The Weakerthans' John K. Samson

BY Greg PrattPublished Mar 26, 2010

When news of an upcoming live album from the Weakerthans dropped a while back, the anticipation in the air was almost palpable. Anticipation for a live album ― it's like the ol' time machine got set for '77, but, no, it's just that this band is that good, and is known for live shows where songs from their albums get a makeover, oftentimes with new instruments being added to the mix. Vocalist/guitarist John K. Samson knows this, and is actually happier with some of the songs on the disc, Live at the Burton Cummings Theatre, than he is with the original studio versions. He's also happy with playing live in general these days, something he admits he wasn't for years. The disc looks back at the band's 13-year existence with cuts from all the albums; older fans may be a bit bummed to see only one songs from their first disc, Fallow, on there, but, as Samson tells us, there's a reason some old songs get left behind.

First off, congrats on the live album.
Oh, thanks. It doesn't feel like something I should be congratulated on, because we played a show and then Cam, our soundman, worked really hard at making it sound good. Then a year later, there it is. So it's kind of nice. And Greg, our bass player, did all the artwork. He's been painting for years and years, and we've always wanted to take advantage of that. It's great. I didn't really... it's a pleasure for me, I just got to sit back and watch.

Why did you decide to do a live album now?
We were doing this big tour last year, that one that took a lot out of us, where we went from St. Johns to Whitehorse with the Constantines. We were documenting that trip ― our friend was making a movie about it that hasn't come out yet but it will be out someday soon, I think. So, we were recording all the shows and we arrived in Winnipeg, right in the middle of the tour, and we thought, "We should record this one really well because we're home and we can get all the gear and see what happens with it." And they were actually really fun shows. Usually when we play Winnipeg I'm terrified and nervous and I don't feel great about the shows, but these ones were different somehow ― the audiences were really warm and generous and the shows were a lot of fun. So we approached Epitaph with the idea and they said sure. And it just seems after 13 years, it was a nice recap of the four records that we've made together; it's kind of a portrait of the way things are right now. The set itself was a nice, to me, piece of work. It combined songs from all of our records together in one piece. It's interesting how old songs and new songs work off each other; it's neat to document that.

Is there anything else you can tell me about the movie?
It's going to be done soon. It's a bit confusing because the live record comes with a DVD of the Winnipeg show, which is kind of neat, but there's also the movie of the entire tour. I know that the director's almost done and there is a distributor in place, and one of the local TV channels is going to be showing it here at some point. I haven't seen it. It'll be interesting to see, because it was a long journey, that one, and a pretty difficult one at times. It'll be out sometime soon, I think not too long from now.

What can you tell me about the DVD that comes with the live album?
I kind of like it. We're not much to see, really. But it gives you a sense of the room itself, which is a beautiful old theatre, and a sense of the audience, who, like I said, I really enjoyed spending time with.

It's hard to believe you've been a band for 13 years. It feels to me that your first album just came out a couple years ago.
I know, me too. It feels that way to me. It was weird to think about. I kept thinking it was eight or nine years, but then I actually looked at the dates. It was really strange.

How does that feel?
Well... I don't know. I certainly wish we had made more things over the last 13 years. We made four records, I guess that's a low average for a lot of bands. But, you know, it's a strange feeling, but I kind of like it. There's some friction in that feeling. It's a good thing, though. We've been through a lot together, and the songs have been through a lot of changes in what they mean to us and how they've been presented and the places they've been.

It's interesting that you say that ― the album starts out with "Everything Must Go!" To me, the version here sounds sonically pretty similar to the original but where before it was just the saddest song, now it sounds kind of happy, kind of hopeful.
There is something to that. I feel the same way about that song. I'm glad that you do too. To me, there's something happy about that song now. It's maybe a little less plaintive. It's not sung by someone trying to swim through their mid-'20s and make it out. It's sung by a different person now.

Thinking back to when you were first touring, I remember seeing you when you were touring your first album... your shows now are more fun, they're happier, they're more of a celebration. The first time I saw you, someone in the audience yelled something about punk or Propagandhi or something. Your drummer stood up from behind his kit and starting yelling and swearing at the guy, saying, "I saw Black Flag when I was 12," or whatever, "What do you know about punk?"
[laughs] Yeah, it's become less confrontational over the years. I think that coming out of punk rock, at least for me, it took me a long time to enjoy playing live. And I remember those first Weakerthans tours, really not enjoying the live part of life. I didn't really enjoy playing music live until really not so long ago. Which is weird. I remember one of the first times recognizing what live music could be was when the Rheostatics called out of the blue after our first record came out and asked us to play at Greensprouts, which they used to do in Toronto, where they would play shows for a week at one venue. They just enjoyed themselves so much. To me, that was a great inspiration. Them, and many other bands we got to play with, taught us that it can be a really joyful experience, and it should be. Before that, for me, it seemed fraught and frightening. So we've come a long way in that respect.

