The Calm After the Storm

The Weakerthans leave the noise, but not the idealism, of punk rock in their past.

There are some days you remember for the rest of your life. For Weakerthans singer/guitarist John K. Samson, a 1996 visit to Denver was one of those days. He can still remember the smell of Mace and tear gas in the air on that seasonably warm night, the howl of sirens as cops in combat gear pulled up to a full-fledged riot at the show he and his previous band, Propagandhi, were playing at a local VFW hall.

When Samson comes to the Mile High City this time, things shouldn't be quite as chaotic: Since leaving Propagandhi in 1996, he's focused his creative energies in less explosive ways. The Weakerthans' low-key acoustic pop is light years from Propagandhi's anarchist punk approach -- which still occasionally incites riots in the cities where that band plays. The possibility of social unrest at a Weakerthans show, however, seems slim at best, which suits Samson just fine. He prefers that fans focus attention on his band rather than on running from police helicopters.

Anyone who picks up the Weakerthans' latest, Left and Leaving (Sub City) would be hard-pressed to find even the most superficial links between Samson's latest crew (filled out by guitarist Stephen Carroll, bassist John P. Sutton and drummer Jason Tait, all of whom cut their teeth in a variety of punk acts in Samson's hometown of Winnipeg, Canada) and his former, more insubordinate band. In Propagandhi, Samson and his mates shouted political slogans over the caustic din of jackhammer beats and hyper-amplified guitars, striking out against American nationalism, governmental use of covert operations and the incestuous relationship between corporations and the state. It was an aggravated, confrontational, semi-radical mishmash -- one that made Propagandhi a poster band for the political punk movement.

The Weakerthans are ideologically left of center, but their music cuts straight down the middle.
The Weakerthans are ideologically left of center, but their music cuts straight down the middle.

The Weakerthans live on the furthest possible end of the spectrum from all of that noise. With a sound that draws on the melodic, upbeat electric arrangements of power pop just as easily as it incorporates the spacious, acoustic feel of folk, the band navigates the space between Woody Guthrie tunes and the slick, post-hardcore pop of bands like Jimmy Eat World. It's enough to confuse anyone with an eye for continuity, especially those who expect a repeat of Samson's Propagandhi raging. How does a songwriter make such a drastic change in his style anyway? It's something Samson himself has trouble pinning down.

"There's certainly nothing conscious about not playing raging hardcore," he says. "Those aren't the songs that come out. Maybe some day we'll do a raging hardcore record. I highly doubt it, but anything could happen in the practice room.

"People seem to understand that I can't be what perhaps some people want me to be," he adds. "I'm not going to try. This is what I do -- take it or leave it. Most people have been really respectful of that idea. We're trying to be honest and make honest music. Expectations shouldn't exist, because I can't live up to them."

For the most part, the Weakerthans have succeeded in breaking from whatever expectations the music world has held for him. With only two full-length albums released -- 1999's Fallow and Left and Leaving, released last year -- the band has already started to draw accolades not only in its Canadian homeland, but also in the States and in Europe. The Weakerthans' songs range from somber ballads (made all the more intimate by the occasional, gentle touch of brush-and-snare drums and steel guitars) to snappy, post-hardcore rockers with a more immediate rush. The stylistic diversity has earned the band a following that's based not on its genre affiliations, but on the strength of Samson's songwriting.

Though the Weakerthans don't aspire to rival Propagandhi's status as a punk-rock institution (that band has continued to record and tour since Samson's departure), Samson sometimes still finds his current work overshadowed by his days of serving up revolutionary gristle. Though it's been half a decade since he and the rest of Propagandhi parted ways, American promoters still have a habit of referencing the connection on the bill whenever the Weakerthans roll into town.

"I don't enjoy that," he sighs. "I left Propagandhi five years ago, almost six, so it's a whole lifetime ago. We all come from the punk-rock community and have our roots firmly planted there. It has its drawbacks and its pluses, and I'm certainly not ashamed of it. I think sometimes it's a little misleading."

Samson's disinterest in dwelling on the past -- or conforming to the conventions of the music he once made -- has provided the Weakerthans with the freedom to explore any form of music they want. Left and Leaving is a pleasing, eclectic representation of that freedom, an example of what can happen when talented songwriters free their minds and explore their own instincts without feeling the need to be overly "cool" or "current." The result, often, is that they wind up creating something like Left and Leaving, which is both. The disc's tracks move from the rousing, mid-tempo pop of "Watermark" to the stark, haunting and deliberate "Without Mythologies" to the sleepy, plodding folk of "History to the Defeated." It's a finely crafted recording, one that makes you wonder what might have happened if Samson had stopped screaming and started strumming a long time ago.

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