The Weakerthans: From the Margins

"I think people in small towns are taken advantage of by the culture in general, by the mainstream and used as props for jokes," fumes Weakerthans front man John K. Samson. "That really makes me kind of angry. They're taken advantage of in a lot of different ways. They're seen as not as aware or not as intelligent, when, in fact, they are. That's always been a theme; the unjustness of people living in a place where the culture thinks doesn't really exist. Where people are made to feel like their lives don't matter."

Samson knows all about living under cultural marginalization -- possibly a little too well. As a Canadian artist, he's a sitting target for that crass and all-too-common brand Yankee jingoist that treats Canada as a punch line more than a neighbor. His hometown, Winnipeg, a modest berg of a little more than half a million that sits on the eastern edge of the Great Plains, isn't the sort of hub of commerce and activity as any of the continent's big cities, so he's accustomed, if not exactly comfortable, with snobbish metropolitan attitudes toward his community. Winnipeg's geographic isolation -- it's a good several-hour truck to its nearest metro sprawl, Toronto -- only accentuates that. And, last, but certainly not least, coming up from the punk and do-it-yourself underground, Samson cut his musical teeth living on the pop-cultural fringe. Anyone who champions the intellectual and cultural superiority of the city and the mainstream over the towns and underground is going to write him off as a punk-rock hayseed, a rube from a second-tier city with nothing to tell us.

And he shows them all up within a few minutes of The Weakerthans' latest effort, Reunion Tour (Anti-). Joining longtime collaborators Stephen Carroll, bassist Greg Smith and drummer Jason Tait, Samson brings the band out of a four-year recording slump with a grand return to the act's concise, literate blend of folk, pop and punk spirit. Samson couples a poet's eye for imagery and ear for a great turn of phrase with offbeat subject matter and a generously sympathetic take on his subjects. He tackles a breadth of subjects, some drawn purely out of Samson's imagination (a disgruntled pet in "Virtue the Cat Explains Her Departure"), some idealized characters from his Winnipeg home town (a bus driver in "Civil Twilight"), other flesh-and-blood Winnipeggers ("Hymn for the Medical Oddity" gently gives a glimpse into the life of David Reimer, born male but raised female as an experiment, and "Bigfoot!" chronicles the life of Bobby Clarke, who became the whipping boy for the media's jokes after going public with a sasquatch sighting). Samson even coaxes a couple tunes out of those paintings by Edward Hopper where loneliness is an almost tangible presence on the canvas ("Sun in an Empty Room" and "Night Windows").

Loneliness is tantamount to The Weakerthans' music, as most scribes talking about the band seem compelled to point out, and loneliness once again permeates Reunion Tour. What most people miss is that Samson's brand of lonesome songwriting isn't your run-of-the-mill lonely-hearts-club pop. Instead of the "home alone on a Saturday night" flavor, the "confused about the world" flavor, the "my loved one doesn't even understand me" flavor or any one of a million other brands of winsome self-pity, Samson channels a type of lonesome you'll get reading in silence in a bustling library, pulled over on a small highway in the middle of the plains or, presumably, walking on the moon; there's the feeling of solitude and melancholy, but, strangely, The Weakerthans' loneliest moments are somehow comforting, trading hopelessness for a delicate contentment that, as a rule stands crumbling.

For the past decade, Samson stocked his world with characters of his own devising, whipping up first-person narratives about everyone from grassroots activists and street kids to corporate types tussled by market forces way out of their control. If the band's catalog of characters represents Samson's first-person fiction, Reunion Tour marks his first stab at creative nonfiction. Adopting a handful of subjects drawn from real-life tragedies, Samson lays out a tableau loosely based on their stories, be it an encounter with parazoology or the lasting affects of a crude psychological experiment, and, after all these years, lets the world of The Weakerthans intersect with the real world.

Tragedies such as Reimer's unwitting role in unethical gender-role experiments or Clarke's meltdown after watching himself turned into a living joke by the media lend themselves to a storyteller's pen. They are, after all, tragedies, the mightiest form of literature. For Samson, though, handling his real-life inspirations with the same dignity that he grants his characters was paramount. His songs are less about further exploiting those much-downtrodden folks than giving them a bit of much-deserved sympathy and dignity.

Weakerthans - From the Margins"I think that's the most dangerous aspect of the writing process for me, was writing about these people and trying not to take advantage of them," Samson explains. "All of them have these great narratives that really lent themselves to be written about. What I tried to do, I tried to take it down to the really smallest level I could think of. In all the songs, it's just a small snapshot of a small corner of their lives in a way. I was hoping that could be extrapolated somehow and it could still be respectful and they could still have their stories which are theirs that could be told outside of those songs."

