Listening to the catchy, infectious and Juno Award-winning garage rock riffs of the Sam Roberts Band, it’s hard to imagine that the act’s leading man actually began his musical career playing classical violin.
“I picked up the violin when I was about four,” Roberts said. “As a kid they said I had to choose an instrument, so that was something I chose to play. I sort of gravitated toward the violin. I played classical music until I was a teen.”
Things changed when his friends lent him an amp and he picked up an electric guitar for the first time.
“I was never destined to be a concert violinist,” he said. “I could play in front of people with a guitar, but I wasn’t comfortable at all playing violin to an audience.”
Despite that stage fright, Roberts never gave up the instrument, though.
“I still play every day, but it’s more private,” he said. “I play strictly classical, and I kind of like that the two worlds are separate.”
Born in Montreal, Roberts formed his first band, William, in 1993, but changed the name to Northstar in 1996. Although popular in the local indie-rock scene, the band broke up in 1999 and Roberts’ bandmate George Donoso went on to success as a member of The Dears. That inspired Roberts to rededicate his time and energy solely to music, and he soon recorded his homemade demo, Brother Down.
In 2001, Roberts recorded and independently released the EP, The Inhuman Condition, which led to a contract with MapleMusic Recordings. Soon after, Roberts’ new band was signed to Universal and released the breakthrough LP, We Were Born In A Flame.
Several albums later, Roberts has racked up platinum records, No. 1 chart rankings, multiple Juno Awards, critical acclaim and an impressive fan base in Canada and around the world. But despite all the success, Roberts says he still tries to focus solely on the music.
“I was never completely ignorant of the fact it wasn’t going to be an easy thing to have a career in music and I couldn’t expect a happy ending,” he said. “So we never forgot the lessons learned along the way.”
One lesson he learned was to avoid taking any thoughts of making “the next big hit” into the studio.
“There’s always a flash to that kind of thinking,” he said. “But there are repercussions to every decision you make, so you have to keep that kind of thinking out of the creative process.
“Right now, I’m feeling a real sense of freedom and lack of inhibition in terms of the songs I want to work on and how I intend it to sound.
“And the band has never been closer,” he added. ”The years aren’t necessarily kind to bands and can pull you apart, but we’ve been lucky and I’m fortunate to play with people who are committed to the music we are making.”
He’s also learned to appreciate life on the road, away from family, while on tour.
“It’s an indispensible part of the career,” he said. “You have to embrace it, and know it is part of the life. You draw inspiration from being so far from home. This summer we’ve been playing a lot of festivals and have been from Pittsburgh to PEI from one day to the next. Festivals are different from a regular tour, which follows a set route. You’re all over the place with festivals.”
But Roberts said he does enjoy playing the festival circuit, and looks forward to performing at the Squamish Valley Music Festival on Saturday, Aug. 9.
“It’s a very eclectic lineup in Squamish, which is the mark of a great festival,” he said. “It’s hard to compare with the energy of a festival. You’ve got this sea of humanity who’ve sacrificed sleep and comforts to be there, so you’ve got to give people the best you have, because they are living through this whole experience.”
Hear the best Sam Roberts has to give on Aug. 9 at 6:40 p.m. on the Tantalus Stage at the Squamish Valley Music Festival.
For more information on the band, go to samrobertsband.com and for more on the festival go to squamishfestival.com.