Interview With John K. Samson Of The Weakerthans

Interview With John K. Samson Of The Weakerthans

It was 1998, about a year after I’d left Lookout Records, and I was completely burnt out on music, or so I thought.  In the preceding year I’d barely bought a record or gone to a gig.  I only ended up at this particular gig because some friends were playing.

I didn’t know anything about the Weakerthans except that the singer had been in Propaghandi, and I might not have paid that much attention to them except that I noticed them setting up a steel guitar.  I’ve always had a weakness for country music, you see, at least the old time, classic variety as played by Hank Williams, Sr.

As it turned out, they didn’t even use that steel guitar until one of the last songs, and even then, only for a minute.  It was a tune that those of you who are already Weakerthans fans will probably know, “None Of The Above.”

“It’s like my stupid little questions,” went the singer, “the answers always sound the same.”  Then the steel guitar kicked in, and I literally dissolved into tears.  It was like discovering music, and its power to inspire and transform, all over again.

Ever since then I’ve been an unabashed fan.  I’ve seen the Weakerthans all over the US and Canada, and I’ll unhesitatingly say that they are one of the best and most important bands of our time.

But there’s no need for me to go on about it.  The words and music speak for themselves, far more eloquently than I could ever hope to.  If you already know the Weakerthans, hopefully this interview will help you appreciate them in greater depth.  If you don’t, do yourself a favor and seek out any or all of their recordings as quickly as you can.

The Weakerthans are: Stephen Carroll, John K. Samson, John P. Sutton, and Jason Tait.  John K. Samson, singer and lyricist, was interviewed by Larry Livermore and Michael Silverberg in Chicago and Winnipeg on February 10 and March 12, 2001.  This interview was originally published in Punk Planet in either 2001 or 2002.

So, John Samson… the Weakerthans have been going for about three years now?

Almost four.  Four this month, actually.

This is probably a question, or a variation thereof, that you get pretty often: you were a part of one of Canada’s most successful punk rock bands ever.  I assume you were doing pretty well at it, enjoying it, making a good living.  How hard was it for you to leave all that behind and take a big leap into the unknown with this rather different band?

I don’t know, it was so long ago.  I get asked this question all the time, and I don’t know what the right answer is.  Or even what the honest answer is, because it feels like lifetimes ago.  And it feels like to me, at the time, there just never was any option.  It wasn’t a choice, it was just something that happened, that I couldn’t be in that band anymore, so I had to do something else.  There were other things I wanted to do, I wanted to start publishing books.  That was something I always wanted to try, and I didn’t think I could do all those things at once.  I didn’t think that I would be in another band, because at the time I didn’t want to be in a band.  It was one of the last things I thought was a good idea for my mental health.  But it was just a matter of months later that I decided to get together with Jason, our drummer, and John, our bass player.  We started playing some songs, just with the aim of recording them, really.  I’m lucky in the fact that I always manage to find people more talented than myself to play with.  They are also my taste arbiters, and prevent me from wandering off into schlockiness.  Anyway, we started playing some songs, just with the aim of recording them, really.

I guess I was under the mistaken impression that you left Propagandhi to form the Weakerthans because you felt you had to go in a different direction musically…

No, I don’t think so.  No, it was just a  natural process, just something that happened.  Musically, I think playing with Jason and John really shaped…  We went in the direction we were supposed to go in, writing the songs we knew how to write.

So I’m wrong, apparently.  I had imagined you taking this big chance by leaving behind what you might almost call a surefire musical formula – not dismissing Propagandhi, just recognizing that it’s the kind of music a lot of people like – to pursue a kind of music that you couldn’t at all be sure people would like.  But in fact that wasn’t the case, it was more a matter of wanting to go into publishing, and having more time for yourself?

I guess so, yeah.  Again, I always get wrapped up into what happened.  I’m not actually sure.  The financial thing was never an issue because I still get monies from the work I did with Propagandhi.  I was writing songs at the time, and there wasn’t really room for them in that band.  And there shouldn’t have been…

Well, we heard a couple of your songs back then…

Yeah, of course, but that band had what it was supposed to do, and I think we all just felt that I was no longer a part of that.

Did it take you a long time to decide that?

Yeah, it did.

Are we talking about years?

Yeah, likely.  Yeah.

And once you’d left, before your life became so full with new activities, did you go through a period of wondering, “What did I do?  What am I doing now?”

Yeah.  I have a lot of regrets.  I’m really annoyed by those people who say they have no regrets.  I have two or three regrets every half hour.  But one thing I’ve never regretted, ever, is leaving Propagandhi.  That’s one thing I can say.  I’ve never felt even an iota of regret for making that decision.

