When the Georgia Straight reaches the Sam Roberts Band’s leader by phone, the singer-guitarist is preparing to perform at the Calgary Stampede, and the event seems to be making a big impression on him.
“We’re trying to get our outfits,” he says. “I’ve got a pair of Wranglers that I’ve never worn before, and a huge belt buckle, and a 10-gallon hat. This could be a pivotal moment for our band. It could be heralding in the next chapter.”
The songwriter deadpans that this new look will be reflected in his group’s next album: “A whole new sound, a whole new look, a whole new vibe. A whole new lifestyle.”
He’s joking, of course, although it’s not inaccurate to say that the Sam Roberts Band’s sonic style has undergone a significant overhaul of late. The songwriter has spent well over a decade as one of Canada’s best-loved purveyors of good, old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll, but on the 2014 album Lo-Fantasy (and the more recent Counting the Days outtakes EP), he and his collaborators placed added emphasis on urgent dance grooves and sparkling synths.
“When I was writing the songs in my basement, I had just gotten a new synthesizer,” he says about the origin of the revamped sound. “I think that had a lot to do with it.”
Roberts’s electronic palette on Lo-Fantasy is exemplified by “Chasing the Light”, a soaring synth-pop number that boasts rat-a-tatting drum machines, lush layers of new-wave keyboards, and reverb-doused vocal hooks. Elsewhere, “Metal Skin” and “The Hands of Love” are anchored by dreamy dance grooves, and “Golden Hour” closes the LP with a swaggering drum loop and sultry sax.
Fans of Roberts’s old-school rock will also find plenty to enjoy in his recent material: Lo-Fantasy’s “We’re All in This Together” contains crunchy six-string riffs and an arena-worthy shout-along chorus, while Counting the Days’ title cut is a fuzzy eight-minute psych jam. The latter song, Roberts says, was created at the encouragement of producer Martin “Youth” Glover (of Killing Joke and the Fireman).
“We recorded the whole record in 12 days, and after about five or six days, we went into an almost semi-permanent hallucinogenic state, just from working around the clock as much as we did,” Roberts remembers. “He [Youth] would say, ‘Okay, guys, I just want you to forget about all the songs that we’ve been working on and just jam. Take an idea and go with it.’ That song was born out of that. The original song was probably about 35 minutes long.”
This relentless artistic drive is a big part of what has allowed Roberts and his band to achieve continued success in the 13 years since the release of 2002’s breakthrough EP, The Inhuman Condition.
“It comes through never resting on your laurels,” he says of his approach to remaining relevant. “Never taking success for granted, and being willing—especially when you’re in the creative ring—to throw your hat in there with the best of them. I mean the best of them from the 1960s and ’70s, but also the bands today who are pushing the envelope, the bands today who are doing new things and redefining music. You have to want to be one of those people.”
Sam Roberts Band plays the Pemberton Music Festival on Thursday (July 16).