John K. Samson has made a career out of writing excruciatingly detailed accounts of life's tiniest moments. While the band's last full-length, 2003's Reconstruction Site, showcased Samson's most polished, straight-forward pop abilities, Reunion Tour finds the band taking a step that can't so much be described as back but a quick shuffle to the left. Opening with "Civil Twilight," it appears at first that the band have taken something of a safe route, relying on their tried-and-true ability to craft compelling mini-anthems, all powerful hooks and lyrical introspection delivered by Samson's fragile voice. "Hymn For The Medical Oddity" follows and almost immediately establishes itself as sonically distinct from the rest of the band's catalogue, an unexpected mix of chords and a strangely removed lyrical narrative. "Night Windows" offers a similarly unique style, with a walking bass line leading the song to its gentle conclusion. The record's greatest strength, however, is its intense character studies, embodying the same kind of vital understanding as Springsteen's Nebraska. Reunion Tour still contains the memorable, folk-tinged power pop the band are known for but is filled with enough surprises to demand more serious listening.
This record seems to be a lot less immediately accessible than the work you've done in past. Were you aware of that during its creation?
Vocalist and guitarist John K. Samson: Yeah, I was aware of that. I had the same experience with it, actually. The songs are always pretty slow to develop for us but these ones gestated for an especially long period of time. It took me a while to figure out what they were about and who they were, longer than it usually does. I had a really good time doing that; it was like listening to a record that takes a while to get. Writing it, it took a while for me to understand it. I guess I was cognizant of that. I also think that sound-wise, it sounds the closest to how we sound as a band in real life. It's perhaps a bit less shiny than the last couple. I think of it as a realistic record, both in terms of the lyrics and the sound the band make.
Did you approach the record with the intention of writing from a different place?
Yeah, I set myself a few tasks with this record. One was to try and write from the first-person perspective of people who I didn't know and had less in common with than with characters on our previous records. That made the writing more deliberate and slower.
Is there a particular character in a particular song that you feel is demonstrative of that choice?
Sure. I think the first song ["Civil Twilight"], which is about a Winnipeg bus driver, well, maybe that's not a huge stretch. But I wrote most of the lyrics during the past three winters in Winnipeg when we had time off from touring. I would take the bus every day to the library downtown and study the bus drivers on the way there. And the library is the place where a lot of them hang out and have their lunch, because it's kind of a hub for the bus routes. Thinking about those people was interesting, trying to think about what the rhythms of their lives would be like. There are the obvious ones, like the guy who saw Bigfoot. I don't think I have much in common with him but I fell in love with that story right away. I'm just trying to go through the songs in my head now.
You mention the bus drivers; I was excited by the fact that one of the first lyrics on the record is "Confusion Corner". I was in Winnipeg for the first time ever this summer and we were staying right near Confusion Corner, which I was thoroughly entertained by. I thought the name was something we invented and then I realized we weren't special at all.
That's pretty deep Winnipeg. You can only really get that if you've spent some time here.
Yeah, I felt special for understanding the reference as a Torontonian.
A little nod to the 'Peg.
Obviously this is a somewhat well worn topic for you, as a lot of your songs are imbued with imagery from Winnipeg.
That one probably most of all.
Yeah, that's what I wanted to ask. Does that have to do with the characters you were writing about, or consciously including the city as a character to a greater extent?
Winnipeg is a character again. Winnipeg was what gave me a shot at writing about these characters. The one thing I did know about them was that they were walking around Winnipeg, and Winnipeg is the setting that I understood.
In terms of imagery, it seems like there's a lot of sporting images that pop up.
I think I realized that the entire record is from the perspective of men, which I thought was interesting. As I thought about men more and more, I thought about sports and how sport is used as a metaphor and a means of communication for some people, especially men. I'm also really interested in sport as a metaphor and I'm really interested in specialized languages and vernaculars. I think I've always used them, like the language of Marxism or religion. Things like that have cropped up before and I find them really useful. Sport has incredible vernaculars. Each sport has its own and it's a way that people communicate with each other. I find them really useful. I think sport is useful in that sense. It's talking about something bigger than just who wins and loses; it's a really interesting human impulse. Also, I just like it. I like curling. I like golf. What other sports are on the record? Hockey. There's no baseball on the record, but I love it.
Do you think that there's something interesting about intellectualizing a vernacular that's not typically associated with higher intellectual exploration?
I guess so, yeah. These words are there and they're really specific. Like the term "half weightÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ in curling is great as a metaphor for someone who can't land where they want to land. And I can't think of a better way of putting it. When I was thinking about this character who can't seem to stick with anything, and can't seem to recognize the great things in his life and be able to hold to on to them, it seemed like such a perfect metaphor to me. That language can be really useful. And it's already in our everyday language. You strike out. You score. You hit a home run.
We talked about this a little bit before but in terms of the sound of the record, I'm curious how you approached this record differently than your past records?
Ian [Blurton, producer] was really influential in that. He had a lot of great ideas and was responsible for a lot of the sounds on the record, and a lot of the structure as well. We recorded it in a factory that was in use; this factory builds cases during the day. Once the workers left, we would roll in around five and set up on the factory floor. So we recorded drums on this giant factory floor and I can't think of anywhere else that you could get that kind of sound. I think those sounds matched the tones of the songs.
Were you hauling recording gear into this factory?
No, our soundman, Cam, set it up as a studio. There's a room upstairs; it's more developed than it sounds. It's a real studio; it's set up with great equipment. And great people working there, too. Our soundman Cam, who's been with us for ten years now, was the primary engineer. Cam and Dave McKinnon from the Fembots when we were in Toronto. Both people that we knew intimately and who knew our music really well. That was cool, too. We've always been lucky in having great engineers but we were really lucky to have people who knew what we were doing so well. And Ian, too, who seems to know intuitively what we're all about.
You guys have been out a little bit prior to release of the record, playing some of the new songs, and I was wondering what your perception was in terms of people's reactions?
It's always exciting and a little weird. Some songs are just finding their feet and others are doing really well. It's always a thrill to introduce these new characters to the show, and I like it. I'm looking forward to playing more of them.
I saw you guys play in Hamilton and they seemed to ease well into the existing material.
I think they do fit and I'm interested to see what happens when we try to work more of them in.
What do you have planned now that the record's almost out?
A giant tour. I leave tomorrow and we're out until Christmas, pretty much. All of North America and a lot of Europe.
Are you looking forward to it?
Well, yeah. Right now I'm a little anxious 'cause I'm just trying to get everything ready here. Once we're out there, I'm really looking forward to it.
With the number of tours you've done, are you still excited about it, or is it getting a little more rote?
It's kind of like that "Reunion Tour" song. I relate to that guy. There's a danger of getting lost and losing track of who you are when you're in this bizarre alternate reality that is rock'n'roll touring. But the parts of it that are wonderful really make it worthwhile, and that's the shows themselves. Seeing other people play music, then playing music ourselves. it's a privilege.
By Sam Sutherland