I’m looking at this Canadian music magazine…

Exclaim, it’s called…

…and it says here, speaking of Propagandhi, “while the first two records were solid in their structure, there were two glaring musical forces at work.  Samson was obviously the more melodic influence, as is evident from the folk-rock of the Weakerthans.  With [Todd] Kowalski, another middle school (1983-86) punker in the mix, the softer side of the band has been replaced with a more frenetic energy.”  It goes on to say that they were “three guys who grew up in the mid-80s listening to political hardcore.”  So I guess my question is, how do you see any musical, or, for that matter, political or philosophical differences that had you going in a different direction from Propagandhi?

Well, I think that that’s an oversimplification, and is not…  It has elements of truth to it, but nothing’s that simple.  I think that musically and lyrically, Propagandhi and the Weakerthans are much closer than people think.  I learned a lot about songwriting from being in Propagandhi.  Both structurally and lyrically, Propagandhi songs are quite linear.  They don’t repeat themselves often, and they’re very economic in their use of both music and words.  That’s something I hugely admire, and something I think I learned from them, and is a part of my work, too.  You have this much space to say something, and you shouldn’t waste it.  I think that’s a huge similarity between us, and I don’t understand why people don’t see that.

On the other hand, it’s true, just from the people I play with and the person I’ve become, I’ve changed radically over the past five years, as people should and people do.  Sure, I’ve grown more fond of something quiet, something simple, something intimate, and that’s reflected in the music we make.

Do you think there’s a political component to that approach, say the idea that you could reach a much broader spectrum of people with a softer, more melodic kind of music than with screaming hardcore?

Sure.  Well, obviously both have potential to reach people, and it’s not a conscious decision.  If it was a conscious decision, I wouldn’t be able to write anything.  If you think too much about who’s going to hear it and what they’re going to think about it, then I for one just wouldn’t be able to write anything.  That’s why I never picture this band or myself as part of a major label juggernaut, just because I wouldn’t be able, firstly and most importantly to me, I must admit, I think it would ruin what I love about it, what I love about writing.  And then the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh reasons would all be political.  But the first one would be me.  Just that idea that you have to churn out a record every year or two years…  In the situation we’re in, we can take as long as we want, and we have total control over our work

At the same time, I think of at least one artist with whom you’ve been compared, Bob Dylan, who, whether intentionally or not, did become part of a major label juggernaut.  Probably against all odds – nobody could have expected that style or form of music to become massively popular in those days – and yet it did…

Well, I don’t think I can compare myself to Bob Dylan…

That’s not your job, that’s the critics’ job…

But also, he seems to be one of those freakishly gifted writers, where he just churns them out, things kind of fall out of his brain, and of course there’s that…  I was just reading an interview with Neil Young, and he was saying that there are thousands of people as talented as he is, but they’re not famous.  And that there’s this “famous sieve” that has no rhyme or reason to it.  It just happens; no one can figure it out.  And that struck me, it’s true, it’s entirely fluke.  It’s not something you can concern yourself with.  You just have to keep doing what you do.  If the impulse and impetus is there to make something genuine, then you have to hope someone else will hear it and understand it.  But it’s a rare case, I think, because most of modern culture is very calculated and disingenuous.

So you’ve made no preparation for the eventuality of becoming famous on the grounds that you don’t think it’s going to happen?  Are you afraid you’re going to be unprepared if by chance it does happen?

(Laughs) I don’t know, I haven’t given it much thought.  I don’t think I  should.  And I think there are some controls in place, so that that can’t really happen.  Someone, I think, could take pretty much any songwriter and, as has been proven – turn on your radio any day of the week – you can make anyone famous.  It’s a strange culture, and a frightening one.  So I think we’re smart enough to avoid that kind of cynical appropriation of what we do.  And I don’t think it would work.  I really don’t.  I think there is – what do you call that? – a breaker somewhere, a breaker switch built in to the way we write songs and the way we play shows that would mean if we ever tried to make that step, the fuses would blow.

You sort of implicitly acknowledged that Dylan got where he did by virtue of talent, not by gimmickry or hype or selling out…

Oh, sure, I think it happens, and I’m glad it happens.  It’s also a matter of the kind of writer you are.  I try…  at least I hope my writing is more a product of the life I lead than the other way around.  It’s gravy, it’s a byproduct of the way I live my life, and it’s just…  it’s not lucky, it’s hard work.  But I have a life outside of playing in a rock band, and it’s valuable to me.  So I don’t want anything to ruin that.

The way that you write… you’ve talked about poetry, that you really have a high regard for poetry.  What sets your song lyrics apart… Does anything set your song lyrics apart from poetry?

I’m not sure.  I know that it’s not poetry, because I think songwriting has both drawbacks and… no, cut that…  I don’t think my songs can be defined as poetry, because they are coupled with music, and that gives an extra structure to them that poetry doesn’t have.  I personally think the most daring writing is poetry, because it’s just a blank canvas for words…

Sorry to keep referring to your fellow Midwesterner, Mr. Dylan, but would you consider some of his lyrics poetry?

