On November 2, 2004 - election night -- I sat on the floor of the 'band hangout room' of St. Andrew's Hall with the Weakerthans lead singer and guitarist John K. Samson. I didn't recognize him from the photos I'd seen of the band because he'd grown a beard, he would later explain why. Samson spoke in a very casual, humble tone yet has an air about him comparable to that of a modern-day philosopher, complacent with his current station in life.
Learn about the band's recent loss of bassist John Sutton and the addition of Greg Smith on bass along with Brian Poirier (guitar) and Dave Mac-Kinnon (keyboard). Samson also spoke about the election, his ideas on the music industry, and my new genre -- 'Punk-Rock Light.'
Rob Todd: How do you feel about/what was your reaction to winning the Western Canadian Music Awards [for Best Independent Album, Best Song Writer, and Best Album Design] about a month ago?
John K. Samson: It's kinda nice 'cause it's a regional award and I kinda think of myself as a regional writer. I write about one place and I'm interested in people who write about the places they're from or the places they are in specific ways. It was nice, yeah, it's kinda pleasing.
RT: What actual area do those awards cover?
JKS: All of western Canada so from [Winnipeg] to Vancouver...and the north as well.
RT: Do you know which bands you were up against?
JKS: Not really. Sarah Mclachlan and people like that I don't know personally. I can't remember who else was on there.
RT: Just to get a very obvious current event out of the way, the election, your comments? You mentioned you were growing your beard in protest.
JKS: I'm protesting the current president whose name I don't like to say anymore 'cause I think it's unlucky. I think I'm doin' my part; I don't get to vote or have an impact on American politics---I'm growing a beard instead. I hope I'll be able to shave it tonight.
RT: Are you very politically active on stage?
JKS: No, not really on stage. On stage I pretty much just play music and don't talk much 'cause I feel shy. I hope that the songs have some sort of political impact but I don't really spell it out for people.
RT: The concert page listed this show as the "good riddance to Bush celebration." Any special plans to celebrate or mourn the evening?
JKS: No, I don't really have any plans but we should definitely have some drinks. I don't have anything exactly planned; I think it would be joyous thing.
RT: What can you tell us about the recent shake-ups involving the old bassist, John Sutton? What's going to happen with the band to avoid a revolving door of musicians?
JKS:John [Sutton] left and we've been playing in a few different formats since then but this is the one that we're happiest with, the six of us. I'm really excited about it, I'm havin' a good time. It's fun kinda to fool around with some new instruments and new people. It's good, we've been enjoying ourselves.
RT: You've said that you like the arrangement with more musicians because you're able to each focus more.
JKS: Yeah, that's true. I think the weird thing that I've found is there seems to be more space to play somehow instead of less. The instruments don't necessarily fill things up they create a bigger stage for the song which is kinda nice. Yeah, we're excited about the way the lineup is working right now.
RT: In a time when a lot of musicians are becoming even more protective of their work, you seem to remain optimistic and somewhat excited about being a musician, in the sense of the word, an artist. What do you think is the biggest difference between you and them?
JKS: don't know. I think I'm kinda optimistic about the way the means of production is being democratized in music, especially people able to record more themselves and put things out themselves. It's all becoming more and more decentralized and I think that's really interesting so I think it's kind of an exciting time to be a musician. There's tons of crap out there but there's tons of great greatness out there that it can't really be defeated by the market. It seems be one of the only things that can't just 'cause it's so important and people love it so much and it's so infectious like music is some sort of weird thing that you can't really control. There's a lot of potential in it. I'm optimistic about it.
RT: You commented about the fact that there's at least some tiny bit in every song that's good.
JKS: Yeah it's true you know. There's melody or there's the way a snare sounds or something. There's always something you can take from things and allow it to inspire you. I think too much of music these days---or maybe it's always been this way but it seems especially so these days---is treating music like it's a sports team or something. People identify themselves with a certain genre or a certain band, more often they're defined by what they don't like than what they like and that, to me, is just a sad way to live your life. It's just like, what's the point, that's so boring. Music's great, it's music, it's awesome. That's my beef with music criticism.
RT: Do you think it's bad when super-fans get protective of 'their' band whether it's you or anybody else?
JKS: I don't pay much attention to it. It's weird, the idea of fandom is weird. That's one of the problems with the music industry, there's that send and receive mentality instead of both parties receiving.
RT: I don't mean to be ignorant but where did the name come from?
JKS: Well there's a few places. First was a Margueite Duras novel called The Lover, actually I guess it was the movie made out of the novel. This guy is challenged to a fight in a bar and he says, "Go ahead, I'm weaker than you can possibly imagine." I remember seeing that movie and thinking, 'ah, that's a good band name.' Band names are just band names. But also it's a line in "Solidarity Forever" the old union hymn, it goes, "What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one." I just thought it was kind of a nice phrase
RT: What's your take on the people who basically call the Weakerthans, 'punk rock light?'
JKS: (Laughter) Yeah I guess, it's probably true. We're a punk rock band and sure we love love the easy listening as well as punk rock. Yeah, 'punk rock light,' that works for me.
RT: I also read you don't like genre names.
JKS: Yeah but that would work for me. But pop is also true too. I mean, popular music, it's what I'm interested in.
By Rob Todd