Renaissance Radicals

BY Stuart GreenPublished Nov 17, 2016

John K. Samson may be broke but he's not broken. In the last month, the guitarist/vocalist/lyricist for Winnipeg indie folk rockers the Weakerthans has had his home and cell phones disconnected and admits to occasionally having to roll pennies to buy bread and peanut butter. He's the "starving artist" personified. Yet speaking to Samson, there's no sense of desperation in is voice. In fact quite the opposite seems to be the case. He's downright enthusiastic about things, both with his band and his other professional pursuit as a publisher of leftist fiction and non-fiction books.

And why shouldn't he be, particularly when it comes to his musical endeavours. After nearly three years, the Weakerthans are finally celebrating the release of their sophomore disc, a gorgeous, brooding, occasionally melancholy, sometimes hard rocking batch of songs collectively known as Left and Leaving.

It's a record that takes the songwriting skills Samson, bassist John Sutton and drummer Jason Tait (second guitarist Stephen Carroll joined after the first record was recorded), first demonstrated on their critically lauded debut, Fallow, and elevates them to towering new heights. Both musically and lyrically, Left and Leaving is deeper and more evocative, clearly demonstrative of a band that's more at home with itself.

Samson agrees: "I'm just way happier with this record than I was with the first one," he admits. "This record is a lot more cohesive and focused. It's not as slick and a little more natural sounding. I think it's also that we sound like a band now. The first record was recorded four months after we started playing together so we hadn't really grown up as a band together. It took three years to make so it has to be more collaborative. We spent a lot of time in basements and practice spaces.

"That's the kind of thing you find impossible about the mainstream music industry; that pressure for you to churn out a record every one or two years. Our songs need some space and time and editing, and they need to grow up in a way and that takes time.
"The first record I felt was really collaborative but I also think that, like the title kind of demonstrated, I was kind of getting it all out of my system ? all those fraught, post-adolescent songs ? so it was cathartic in that way, and this record was in different ways."

When it finally came time to get into a studio last February, they entered Winnipeg's Private Ear Studios with former Change of Heart front man Ian Blurton in the producer's chair. "We were looking for a producer and he seemed like a natural choice," Samson recalls. "I had met him once in a bar and spoken to him for 45 seconds and didn't realise who it was. We've always been fans and I've always admired his huge enthusiasm for music, which is something I sometimes lack. But he has this respect for making noise and he has a really natural and distinct approach.

"It was pretty amazing for us to call him up and he said, 'Sure, I'll come to Winnipeg for two weeks in February and stay at your apartment and record.' I thought that was incredible."

It was, Samson admits, a bit of a gamble to ask for a commitment from a producer with whom they had no prior work experience. But it's one that paid off, partly because the band knew exactly what they were looking for in terms of a sound for the record.
"We all really grew up a lot in our understanding of music in the last three years," Samson states. "We've broadened our understanding of what we like and sounds we like and I think we had this idea of a record in our head and Ian had similar ideas.
"He had this approach where if there were tempo shifts or the guitars were slightly out of tune he would just say, 'it's music, it's not supposed to be perfect.' And that's a gigantic difference between him and pretty much anyone else in mainstream music. It's almost impossible to record with someone who doesn't want you to use a click track to make it almost mechanised and rhythmically perfect. I think it's really rare to find someone like him and I think it's because he's such an accomplished musician."

Samson says Blurton's appreciation for the songs and his overall vision helped the band make sense of the songs which are a collection of musical and lyrical peaks and valleys. There are beautifully tender moments juxtaposed with odd Beta Band ballads and full-on rock assaults and Samson often found himself wondering how it would all make sense.

"That was one of my concerns," he says. "We certainly didn't plan the record the way it was. That's one of the impossible things about making a record is you don't know what it's going to be until you finish it. I had some concerns that it was going to be too weighed down and too choppy because we were writing these rock songs and then we were writing these minimalist, strange I-don't-know-whats.

"I've always thought of a record as a record, not just a collection of songs and that was one of the failings of Fallow. I'm pretty confident that we made the best record we could at the time."
And part of what makes Left and Leaving such an accomplished record are Samson's evocative and literate lyrics. As the band has matured and grown as a unit, so too has Samson as a conveyor of messages and stories.

"As a lyricist I'm always trying to escape what I've already written because if you stay too long in one spot you get defined by what you're saying," he says.