I don’t know.  I guess I have different standards for myself and other people.  I would consider some of his stuff poetry, sure.  And I guess I would consider some of mine…  I mean some of my songs have begun as poems and have just been traced onto musical structures…

Could you say that poetry is just one aspect of a song, or is it something entirely different?

I don’t know.  It’s a hard question.  I grapple with this, I go back and forth.  Well, songwriting is certainly connected to a different tradition than poetry.  But then again it isn’t.

What about the origins of poetry as stories set to musical accompaniment, as in the Homeric tradition?

I have great respect for all art forms, and I don’t think there should necessarily be divisions between which is good and which is bad and which is more evocative, because they all have the potential to gain that connection with human beings, which is what they’re supposed to do.  So I think it might be just semantics that I’m parsing these things…

Isn’t there a political aspect here, too?  If you say that poetry not accompanied by music, just the written or spoken word, is somehow above…

I don’t…

But you did say…

Yes, but I don’t mean it, I guess.  I think just in my own mind, that’s what I aspire to..

But again, a political aspect: isn’t straight, traditional poetry going to be less accessible to the masses of people?  Basically, poetry is appreciated by educated, literate people…

Well, ok…  I think poetry has been hijacked by the academy, and always has been, at least for a long time.  Poetry is an incredibly democratic art form because there’s no money in it.  A best-selling book of poetry in Canada or the United States is 500 copies.  People put out cassette demos of their rock bands that sell more than that.  That gives it this curious democratic… trick…

Because people don’t have to worry about using poetry to put food on the table?

I guess so, yeah, and also the fact that everyone does it.  I have this secret feeling that everyone has at some point sat down and written a poem.  It doesn’t mean that they should unleash them on the world, but just that simple act is a really powerful thing.  And I think that can be transposed into music, that people can just sit down and work out a song, but I don’t know, music is a combination of a lot of elements.  John Berger once defined music by saying that it began as a howl, became a prayer, and then a lament, and still contains the elements of all three.  I think that’s pretty wise.  That’s about the only way I know how to explain what music is.

What about rap songs?  Many of them have only minimal music, just a repetitive beat, perhaps very similar to what poetry was in its early days.  Do they qualify as poetry?

I think so, yeah.  I don’t know.  Yeah, ok, I retract any attempts I made to divide art forms.  It’s just something that I work out in my head and I wouldn’t necessarily count as a world view.  I think there’s tons of potential in rap music, and that it’s really a fascinating art form.

Ok, if God, or for that matter, Satan, shows up tomorrow and says, “John Samson, you can be a great success in one field but no other.”  Do you choose poetry or do you choose music?

Geez, I don’t know…  I choose interpretive dance.  It would be too hard a decision.  I don’t know.  I’ve never actually attempted interpretive dance.  Who knows?  I might not be half bad at it.

After you left Propagandhi you put a lot of your energy into your publishing company.  First off, can you tell us its name?

It’s called Arbeiter Ring Publishing.  It was started by myself and Todd Scarth, who was working at a local publishing house and wasn’t exactly happy there, so we decided to start this project.

There’s a common thread among the books, especially with regard to politics…

Well, yes, but with the understanding that all forms of expression are political, that literature, all those things have their ramifications in politics.  We kind of modeled ourselves on presses like Verso and City Lights.

Left wing businesses, especially small publishing houses, have a reputation for not being profitable…

We’ve never taken a paycheck, so I guess we’re living up to that reputation.

So how does Arbeiter Ring survive?

If we didn’t have outside income, we wouldn’t survive, so we all work, we all do other things.  It’s very difficult.  Publishing itself is an incredibly difficult field.  It’s more cutthroat than music, and the stakes are a lot lower, like there’s absolutely no money in it.  It’s not like the record business, where there’s always the chance that one record is going to become massively popular.

Yeah, I’ve always wondered why book publishing hasn’t developed the kind of extensive independent network that music has.  Philosophically speaking, would you have any kind of problem with Arbeiter Ring becoming a profitable business?

No, I wouldn’t have any problem with that.

But just as in the music business, once something becomes popular, isn’t there a certain amount of pressure to keep putting out more of the same, things that you know from experience are likely to sell?

Sure.  But that’s a kind of line you have to ride in anything you do.

We’re sitting here in the Arbeiter Ring office, overlooking…  I guess you’d call it Old Town…

They call it the Old Market Square.

The Old Market Square of Winnipeg, Manitoba.  It’s a slightly seedy, down-at-the-heels area, but very attractive and picturesque as well.  Through all of your songs there’s this sense of place, that seems to set down roots in the Manitoba landscape, not just the physical landscape, but the landscape of the mind as well.  How important is that to you?  How do you approach the identification of time and place in your writing?

It’s very important to me to have a time and place in my writing, a sense of location.  I’ve lived here for 27 years, all my life.  I leave a lot, but I always return.  And this is the place I understand, it’s the landscape I understand.  I think the landscape has some profound effect on people, the place they’re from.  I don’t know how to describe what that is, but you recognize it when you go other places.