To his credit, Samson handles his real-world inspirations with enough care to preserve their dignity, at least within the world of song. Of course, he's had a lot of practice wielding a lyricist's pen before he could arrive at that point. He cut his teeth as bass player for the rabble-rousing Propagandhi until he bowed out to focus on his literary efforts. After a stretch of downtime, the call of the stage proved too hard to resist, but the immersion in writing and a startup publishing company drastically altered Samson's output, as he traded in three-chord sloganeering in for a more reflective, folk-based sound. Hooking up with Tait and bassist John Sutton, he cut Fallow, whose self-aware and worldly songwriting quickly found a home on G7 Welcoming Committee, the same collective responsible for Propagandhi's Canadian releases. Carroll joined shortly after, and was on board for 2000's Reconstruction Site, where his skills with a six-string fleshed out The Weakerthans' sound, expanding the folk-pop hybrid to be a suitable counterpart to Samson's formidable lyricism. The band's rounded sound, as well as a touring ethic that kept it seemingly endlessly bopping between tiny clubs, built up enough of a following to attract the attention of Sub City. For 2003's Reconstruction Site, The Weakerthans graduated from the G7/Hopeless contracts to Epitaph's prestige imprint, Anti- Records.

Although The Weakerthans' studio output slowed to a trickle over recent years, Reunion Tour isn't the back-to-work release its title might have you believe. The band never really went away (a glance at its tour log of the past several years bears that out), but got locked into a cycle where craftsmanship trumped haste, where Samson's library research and the band's careful reworking of its arrangements was diligently ticking away in the background. If it looked as if The Weakerthans were taking it easy over the past four years, it's only because your outsider's perspective's skewed your view of band operations to depend on album-release milestones and not the sweat and effort of songwriting.

Truth be told, though, it wasn't all practice-room development and lyric writing -- The Weakerthans aren't about to let their songwriting personas overshadow their personal lives: Half the band lives in Toronto, a 20-hour drive from its base of operations in Winnipeg, and all of the band, like any well rounded thirtysomething, has a personal life to attend to. Lives can't be put into storage for marathon tours and weeks-long songwriting binges.

"I was actually really enjoying how long it was taking," Samson says. "We were taking a long time with the songs and walking around with them in our heads. I just enjoyed that. It did take a little longer than it should have, I guess. We had a lot going on in our lives. Our lives at home are always more important than our lives in the band. I think that's a good thing.

Weakerthans - From the Margins"I guess that anyone who travels for their work, it can be a real strain on your home life. You have to really work hard and make that balance level out. It's still really difficult to be on tour a lot. I think we've figured out how to do it. We're all in our mid-30s now. We all have really settled home lives. We've figured out how to do it."

After meticulously putting together the songs for Reunion Tour, The Weakerthans just needed to find a way to put them to tape perfectly. They didn't have to search too far to make it happen: Linking up with longtime sound man Cam Loeppky and producer Ian Blurton, the band entered a live room perched above a factory floor, and, during the plant's closed-down swing- and night-shifts, took to the shop floor to play, record and simply indulge in the massive, open spaces that a deserted factory provides.

Sure, it's trendy these days in the recording world to pack up recording gear, head off to a rented cathedral, a disused butcher's shop or a backwoods cabin, but The Weakerthans' factory-floor sessions were more than just a mobile-studio gimmick. The setting, with its line workers gone and the din of industrial noises shut down for the evening, was the embodiment of the themes of isolation and the lonely arrangements that's the band's calling card. It's hard to listen to Reunion Tour without picturing the band playing its songs in a sleeping factory in a tiny prairie town surrounded by miles of Manitoba's prairie -- a mood that's partially a product of the album's unusual genesis.

"It really affected the mood of the record," Samson says. "I was really happy with that. A lot of the songs lent themselves to that setting, a factory. It was cool to have people working during the day, and then we would come in and work during the night. It felt like a place where work was done. That's always helpful. I like that feeling of a place that contains people working. I wrote quite a bit of the lyrics in the Winnipeg library, actually. It's the same kind of place. It's the kind of place where you feel the energy of people working all around you and I think it's a really productive feeling."

It also mirrors the forlorn chronicles of anomie in The Weakerthans' songs. To say it's poetic isn't just a pun on the band's status as alpha dog of the literary-rock pack, either; There's something romantic about the notion of our four troubadours plucking their hearts out amid the half-constructed cases for musical instruments and computers their adoptive home churns out during the workday, weaving tales of lonesome figures and detestable goons through the frigid nights of a Manitoba winter. If a setting creates a vibe that bleeds through onto the record, The Weakerthans couldn't have found a better place to record Reunion Tour.

And Samson is the man to give voice to those stories of the marginalized and disaffected, primarily because he's of their ranks. A pop-cultural castaway, playing music too eccentric for the mainstream and, largely, too quirky for the scene-obsessed underground. He's a man that the cultural gatekeepers don't want you to think about, and instead turn your attention to the beautiful people in New York and Los Angeles. It's a creepy feeling once you realize your hometown's so far off the cultural radar you might as well be dead.

"I get that feeling everywhere," he admits. "I think Winnipeg for me stands in for every city and every community. I think it's true that you can find that sense of dislocation or the feeling that people don't have real self worth anywhere you go, because I think that our culture kind of encourages that. If you're not on T.V., your life is kind of meaningless. I think Winnipeg is especially like that."

There's an option, though, buried deep in The Weakerthans' songs. You probably don't live in Manhattan or Beverly Hills, but, as Reunion Tour's tiny slices of life outside mainstream culture's golden mean show, there's still a lot of life left to live -- even if it's done with the quiet dignity of the damned and downtrodden that line The Weakerthans' world.

by Matt Schild