Sam Roberts was living in a hobbit hole on a mountain in Spain, watching the sun set on the hills of Andalucia when the lyrics of “Golden Hour” came to him. If that were the only unusual thing about the making of Lo-Fantasy, his fifth studio album, it would still be remarkably strange, but this is no ordinary Sam Roberts Band record.
One year earlier:
New songs were taking shape in the dim glow of Sam’s Montreal basement studio. “It might have taken less time if my kids had respected my privacy a little more,” says Roberts. “Once I put a lock on the door, things started to move faster.” The songs were calling on a broad spectrum of influences, from the Clash to Fela Kuti, from electronic-gurus Underworld to Etienne De Crecy, from Gordon Lightfoot to Ray Davies. What the music needed was a producer and a visionary who could help sculpt these different directions into a focused, living whole. The band took a shot in the dark and sent rough demos across the pond… Who they got was Youth.
Youth (a.k.a. Martin Glover) boasted an incredible resume, with production credits ranging from The Verve’s Urban Hymns to Crowded House, as well as stints performing with Paul McCartney, ambient-techno kings The Orb, and post-punk outfit Killing Joke. “His musical background hit every note, all the colours we were trying to put on the record,” says Roberts. They met in Montreal for a freezing February week of pre-production, Youth swearing it had to be “Hell on Earth!” He pored over Roberts’ new tracks with an irreverent and unrelenting eye. “He’d say, ‘Where’s the chorus, man?’” Roberts laughs in his best British accent. “‘That’s not a chorus. THIS is the chorus.’ He was unapologetically ripping the songs to pieces, putting songwriter and band to the test. I had to defend my music, know when to dig in my heels, know when to try a different approach. You have to be elastic enough that you’re open to the new possibilities, and our bond grew stronger through that.”
At the end of the week, Youth returned to England, leaving Roberts and his band—guitarist Dave Nugent, bassist James Hall, keyboardist Eric Fares, and drummer Josh Trager—to make sense of it all. Songs were shuffled, jettisoned, and reassembled, verses became choruses and choruses became verses. While Sam and the band might normally spend twelve months recording an album, Youth returned to Montreal in May and informed them that they’d be recording Lo-Fantasy live-off the studio floor in twelve days. “The weather,” he said, “was much better…”
“We worked insanely long hours – after three days of that you’re almost in a hallucinogenic state, like an ayahuasca journey – or so I’ve heard,” Roberts laughs. “Youth would be in the control room with his Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned, dancing and doing oil painting interpretations of the songs while we were recording, and we’re thinking, ‘My God we’ve got a madman at the helm!’”
The combination of sleep deprivation, excitement, uncertainty, and adrenaline pushed the band outside any notion of comfort, generating their most dynamic and inventive arrangements to date. It also helped capture the fiery spirit and urgency that have made their live shows so legendary, earning them spots performing everywhere from Letterman and Conan to Bonnaroo, ACL, Lollapalooza and Bumbershoot, and alongside heroes like the Rolling Stones and AC/DC. “Youth would be very encouraging and constructive, and then sometimes he’d be ruthless,” Sam explains. “You’d be sweating over a guitar part or a vocal take and you’d hear Youth say, ‘Lame!’ in the headphones. Devastatingly direct… It became this real psychological trip. He’s there to create an atmosphere in which a record is going to be made, to shake you right out of your boots as a musician and hold your feet to the fire. And after a while you adapt to being in that frame of mind where you have to think on your feet and be ready to try everything completely differently. If you got Youth up on his feet dancing, you knew you were on the right track.”
It’s only fitting, then, that Lo-Fantasy opens with the slithery groove of “Shapeshifters,” an ode to fluid identity and flexible self-image. “That song is a gateway to a lot of what happens on the rest of the record,” Roberts says. “It was one of the first I wrote for the album, an all-out dance track, and I felt that with a song like this under my belt, I wasn’t going to be pigeonholed into making any one specific kind of record.”
From the anthemic call for solidarity of “We’re All In This Together” to the electro-thump of “Chasing The Light,” Lo-Fantasy is indeed the most wide-ranging collection Roberts has ever written, infusing his particularly rousing brand of rock and roll with elements of funk, house, electronic, and African music. Throughout it all, his lyrics grapple with greater questions of identity and self-discovery in the modern age. “That’s the test of a rock and roll song or a pop song to me,” Roberts says. “It’s to confront those issues in three or four minutes, to get to a place where the music itself helps bring you towards some enlightenment, or at least some resolution to those big questions.”
Once tracking was completed, Roberts and Nugent headed to Spain for the final touches at El Mirador Studio, a beautiful mountaintop retreat Youth had constructed overlooking olive orchards and modeled after sketches of hobbits’ homes in Middle Earth from the Lord Of The Rings. It was there, in his own personal hobbit hole, that Roberts completed work on the album’s final songs, a fittingly strange end to a particularly surreal and mystical recording process.
A remix studio was set up just outside the control room, where Youth and Eddie Banda would take the newly-minted tracks and twist them into electronic incarnations ready for the dance-floors of the world. “We were going through a heavy ‘Tears for Fears’ phase on our last tour,” Roberts explains, so for the final phase of the record, mixing duties were given to Dave Bascombe, renowned UK mixer and engineer on Songs From The Big Chair.
“Low fantasy is a literary genre that takes place in a world very much like our own, but in which magic – or the possibility of magic – exists,” Roberts says. “It’s grounded in reality, but it’s an altered reality. You can still ride a train to Alberta, but there’s a place for the supernatural in this otherwise rational world – it’s out there and we haven’t tapped into it yet.” Maybe music is the bridge…