Winnipeg is a place that thinks life is elsewhere.  The idea you get from the community here is that everything is happening somewhere else, and that nobody can actually do something here.  I mean there’s lots of people struggling against that here, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed.  That perhaps makes me “regional” in some people’s eyes, a “regional” writer.  But, you know, a lot of my favorite writing is regional, anchored somewhere.  And I think that that’s universal, in a way.  Like I greatly admire people like James Kelman, from Scotland, who writes about the place he’s from, in a dialect that is intrinsically of that place.  That’s a really powerful political thing, to say that these people, these people’s lives, have meaning, have as much validity as the people’s lives in New York and Toronto and Los Angeles and Berlin and London.

There must be a great pressure on talented people to leave, to head off to Toronto or Vancouver or the States…

Sure.  Yeah.  And I don’t begrudge that.  People have to do what they feel they should do, and a lot of people I care about have left this place, and won’t ever come back, to live, at least, to be part of the community.  I can totally understand that.

When you mention the importance of being anchored, I can’t help thinking of one of your songs, “Anchorless,” in reference, say, to the people who set out in search of greatness or possibilities elsewhere.  Is that part of what you’re alluding to, that they lose that feeling of connection, of roots in a community?

Well, it’s not that simple, I mean that people should stay here and be part of the community.  Like that song “Anchorless” is specifically about someone who stayed, but who never found that idea of community, that idea of connection with other people.  I think those stories are really important.

It sounds as though it’s something you pity people for, for not having that sense of roots, regardless of where they might find it?

I suppose.  It’s also something I see in myself.  It’s a reflection…

Because you have to leave so often?

Well, and because community is an easy word to say, but an incredibly difficult one to put into practice.  Alienation doesn’t just go away because you talk about it.  It’s deeply ingrained in the human condition.

Why do you think a lot of literature from past centuries, instead of specifically naming a person or place or even a date, would leave that space blank?  Any idea of why they shied away from a sense of time or place?

Well, I guess it’s that idea that a story has to be universal, and that idea of anonymity, too, that you want to be anonymous.  That’s another thing that bothers me about the culture today that maybe shouldn’t.  There’s a lot of “persona” in music, and in the arts in general, a lot of shtick.  Maybe that has something to do with it.  Like, you could never have a persona here in Winnipeg.  It’s too small a town, it’s too cynical for that.  The degrees of separation are two or three, not six or whatever they are in big cities.

Still, a lot of great expression is coming out of this city.  I wouldn’t compare it to, say, a bigger city like Detroit – I mean a lot of great things came out of there – but it’s somewhat similar, in that this is a working class, poor city, this is what we do, there’s no bullshit, it’s just, this is it…

You mentioned the concept of “persona.”  In its original meaning, it referred to the mask through which the actors in classical Greek drama not only portrayed the character they were meant to represent, but also amplified their voices so as to be heard by the entire audience.  So while I can see your point about not being able to adopt a persona here in Winnipeg, isn’t there a persona that could reach out to the rest of the continent?  To people on the coasts, for example, it could be more than slightly exotic, this guy from the prairies singing about the wind blowing through the wheatfields….

Yeah, ok.  Yeah, that’s true.  When you come down to it, I write fictions, and I’m pretty up front about that.  But I think there’s a difference between the idea of a persona that’s a cardboard cutout, a stereotype, somehow, and I think that happens more often.  I mean, there are obviously examples of personas that are really accomplished and communicative.  Like Tom Waits…  He certainly has a persona, he has several personas.  But he uses them to get closer to reality, not the other way around.  You know, that idea that you’re spilling your guts, that you’re telling the truth, but if you’re a writer, you’re eventually going to be, when it comes down to it, defending yourself in some way.  Janet Malcolm once talked about how there’s that idea that writers just kind of tell the truth at all costs, spill what’s inside them, and are innocent bystanders to what they produce, when in reality it’s more like cheating at cards.  And it is.  I mean, you stack the deck when you write, and you have to be aware of that, or it’s dangerous, or it becomes a persona.

So you’re sort of blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction?  Do you think that it’s fictional to see patterns in everyday life that other people might not, and to put it together in such a way where the story is much grander than how people saw it at the ground level?

