The Weakerthans


BY James KeastPublished Sep 1, 2003

John K. Samson opens with song. It's worth ten points.

He carries a small travel Scrabble set with him everywhere he goes; in a small blue book he records each game, when and where, the words played and the score. To the quizzical look I give him, he lifts his sleeve to reveal a patch. "Cigarettes and I broke up three weeks ago," he says. "I've been playing a lot of Scrabble."

The Weakerthans front-man comes as close to a poet as any Canadian musician has since Leonard Cohen, but surprisingly, he's not a very good Scrabble player, despite all the recent practice. "People always say I should be a good Scrabble player, then they actually play me and find out I really suck. I have very poor math and visual and logic skills, actually. Scrabble's just one of those things that I really want to be good at, but I'm never going to be. I've got an endless list of stuff like that."

Words are Samson's sustenance: his work and his entertainment. In the three years since the band's last album, Left and Leaving, new lyrics have been his constant companions. "They're quite pored over," he says. "They are worked to death in a way and that's just part of my process. I like to walk around with these things in my head. They keep me company."

There isn't an unconsidered moment on the Weakerthans' third album (and first for Epitaph), Reconstruction Site; great art takes time, to make and to absorb. For the third time, the band — rounded out by guitarist Stephen Carroll, bassist John Sutton and drummer Jason Tait — have made a creeper record, one that rocks right out of the gate but takes weeks and months, intense daily listening and days apart from it, to truly digest.

Openings are key for Samson. He says that the first track on each record is a mission statement for the album. The Weakerthans' mission statement would include a love-hate relationship with their hometown of Winnipeg, a political bent that leans far to the left, an independent streak that doesn't see signing with the world's biggest punk indie label as a contradiction, and a geographical split down the middle of the band that might have saved them.

But before the swell of words crashes down in a spray of progressive politics, iambic pentameter and Scrabble plays, one important thing stays at the fore: the Weakerthans rock.

Despite the egg-headed smartness, the Weakerthans are no bran band — well-intentioned and good for you, but not that tasty. Fans need not have any understanding of postmodernism to pogo delightedly to "Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault In Paris, 1961)," where Tait's drums and Sutton's bass playfully duel to see who can jump the highest.

You want to just rock out to the tunes and ignore the lyrics? Great — have at it. Want a quotable line that you can steal to appear clever? "Beauty's just another word I'm never certain how to spell," from the title track should do the trick. But unlike many whose self-proclaimed smartness fades with any in-depth exploration, the Weakerthans are as deep as you want them to be.

"Is ‘shoop' a word yet?" Samson asks. We decide no, and he plays "shoo" instead, a move that will come back to haunt me later. He's hit a run of low-scoring tiles, and although it is close, for now I'm beating one of Canada's great wordsmiths at Scrabble.

Reconstruction Site contains 14 songs and three of them provide signposts to the proceedings. "(Manifest)" opens the album with Samson's "mission statement" for the album; "(Hospital Vespers)" comes just past the midway point, and it ends with "(Past-Due)." Musically, the trilogy takes the same melody and wrings it through the most extreme arrangements on the entire album — horns on the first, a music track threaded backwards on the second, and a clink-clank arrangement Tom Waits would love on the third. Their thematic connection remains buried deep in Samson's head but structurally, they're all Elizabethan sonnets.

"I'm a total geek," Samson laughs at himself. "The first one is a ‘this is what I want to do' statement. It sets up the theme of revelling in effort that may not necessarily succeed in any obvious way. Coming to terms with that is the big theme of the record. Maybe we'll never know if anything we do is worthwhile — it makes it somehow even more important to try. Emotionally it goes downhill from there."

Concept albums can be trying — musicians are chronically too convinced of their own cleverness and listeners don't always appreciate being told how to interpret music's emotional or thematic content. Samson treads the line carefully, reticent to delve too deeply, at least with a tape recorder running, into the meaning it clearly has for him. "It's not Dark Side of the Moon," he laughs self-deprecatingly. But if it was, what film would Reconstruction Site sync up to, as Dark Side is supposed to with The Wizard of Oz? "Bottle Rocket," he deadpans.

