Sam Roberts has travelled for pleasure all over the world from Mexico to Morocco. So why not record his new album, now entitled Chemical City, in an exotic locale, one in which he's never been--like Australia?
"We wanted it to be in a rural setting, close to the ocean, lots of sunshine," says Roberts. "We were talking about a beach house. We definitely wanted to surf every day."
After meeting with Roberts in Montreal, producer Mark Howard, who has experience recording in unconventional settings with fellow Canadian Daniel Lanois, was hired to do the album and used the Internet to find the ideal place to build a makeshift studio. At first, he found a beach house, but lost the booking when he couldn't get the go-ahead in time from the record label, Universal Music Canada.
Then, with the session re-booked and everyone scheduled to leave two weeks later, Howard says he "scrambled" to find somewhere--and did, a peaceful, perfect location, a converted turn-of-the-century country church called The Old Church in Newrybar, near Byron Bay. It was surrounded by coffee and macadamia plantations and was a short drive down the hill to the Pacific Ocean. With the pews long removed, there was enough room in the chapel area to bring in recording equipment.
In the back, there were four large bedrooms where Roberts, his band--guitarist Dave Nugent, keyboardist/guitarist Eric Fares, bassist James Hall and temporary drummer Bill Anthopoulos--and everyone else could sleep.
They booked it for three months starting late February of 2005, expecting to emerge with the follow-up to Roberts' 2003's platinum-selling full-length debut, We Were Born In A Flame. "I think the best case scenario would have been that we would have gone and finished the record in two months and then had a month of time at the beach," laughs the Montreal-based rock singer, who plays guitar, keyboards and strings.
Instead, when the three months were up, he says all they had to show for an album was "raw pulp." He can joke about it now. At the time, he believed it was the album that they had finished.
Roberts felt a "very strong connection" to the 16 songs, but when Allan Reid, senior vice-president of A & R at Universal Music Canada, flew down to hear them, he wasn't blown away. "We wanted him to go back into the studio," Reid says.
In retrospect, Roberts now says he felt the same way. "I wasn't happy with it; I just felt protective of it," he explains.
Howard, who produced one of The Tragically Hip's most adventurous albums, 1994's Day For Night, describes the album he made with Roberts as "quite psychedelic and pretty trippy sounding," and reveals it was intended to be a concept album, which is something of a dirty word in this singles-driven market.
No one at the label or management mentioned that in talking excitedly about the new album in the months before its release.
"I'd finished the record in Australia, handed it in, and it was too weird for the record company because it was more of a concept record, kind of like Pink Floyd's The Wall," Howard says. "It was a concept built on the Chemical City and all the songs are related to this Chemical City, 'The Gate', and all these windows looking into Chemical City," he says.
"The Gate" is the album's lead track …