Yeah, sure, if there’s some truth to that, you’ll see it immediately, you’ll understand that it’s something genuine.  I mean, people can see it, and I don’t know how they see it, but…  I see it…  I think you guys see it, I mean, you hear something, you read something, you know if it’s genuine or not.  And I think it’s becoming increasingly more obvious that the culture doesn’t give a crap about that, that the elements that can sell something like that have superseded the depth that went along with it.  Or that should go along with it.   Not that now is any different than 50 years ago….  It’s just bigger…

That’s a really open-ended question.  There are various points in history where people have created works of art that tried to claim that a substantive shift had taken place.  I’m thinking of a novel by George Gissing called New Grub Street, that was published near the end of the 19th century, and which put forth the premise that publishing, which had once been the means by which an artist’s work could reach the public, had become an industry engaged in the mass production of commodities, which in fact was mirroring the Industrial Revolution of the preceding century, and which would change forever the way people write and the way people read…  And that one could never put the genie back in the bottle…

Yeah, ok…

Which reminds me that I wanted to ask you about the song “Pamphleteer.”  It’s where you mention “the specter haunting Albert Street.”  When I first heard the song, I had a vision of a sad old man whose time had passed him by, desperately trying to get some people to listen to his stories or his views, and then suddenly, after many listenings, it occurred to me that, well, here you are, on Albert Street, peddling pamphlets of a sort to a world that may or may not want to hear about them…  Is the song about a real person?  Or is it about you?

No.  I mean, yeah, I didn’t realize, actually, until well after I’d written the song how close it can be interpreted, but it started off as purely fiction.  A friend of mine wrote a film script and asked me to write a song for it.  It was a script about various things, and it had a newspaper story to it.  But I suddenly had this image of an activist, someone involved in politics, who passed out pamphlets on street corners – which is something I admire – and suddenly one day cracked and started churning out these pamphlets about his personal life and passing them out on street corners.  It started with that image and grew from there.  I was reading a lot of Marx at the time, so there’s “the specter haunting Europe,” “the specter haunting Albert Street…” and all that.  That song is an example of something I thought was pure fiction but turned out to have some – subconscious at least – anchors in my own reality.

Is that common to many of your songs?

Yeah, it is.  I don’t always understand how they relate to myself until well after they’re finished, well after I have a chance to come back and change them…

So the “late night restaurant, North Kildonan…”  Have you sat at that table?

No, I don’t know if there’s a restaurant there or not.  People are always asking me if there is.  I have the restaurant in my mind, it’s a Salisbury House restaurant – it’s a chain here in Winnipeg – but I don’t know if there’s one in North Kildonan or not.  I just like the idea of North Kildonan.  It’s out near the…  it’s a part of the city that interests me.  It’s part of the urban sprawl that’s destroying our city…

How about “Meet me at the construction site…”?

(Laughs)  What do you want, specific examples of things I’ve actually done….?   Steve Carroll – our guitar player – and I were living in a house years ago, when I was 20 or something, and there was a river near the house.  They were building there, and there were all these huge machines, and after we’d become incredibly high – which was most every night – we’d go hang out on these machines, and write notes to the operators of the machines and tape them to their windows.  It was just an image that I knew I’d use at some point…

That song also has the image of falling asleep to the…

“…to the beat of you breathing…”

Was that along some lonesome highway…?

“A room near a truck stop…”

There’s a lot of that kind of imagery, lost highways, lonesome freight trains…

Yeah…  Sure…  I guess those are just sentimental things you hope for, those moments that don’t have any huge importance, those small moments that define your life.  The big events, well, they speak for themselves.  Life is in the details.

You sound as though you’re singing something specific about the prairies, and yet it evokes images that seem to speak to nearly everyone…

Yeah, and I think those kind of images are universal, because we all have those moments, and those places.  They can be radically different in structure and in time, but still the same…

Once again, though, it makes you a bit of an exotic creature to many of your listeners who live in big cities and never hear a train except in a movie…

True, but there’s nothing I can do to remedy that – if it should be remedied.  I couldn’t…  I tried… This is what I write about, who I am, so…  regional…

Tell us a bit about your region, or, especially, about your community…

It’s a very poor city, it’s very isolated, it has a high native population, and that population is quite ghettoized.  You can go your entire life here in some suburban enclave and never meet a Native American person, but they comprise a quarter of the population.  And the fact that it’s isolated makes it a great microcosm for all cities, just because the biggest… the nearest big city is Minneapolis, which is a good nine hour drive.  I grew up in one of those suburban enclaves, and now I live in the heart of the downtown.  So, I think I have a good perspective on how this city works, or sometimes I think I have a good perspective on how the city works.  And I think that can be transposed to how people who live in cities live, in cities generally…

Apparently you found all of your fellow musicians here…

Oh yeah…

And you’ve told me before how you started playing bass because you figured it was the only way you were going to get into a band…

Yeah, because everyone else I knew was a guitar player.  I wasn’t that good a guitar player, and I wanted to be in a band, to be in a rock band when I was 16….

Was Propagandhi the first band you were in?

No, I was in a band called Toothpick Hercules, with Stephen Carroll, so, I’ve been playing with him for like, ten years now.

Has he changed a lot in his style over the years?  He seems to have a very distinctive style, all his own, now…

Yeah, he’s got a very distinct style, and it’s a style I understand, because I’ve been playing with him for so long.  I mean, I was his bass player for quite some time….

Some folk elements…?  Rockabilly?  Country…?

