Montreal rocker Sam Roberts sings praises of home on eve of first tour since pandemic

“I’ve seen it through the lens of a parent for the entire time I’ve lived here,” says Roberts, a father of two teenage daughters and a 12-year-old son.“It’s a great place to raise a family. It really has the best of both worlds. It has that neighbourhood feel that I loved growing up on the West Island, but there’s that contact with the city that I think is really important for kids. I mean, it’s great as an adult, too. Like, I can go downtown and feel that kind of energy again, but then come back to the safety of your street here in N.D.G. I remember growing up in Pointe-Claire, all my friends in N.D.G., they just seemed so worldly — they seemed to know so much about the streets.”Roberts did do his time in the Plateau in the ’90s when he was starting out, just one of many alt-rockers trying to make it. He had a couple of bands that never really went anywhere. But at least the living was cheap, as opposed to today. That scene eventually produced bands that made it globally — from the Dears to Arcade Fire.You didn’t even consider the possibility of success here before those bands making it, Roberts says.“I’m not even joking — (getting a mention in) the Rant Line (a hilarious column in the Montreal Mirror where people phoned in often-drunken rants) was the pinnacle of success at the time,” he says. “Let alone get your face on the cover of the Mirror or the Hour. That to me was extraterrestrial measures of success.”

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Sam Roberts, front, with band members James Hall on bass, left, guitarist Dave Nugent, drummer Josh Trager and keyboard player Eric Fares in their rehearsal space in Montreal on Jan. 22, 2024. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

He tells a funny story about going to L.A. back then. He bought a 1969 Oldsmobile Delta 88 for $250 (the seller gave him a deal because he thought Roberts had good energy), but it cost him a fortune in gas driving around L.A. and the brakes would heat up so much that he’d go sailing through red lights. His band at the time was Northstar, and they had a mini-album. The trouble was the cover art was so ugly.

“It was our Spinal Tap ‘Smell the Glove’ moment,” Roberts says.

He and his manager didn’t have a cellphone, so they got a pager and every time it went off, they had to hike a mile up the canyon to the closest phone booth to call the record company back. He says they met maybe three people in California over three months.

Last year was the 20th anniversary of the release of We Were Born in a Flame, and there’s a sense that anniversary informs Roberts’s latest album, The Adventures of Ben Blank, which came out in the fall. It’s a concept album based on a what-if notion: What if it was the fictional guy Ben Blank releasing music, not Sam Roberts? It’s like Roberts dreaming of escaping his history. That desire comes partly from the fact that the first album was by far his biggest commercial success.

“I think it’s natural that there’s a growing frustration that newer things that you make … when they don’t find the same kind of foothold in people’s lives, it’s always frustrating,” Roberts says. “Does it mean you resent the old stuff? I don’t think that’s how I’d say it. I do think there’s a struggle every band, our own included, goes through, to convince people that what you’re saying right now is as valuable to them.”

The Sam Roberts Band performs on Feb. 29 at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium.