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.”