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Father of three, Sam Roberts finds focus despite hectic family life

Sam Roberts poses in Toronto on May 9, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

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Sam Roberts poses in Toronto on May 9, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO - Even as Sam Roberts' music becomes increasingly integrated with international influences — and his latest, "Lo-Fantasy," is particularly imbued with fleet-footed African rhythms — the songs almost always originate in the same place: the basement of his Montreal home.

Sounds serene, right? It might be if the 39-year-old didn't have three children — aged seven, four and two — with understandably low regard for the focus needed by songwriters.

"The kids have no respect for my work," the affable Roberts said, laughing, during a recent interview in Toronto. "I'm trying to convince them that I have a job — that it's an actual job, that it requires time and effort and discipline and dedication. But it doesn't seem to register with them at all."

So Roberts has adjusted. And somehow, he says the hectic nature of his personal life has actually sharpened his focus in the precious time he manages to set aside.

"Before I had a family, it was so open-ended that I wouldn't know when I needed to work," he said. "When do I really need to buckle down and put in the time? ... It's helped me to be more productive. I'll be downstairs for five hours — they'll still disrupt me, but at least they know. And I know I have to work. It's more important for me. I didn't know when I had to work before. It was like, 'I'm not feeling inspired now.'

"Now it's like: No. Get inspired, go down and do something. ... I feel like my family's given shape to that."

The musical inspiration for "Lo-Fantasy" — which hit stores this week — could be traced in part back to the Sam Roberts Band's last album, 2011's "Collider."

On that album, his band trimmed the shaggiest edges of its throwback rock and roll while placing a greater-than-ever influence on foot-shuffling rhythm.

Now, Roberts is loath to designate that album a mere transitional piece, but as he discusses "Lo-Fantasy" — an even more melodic set with an even larger emphasis on beat — he can't exactly help himself.

"I don't want 'Collider' to be the sacrificial lamb that opened the gates, but essentially that's what it (did)," he explained. "I want it to stand on its own merits ... as an album, but there's no way that we could have made this record without making that record.

"I think it unlocked something in us that's always been simmering in this band and that's that the rhythmic side of how we play moves us the most," he added. "Whether we've changed or not I don't know, but we're certainly closer to the music that inspires us."

So the Stones have always been an obvious influence, but now the Stone Roses are closer to the fore as well. In fact, several of the bands that inspired Roberts carried direct connections to the album's producer, Killing Joke founding bassist Martin Glover — a.k.a. Youth, who has helmed records by the Verve, Crowded House and James.

And the band's new collaborator certainly didn't tread lightly. Roberts recalls picking Youth up from the Montreal airport in the dead of winter before whisking him back to his house to play him the demos that would inform "Lo-Fantasy."

As Roberts tells it, each song would elicit a similar reaction: "It's great, but ..." where every ellipsis became a "litany of things" that weren't quite right.

"It's one thing to say that's what you're looking for, but you don't actually want it," Roberts said with a laugh. "It's like medicine. You know you need it and you know it's going to make you better, but the process itself is disconcerting to say the least — especially at the beginning."

Youth, Roberts said, came in and essentially took the band over.

Given that Sam Roberts Band is an uncommonly tight unit, that could have caused conflict — and Roberts acknowledges he didn't always agree with the veteran producer.

"He's an amazing combination of things as a person," he said. "He is very forceful in his ideas and relentlessly convincing when he latches onto what he thinks something should be. But he's also great vibes, and never raised voices, never a shouting match.

"But you find yourself in these grinding, drawn-out confrontations with him. I've got my vision for the song and he has his and you're sort of butting heads, but it's always in this celebratory way. ... To have someone challenge you that much and still come out friends at the end is a miracle."

It helps that Roberts loved what Youth drew from the band.

"We're All In This Together," with its rooster-strut riffage, was an obvious choice for first single, but Roberts wasn't hurting for viable candidates — for instance, the synth-lit "Human Heat" or helium-buoyant opener "Shapeshifters."

Roberts credits the album's melodicism, again, to his task-master producer.

"He took the reins there and dragged it to another level of hookiness," he said. "It's a place that a lot of songwriters are reluctant to go because you never want to feel like you're being obvious in what you do. You take pride in your craftsmanship. 'Oh, I don't need the hook to happen this many times — I can just do it twice and the five people who are listening that closely are going to notice it.'

"Youth (says) 'that's the hook and it needs to happen again.' That's what hooks are for: catching fish. I think that's why we couldn't have made this record without him forcing us to work against our better judgment in a lot of ways.

"That's what a producer does. He rips you away from your preciousness."

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