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Unfortunately, the do-what-you-want attitude that Samson has come to personify isn't all that common, even in the world of underground music. Though the scene celebrates independence and creativity, all too often, independent bands pull the same maneuver as mainstream artists by aiming their music at pre-existing, easily quantifiable audiences. For all the hoo-ha made about punk's autonomy from the consumerist ethic, countless bands have sprung up to exploit the easy availability of an enduring punk audience. It's hypocrisy that Samson knows all too well.
"The music industry, on the smallest level, is quite a microcosm of its largest level, in that a lot of music is contrived and consciously marketed to some group of people who [the industry] thinks exists but doesn't actually exist. It's just not there," he says.
Even if the made-for-a-market mentality has seeped into the lowest depths of the underground, there are still bands like the Weakerthans who break away from the prefabricated pack. What they sometimes discover, however, is that finding audiences to listen to more creative music is often as difficult as developing a unique sound. Today the Weakerthans boast an audience that includes more open-minded punks, college-radio fanatics and the art-rock crowd.
"I feel really privileged that people will listen when we just play some weird, slow, dirge-like, depressing lullaby," Samson says. "People won't throw bottles at us generally, knock on wood. I'm really happy with our audience's patience.
"What I like about the band these days is we play for a really broad spectrum of people," he adds. "I just really don't want to ghettoize our music to one group of people. I'm telling stories about a whole bunch of people, to people who I relate to -- people who have never heard a Dead Kennedys record, and people like me, who know half of them by heart."
Though Samson left his days conforming to the role of a pissed-off rabble-rouser in his past, he still maintains the strong sense of idealism that's synonymous with the political punk community. The Weakerthans take a more subtle approach to expressing the liberalism implied by Left and Leaving's title. Rather than stand on a soapbox and scream his lungs out about specific topics, Samson prefers to focus on human issues and the difficulty of staying true to idealism in a real-world setting. In the song "Pamphleteer," for example, he explores the conflict between working for one's cause and the realities of love: "I am your pamphleteer/ I walk this room in time to the Gestetner, contemplate my next communiqué/ The rhetoric and treason of saying that I'll miss you." In the tradition of Billy Bragg and the Clash, Samson doesn't aspire to level sweeping institutions such as government or the Church; instead he illuminates the struggles of the little guy and uses storytelling as a vehicle for his activism. Whether he's documenting the miserable existence of dead-end white-trash living ("History to the Defeated") or blithely taking on the alienating nature of life in the modern-day workforce ("Exiles Among You"), Samson works to slowly widen a listener's perceptions of the world.
"The only thing I know how to write about is the people I care about and the stories I don't think get to be told," he says. "I want to try to tell them. That's what we try to do. Sure, there's a political aspect in that that gets lost in there. That's the way I access them -- and again, that's just the way I know how to do it. There's lots of ways to access issues in writing, and this is the way that I try and do it.
"I think there's a role for both kinds of political music, and I can't worry too much about what people are getting or not getting," he adds. "The politics are there, and they'll seep in if they're given the right chance and the right atmosphere and the right conditions to grow. They're planted there. They're little bombs."
In some ways, the Weakerthans are unconventional by default: The band shakes off expectations so thoroughly as to make itself sound novel, even though its music is not really experimental. This quality has caught the eye of a couple of larger-name management companies, though the band is still content to turn down all offers for the time being. The Weakerthans plan to avoid getting pulled into the corporate music machine (the band is on three different indies, one each serving Canada, the United States and Europe), even if it means the foursome will have to keep up with the behind-the-scenes work of planning tours, folding shirts and arguing with promoters.
"Every day, you wonder what kind of compromises you'll have to make," Samson says. "It can be really disheartening. Ninety-eight percent of being in a rock band is incredibly embarrassing and stupid, and you live for that two percent."
That small dividend is enough to keep him and his band coming back, however.
"It's just glorious, and you can't believe how lucky you are for doing this for a living and a way of life."