, your own ideas and feelings, I can find comfort in answers in books. And apply that to the music that I’m trying to make.

MR- Yes. This wasn’t one of my questions but since we’re there. What are you reading now?

SR- I’m reading a book called the Golden House by Salman Rushdie. I love the way he writes.

MR- I’ve been reading a lot since the pandemic also, trying to catch up. I have this habit of hoarding books and recently my bookshelf just collapsed and fell on top of me and it was a sign.

SR- I do that too. I accumulate books and make this mental list of what I have to read next. Then I’ve accumulated too much and have to pose a moratorium of book buying until I’ve gone through a certain amount. I’m the same way.

MR- Well my bookshelf really did collapse and one by one, my books began pelting me on the head like hard rain. And I realized OK that’s enough now. So I packed some up in a box and gave them away.

SR- I’m glad you’re all right (Laughing)

MR- Maybe it knocked some sense into me.

MR- OK I have a really crazy theory for you. You were born in October, right?

SR- That’s right.

MR- Your album was released in October.

SR- Yeah. (Sounding hesitant)

MR- I have a theory about people born in October. Do you want to hear it?

SR- Ok…

MR- Don’t worry it’s good.

SR- Does the theory apply to music?

MR- It started 17 years ago when I was on my way to the hospital to give birth to my son. We were listening to the radio and the host was naming famous people that were born on this day. So the first name was Snoop Dog and I immediately thought… God help me my kid is going to be born on the same day as Snoop Dogg. What am I in for? Then he said that it was also Tom Petty’s birthday and I felt a little better. So here’s my list of some of my favourite musicians born in October;

  • John Lennon
  • Tom Petty
  • Paul Simon
  • John Prine
  • Jackson Browne
  • John Mayer
  • Steve Miller
  • Sting

Quite an impressive list of songwriters wouldn’t you agree?

SR- Three of my all-time heroes from my list of top five songwriters are on that list.

MR- I would say John Lennon, Tom Petty and Paul Simon.

SR- Yup, those are the three. I love John Prine and I love Sting with the Police.

MR- How old were you when you started writing songs?

SR- Quite young. It’s when time in your bedroom becomes precious. That’s when you start to experiment with life in general and certainly in music. For me, that’s when it started. I always played music but that’s when I started to try to write. In my bedroom, sitting there with a guitar and for some reason following or obeying that impulse to start writing songs, really really really really bad songs. I knew they were bad at the time too that’s how bad they were.

MR- So what kind of music did you listen to growing up? Did your parents listen to rock music?

SR- We had a steady diet of Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and the Beatles. My dad was really into British psych rock and psychedelic folk, we listened to a lot of Paul Simon around the house too. So that was my formative diet for me musically speaking. It’s still music that I go back to.

MR- What was the first album that you bought, with your own money?

SR- Men At Work

MR- No way!

SR- Business As Usual

MR- Oh wow! I have that album. It belonged to my younger brother but I took all the vinyl when I moved out.

SR- Classic move!

SR- Business As Usual is such an amazing album from start to finish it still sounds amazing. It has “Who Can It Be Now” and “Down Under” which were the first two singles and they had videos. As you remember, back then when a video came out it had a huge impact on us as kids. Not moving away from our parents’ record collection but it felt like our music for our time. And Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out at the same time and my brother bought Thriller on the same day that I bought Business As Usual.

MR- Do you still have those records?

SR- Yeah and like you I’m also a vinyl thief. I’ve got my dad‘s records too.

MR- (Giggling) So do you know what my last name is?

SR- Yeah is it Armenian?

(Sam makes multiple efforts and pronounces it very carefully and I’m kind of touched)

MR- So my dad’s record collection was full of ethnic music but when my parents immigrated, they paid a shit ton of money to ship their personal belongings to Canada. They only brought select personal items so the fact that they brought their records with them is probably why I value vinyl so much.

SR- That speaks volumes. I have a similar story growing up. My parents are from South Africa and they also brought their records with them. You’re right, their records were precious cargo. My music teacher was Armenian. Maybe you know him Hratchia Sevadjian.

MR- I don’t know him but maybe my sister does, she’s a piano teacher. My siblings and I all took piano lessons as children but my teacher was an old Jewish Russian Holocaust survivor who used to beat us when we made a mistake. She slapped my hand with a ruler so often that I just quit. She was hard-core. I’ll never forget her.

SR- Well music is hardcore man. It takes hardcore people to wanna play music.

MR- I said I would never force my kids to play an instrument. My son hated music class in elementary school because he had to play Frere Jacques on the recorder. We told him he could play whatever he wanted and found him a really great student-teacher (Kevork Boyadjian) that came to our home and my husband bought him a really cool electric guitar and that was it. He’s really good and he likes it. He plays for himself and I’m really proud of him.