What may come as the biggest shock to anyone familiar with Samson's past as a member of overtly political punk lords Propagandhi, is how seemingly apolitical the lyrics are. And keep in mind, this is a band whose name comes from a line in Ralph Chaplain's 1915 union anthem "Solidarity Forever."
"I know it's hard for people who understand my background as a propagandist," he says. "I strongly believe there's a role for blatant propaganda. I just don't know how to do it. I would if I could. I think everyone has to use what they know how to do and go with that."

Yet despite the apparent lack of venomous anti-government rhetoric, Samson insists his inherent political tendencies figured prominently while he was writing.

"In my mind I was thinking in pretty specific political terms," he says. "The goal I had with this record was to try and tell other stories and other people's stories. It's something that's always worried me but it's something I've always felt compelled to do. Hopefully I both succeed and fail at doing that and hopefully that makes it interesting. Telling other people's stories and talking about how hard that is and how important that is, is a lot of what this record is about and I think that's political.

"I'm a political person so when I write my politics will come through. I think there's an aesthetic and a basic world view that comes out and hopefully reflects my politics. I think anyone who takes language seriously has to be political."

In fact, Samson takes language so seriously, he started up a publishing co-op based out of a tiny Winnipeg office. Sensing an acute shortage of Canadian books with a true socio-political bent, Samson and his partner set out to fill a void in the domestic publishing industry. Taking their inspiration and cues from American indie publishing houses like Verso and City Lights, Arbeiter Ring Publishing ? named after a turn of the century union of Eastern European Jewish immigrants ? was established in 1996.

And in just four years, ARP has published nine ideologically similar works of non-fiction by such activist authors as Ward Churchill and Michael Albert and just released its first fiction book, an award-winning collection of short stories called Any Given Power by Alissa York.

"It was always something I had an interest in," notes Samson. "The thing I like best in the world is books. We both saw there was quite a big vacuum for political publishing in Canada and we also both have this understanding that poetry and fiction and non-fiction are equally important and political. Just putting out a book is a big political act in these trying times.

"It's what I do with my day. It's really important to me. The band is more than a job and so is the publishing company. They're both equally important to me."

Yet living in a city like Winnipeg, which is lovingly referred to as Winter-peg by the rest of Canada because of its notoriously frigid winters, seems like an odd place to kick start a renaissance movement. But Samson says there's a method to his madness. "It's cheap to live here and there's a small but dedicated arts community," he explains. "I can do what I want here and survive usually. It would be really difficult to start a publishing house and a rock band and not have a job pretty much anywhere else I can think of."

But Samson stresses the fact he has chosen to stay in Winnipeg and that a lot of the songs on the record reflect his life there shouldn't be misinterpreted as affection for his hometown.
"A lot of people talk about how centred the record is on Winnipeg and in the few mainstream interviews I do, it's always difficult to get the point across that I'm in no way a Winnipeg booster, because this is quite a terrifying place to live for a lot of the residents," he says. "A quarter of the children live below the poverty line and there's rampant injustice and it's not often looked at by people who live here. There's this sense that life is elsewhere and the world happens somewhere else." (To that end, a portion of proceeds from the sale of the record are going to a local aboriginal arts centre that provides free programming for families in Winnipeg's inner city.)

Staying in Winnipeg, too, has given the band the ability to avoid the blinding glare of the music industry spotlight for the most part. Although Fallow was a critical smash and the band has shared the stage with many of this country's best-known acts, lest there be any lingering confusion, the Weakerthans have no burning desire to jump through hoops for the music biz suits.

"No one's ever put anything on the table except drinks," Samson says of the bands flirtations with major label interest. "We've been pretty honest about it. I think they understand that we're not hit factory, we're not going to turn out singles. One major label guy took us out and told us there's no such thing as letting an artist grow on label anymore. He said you get one chance to make it. Things like Tom Waits or Elvis Costello, those heroes of mine, could never happen today where you would have the room to grow over seven or eight records.

"We had almost absolute control in every process of making the [new] record. We worked with people we admire and trust and people we wanted to work with. It's kind of dream-like to be able to do that. Of course there are costs ? we don't make much money, we're always scraping to get by, but it's worth it. There are periods where we have nothing because none of us has real jobs and we just kind of live month-to-month."

"We've all been doing this for ten years and we understand how it works. We always said if could get a non-recoupable advance of $1 million we'd have to do it. That would be hilarious but it's never going to happen. We understand that what it takes is hard work and going out and touring and playing for as many people as we can."

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