SAM ROBERTS with OASIS, SOUNDTRACK OF OUR LIVES, MERCURY REV and SLOAN at the Molson Amphitheatre (909 Lakeshore West), Saturday (August 17), 5 pm. $10.21-$45. 416-870-8000.
It's getting hard to avoid Sam Roberts this summer.The Montreal singer/songwriter's debut EP, the six-song mini-album The Inhuman Condition, has only just been re-released by MapleMusic (see below), and already the buzz is deafening.
In the space of a week, I heard Roberts's jangly, bongo-driven power pop tune Brother Down on the radio at a coffee shop, blaring out of a neighbouring car window at a gas station and from someone's deck next to a golf course. The track's become an unofficial song of the summer, the kind of uplifting rock tune that sounds best on the car radio roaring down the highway.
What with constant radio play, opening slots for Oasis, a month-long stint warming up crowds for the Tragically Hip and now a massive deal with the U.S. arm of Universal Records (inked last Thursday, when the Universal brass flew their corporate jet into Montreal), the past few months have been a real trip for the unassuming Roberts.
"It feels like I'm riding on top of an out-of-control elephant," he laughs from his Montreal pad. "It's been a very bizarre summer. There was some evidence that things were going to start going our way. But I went away to Morocco right after North By Northeast, and my manager said, "When you get back, things might be a little bit different.'
"It's not so much that things are different, but I spend more time thinking about the band. I mean, we always thought about the band, but there was only so much we could do. Now, every free second is dedicated to this quest we're on. It's fun, but I'm sure if you talk to me in a year I'll be this jaded guy with a dirty crack habit who wishes he'd become an accountant instead."
The label interest was to be expected. At his NXNE show, a lineup of fans hoping to get in stretched from the Rivoli to the Horseshoe.
It's the radio thing that's really twisting Roberts's head around, particularly because Brother Down comes from an independent EP and was initially recorded with no real intention of even being released.
"Maybe people just like the fact that it's a departure from the norm -- in terms of what's being played on the radio anyway," Roberts ventures. "We recorded without any specific intentions, and I suppose that's the mark of what kind of tune it is. It's not attached to any particular time in my life. One thing I've heard people say is that it reflected the mood they were in that day, and that's why it caught on, and I like that.
"I've actually only heard the tail end of it on the radio," he laughs. "The sadist in me kind of wants it to be that tune people start to hate because they hear it so much, so I know I'm bringing some discomfort to their lives."
That there was a casual approach to recording The Inhuman Condition would be an understatement. The half-dozen 60s-influenced pop tracks on the EP have a looseness and swagger that's entirely natural.
Having just dissolved his Britpoppy band, Northstar, Roberts recorded the EP on his own, with drumming and production input by pal and occasional Courtney Love collaborator Jordan Zadorodzny. No belaboured sessions in fancy studios or mindless clutter, just straight-to-tape energy,
"At that point, the recording was about survival," Roberts says. "I didn't have any real outlet. There was no band to play with, but there was this log-jam of songs that needed to get out. I couldn't play live shows on my own, so it just made sense to record.
"The whole EP was done really quickly -- six songs in six days, mixed and everything. I wrote the lyrics on the bus from Montreal to Pembroke. It's a shitty bus ride, which makes it a great place to write lyrics. In Montreal there are too many distractions. On the bus there are tons of freaks, and that helps, too.
"In a way, I can't believe that people put this stuff on the radio. It's a kind of kick in the nuts to everybody who goes out and spends a quarter of a million dollars in a fancy studio and ends up with tapes in their hands. That's the most encouraging thing about everything that's happened in the past few months.
"People are seen as mindless sheep, and a lot of the music you hear on the radio reflects that sort of vibe. When something comes along that actually says something to people, though, they react to it and make it known that they want more. It's a good sign for songwriters who actually have something to say that this can happen."
The conciseness and lyrical directness is only a start, though. Check Roberts live and it's clear he's all over the map stylistically, pounding out the power pop but also doing trippy, Spiritualized-style epics that beg for further orchestration.
"This EP really does just reflect one style of the music I'm writing," he confirms. "I love spaced-out psychedelic stuff, but I also see the merits of a concise pop song that says everything that it possibly could say in two minutes and 45 seconds. That's what I'm doing on this EP. The rest will come later."
Later is quickly becoming now. After insisting a few months ago that he had no interest in recording a follow-up set of songs any time soon, Roberts has flipped the script and is hoping to get back into the studio as quickly as possible, with an eye on recapturing some of that loose energy.
That will be a challenge, especially as more and more people become interested in what Roberts is doing, but he insists he's up for it.
"I'd like to think of every day as my last as a musician, and I think that brings an edge to your work, especially for rock and roll," Roberts says.
"If I want to go and write mood music or be more intellectual about songwriting, that's different.
"You do need to have a certain mindset to make rock and roll music, and the more comfortable you get with what you do, the harder that becomes. That mindset's not just chicks and drugs and fights, but being connected to real life. If you can do that, you'll probably always write good tunes.
"As long as I'm writing about rock and roll and talking about girls, I'd better be doing it or else I'm full of shit."firstname.lastname@example.org
The MapleMusic group, including the record label responsible for Sam Roberts's The Inhuman Condition, started out as an idea almost too cool to succeed.The CanCon-plugging Internet portal MapleMusic.com grew out of a chat at a hipster industry party, when founding partner Mike Alkier started trading gripes with Skydigger Andy Maize and band manager Jeff Maize about the need for artist-friendly distribution channels. Alkier had been tipped off to the potential in e-commerce sites by management consultant Grant Dexter, who became the brains behind the MapleMusic operation.
The site was officially launched two years ago by Dexter, Alkier and Evan Hu, with both Maizes sitting on the board.
According to MapleMusic's Jennifer McLeod, the Maple exists to promote independent Canadian artists and music, although she admits they've recently added more major-label talent to their roster.
"Does that hurt indie artists? Yes and no. We're still a small company, and it means we do have to shift resources away from indie talent. But representing bigger artists gives us more cred, and it brings more eyes to the Web site overall, which gives the smaller guys more exposure."
And this past February the beast grew a new head when it unveiled MapleMusic Recordings, a full-on label headed up by Kim Cooke, which launched with the release of the MapleMusic One compilation of indie artists.
Cooke put in almost a quarter-decade at Warner Music Canada before he was turfed in October 2001.
He's not the only big-business connection, though. The ostensibly indie enterprise received financial backing from Universal Canada, MapleCore's partner in the launch. Universal also distributes albums for the label.
Cooke vehemently denies that MapleMusic Recordings is just another major-label subsidiary.
"We're completely autonomous. Universal only owns a bit of us, and we make our own decisions. We support organic growth and artist development, because we use a different risk-reward model than all the majors."
MapleMusic.com founder Dexter positions the company as a service provider.
"We're different from any other label because we see artists as customers with whom we can have a partnership. We take on the role of enabler."
And unlike the rest of the industry, Dexter's not afraid of the big bad wolf of Napster-style online file-sharing.
"We see it as an opportunity. There's been a seismic shift in the music industry, and you have to rethink old models. Sure, it's bad for CD sales, and it worries us a bit in terms of MapleMusic.com, but it's also a chance to increase sales tenfold if you expand your thinking. Something like a subscription-based model could be just as great a business opportunity as sheet music and LPs were once upon a time."
by SARAH LISS