SR- That’s great. I followed the other route with my kids. I took violin lessons my whole life and I’m still very close with Mr Sevadjian and I’m still learning from him after all these years. Since I was four years old and he’s taught my two daughters, which is a strange circle.

MR- Wow! That’s amazing.

SR- I’m still his pupil but I have to be their father. It’s an interesting dynamic to be taught simultaneously with your kids. He’s been a huge part of my musical education.

MR- Armenians have always been very musical. We’re like gypsies we had to take what we could when we left our country. It’s part of our culture, in our history. No matter where we live it’ll always be inside us and no one can take it away.

SR- We were just talking about the violin and how it’s so portable. It was so easy to take it with you, wherever you went.

MR- My father had an old balalaika that he had brought back with him from Soviet Armenia. He kept it next to his bed and none of us were ever allowed to touch it. Before he passed away he left it to my son. It looks quite odd with its triangular wooden frame amongst a fender Strat, a Gretsch, a Jackson and bright blue Ibanez but it’s part of our family history. Which reminds me of the song “War Chest.” Is that the song you’re most proud of on the album?

SR- I don’t know if proud is the right word but I definitely feel closest to songs like “War Chest” and “Spell Bound” and “Youth” as well. These are songs about taking your own history and memories and reliving them in someway and seeing how they can help you move forward. I can say that those three songs in general, I probably feel the most closely connected to.

MR- I read that most of the material was written about 2 years ago. Pre-pandemic as you were reaching your mid-40s. How does that feel?

MR- It feels good. I’m glad to hear you say it. I’m glad I made it this far.

MR- Yeah when I hit 50 I was pretty shocked.

SR- Hey, it’s an achievement.

MR- I still love going to shows but now I’m avoiding the mosh pits and heading towards the balcony instead where it’s safer.

SR- I know exactly what you mean. It’s like the slow march towards the back of the venue is sort of a metaphor for life.

MR- You did some drive-in shows in Toronto and Ottawa but none in Montreal.

SR- Yes we did the Ottawa blues fest and were invited to a show in Toronto. It wasn’t like we were making own tour. It feels strange to put out a record and not do a hometown show or tour for that matter. We’ve been doing a lot of press, hoping to get the word out for this new album. We’ve been waiting for somebody to tell us we can get on tour but that doesn’t seem to be happening right now. We’re trying to keep busy and doing the things that we can do like performing online. Talking to people like yourself Annette, who are willing to help us spread the word. I think I’m optimistic, to say the least. When the time comes we will be ready to go. And hopefully, people will be excited to all get together again. Maybe not in the mosh pit.

MR- “I Like The Way You Talk About The Future”. Which is also the name of a song on the album that I really enjoyed. I could totally hear it being remixed into a dance track. Did you think about that when you recorded it?

SR- For sure, actually I don’t know if you heard but there’s a dub remix.

MR- I looked! I read somewhere that you like Fela Kuti? Me too. How did you discover him? Was it because your parents were from South Africa?

SR- I got into that on my own around 15-20 years ago I started buying Fela Kuti records and getting into Afrobeat, Palm-Wine and Highlife music. Fela Kuti has been a huge influence on me. I think it’s been in the last five years that it’s kind of found its way into my records. We put out a record “Collider” in 2011 during my heavy Fela Kuti phase. And the song “I Like The Way You Talk About The Future” has that relentless, rhythmic train.

MR- Yes, I heard it right away in the beginning with the baseline. When you perform the song live it could easily run for 20 minutes. Do you know what I’m saying?

SR- Absolutely. Where you put it in the set, and if you’ve got everybody locked in and the dance floor is happening, you can just let it go.

MR- Yeah. I really miss live shows.

SR- Me too.

MR- You know what Sam? You must be really frustrated that you’re not touring and that you can’t promote the album the way you would like to. I know live stream shows don’t offer the same energy and excitement that you would get from a physically present audience but they are still getting the music out. Maybe you’re not feeling the immediate connection that you get when you’re at a live show and you can’t see it but people at home, in their cars or going for their walks, they’re still feeling your music and they’re still appreciating it.

SR- You’re right and honestly that’s why it feels so good to have a new record out, knowing that you have something that you could share with people and it’s out there.

MR- Yes. And now more than ever people need music.

SR- Exactly and I’m glad that this record didn’t come out in 2019 to different circumstances. This is the record and this is the time when I want to have music to give to people.

Annette Aghazarian

Main photo: by Richmond Lam

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