A Good Thing for Us All
Weakerthans lead singer John K. Samson comes from the school of thought that says if you're unhappy with the world, you should try to change it. It's a good thing to know people still go to this school—we were under the impression it had shut down.
"Yeah, well, there's a hopelessness and a futility and an irony, but I mean, what else am I going to do?" Samson asks. "I think every once in awhile the cracks appear, and you can do something interesting and worthwhile—and change something."
Samson used to play bass ("not very well," in his words) in legendary political punk band Propaghandi, so the intersection of politics and music is second nature to him.
"I try not to separate the two," he says. "There's political implication to everything you do, especially in the realm of culture."
But Canada's Weakerthans are something else again, with about as much in common with Propaghandi as Propaghandi had with, um, regular Gandhi. Instead of a hyperspeed hardcore hailstorm, you've got a tender political pop that borrows brainstorms from Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello, and instead of nostril-flaring lefty manifestoes, you've got Samson's cut-above lyrics, so carefully crafted they could easily qualify as poetry.
But it's his voice—gentle, wan, nostalgic, goofy, fragile, like a million years of childhood crammed into one frequency—that really taps into your soul. It's a far cry from the explosive fury of his old band, which had a song called "Stick the Fucking Flag Up Your Goddamn Ass."
Samson will remind you that that was six or seven years ago, and he's a different person now. "It took me quite awhile to realize that I didn't have to be unhappy all the time," he says.
And he chalks up the musical shift to "ability and inclination": when he sat down by himself with a guitar, Weakerthans came out, and that's a good thing for us all.
These days, you won't find him singing about politics per se. Instead, Samson—who, it should be noted, runs a left-leaning publishing company and subsidizes a nonprofit art center—makes his political mark by singing about people on the margins of culture.
There's the girl in "Exiles Among You" from 2000's much-beloved Left and Leaving who "shoplifts some Christmas cards and a bracelet for herself and considers phoning home . . . But she sits down on the sidewalk and bites her bottom lip/and spends the afternoon willing traffic lights to change."
Or there's the character who commits suicide in "History to the Defeated," who has a "signed Slayer shirt," a "car up on blocks in his mother's back yard," and a "smile that was never quite sure of itself."
Samson has mixed feelings about that song, he says.
"I don't know that I was that successful in what I was trying to do," he says. "I think it almost ends up romanticizing suicide and poverty."
The inspiration, he explains, came from a day spent in El Paso, Texas (home of a porno drive-in movie theater, if that'll crank up the pathos for you), when Samson was walking around looking for a pay phone to call home.
"All the phone booths were full of people, and three of them were crying," he says. At that moment, he thought about "how many stories there are that are seemingly inconsequential to the rest of the world—narratives that have no bearing to the people who are left out of culture, left out of society."
For the new album—yet to be recorded, so keep your insane devotion in your pants, Weakerfans—the Winnipeg native has written a song called "Psalm for the Elk's Lodge Last Call," which he says is about exactly that, and a song about a venture capitalist called "Relative Surplus Value."
"In that song, I'm talking about someone my own age who's part of the dot.com boom and how all the mainstream hopes of our generation were funneled into that idea and then it evaporated," he says. "I try to see them as victims of capitalism just like everyone else. Capitalism distorts everyone, and I think exploring those people who do things I hate is more interesting."
Weakerthans perform with the Promise Ring and the Jealous Sound at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 629-0377. Sat., 7:30 p.m. $14. All ages.
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