By Chris Kornelis / Special to The Seattle Times
When Sam Roberts turned 4, his parents gave him an ultimatum: you have to play a musical instrument, but you can pick which one. He chose the violin.
While many students put down their bows as they gravitate to rock and roll, Roberts kept at it, even as his eponymous band became a going concern in his home country of Canada. He got married, had children, spent a substantial portion of his time on the road. Through it all, he continued to take lessons from the same teacher, Hratchia Sevadjian. He never really stopped. Aside from a minor hiatus or two, Roberts has been taking violin lessons from Sevadjian, who moved to Montreal from Armenia in 1975, for the better part of 35 years.
“That never happens,” Sevadjian says of the length of their teacher/student relationship. “Sam’s talent was absolutely crazy. Everything he does well. He’s writing well. He’s singing well. He’s a devoted father and husband.”
When his daughters turned 4, Roberts gave them each an ultimatum: you must play a musical instrument, and it must be the violin. Now, every Sunday, when he’s not on tour, Roberts and his two daughters head to Sevadjian’s studio where each of them take lessons.
“One of the strangest things is the fact that all of a sudden I go from being in this parental role to being a student in front of my kids,” he said from his home in Montreal, recently. “It’s not very often that you let your guard down like that.”
He’s never played the violin at one of The Sam Roberts Band’s concerts and he had no plans to. The only people who hear him play are his wife and kids, who can’t help but pick up the sounds coming from the basement as he practices.
“It’s a solitary pursuit,” he says. “It’s about the discipline, the love of playing an instrument, struggling against an instrument, finally finding harmony with the instrument, only to lose it again. I need that in some way.”
Though Roberts does not play violin on “Lo-Fantasy,” the latest installment of the Sam Roberts Band’s straightforward, foot-stomping, wind-in-your-hair rock, he has, somewhat reluctantly, played violin on his records in the past. On the Juno-award-winning band’s last album, “Collider,” the producer talked him into adding a simple violin line. But after it was modified in the studio, Roberts admits it sounds more like a synthesizer than an acoustic instrument.
As it happens, the synthesizer is the differentiator on “Lo-Fantasy.” The band doesn’t go straight down the new wave chute, but Roberts upped the dance quotient and gave himself permission to indulge his electronic side.
“I’m starting to see, the more I’m engaged in the classical music world, how it’s informing the way I write music,” he says. “Not necessarily that I’m tapping into new scales or techniques, but just keeping your mind as open as it can be on a musical front.”
That said, Roberts has felt the need to step up his classical chops, if not for his band, then to save face at home. His daughters are catching on fast, and he doesn’t want them to surpass him anytime soon. Plus, in a year, his son will be old enough to get the ultimatum of his own. For the record, that will make three violinists below the age of 10 under the same roof.
“It’s not so much him I’m worried about,” Roberts says. “It’s me: whether my constitution will hold up in the face of another kid learning how to play this unforgivable instrument.”
9 p.m., Friday, March 21, at the Tractor Tavern, 5213 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle; $15, 21+(206-789-3599 or tractortavern.com)