The Calm After the Storm
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 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.
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."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.