Yeah, I don't think a live album could have been made from the first tour.
(laughs) Yeah, it would have been a pretty awful album.

Even just the fact that there are so many different players and musicians involved now...
Yeah, that's true. It feels like we can just bring people in if we want to. That would have been quite difficult in our early days. And the songs themselves have opened up a little bit and allow more collaboration with other folks. So that's been great for us.

I hate to be the guy who says this, but I would have loved to have heard more from the first album on the live disc. Are you just tired of those songs?
I don't know, we pull them out every once in a while and see what they can do, but their structures and their sentiment to me, some of it I just simply don't like. Some of it I like but feel like it doesn't really relate to who we are anymore. I think that's a natural thing ― songs fall away. They become an artefact instead of something that actually exists every night when you play them live. And I don't know why that happens, but it does seem to. There's a lot on that first record, but there's songs off of every record that that's happened to. It's probably healthy for a band to let things drop after a while.

And, like you say, you were a different person when those songs were written.
This is true. I really feel like the first album, like its title [Fallow] was kind of a clearing house for me. It was kind of letting the soil replenish itself and getting rid of all this baggage from growing up, I guess. It served its purpose, but sometimes you have to just write it and then put it away.

Going back to the live album, I love the extra instrumentation, the violin, the trumpet, the female vocals...
I think it adds a lot. To me, there are a lot of songs where I'm happier with this version of them than I am with the studio versions, just because a lot of times you make a recording and you haven't really let the songs grow up in front of an audience yet. They become something else. So it's nice to have these versions that I'm happy with. Songs can change in a lot of surprising ways.

There's no in-between song banter on there. Did you just not want to keep that on there?
Uh, no, we kept it pretty much as it was. My brilliant banter consists pretty much of, "Hi, how are you?" and, "Good night." I keep thinking I'll ask someone to script some Bob Hope-style jokes and banter for me, but I haven't gotten around to hiring anyone to do that yet (laughs). No, it's become something I've just had to live with, that I'm not especially verbal when I'm up there. You know, it's a little nerve-racking. I'm really excited to be playing the songs but I'm less excited to be talking. Somehow it's come to the point where I feel like if I say too much it ruins what the songs are going to say.

Was there any post-recording cleaning anything up?
Yeah, there were a few things, for sure. There are certainly still some wrong notes on there, and we didn't clean it up too much, but there is just some reality of recording live things that we had to fix up in the studio, and that seems pretty common. When we were doing it, I was like, "Really? You have to do this?" Then our engineer was like, "Well, if you listen to the microphone, it's got all this bleed from the other instruments in it." But we did as little as we could. We kept it as untouched as we possibly could.

Moving forward, is there any new material being written?
We've been talking together about what we're going to do next. We've been talking about the new record. We haven't written anything for it, but we started throwing ideas around and I think we're just going to take some time now and not tour for the next probably 18 months or so and just work on writing stuff. We're all going to be working on our own things a little bit, then working on writing a new record. It'll be a while, though. The stretches seem to get longer and longer between records. Hopefully this [live album] will tide people over for a little bit, though I don't really expect it to. So I figure probably another two years, then another Weakerthans record. I'm looking forward to getting to work on that.

And on a totally separate note, congrats on the solo EP.
Oh, thanks very much. I'm doing three of those this year. I'm excited about those. I'm just finishing the next one, which will come out in July, I hope. Then another one, probably in December, then that little project will be over and I'll get back to work on other stuff.

Then the other thing coming out is the unreleased Propagandhi stuff from the sessions for the first album. How does it feel to see that stuff released now?
I don't know what that's going to be like. I recall that song ["Leg-Hold Trap," which Samson sings]... the lyrics are pretty awful, I wrote it when I was 17. So it's always a little terrifying to hear that (laughs). But I think it's always good, juvenilia is something you can't be ashamed of. I don't think I wrote a decent song until I was 22 or 23, so it's with trepidation that I await that to come out. But it sounds like it's for a very noble and good cause. I saw that that cover of the song "Gamble" by Lowest of the Low will be on there; that was a really important song for me. I remember playing that song and thinking that this was the kind of song that I want to learn how to write.

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