Sitting with knees to his chest, fidgeting with keys, and chewing gum in the driver seat of their 12-passenger rental van, John K. Samson chats with us about the recent Epitaph signing, Shackleton, his acting skills, and sonnets.
In short, the Weakerthans can change the mood of any given moment with one note of their pleasurable subsistence. They are a band like none other, really. Unleashing three near-perfect albums since their inception in 1997, they have become one of those rare treats in independent music - a cut above the rest, you could say.
The Weakerthans have done what they can to expand upon their characteristically refined power pop throughout their potent career. They never take a note or a word lightly - everything comes together like it's meant to be there, and like it should be no other way, or even could be any other way. And this carries on into their live show, a show which continues to parallel what they lay down in the studio, giving them that persistence and aptitude for prominence.
Modest they are. Canadians they are. The Weakerthans are here to stay.
30: To start things off, let's talk a little about the Epitaph signing. What would you say, besides the obvious, that Epitaph offers you that Sub City and G7 Welcoming Committee could not? And what role does Epitaph play in the Weakerthans?
John K. Samson: I don't know that they can offer much more than G7 and Sub City; G7 and Sub City do great jobs. I guess a couple of things: distribution is a little better - a little easier for them - and they just have more person-power. But I don't see a huge difference between being on Epitaph and being on G7 or Sub City. Our contracts were up with those labels, and we had five labels for [Fallow and Left and Leaving] all around the world. We just though it'd be easier - especially in North America - to have one label. So... the history of the label really interests me, and I think it's a great label, and I always have.
30: Could you explain how people initially reacted when they heard the Weakerthans signed to Epitaph?
Samson: Some people were surprised, but I think most people get it. They understand that this is kinda what we do, and it makes sense for us to do it with Epitaph. I don't know what people thought, actually. I have no idea.
30: You haven't gotten any what-the-hell-are-you-doing-this-for responses?
Samson: Yeah, I think there's been some of that. I don't understand it, so... again, certainly not people I care about. People that I care about are happy about it.
30: It seems like you guys are on a schedule of one record for every three years. Do you plan to record more often now that you are on a larger label?
Samson: I don't think so, no. It's part of the joy of Epitaph, is that they seem, like our other labels, to be pretty OK with the idea that we'll just be... (pause) the records will come out when we're good and ready.
30: A little bit about Reconstruction Site. It seems to be a bit more polished, more upbeat, maybe even a bit more positive than your past work. What were you going for on this album?
Samson: Well, I guess musically we were trying to be a little bit more concise. I think that was what we had in mind - more kind of compact, tightly knit songs, and lyrically, I think we were going for kind of a fictional quality. You know, ideas of redemption, ideas of utility, of using the materials at hand to try and make a life that makes sense. I guess, in a way, it is a little bit more upbeat in that way.
30: How did working on this album differ from working on Left and Leaving and Fallow?
Samson: Well, every record's different; you never really know what the hell's going to happen. So, it was different. But, it was also the same because it is always really difficult to try and get the record you hear in your head into something that actually exists.
30: Did you guys take anymore time on this one?
Samson: A little bit more time, yeah, I think we did. We spent more in pre-production than we ever have before, so that was kind of interesting.
30: What is recording with Ian Blurton like?
Samson: Well, in some ways he's really quite hands-off. He really respects the musician's vision, but he also has incredible ideas that, I think, we would have never come up with. He's perfect for us; we work with him really well.
30: How did Adam Kasper mixing the album come about?
Samson: We were just thinking of a list of people that we wanted to think about as mixer, and he was number one. We called him up and he offered to do it for a rate that was considerably lower than his regular rate, he's really famous and great at what he does. We jumped at the chance, and Ian flew down, took the tapes for the mix. We weren't actually there for the mix, which was scary, but also kind of fun.
30: Well, it turned out really well.
Samson: Yeah, I think so. I like everything the way it sounds.