Reconstruction Site is not a great leap in a another direction for the Weakerthans — each album has shouldered a comprehensive thematic resonance for the band's lyricist. For 1999's Fallow, the mission statement track, "Illustrated Bible Stories For Children," was "a song about dealing with who you are, where you come from, the things you don't have any power over in your life: class, race, upbringing, formative experiences. It's very much a becoming an adult song and I think that whole record was like that. Trying to figure out how to be a grown-up in the world."

On 2000's Left and Leaving, "Everything Must Go" opened the proceedings. "It's written in the form of an ad for a garage sale — it's kind of an emotional garage sale. There are things you have to leave behind, you have to get rid of, that you have to be kind of brutal about but also respectful about removing from your life.

"I take it even further in my nerdiness. I think of the records as linked," he continues. "I think of them as a trilogy in a way — a trilogy set in Winnipeg."

The band's rhythm section (bassist John Sutton and drummer Jason Tait) may currently reside in Toronto, but Winnipeg remains the spiritual home of the Weakerthans. It's where John K. Samson founded the band in 1997, after departing from another aggressive, punk- and politics-oriented band, Propagandhi. The city "where buildings go missing like teeth," and with one of the proudest histories of worker-identified politics in the country, is where Samson feels at home.

He may be an ambassador to the city, but not an uncritical one, as evidenced on Reconstruction Site's most forthright song, "One Great City!" Its title draws from the city's own slogan, but the song is most clearly identified by its mantra: "I hate Winnipeg." Like the bulk of Reconstruction Site, it's written in character, where segments of the ‘Peg populace lament the shambling state of their environment. "There's some perversity involved in the choice to put it on the record," Samson says of a song that has been a staple of their live performances, as most new songs are, for years. "I wanted to stir things up a little bit. And so far it hasn't, not really. People in Winnipeg almost never ask about it — the only negative reactions we've gotten are from Winnipeggers who've moved away. I'm the one who stayed — I'm allowed to say these things. It's our duty to say them in a way." It's less a mean-spirited attack on his home-town than a meditation on urban culture in general. "Winnipeg is like every major North American city, a very troubled place."

For the last couple of years, the Weakerthans have been a band divided, geographically. "I thought living in separate cities would make it a lot more difficult," Samson admits, "but it's ironically made it better in some ways. I think we treat the time we have together more dearly. In the last year, every couple of months either Steve and I would fly [to Toronto] or Jason and John would fly to Winnipeg, practice for a week and work things out."

Samson likes to have a very clear idea of where a song is going before committing it to tape, but geography conspired against him this time, and Reconstruction Site was the least polished song collection the band ever had before they entered a studio. For an assist, they turned, as they had for Left and Leaving, to Ian Blurton as producer. "I think having them worked over, but also slightly unfinished, allowed Ian to have more input than he did on the last record. It was a more collaborative process. I think the songs were less obvious in what they were asking for. A lot of them could have gone many different directions, whereas the last records we've made, there was only one way they could go."

The songs almost didn't go to Blurton at all. "We made the rounds of people we thought we'd want to work with. We had all these options and we kinda went ‘why would we go anywhere else when we know that what we want is down the street wearing a beard?' It wasn't a hard decision at all."

Aside from a level of comfort drawn from years of acquaintance, Ian Blurton's influence was felt in two ways. In music terms, he helped realise the album's most experimental moments, on the song trilogy that dots the album. But more abstractly, he provided ears that the band trusted more than their own — to the point that Blurton was left to his own devices when it came to mixing. "He took the tapes to Seattle [for mixing] and we were sitting in Winnipeg and Toronto going ‘Oh my god!' But also, ‘We know Ian will do okay. He'll make us sound better than we deserve to.' And he did. That was another part of the severe letting go. Not being there for the mix? That's unheard of in our world."

It's one of the few times in the band's life that they have relinquished such control. In order to maintain complete autonomy, the band saved up and paid for the recording and completion of the album before any decisions about who would release it were made. With a finished album in hand, they turned to the business of finding a label.

It was perhaps a leap of faith on Epitaph's part that brought the Weakerthans to their roster. "They hadn't heard the record when they sent us a contract," Samson reveals. "It was kinda sweet — I appreciated that. It was a matter of someone doing a good job, caring about the music and the band, and showing some faith. They did that."

There were also no illusions — from band or label — that the Weakerthans were going to become a buzz band overnight sensation. "We're quite happy with where we are, who we are, and what kind of band we are. There's a great Ani DiFranco line — usually I hate songs about musicians, they're bad and to be avoided — but she wrote ‘my thing is already just the right size.' It's a great line."

