Popular Canadian rocker Sam Roberts on why Americans don't embrace popular Canadian rockers
The time has finally come to give 54-40, Grapes Of Wrath, and The Tragically Hip their due here in the U.S.
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Canadian rock fans living near the U.S. border might be tempted to take a road trip this week to see the Sam Roberts Band on its short tour through the upper Midwestern United States. Roberts has long since stopped playing small clubs in his home country, where he’s a big star who recently won Juno awards—basically the Canadian Grammy—for artist of the year and rock album of the year. But like a lot of popular Canadian acts, Roberts has struggled to make his name in the U.S. His latest release, Love At The End Of The World—the album that won the Juno—didn’t even come out here until almost a year after it topped the charts in Canada. Obviously there’s something us Americans don’t seem to get about Canadian rock stars. Before his show Tuesday, Nov. 24 at 7th Street Entry, The A.V. Club asked Roberts for a crash course in all the Canadian bands that we’ve missed out on.
Sam Roberts: For the sake of this conversation, it might be good to dispense with the obvious and assume I’m a big fan of Neil Young, The Band, and The Guess Who and go from there. Obviously the big three were an influence on me growing up and still are to this day.
The A.V. Club: It’s interesting that you mention The Guess Who, because I don’t think American rock fans would put them on the same level as Young and The Band.
SR: Young really came into his own when he went south of the border, and The Band as well. The Guess Who was actually a band that broke out of Canada. At a time when The Beatles were doing their thing, The Guess Who were sporting the Canadian mop-top likeness over here. But that’s a big step, being a band that broke out of Canada, and I think The Guess Who is celebrated for that and elevated to the status they enjoy in Canada. You can go anywhere in the world and hear The Guess Who on the radio. You forget how many big radio staples and great songs that they had.
AVC: Are The Guess Who “more” Canadian in a way than Young or The Band?
SR: It’s hard to say Neil Young belongs to us, because he doesn’t really. The Band doesn’t belong to us. They have roots here. They draw on their lives here. But they went down south and hooked up with the likes of Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan and Stephen Stills and made something happen. But a band like The Tragically Hip, they built it all here, and Canada has sustained them. The Tragically Hip is the biggest band in Canadian history, if you ask a Canadian.
AVC: You seem to have a lot in common with Sloan. Along with being one of the great Canadian rock bands of the ’90s, Sloan drew on classic-rock tradition like you do.
SR: At the time they started they weren’t really a classic-rock band. I think they’ve become more of a classic-rock band. Twice Removed was more in the vein of a Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Jr. record. It was an answer to grunge music, and what The Stone Roses were doing in the U.K. They drew a lot of people in, and had a really loyal and established fan base. Then with One Chord To Another they went after more of a ’70s rock sound. Our first demo we recorded, in the late ’90s or early ’00s, we recorded it on a four-track and sent a cassette to Murderecords, which is Sloan’s label. Because Halifax was where we wanted to be; I guess that was the pinnacle of Canadian music at the time. I still have the rejection letter in a box to remind me of the path we’ve walked to get here.
AVC: What newer Canadian bands do you like?
SR: I really like Great Lake Swimmers. They have great songs that you can either play with an acoustic guitar and sing with two voices or build them up into more intricate things. I like Apostle Of Hustle a lot—there are a bunch of offshoots to Broken Social Scene, I think they’re just an interesting group of people who make eclectic music that I like. There’s a band called Arkells—they’re a great band. I don’t even want to play shows with them anymore because they’re getting too good too fast. They have an album called Jackson Square that came out last year that’s great. They’re in the same vein as Constantines—they’re another one of my favorite bands up this way. There’s Besnard Lakes, from Montreal. Their music is really interesting. The first record had elements of My Bloody Valentine, and I was drawn to that. But since then they’ve branched out in all different directions.
AVC: What Canadian bands inspired you when you were growing up?
SR: In the late ’80 and early ’90s when I was getting interested in playing in a band, there were bands like The Grapes Of Wrath. They had this record called Now And Again, which came out in ’88 or ’89, I think. They had really good, well put-together rock and pop songs, with fantastic harmonies and melodies and really nice guitar lines weaving in and out of the songs. I think it appealed to my melodic sensibilities in a lot of ways. Around the same time, there was 54-40—their claim to fame in the States is that Hootie And The Blowfish covered one of their songs, “I Go Blind.” [Laughs.] With all due respect to Hootie, it’s actually a great song. 54-40 was kind of a dark band—kind of menacing, not in an aggressive way, but they had a weird, dark pulse to them. I guess I really I liked it because I was a teenager at the time. 54-40 is still going. You know how U2 can go up there and play 27 radio singles in a row? Well, 54-40 does the same thing, though I guess it pertains only to Canada. It’s frustrating that bands like Grapes Of Wrath and 54-40 don’t trickle down to American culture or Europe the way you feel they ought to, because when you love music you want to share that with other people and for them to see the value. In Canada we feel that acutely because it can be difficult to penetrate the border.
AVC: Are American rock fans and Canadian rock fans different in some fundamental way?
SR: Not really. That’s where a lot of the frustration comes from. Because when you do get down there, and you do play for people, they react the same way. I don’t think there’s this great cultural divide. I guess the outlets are different. The sheer number of bands vying for attention in the U.S. is pretty overwhelming, so throwing your hat in the ring can be daunting to say the least. The fruits of your labor don’t come quickly or easily. We’ve certainly felt that pinch. You’ve just got to develop a really thick skin and keep going down there.
AVC: At what point do you decide to give up on the U.S.?
SR: I think it just gets expensive. Your initial impulse is to invest in it, so you spend the money you make where things are going well on places that need developing. If it doesn’t pan out, after a while you have to assess whether this is something you can continue to do. I think every band in Canada faces that, whether they can afford to keep throwing themselves against the wall. The Tragically Hip is different. There’s always the perception that they’re not doing as well in the States or the rest of the world as they do in Canada. But they’ll play two nights at Irving Plaza in New York. They’ll play at the Fox Theater in Detroit. They play at every large venue in the country that’s not an arena and sell it out. But because they’re not headlining a festival with 70,000 people the way they do in Canada, they’re not doing well. But in my book these are the rooms we dream of playing.
AVC: Is it important for Canadian bands to break though in the U.S. from a financial perspective, or is there just something special about being “big in America”?
SR: It’s important on all fronts. The first time we played in the States was seven or eight years ago. You feel a compulsion to take your music out there and to bring as many people into the fold as possible, and we still feel that need and drive to do that. It kind of goes beyond reason, because when you look at the dollars and cents, it doesn’t make sense.
AVC: Is it tough to go from playing these huge arena shows in Canada to small clubs in the U.S.?
SR: Not for us. I like playing for 200 people. Some of the best shows we’ve played are in those kinds of venues. So I don’t think it’s hard. It’s just a case of how long you can keep doing it. You can’t take a hobbyist’s approach to it all the time. I don’t have another job to turn to, so you hope at some point that it all makes sense. We’re just stubborn. We’re thick-skinned. And I think some Canadian bands stop coming to the States because they’ve had enough. There’s always something that encourages us—even if it’s a slight improvement, it’s an improvement, so we jump on that and it’s our justification for doing it again.