by Jared Blohm, of the Advance Titan
"I don't know."
It seems like underground rock icon John Samson, the lead singer and guitarist of the up-and-coming Winnipeg band The Weakerthans, responds to more questions with that phrase than he answers. Ever since they started playing in 1997, his band seems to have been avoiding the same questions in favor of leaving them to someone else.
What kind of music do you play? Why do so many different kinds of people like your music? Are you a political band? Why are you on a punk label? Why has there been so much time in between albums? Why is the new album more upbeat?
The mysteriousness of The Weakerthans baffles some and intrigues others.
Their music is what it is: no one seems to be able to categorize it and they like it that way. It is not a conscious effort to be different; it just happens that way, according to Samson.
It's easy to find elements of different genres in The Weakerthans music. There are obvious influences from folk to punk to country to indie, but it's hard to nail The Weakerthans down to just one or even two.
So what does Samson tell people when they ask him what kind of music he plays?
"I don't bother telling them," Samson said. "I just say it's a rock band. You'll drive yourself mad trying to label something you do. It just doesn't make sense. It's not my job."
In interviews from years ago, Samson used to call The Weakerthans style of music "disintegrating punk."
"Yeah, that works for me," Samson said.
But does that mean anything?
"We let a whole bunch of things into the stream of what we're doing," Samson said. "I think that's just how it works. We happened to straddle a whole bunch of different boundaries, I guess, and we're happy being there actually. I like playing to different kinds of people, and that's part of the fun."
The Weakerthans' new album, "Reconstruction Site," has been receiving rave reviews as more and more people discover the band's unique songwriting. The Weakerthans take punk song structures and skillfully inject their favorite aspects of other genres, leaving their songs sounding nearly nothing like punk in the end. After all, how many punk bands use pedal steel guitars?
"This album will knock you on your ass," Maxim Magazine said. "'Reconstruction Site' melds the personal, the political and the philosophical seamlessly."
James Allen of Playboy Magazine writes, "The Weakerthans' blend of pop, rock, folk and alt-country is smart, funny, sad and beautiful all at once; in this sad era of Jewel-authored verse books, they're our bona-fide rock 'n' roll poet laureates."
The transitions from album to album are subtle, yet obvious for The Weakerthans. "Fallow" shows the band's beginnings and their punk roots are obvious on the 12-track 1997 album. "Left and Leaving" followed "Fallow" in 2000. The band took a much less straightforward approach to the music and the result is a more diverse sound.
"Reconstruction Site" features the band's best songwriting and their most distinctive sound. The album overall is much more upbeat than their past two efforts and there are no duds among the 14 songs. "Reconstruction Site" flows elegantly from one song to another and leaves listeners wondering how The Weakerthans have remained under the mainstream music radar for so long.
Highlights of the album include "(Manifest)," the short introduction to the album featuring trumpet, "The Reasons," "Plea From A Cat Named Virtue," a song from the point of view of a cat, "(Hospital Vespers)," a song they recorded and then flipped backwards before adding vocals and "One Great City!" an ode and a slam to the band's hometown of Winnipeg, Canada.
The one constant on all three of The Weakerthans' albums is the lyrics. Samson is a lyrical genius. His lyrics are simple, but intelligent. His stories are complex. Samson has an incredible way with words and his story telling is matched by few.
"I broke like a bad joke somebody's uncle told at a wedding reception in 1972, where a little boy under a table with cake in his hair stared at the grown-up feet as they danced and swayed," Samson sings in the song "Reconstruction Site."
"I want to call requests through heating-vents and hear them answered with a whisper, 'No,'" Samson sings in "(Manifest)."
Most people are surprised to find that Samson's last band was the politically far-left and blunt punk rock band Propagandhi. Samson played bass in the band for their first two albums and quit almost eight years ago.
"I never thought there was a big difference," Samson said. "Musically, sure, I guess there is, but I think the bands are quite similar actually. Lyrically. Structurally. It makes sense to me."
Samson might be the only person who thinks the bands' similarities go much beyond him, but that doesn't stop fans of Propagandhi from spending their money on The Weakerthans' albums and concerts.
In fact, as Propagandhi fans grow tired of driving guitars and in-your-face lyrics, they might find The Weakerthans to be a suitable substitute. Both bands have political lyrics, but they are extremely different.
Propagandhi is much more frank with their lyrics. For example, they sing "if this country is so goddamned free, then I can burn your f*cking flag wherever I damn well please."
To find the political messages in The Weakerthans' songs, one has to read into the lyrics a lot more, but the messages are clear and the lyrics of The Weakerthans are one of their many strong points.
"I'm a political person," said Samson, who owns a printing shop where he prints political zines, books and pamphlets in his free time away from the band. "That's going to come out in the writing somehow. Just being aware of the cold fact that politics is part of life instantly makes all art political."
Samson and The Weakerthans still had close ties to Propagandhi until their new album "Reconstruction Site" came out. They were on Propagandhi's label, G-7 Welcoming Committee. Their contract ran out with the label after the band's last album, "Left and Leaving," and the band decided it was time to try something else.
They signed to the legendary punk record label Epitaph, which features bands like Bad Religion, NOFX, Pennywise and more.
"We didn't really talk to many other people," Samson said. "I've always really liked Epitaph. I've always been interested in the label. It wasn't much of a choice. We just kind of looked around and they were our first pick."
The Weakerthans recorded their album and then looked for a record label, bucking the trend of the music industry.
"That's always been the plan," Samson said. "That's always kind of what we wanted to do. It's just never made sense to be in debt to someone for recording and then having to recoup those expenses. We saved up for a long time, going on tour and saving up."
"That was kind of scary too, but it was fun. It was good to kind of be on our own and to do whatever we wanted to do. We've always been able to do that, but it felt good knowing that the money was ours."