Happy Birthday, Chemical City!

When the Sam Roberts Band released Chemical City in 2006, the critics used words like “magnificent slab of psychedelia flavored rock”, “sumptuous,” and “anthemic” – their “most ambitious work to date,” they said.

Some loved the new stuff – the evolution, if you will – while others just wanted Sam to make another We Were Born in A Flame, and who can blame them, really? Change is hard – scary, even – and We Were Born In A Flame is so very, very good.

Sadly, there will never be another We Were Born In A Flame, just like there will never be another Chemical City. Happily, the evolution will no doubt continue with the SRB’s new, yet-to-be-released sixth studio album. Before we go crazy because there’s a NEW ALBUM in the works, let’s celebrate the last ten years of Chemical City with ten random facts about the SRB’s sophomore album, shall we?

1. Somewhere between We Were Born In A Flame and Chemical City, in the first few months of 2005, Sam and his wife Jen traveled all over the place: South Africa, Holland, Australia. Was it wanderlust or running from themselves? We’ll never know. We do know they found an old church in Newrybar, in Australia’s Byron Bay, and the old church became one of two studios where the band recorded the album.

2. Why Australia?

“We were looking for somewhere in the southern hemisphere because we wanted it to be hot. I didn’t want to make another winter record,” Sam told Canoe.ca’s Jane Stevenson. “I honestly believe the weather influences the outcome in a big way, and it was a freezing cold winter in Montreal. So Australia was just staring right in our faces and none of us had ever been there before.”

3. Matt Mays joined Sam in Australia, and he played the guitar and sang on Uprising Down Under. (The Internet also says they surfed a lot). Matt also joined the band in CBC’s Studio 211 for their Lo-Fantasy special and a little Uprising Down Under.

4. The SRB’s friend Joseph Donovan produced this record (and he won a Juno for producing the next one, Love at the End of the World), and the band also recorded some of Chemical City at Stock Market Audio in Montreal.

5. Released in April 2006 (May in the USA), Chemical City gave us three singles – The Gate, Bridge to Nowhere, and With A Bullet. Directed by Dave Pawsey (who also directed Them Kids, Detroit ’67, Shapeshifters, and co-directed I Feel You with Jonathan Legris), Bridge to Nowhere won the Juno Award for Best Video in 2007.

6. The cover of Chemical City is a stunner.

chemical city cover art
If you wish you could create incredible art too, good news – there’s a class for that. The illustrator – Alberta-born artist Ken Dewar – is also a sessional instructor at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary.  Ken took the band’s sci-fi / fantasy inspired ideas, and “came back with this incredible thing, right off the top,” says Sam in this canoe.ca article from back in the day.  “And I was, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe that this is going to be on our record.'”

7. There’s a Japanese release of Chemical City, with a Japanese sleeve covering alternate cover art and two bonus tracks: Fall Before You Finish, and Embrasse Moi. Good reasons to add this one to your collection (it’s around, you’ve just gotta look), include the aforementioned bonus tracks (Fall Before is especially stellar), and the cover, because Sam is wearing what appears to be a most incredible dashiki, and there’s kimonos inside.

Chemical City (Japanese Release)

8. Sam the Songwriter prepared for Chemical City by not, um, preparing for Chemical City, mostly, and it’s all because he read the Neil Young autobiography Shakey.

“You know, Neil would sit down to record with Crazy Horse or whoever he was working with at the time, and he would have a couple of riffs, and that would be it. They would make a record like that,” Sam told Vancouver’s Georgia Straight back in 2006.  “And I just love those records, where they were working through problems but the Record button was constantly on.”

9. On the List of Songs The SRB Never Play Live, A Stone Would Cry Out comes out on top. In this YouTube video of a live performance from Sonic Records, Sam himself says we’ll “never hear it,” because he’s “saving it for the retirement years.” Let’s say you can’t wait that long – you’re a master piano player who’s desperate for a live version, so you’re just going to recreate this lovely jam at home – that’s not gonna happen, either. Sam broke the bad news to the blog Apocalypse Now back in 2009:

“There’s a very specific set of things that has to happen to a piano to get that tone. We were in Australia and there was this very old Australian guy who lived out in the middle of the bush and owned a piano shop. And we went up there one day and picked out a piano that sounded perfectly fine. He put it on the back of his delivery truck a week later after tuning it, supposedly,” explained Sam. “Then he brought it by one of the bumpiest roads you could imagine and dropped it off and the thing sounded the way that it did. It went from being a very normal piano to being a very irregular piano, but to me that is what gave the song it’s personality. That sound just kinda came out.”

10. Single number three With a Bullet – or Bullet, as it’s noted on set lists – is a fan favourite, but this little gem didn’t receive the love it deserves back then.  In fact, there wasn’t even a video . . .  until the band released this incredible live version filmed at Montreal’s Metropolis in 2012, and it was totally worth the wait.

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