He’s definitely influenced by different elements than I was.  But we both come from the punk rock tradition.  You can trace us both back to Fugazi…

From your first band…?

Yeah, it was an awful Fugazi ripoff…

And you went from there to Propagandhi.  That was quite a change already, wasn’t it?

It was, but again, they wrote songs.  I was very impressed by that.  They were songs, they had all the elements of what a song should be, and they were catchy and quite melodic.  And they still are, I think they’re very influenced by pop music…

Yeah, I was going to say that they were one of the few, the very few political bands who managed to remain melodic, catchy, almost pop…

Yeah, exactly.  And my political awareness kind of dovetailed with becoming involved with Propagandhi.  I mean, I was always interested in politics in high school and stuff, but it was those moments of definition – the Oka crisis, the Gulf War – that really fed into Propagandhi, and into my getting an education.

As you began to grow away from Propagandhi, would say it was more musically, or more politically…?

I’d say it was neither.  I don’t know what it was.

Sort of a vague sense of, “Time to move on…”?

Yeah, I mean, I was 18 when I joined and 23 when I left, 23 or 24.  I think people undergo enormous changes in those years.

I guess I’m trying to get a sense of whether the rather different sounds of the Weakerthans were already in the process of evolving, or came about after you left…?

I think it kind of evolved on a third rail.  It was kind of always there…

When did you make that solo tape?

I made the tape when I was 19, so you know that element for me was certainly there.

Were you a bit embarrassed to be making that kind of music when you were in a hardcore punk band?

No, in fact they seemed pretty supportive…  Again, the punk scene here wasn’t a clique…

It wasn’t big enough to have cliques…

Yeah, exactly.  There wasn’t a lot of infighting or “I’m cooler than you” stuff.  It was a bunch of people who didn’t really know how to play their instruments, getting together to make some noise for other people who didn’t really know how to play their instruments.  And that’s that punk rock rule, I think, that you break the rules in order to learn the rules, as opposed to learning the rules in order to break them.

I wanted to remark on how impressive it was to me that you could get all these normally feisty and rowdy punks to sit still and listen very respectfully, almost reverently, to the Weakerthans…

Well, they’re not always tolerant of us, but…  But mainly I don’t want anything to do with being part of a musical ghetto.  I want to play to as many people as I can, from as many backgrounds as possible.  I know I’m making music for middle class people.  I’m a middle class person and those are my roots, that’s who I’m going to appeal to, and a lot of those people gravitate to the punk scene, because it is in many ways a genuine questioning of those values.  I don’t want to isolate myself there.  But they are the community I come from, where my musical roots are.  I think for the most part people are very respectful of someone who gets up on a stage in front of a lot of people and tries to express themselves.

Have you had any experience with the Weakerthans where you showed up at a venue and it seemed as though some of the audience were expecting to hear another version of Propagandhi?  And were angry and disappointed when they didn’t?

Yeah, it happened years ago.  It doesn’t happen so much now.  People know what to expect.  And the name in part was designed to perhaps ward those people off.  But sure, it’s happened where people asked me to do an interview, and there first question was, “Why did you sell out?”

Can you tell us why you did?

(Laughs)  I have no idea why.  No, scratch that.  I didn’t, goddamit!  Well, it’s that idea that your politics somehow have some relation to how fast the kick drum goes.  It’s true.  I mean, there are a lot of people in the punk scene who firmly believe that.  It’s bizarre, and you can’t even have a discussion with them about it because it’s so absurd, but really, it’s, um, kick drum.  Kick drum and politics somehow have this magical relationship in the hardcore punk scene.  I don’t know what it is, it’s beyond me…

I think you’ve just clarified a question that’s been puzzling me for decades…

Yeah, well, now you know.  It’s all about the kick drum.  And how loud the guitar is miked.

We’ve talked before about the native population and the tragic state many of them find themselves in, in both Canada and the US.  I think Canada’s taken a slightly different approach; would you characterize that approach as more progressive…

Nominally more progressive…

Or just wrongheaded in a different way?

Yeah, exactly.  I think the reservation system, taking children from their families and putting them into residential schools…

That’s not still going on, is it?

No, but it’s still being felt, and it’s decimated their culture.

In my own travels across Northern Ontario, I passed through a number of native towns “First Nations,” as they’re called, and almost without exception, they were really squalid to look at…

The third world…

But one thing that seemed emblematic about Canada’s different approach was the sign at the city limits that read “First Nations.”  And I wondered, what would that be like, say, if an American ghetto had a sign reading, “African-Americans” or, for that matter, when you got to the suburbs, “Caucasians”?  Is that the kind of approach we want to take for the future, categorizing people by their ethnicity, or the economic or social status?

