What It Feels Like To Be A Rock Star In Canada (But Not In The United States)

Yes we Can-rock: Sam Roberts, takin' care of business

Sam Roberts is a Montreal musician whose eponymous rock band has earned a fair amount of fame in the Great White North: The rock-and-roll classicist has a raft of hit singles ("Brother Down," "The Gate," "Bridge to Nowhere," "Them Kids," etc.) and his multi-night stands at concert halls throughout Canada almost always sell out.

His trophy case is filled with awards, too, including artist of the year and album of the year (for "We Were Born in a Flame") at the 2004 Junos, the Canadian answer to the Grammy Awards.

And in its various Sam Roberts cover stories, the Canadian music monthly, Chart, has called him "Canada's Sexiest Rocker" and "the Quintessential Can-Rocker." On another cover, Chart referred to the Sam Roberts Band as "The Real Kings of Montreal." (Take that, Arcade Fire!)

In America, though, the Sam Roberts Band has been a commercial bust. Can't seem to generate much buzz in the blogosphere and beyond, either, with an unfussy, '70s-rooted, straight-ahead rock-and-roll sound that's more about hooks and harmonies than contemporary hipness.

When I saw the Sam Roberts Band at the Black Cat in November 2006, the room was largely empty. Yet the group seemed to view the sparse turnout not as an insult but a challenge, performing with a staggering level of intensity and conviction.

The band returns to D.C. tonight, with a show at the Rock and Roll Hotel. The current Stateside tour is to promote "Love at the End of the World," which was a No. 1 album in Canada but has barely registered a blip in the U.S.

So, Sam Roberts, what does it feel like to be a rock star in Canada but not the United States?

"I think we've learned over the years to leave it behind. Not to forget it exists, but definitely to not carry the same expectations into the United States. At the same time, it kind of fuels us. It makes us hungrier and keeps us working hard. It benefits us when we go back to Canada and receive those accolades. 'Oh, this! I forgot about this!'

"At first, you come down and you're frustrated. You're not producing the same results. And then you're sort of humbled by the realization that this is a far greater task than you anticipated. And at the same time you recognize that those forces that are beyond your control still apply. Luck, fate and chance still play a role in making this happen, no matter where you think you ought to be or where you think you deserve to be."

(Read the rest of the interview after the jump.)

"When we signed a record deal with an American company for the first time, their assumption, as well as ours, was that the same song that the big rock radio stations in Canada had been playing, 'Brother Down,' was going to be a hit. They signed us on that premise, and it just didn't happen. But I think we're a resilient bunch of people. We just decided that we were going to be a hard-working band that came down here, chipped away and played for as many people as would listen.

"And sure enough, we've seen the fruits of that labor. The first time we played in Portland, Maine, there were five people there, and two of them were my brother and his girlfriend. But we just played a big show there. And we played our biggest show in New York at the Bowery Ballroom.

"But America is a big place; it's far more regional than I think any of us realized. You have to treat each region or zone as its own thing. We concentrate on the Northeast because it's so close to Montreal; and then we go to Phoenix and tumbleweed is rolling across the dance floor. There are a lot of those 'WTF?' moments, and I'm sure there are more to come on this tour. But we're steeled against it. Whatever happens, happens.

"In some ways, I actually get a great deal of satisfaction from the response our music gets down here. I like the fact that our music isn't measured constantly with a set of expectations. There's a great deal of frustration for me in Canada when people listen to our records and misinterpret them completely based on what they think I ought to be because of previous success. I enjoy the freedom of coming down here; I find that people listen to our records without prejudging them or filtering them through the lens of success. That's a much better way to judge music.

"In Canada, there's a set of expectations that extends to what the audience feels they're paying their hard-earned dollars for when they're coming to see us play. We've had 10 singles on the radio in Canada, and there's a good chance you'll hear six or seven of them on any given night at a Canadian show. That takes up a significant portion of the set. When we come down to the States, chances are we'll only play two or three of them. That gives us a chance to play other songs that we want to play.

"So there's a lot about coming down here that I find positive. From our perspective, this is far closer to what we expected our career to be like in general anyway. What happened to us in Canada wasn't necessarily something we expected. Through the first 10 years, we were just plugging away, like we're still doing in the States."

(Note: This interview has been condensed, sans ellipses.)

By J. Freedom du Lac |  February 23, 2009; 10:31 AM ET Interviews , What It Feels Like To ...
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It's too bad that these guys aren't nearly as popular in the U.S. as they are in Canada. Fortunately for me, Buffalo, given its proximity to Toronto (meaning we pick up CFNY on the radio), has really taken a liking to the band, so much that Sam Roberts is playing two soldout shows here later in the week. Anyone who's seen them perform live knows what a great frontman Sam is, and how talented the rest of the band truly is. It's a shame that crap like Nickelback sells wildly in the States, while bands like Sam Roberts, Metric, etc. go unnoticed.

Posted by: davidjhill02 | February 25, 2009 1:20 AM

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