[ there's no place like home ]
by Eric J. Iannelli

"I'm not a missionary anymore," announces John K. Samson. "It alienated me from so many people." Although this might sound like an attitude of resignation, it isn't. This Samson may be slender in build, but he is strong in ideas. The Weakerthans' frontman has not given up fighting for his principles and beliefs; he's simply changed the way he goes about it.

To effect the change, Samson has replaced revolutionary vitriol with the assimilation of some mainstream musical approaches.

"With The Weakerthans," he says, "part of the point is to flirt with the mainstream culture. I don't want to be ghettoized, but I also want to work within the context of the mainstream. What I came out of was lifestyle politics. That kind of politics doesn't appeal to me anymore, because it can be more of a hindrance than a help."

This new approach, in other words, offers a better chance at subversion. It thereby puts a new spin on an old adage: If you want to beat 'em, join 'em.

[ the weakerthans ]

Alienation was a necessary step in Samson's own self-definition as well as that of his band, a post-punk outfit from Winnipeg with ties to bands like the ultra-leftist Propagandhi (in which he played bass) and the rest of the Canadian punk scene. Life on the periphery -- more of a mindset than an actual condition -- was key in their emotional and perspective development.

"I define culture in a Marxist way, as part of the superstructure, including magazines, religion, television, writing, pop and high art, down to people passing one another on the street. Most culture is aimed at people between 20 and 40, and one thing it does -- not to sound conspiratorial -- it shows us a life we can't have. It doesn't reflect our own lives, and it doesn't account for things that can slip through the cracks.

"Coming out of the punk community made me think I'm part of the counterculture." But he notes the paradox, too: "The mainstream even endorses the counterculture because it needs it to exist, just like capitalism needs poverty to exist."

Now he practices some degree of popular tolerance, instead of the outright nihilism that fuels Propagandhi and others of that ilk. Yet his original allegiances remain unchanged. The underground has been good to Samson and The Weakerthans (band members include lead guitarist Stephen Carroll, bassist John Sutton, drummer Jason Tait); and they support it in turn.

Shortly after winning a 2001 Prairie Music Award for best independent album for Left and Leaving, The Weakerthans appeared on the Trains of Winnipeg CD. Trains of Winnipeg was a collaborative effort among accomplished artists and musicians, engendered by poet Clive Holden. An evolving website supplemented by audio-visual recordings is designed to promote lesser-known Canadian artists.

And Samson's ventures extend beyond music. With the help of three others, he runs and owns a small publishing house called Arbeiter Ring Publishing. So far they have printed 12 books. "Most of it's political," he explains, "but there is also economics, cultural studies and film criticism." Now that he's no longer partial to outright proselytizing, Samson and his band have a new mission.

[ left and leaving ]
[ give a listen! ] "Aside" MP3

"We want to make a good record," he says. "We haven't made a record that we're entirely happy with. And we probably never will. It's stupid, but you want to make something that lasts. It's not a possible thing, really."

The Weakerthans are therefore walking a musical tightrope. On the one side, there is the sweet ephemerality of the mainstream. On the other side are the loud, often obnoxious but morally sound convictions of punk. Where does the demarcation between commercial begin and revolutionary begin? And would it mean performing the most heinous, traitorous act of all -- that is, going to a major label?

"If I saw it that way, I'd do it. I think a major label would force us to make a record we don't want," says Samson. "For me, the moral and political issues come into play. I know I can't work under that pressure. Maybe I'm just a wimp, but I can't deal with someone investing time, money and energy and expecting something that I don't have in me."

Experimental art projects, publishing and commercial appeal notwithstanding, The Weakerthans are at work on a second LP. "It's about...reconstruction," says John. Reconstruction in terms of September 11? "No," he says, "that's why I hesitated. This one will finish a trilogy of some kind."

The first in The Weakerthans' so-called trilogy was Fallow (1999), which focused on the makings of identity and the issues that beset it. Next came Left and Leaving (2000), a tour de force about place, isolation and the impotence of the individual. The new album will tie these themes together and offer some sort of conclusion, if only temporary.

[ the weakerthans - photo by eric j. iannelli ]
photo by eric j. iannelli

"We're steering away from the epic, towards something manageable," Samson explains. "I guess I'm talking lyrically. This record will be less structured. Anything I say about it sounds trite, but I think it'll be more hopeful -- something fun but also difficult. We took three years to make Left and Leaving, and it'll probably take another three years to make this new one."

Thus The Weakerthans continue to walk a musical tightrope. The precarious existence between mainstream and punk is also a volatile one. It could lose fans in both scenes if The Weakerthans were seen to lean more to one side of the fence than the other.

"People can still get valuable things out of punk," says Samson. "I'll never dis punk rock because it was such a comfort for me. I felt really isolated during [events such as] the Gulf War. I wondered if everyone had gone insane. In these times, I think it's going to be especially important for a strong punk scene to exist, for people to find some outlet of the frustration and confusion.

"Interesting things arise out of those contradictions," he concludes. "To quote Bertolt Brecht, 'In the contradiction lies the hope.'"

On the web:
The Weakerthans

[ fallow ]
[ give a listen! ] "None of the
Above" MP3
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