Well, no, but this is a culture that was imposed upon by another one, a culture that still has a life of its own, separate from the mainstream culture, the oppressor culture.  I think the idea of identity politics, when it comes to that kind of situation, is certainly not for me to decide.  It’s for them to decide how they want to be defined.  It’s up to them because that’s a powerful thing, politically, to be able to define yourself, and not be told what you are, which is what they’ve had imposed on them for 500 years.

I think that kind of segues into what I want to try and write about.  I don’t know how successful I’ve been, but for the past while, since I started the Weakerthans, I’ve been trying to write about other people’s stories.  There’s a danger and a power in that, but I think that idea of definition, the way that people have roles superimposed onto them, and are destined to play out those roles, that’s where the politics in my lyrics lie.  That’s what I always think, that it’s so hard, nearly impossible, to tell someone else’s story, to tell a story honestly, but it’s important to make the effort, to express yourself and your place in the community around you.

There are two different directions this takes me in, that I really want to explore…  But first… In a previous conversation about native politics, I asked you what your solution was.  I hope you don’t mind me repeating this, but you told me then that it would probably have to be armed resistance and separatism.  And you mention again now that the native peoples still have a viable culture, a culture that’s been imposed upon by a conquering culture.  I’m wondering if you feel that culture still is viable, in that it’s based first of all on an oral tradition which has been drastically interrupted – when so many of their elders died or were killed, the effect was the same as if we had bombed all their libraries – and also based upon them having many thousands of acres of open country from which to sustain themselves.  Given that today America and Canada are very different places, paved and fenced and strip malled, how could the native peoples ever hope to return to anything resembling a traditional way of life?

I don’t think they could, and I don’t think any Native American leader would tell you that they would go back to the land.  I don’t think that’s what they want or what they need.  Again, it’s up to them to define what they want, and it’s up to myself, at least, to support them in bringing that definition to reality.  But I don’t think that we’re talking about going back to one of those “primitivist” societies, I think we’re just talking about self-control, self-determination.

What about when you run into these conflicts that have emerged in recent times, for instance, white environmentalists wanting to preserve a river or a species, and native activists saying, “We have a traditional right to fish this river or exploit this species.”  How do you resolve a conflict like that?

Well, those conflicts are always going to arise, and you just have to take each situation as it comes up.  My general inclination is to support the natives in defining their rights, defining their land and what they want to do to it.

Well, which part of Canada or North America is “their land?”  It’s been subdivided and reassigned so many times over…

There’s a lot of land, actually.  There is a lot of land in North America.

But wasn’t a lot of the worst land given to the natives?  And the best land, the kind of land the natives would need to sustain themselves, given to the European settlers?

Yeah, certainly, and if that land can’t be given back, then compensation should be made.  I firmly believe in the idea of reparations.  I think it’s a fantastic idea.  And a good start.  That would be the first thing to do, to make sure legal reparations were made.

Would you compensate people on the basis of being a member of specific race or culture, or on the basis of economic or social need?

Both.  I mean a grand redistribution of wealth would be wonderful…

Suppose one particular native person had become a multi-millionaire.  Would he still be entitled to compensation?

Sure.  I think so.  Yeah.  I think the same could be said for the descendants of slaves.

How far back would you take that?  What about people who were enslaved by the Romans 2000 years ago?

Well, that’s a bit more of an absurdist question.

Well, many of the African-Americans were enslaved as much as 400 years ago…

But I think the effects of that are still being felt daily in our culture, in our surroundings.  It’s a still a huge impetus behind the structure of our society, slavery and genocide.  Those two things still play a huge role in the way our society works.

On a related issue, you advocated armed resistance on the part of native people.  I presume you’d extend that to African-Americans as well.  Realistically, is there any chance in hell of that sort of armed resistance succeeding, of producing anything other than a lot of bloodshed?

Well, I don’t know, you never know what reality is until it’s actualized…

But didn’t the natives already try armed resistance back when the Europeans were much less heavily armed and much fewer in number?  If it didn’t succeed then, what possible chance would it have now?

Well, one of the events that really politicized me was the Oka crisis, back in 1989 or 90…  The town of Oka, Quebec wanted to build a golf course on native burial grounds, and they simply wouldn’t listen to the natives’ concerns.  They went through all the regular channels and never got anywhere.  Sometimes all that power will listen to is power.  A lot of writers I really admire, Camus, for example…  When I think of the issue of violence, I always think of The Outsider.  That book’s point is that in certain instances, the language that power lends you is the only one they’ll listen to, and that at some point it’s just absurd not to try and break out of that structure.  I mean, really, there was no option for these natives at Oka but to defend themselves, armed.  But it always has to come down to the specific situation, what is their desire, how strong is that desire, how far are they willing to take that?  I can’t bring myself to pass judgment on someone like that, an oppressed person, acting for their own determination.

What about oppressed middle class people, if you believe such a thing exists?

I don’t know.

For instance, somebody of your own background decides to start shooting authority figures or blowing things up.  Is that something you could see as legitimate?

Well, again, it would depend on the situation.  It would depend on what they were blowing up and why.