30: Was it your initial intention to have "(Manifest)" "(Hospital Vespers)" and "(Past-Due)" act as the prelude, interlude, and postlude?
Samson: Yeah. I just thought about, again, using the materials at hand, using structures that you understand... I don't know how to describe it, really, except in that way. Those three songs are actually sonnets, and they're all the same music - very simple, kind of hymn-like melody. So, I just had this idea of kind of driving home the point of using simple things by kind of sign-posting the record with three sonnets that were thematically elaborated on what the record is about. That was just kind of thinking. Some days, I think it's corny, and other days, it's like, whatever. It's not Dark Side of the Moon or anything, so it's not a concept record. (Laughter) It is a little conceptual in a way.
30: Again, on this record you use quite a bit of literary resources. How does this tie in to the songwriting?
Samson: Sometimes I just kind of go looking for inspiration somewhere. But, yeah, especially on this record specific books I thought about for a long time and then wrote about. But it's different every time; there's no formula.
30: What's the deal with Shackleton?
Samson: (Laughter) I just really think he's an interesting figure; he was an Antarctic explorer at the turn of the last century. He's just really this interesting guy who explored Antarctica; so, I don't know, I think about him a lot. The idea was that "the retired explorer" would have been a member of one his expeditions in my mind when I think about that song. He was one of the grunts.
30: And the whole "Dines with Michel Foucault"....
Samson: Yeah, it's kind of this idea of Modernism, and Foucault's very much a Post Modernist kind of philosopher, he's dead now... So, I thought of a clash between these two worlds would be really interesting; an interesting way to think about philosophy, life, and the way people try and understand each other, and sometimes they can't, but it doesn't really matter.
30: You guys typically play smaller venues. Does the new, I guess, popularity effect this? Are you going to have to play bigger venues now?
Samson: I haven't really noticed. [The Triple Rock (which holds roughly 300 people)] is the perfect size for us. Anything bigger gets a bit impersonal. I kinda hope it just stays this way. I know the people that run this place, they're great, and it's a beautiful room. It seems meant for the kind of music we're playing.
30: A little bit about your music videos. I've thoroughly enjoyed the three that I've seen. What goes into making each video, like idea wise?
Samson: Not much to do with us really. We have two friends, Simon and Kalem, who do the videos, and they are pretty much just an exercise for them. I'm not really that interested in it.
30: Really. You just kind of act?
Samson: Yeah, yeah.
30: I know the latest one ("Our Retired Explorer Dines With Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961") was pretty hilarious.
Samson: Yeah, yeah, my acting skills.... I'm gonna quit the band to take up acting.
30: Where did you film it?
Samson: It was on Lake Winnipeg, which is just north of Winnipeg. It was in March, so there was still ice on the lake.
30: Nice. Could you explain the difficulties of having two members (John P. Sutton, and Jason Tait) in Toronto and two members (John K. Samson and Stephen Carroll) in Winnipeg?
Samson: Well, the difficulties are pretty obvious as it's hard to get together, but the benefits are kinda cool too. When we do actually get together we are aware of how important our time is together. It's worked out OK so far.
30: Would you attribute this to the three-year release schedule?
Samson: I don't think it's made much difference. Those guys moved about 18 months ago, but it's hard to say. I don't really know.
30: Any plans to work with Clive Holden again?
Samson: Maybe. It's possible. I know he's working on something right now.
30: Are you still affiliated with Art City?
Samson: Oh yeah. I mean, we still give them money. I've never actually volunteered there. I think it's a really cool place.
30: What exactly goes on there?
Samson: It's just like a community center, but instead of sports, it focuses on art. That's kind of the short story of it. It's in really poor neighborhood in Winnipeg, and, yeah, it's a cool place.
30: What were you listening to at age 17?
Samson: Um... I think I was listening to Fugazi, and the Clash.... Stuff like that. I think the first Fugazi record came out around there.