Back on the board, Samson plays "scabs." Running with the themes, I counter a few plays later with "owner," and maintain my slim lead.

If ever asked on an official document for his occupation, Samson usually puts "publisher." "It sounds straighter, if I'm applying for a grant or something. But primarily, I would say songwriter if someone pressed me."

In 1996, Samson co-founded a Winnipeg publishing house called Arbeiter Ring ("worker's circle"). Run as a worker's collective, it publishes primarily politically-oriented, academic books, but they've recently branched out. "We do about 60 percent hard politics and 40 percent cultural studies, fiction, film studies and stuff like that." He's involved in all aspects of publishing, "from procurement to editing, layout and design, putting the book together, getting a printer, getting quotes, marketing the book, all that stuff."

His strengths lie in "big picture" editing — matters of structure and focus. "That's the most rewarding part, the sculpting involved as an editor. My grammar is not what I'd hoped it would become. I like layout and design, but I'm not very good at it. There are many things I'm pretty crappy at but I do anyway. That's part of the thing — I can live in Winnipeg, be in a band and run a publishing house. Maybe in neither case do I really understand what I'm doing but I'm allowed to do it. There are no real expectations. There's no one to say ‘you're not a publisher, you've never been to university, you don't know what a run-on sentence really is.'"

Other than his now long-passed association with Propagandhi, one of the reasons why the Weakerthans are spoken of in political terms is Arbeiter Ring. Their books are prominently displayed alongside T-shirts and CDs on the band's merch tables. But in music terms, for the Weakerthans, it's definitely a case of the political being personal.

The 30-year-old Samson hasn't been political, in the meetings and protests sense, since his early 20s. "After some activism that I didn't have the capacity or joy for, I came to the conclusion that you really have to love what you do in order to do anything well. Like going to meetings — some people really love those things and I'm really glad there are people who do. That, I really admire. I guess I treat both music and publishing as an activist activity. Even if the politics aren't immediately obvious, they emerge in your daily life and in anything you do. If you're trying to communicate or you're making something, the politics will wander out somewhere. My direct involvement is less than it was, but I feel more productive somehow."

Samson's most political new song didn't make the record. "I tried this song called ‘Relative Surplus Value,' which is a Marxist term for the money that a capitalist makes through the worker with technological advances. It didn't make the record because the music sucked and it's too bad, because lyrically it really kinda fit. It was written from the perspective of a failed dot-commer. That's really the story of our generation. There are so many people I consider my peers who dedicated a fertile time in their lives to this idea that they were going to make it huge through their wonderful, creative minds on this brand new medium. They just got screwed. They ended up screwing people, and they got screwed themselves. It's tragedy. It's the Ginsberg line from ‘Howl': I've seen the best minds of our generation devoured by the internet."

We're also watching much of the music industry get devoured — or at least hobbled — by the internet. "I'm both attracted and repelled by the internet. I think the potential is incredible and the uses are venal, generally. It's just a giant advertisement for crap. But the difficulty of mediating expression because it's so easily disseminated, the home recording, the democratisation of the means of production — I'm really excited by those things. But you have to take that with a grain of salt. Capitalism always finds a way to use advances that seem liberating for insidious ends."

His skills as a "big picture" editor come into play when I ask for his political take on the music industry. "I would take a regular Marxist approach to it," he says frankly. "Put more power in the hands of the workers, the people who actually do the creating. I think they're habitually treated poorly. It's hard to whine about, because it is a wonderful life, but [the music industry] is also the most severe example of a cutthroat market economy. It can be such a pyramid scheme — even on the smallest scale, at the crappiest little bar where it shouldn't matter at all. It's such a… ugh, it's exhausting."

In practical terms, what would a Marxist approach to the music industry look like? "That's the thing. How do you do that?" He laughs. "Practical terms are not my strong point."

Peppering him with questions hasn't distracted Samson from the Scrabble board, and towards the end of the game, he makes a late rally. I should have let him play "shoop" earlier. Instead, he plays "quit," linked to "shoo" and makes "shoot." My lead is gone. I tell him that when I write the story, I'm gonna lie and say that I won. He gives me a look that suggests I shouldn't toy with the Scrabble gods, even in jest. Final score: John K. Samson – 209, James Keast – 199.

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