Suppose they just decided that the entire governmental or societal structure was corrupt and needed to be brought down by any means necessary?

Well, I think that trying to blow things up wouldn’t be the way to accomplish that.  It would do more harm than good.  I’m not saying that I would support an armed revolution, necessarily, I’m just saying that I wouldn’t rule it out as an option.  Because when you do, you fall into this trap, these rules of protesting, which in the Western world are set up by power.  It’s the same thing, it’s the language they want to hear, and it doesn’t really affect anything.

One of the books published by Arbeiter Ring is Pacifism As Pathology, by Ward Churchill, and it particularly struck home with me, because he begins the book by dedicating it to three upper middle class activists from the 60s who blew themselves up while making bombs.  As it happens, I knew one of them, Diana Oughton, and was really fond of her.  I saw that event far differently from Ward Churchill.  Whereas he held her up as a sort of totem, an icon of the revolution, I saw her as a beautiful passionate woman who believed in trying to change the world, but instead went way off course.  To me it was a tragic waste of life and brains and talent.  So when you cited one example of armed resistance that really politicized you, I guess this was an example of armed resistance that really politicized me in the opposite direction.  Up till that time, I had felt pretty strongly that sabotage and violence would be necessary sometimes, but after that I never felt it made sense in any but the most extreme circumstances.  Obviously, I’m not suggesting that because you published Ward Churchill’s book you necessarily agree with him – you may have just felt his was a voice that needed to be heard…

That is how I feel.  I think this conversation doesn’t happen enough, and I think this book that we published forces that conversation into people’s lives, and that’s really why I published it.  I’m still very conflicted about the ideas in the book, but I’m genuinely appreciative of the book itself and the conversations it’s engendered.

I wonder if when we advocate revolution or armed resistance, especially for people of a certain race or class, and then draw back from it, saying, “Well, we’re middle class white people, we’re not oppressed the way they are,” isn’t it possible we could become guilty of playing toy soldiers with other people’s lives?

Yeah, for sure, yeah.  And I think the point of the book is that there are a lot of options for protest and actually achieving goals, and that we have to look at all of those options.  Violence is one, and, I think, quite rarely, extremely rarely, is it effective.  But to rule it out entirely is to lose your entire position.  I think I agree with that.  But it’s not to say I’m out there simply supporting the violent overthrow of the US government.  There are a lot of other issues that have to be addressed too. 

Isn’t the problem of a violent uprising, except in the most extreme cases – when it’s a matter of lives being saved – that the state has a monopoly on violence, that it ultimately holds power only through its ability to wield violence against the criminal or perceived criminal, and that it can’t accept challenges to that monopoly without its own right to exist coming into question?  When oppressed peoples attack the state on its own terrain, ceding the higher moral ground, don’t they lose the one advantage they have?

Well, I mean, higher moral ground is great, but it doesn’t always accomplish anything…

My point was more that the power the people have is not through fists or through guns, it’s in the collective morality that keeps a check on government power.  Doesn’t a revolution originating in a ghetto, whether of racial minorities or of upper middle class white kids, fall short because it doesn’t represent the people as a whole?

Sure, I think there’s a great danger in activism.  It kind of naturally slides into the path of least resistance, which can turn into an elitist little club.  I think that’s true of almost anything, and that’s what Ward Churchill tries to address in his book, that this is a broad thing, a broad and varied thing, and it doesn’t have a set of rules.  There isn’t one certain way to do these things, and it’s not going to be accomplished by one particular act.

I guess much of what made me queasy about Ward Churchill was the way he echoed so much rhetoric of the 1960s, a time when people started out very idealistically but quickly became disillusioned – maybe because they were middle class or upper middle class and therefore used to getting their own way – and the “revolution” soon devolved into almost a competition as to who could be the most extreme in terms of violence… Which in turn lost them most of the mass support they’d had for ending the war and advancing civil rights…

Sure, there are obvious traps that people threw themselves into.
But I think Ward comes from a different perspective.  He was a Native American, he was in the Vietnam War, and came out of it greatly changed by the experience.  I don’t want to speak for him, but he comes from somewhere other than that academic, middle class idea of protest.  He came to his own understanding of it by seeing it, but being in the middle of it.

Well, we could go on in this vein for a long time…

Yeah, we could…

But I guess one thing I find kind of jarring is the notion of the wide-eyed, big-hearted, soft and sensitive John K. Samson mounting the barricades and overturning Western society.  Can you resolve that seeming contradiction for me?

Sure, there’s friction in everyone’s life.  That’s part of what makes things interesting, I think.  I’m pretty divided about a lot of things.  I have a lot of doubts.  I think it’s important to talk about them and think them through.  Politics are alive, they’re always changing and growing, and your understanding of the world is changing.  What I try and do with music is document a bit of that friction, a bit of the difficulty in reconciling all these things, of being alive.

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