When Sam Roberts titled the first song on his first full-length album “Hard Road,” he wasn’t just referring to the many trials and tribulations of the touring musician — because lord knows we don’t need another song by a sad-sack singer-songwriter about feeling homesick while looking out the van window. On “Hard Road,” Roberts was essentially laying out a map for his career, acknowledging early on that the key to longevity and continued relevance is to never to take the easy route, even if the impressive stats he’s racked up since writing that song — platinum records, No. 1 chart rankings, multiple Juno Awards — could seemingly afford him that luxury. For Roberts’ fourth album, Collider, traveling the hard road meant uprooting himself from his home and family in Montreal, and putting his trust in a stranger to lead the way.
Though the Sam Roberts Band may be named for its singer and primary songwriter, Roberts has long relied on his inner circle — guitarist Dave Nugent, guitarist/keyboardist Eric Fares, bassist James Hall and drummer Josh Trager — to translate his ideas into sound. And on Collider, that circle expanded to include Chicago-based producer Brian Deck, a veteran of acclaimed indie-rock bands Red Red Meat and Ugly Casanova, but also a seasoned studio savant who’s overseen albums by everyone from Modest Mouse to Iron and Wine to Califone to Gomez. In other words, someone who values classic pop songcraft and disorienting sonic experimentation in equal measure.
“I wrote these songs in my basement,” Roberts explains, “but I really wanted to get out there and experience a different place and see how that would work its way into the music. We also wanted to work with a producer who was going to challenge our understanding of ourselves and the music that we were making.
“I heard the Modest Mouse records that Brian made, which I thought were great. But then I started listening to Califone, who are an offshoot of Red Red Meat — the band Brian himself was in back in the ’90s — and there was just something that clicked there for me, especially his treatment of rhythm and sounds. I just thought his would be an interesting way of reinterpreting what it was that we were doing, without necessarily tampering with the essence.”
Initially, the Sam Roberts Band’s move to Chicago’s Bucktown neighbourhood in the fall of 2010 didn’t feel all that dislocating; as Roberts notes, “it really reminded me of a Montreal neighbourhood. I felt really at home there — we basically developed a routine and visited the same coffee shops and breakfast spots every day, to the point where they’d roll their eyes when we walked through the front door.” But the nature of Collider began to change dramatically as Roberts became more acquainted with the cast of eccentrics surrounding Deck’s Engine Music Studios.
“I went to see Califone play at The Hideout, which is such an amazing venue tucked away in this weird industrial corridor,” Roberts recalls. “This was at about the midpoint of making the record and that, to me, was a defining moment — just seeing this band play, doing something that… I can’t even find the appropriate adjectives to explain it. There were just waves of sound coming at me as I was standing in the back of the club. I was sober as a judge, but I had to close my eyes because it was just hard to hold onto. It was a really powerful music experience. From that point on, making this record, there were no more short cuts, there was no more making the safe play — we were like, ‘Let’s really try to do something here.’”
Before long, Roberts had Deck putting in phone calls to Califone percussionist Ben Massarella and Antibalas woodwind wizard Stuart Bogie (who’s also lent his lungs to recordings by TV on the Radio and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs). On Collider, Massarella and Bogie effectively become the sixth and seventh members of the Sam Roberts Band — the duo make their presence immediately known on the album’s colossal opening track “The Last Crusade,” which begins as a simmering soul shuffle before gradually intensifying into a brass-blasted Afro-funk blowout.
“I’ve never really seen it happen this way before,” Roberts recounts with still-palpable awe. “Stuart comes in, hears the music for the first time and, literally 45 seconds into ‘The Last Crusade,’ he’s already coming up with something. In less time than it takes most people to even start absorbing what’s happening, he’s already coming up with a line and, as he’s doing that, he’s also writing the harmony line for it and some weird counter-rhythm thing. That’s why he’s on so much of the record — we just wanted to see where he would take almost anything.
“And then Ben basically came with this tickle trunk from Mr. Dress Up and he opened it up and it’s got all sorts of percussion instruments and bells that I had never seen before — this very bizarre array of instruments. He has a very non-traditional way of approaching percussion. For us to witness this kind of musicianship was so exciting. We were all just floored, really.”
But Bogie and Massarella’s role on this album amounts to more than just firing up the Sam Roberts Band’s latent funkiness on tracks like “Let It In” and adding a Sticky Fingers swing to “Sang Froid”; rather, the process of opening up the songs to accommodate their guest contributions forced the band to refine and refocus their own playing. Collider is noticeably bereft of the amped-riffs and scorching guitar solos that define the Sam Roberts Band’s powerhouse live performances. Instead, the guitars are mostly a textural tool to emphasize the rhythm, a tactic that ultimately shines a greater light on Roberts’ instantly familiar melodies and lyrical wisdom, and yields some of his most affecting performances to date (see: the sad-eyed skiffle of “Twist the Knife” and the end-of-relationship requiem “Longitude,” a dreamy duet with Land of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell).
You’d think that, given Roberts’ considerable commercial success, he might start to feel disconnected from the struggling, downtrodden characters that populate his songs — like the frustrated wage slave documented on the tense, agitated rocker “Graveyard Shift.” But for Roberts, his good fortune has only made him more conscious of how fragile our notions of happiness really are.
“On this record, I tried to bring the songs back to my own personal fears; I wasn’t necessarily trying to come up with songs that were going to speak for everybody. It doesn’t necessarily have to follow my life to the letter — it’s more about thinking of what your life would be like if you had just done this, or if you had just done that, and how this could’ve taken you to a darker place, or that could’ve taken you to a better place. Nevertheless, you always find yourself walking the line.”
And that’s ultimately what Collider is about for Sam Roberts — musical exploration as a vehicle for emotional introspection. Despite what the album’s opening track might tell you, this is not the last crusade he’s on — but the point is that it should feel like it.
“There’s got to be some desperation to your writing,” Roberts concludes. “You’ve got to maintain that feeling of survival — that you can lose your grip at any time. That’s where songs like these come from — from the realization that you can never figure it out completely, that your grip can never hold on forever. It’s always there, every time I sit down to write. That’s why the record is called what it is: ideas collide, especially when you’re making music. But when you take things that are seemingly different, you can smash them together and create something new.”