As they were putting the finishing touches on their latest disc, Lo-Fantasy, Montreal rockers the Sam Roberts Band found themselves in the perfect place.
It turns out the house/techno remixes of Lo-Fantasy’s songs were put together at Spain’s El Mirador, The Hobbit-like studios of the album’s British producer Youth (a.k.a. Martin Glover, founding member of post-punk act Killing Joke).
“He’s got this place - it’s incredible - but only he would do this,” said Roberts, 39, who plays record release parties at Toronto’s Adelaide Hall and Montreal’s Lion D’or on Feb. 13 and 15, respectively.
“I would do it if I had the courage to do it but he actually does this without thinking. He built his home, his studio, based on drawings of Rivendell and parts of Hobbiton, parts of the Shire, from the Lord of the Rings. It was literally a Hobbit hole. It had a circular door that sort of slid in, it was all in this big mound with grass growing on the top.”
The eponymous lead singer and bandmate Dave Nugent had to drive up a winding road into the mountains to get there.
“We get to this place and it’s hard to imagine what you’re looking at. All of the orchards sort of fall away down this cliffside. There were no elves or hobbits. I was the only hobbit there. But it was a vibe. ... It was my dream come true. I spent my entire teenage years up to my eyeballs in Lord of the Rings. I spent more time in Middle Earth than I did here, that’s for sure. I’m a nerd.”
We caught up with Roberts in a downtown private-members Toronto club recently to talk about collaborating with the legendary Youth on the band’s fifth studio release.
Had Youth heard of Sam Roberts Band when he got your demos?
No, not at all, not from a hole in the wall. This was completely blank slate he was literally just reacting to the music in front of him.
And what was it about Youth that you liked?
(Producing The Verve’s) Urban Hymns that, for me, stood out. I mean he made a lot of good records, Crowded House records too. And the fact that he played in Killing Joke. The fact that he also plays the bass in a band with Paul McCartney. If you play bass in a band with Paul McCartney then there’s got to be something good going on.
His group of peers must have figured too given your Stone Roses-like breakthrough song Brother Down over a decade ago?
He grew involved in the music that is basically why we started a band, anywhere from Joy Division to the Happy Mondays to Primal Scream to Stone Roses and he was there and he was in the mix for that so he got those references right away. There was a very sort of electronic slant to this thing and that’s nothing new. That’s just coming back to what (our music) was doing before we made a few rock and roll records and got some songs on the radio. I would sit around making house music on my four-track at home. And that’s what I was into. So he had a real understanding of the full palette and could bring it together. And I think they’ve been buried in previous records and allowed to come out and shine brighter here.
What was that first meeting with him like?
He came to Montreal in the dead of winter (in February 2013) and just turned the band on its ear. He’s tough in a Zen like way, which is the toughest of all. It’s like Kung Fu, like a Shaolin Monk, the toughest people in the world. But he’s disarmingly relaxed. He never shouts. He was devastatingly direct.
Did he enjoy Canada in the winter?
It’s February. It’s the shi--iest possible conditions. We don’t need a polar vortex for it to be like this (sub-zero temperatures) in Montreal. So he comes and he’s like, ‘What is this Godforsaken place?’ He’s smoking his first cigarette of which he smokes a lot and he’s like, ‘This isn’t going to work!’ So half of the problem was figuring out how he could smoke in his hotel room and get away with it. I became a MacGyver. We tampered with his smoke detector. Anyways, it was very illegal. He takes great offence to his rights as a smoker being infringed upon.
I read that you knew you were on the right path if you got him dancing?
It would start slowly with the toe tap. But then it got into a full rainbird dance, it was quite an elaborate thing. And he really got into it. And that drove us forward. We knew that if we didn’t get him dancing then we probably had to rethink what we were doing.
Would you make another record with him?
It was musically, very, very challenging for our band not used to thinking on our feet. You play a show, you play the same songs a thousand times, and you do it by muscle memory and here we are actually training ourselves to interpret on the spot, on the fly. So then he came back in May, he went off and toured with Killing Joke, then we reconvened in a studio about five minutes away from where I live. I rode my bike in the mornings. And we’d just say, ‘Today, this is the song we’re doing.’ We set up live off the floor and we just recorded.
And you did it all in 12 days? Why the rush?
He was going to record the Dalai Lama. I’m not kidding you. That’s what he was going to do. He was going to do some recording with Tibetan Monks in Nepal or wherever it was.
Lo-Fantasy will be released Tuesday, Feb. 11.
Sam Roberts Band 2014 Canadian tour dates:
FEB 13 ADELAIDE HALL TORONTO
FEB15 LION D’OR MONTREAL
MAR 1 IMPERIAL DE QUEBEC QUEBEC CITY
APR 11 THE STUBBORN MULE SARNIA, ONT
APR 12 HAMILTON PLACE STUDIO HAMILTON, ONT
AUG 8-10 SQUAMISH MUSIC FESTIVAL SQUAMISH, BC