A few question into the interview, I could tell the last thing John Samson wanted to talk about was his music. Touring for the better part of a year and half in support of their Epitaph debut, Reconstruction Site, The Weakerthans's singer was already looking ahead a few weeks the when he could spend the holidays with his family in Winnipeg, Canada.
That is, until he and his band mates hit the stage. I've always been told The Weakerthans were stellar live, but always remained a tad skeptical. Partly because of Samson's openly vulnerable lyrics and vocals, the Weakerthans always came off as pretty mellow to me. But it's that deceptive mellow you find in Radiohead's early albums. Under Thom Yorke's gorgeous vocals lurked an utter chaos of guitar weavings and drum blasts. And under Samson's lay a deceptive foundation of punk and country rock.
But I didn't yet know that Sampson would light up like a child at Christmas with each note he sang, each sip of his bourbon and each strum of his guitar. While we talked the crown had barely even begun arriving and a more reserved version of Samson could not yet picture San Diego's The Casbah packed to the brim with hundreds of Weakerthans fans singing every word with him. He even acknowledged: "You know, we've never had a huge following in San Diego."
So, sensing Samson's tedium with musical discussions, I asked him about something completely separate from his songs: American Literature. (Unless you count the fact that he's one of the penultimate poets in contemporary music. But whatever.) I had read that he was a huge Don DeLillo fan so I asked him what he thought about the contemporary impact of white noise -- DeLillo's tale of an American family drowning in consumerism and advertising.
"White Noise is one of my favorite books ever," Sampson said. "That booke especially feels more prescient than ever. It's one of those books that gets more and more provocative and meaningful as the years go by. He really kind of touched on something. I reread that book probably once a year. Being in America is interesting for someone like me. I'm from a really small city in Canada so it's interesting for me to kind of connect the reality of what I read in American fiction, probably my favorite kind of fiction, and connect it the actual places."
Touring California led Samson to recall Vineland, the raucous 1990 novel by Thomas Punchon, perhaps most known for not being awarded the Pulitzer for 1975's Gravity's Rainbow, his anti-Vietnam novel set during WWII because of "obscenity." Vineland tells a whacked out tale of post-hippie Northern California, the plot of which some argue is a loose rendering of the Star Wars trilogy. Pynchon often rallies for the need og true communication to break generation after generation from becoming comfortably lobotomized drones. Like DeLillo, he heavily argues against consumerism -- something Californians know all too well.
"I've been thinking about him lately," Samson revealed. "Especially because we've been in small town California the past few days -- in Santa Cruz and Ventura I was thinking of Pynchon a lot. It was weird because last night, in Ventura, I guess they were shooting a zombie movie in town and all these extras from the zombie movie showed up and I was sitting there playing. It was in this tiny little theatre about the size of this room here (the back portion of The Casbah) which is a very small room. I'm standing there going, 'There are zombies in the audience.' I'm like 'This is something out of a Pynchon novel.' One of them came up after the show and explained it all and I was relieved. I thought maybe it was just me who was seeing these things."
By probing American literature to find insight into the culture he most often tours, Samson avoids another of Pynchon's peeves. An ardent opponent of empty communication, Pynchon critiques tourism throughout each of his books. From V. to The Crying of Lot 49. He views visiting "exotic" places and taking pictures of land and architecture as exercises in consumerism, not legitimate attempts to learn and feel another culture. In studying American literature and its people from the outside, Samson gains interesting perspective both as a visitor and as a participant. The includes critiquing our current position in world affairs.
"Obviously it's really frightening," Samson said. "I've always said that but it does seem especially frightening now. We were in the States on Election Day and even in the couple weeks after that were touring in the Midwest and it seemed the nation I understand to be the United States -- a progressive, wonderful, active, thoughtful, open people were in mourning and were defeated. I think that's true, to a certain extent. I think that there's a lot of talk of trying to 'heal the wounds' and not be divisive, but I think the opposite needs to be true. This is the time to be divisive and in the next few years it's our jobs as progressives to stand up for what we believe in."
That's the Propaghandi in Samson coming out. He spend a few years as the bass player for the uber-political vegan punks and maintains the integrity they espoused. You can see it in his face. He's open, he's honest, and while he might have been tired while I was speaking to him, he's not tired of fighting. Despite his initial dismay at liberal America's response to the election, playing shows surrounded by like-minded youths reinvigorates Samson.
"To a certain extent, I think the one good thing that I take from the politics in the world right now is that people seem more politically active and aware of the politics in their everyday lives," he said. "Everything's at the surface right now, so hopefully that can lead to good.
Invoking Pynchon he adds: "Community's really important. Keeping that spirit of communication and resistance going is really important. I guess by nature I'm an optimist. I like humans and I like music, so I kinda have to be optimistic about it or there's no point being here really. I might as well just be in my room."
Look for the Weakerthans to head into the studio early next year to work on the follow-up to Reconstruction Site. They've yet to write much new material, so The Casbah show consisted of many crowd favorites such as "One Great City!" "Left and Leaving" and "My Favourite Chords."
"We don't really have any goals in mind except to make another record," Samson Said. "We've been playing lately as a six piece band, and we're really enjoying that. We're excited about doing more writing in that setting and seeing what happens. Touring's important to us. We like to get out ther and meet people and play for people. It's important for our sanity and reminds us why we do it."
By Jeremiah Griffey