"Everyone thinks that life is going on somewhere else, that you have to move to New York or--in Canadians' case--Toronto or Vancouver. I've never felt that was necessary," says John K. Samson, singer-guitarist for the Weakerthans and former member of political punk band Propagandhi. While other bands grapple with the New York/L.A. decision--or Seattle, Portland, Chicago or Boston, if they're being "different"--Samson stays put in Winnipeg, Manitoba, something like Canada's version of Minneapolis, with half a million people and an economy based on farming and the land that, Samson says, has "more in common with places like North Dakota and Minnesota than with places like Quebec City or Vancouver."
Winnipeg is not where you'd expect to find a thriving music scene, but it's the birthplace of both of Samson's bands, and it's his lifelong home as well. He calls it an ideal life. Rent's cheap. When he's not on tour, he walks down the street to Arbeiter Ring Publishing, a not-for-profit publishing company run by him and two other collective members/owners. Most years, he spends about four months on the road, touring with the Weakerthans. "I think if I didn't, I'd just go crazy," he says. OK, so Winnipeg's not perfect.
This love-hate relationship with his hometown inspired the song "One Great City!" on the Weakerthans' 2003 album Reconstruction Site, 14 songs of straightforward, punk-inspired, simple but smart rock. "The same route every day/And in the turning lane/Someone's stalled again/He's talking to himself/And here's the price of gas, repeat his phrase/I hate Winnipeg," Samson sings, accompanied only by his guitar. It's an easy song to relate to--with its talk of traffic, subway crowds, old buildings demolished for new development--but many album reviews have focused solely on that last little line. "Most people here really understand the song, but occasionally I'm just out in a bar and someone will come up and accuse me of being a traitor to our cause. And there are a lot I knew who said that song shouldn't be on that record," he says. But, to him, hometown pride isn't about turning a blind eye to the city's warts. "I think that loving a place means having to look at it clearly and honestly, and cities in our society are pretty unjust, unhappy, unfair places a lot of the time," he says. "Your love for a place has to be tempered by that, or you just become the chamber of commerce."
The Weakerthans perform Tuesday, November 9, at Gypsy Tea Room, with Piebald and Despistado.
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But Winnipeg has its perks. It allows Samson to focus on the band and publishing company--no day job required when the cost of living is so low. And it's inspirational, too. Besides the origin of "One Great City!," growing up "on the prairie," as Samson calls it, drew him to country music, whose signature steel guitars make appearances on Reconstruction Site. Though the sounds may have come as a surprise to those accustomed to Propagandhi's say-it-and-get-out punk songs, Samson sees it as a natural progression, not a change in his tune. "The fundamental way I approach music is pretty much what it's always been, which is that kind of punk rock idea of making order of noise," he says.
Samson once called the Weakerthans' music "disintegrating punk," breaking it down to its influences, which in Samson's case range from the simple melodies and precise lyrics of hymns sung in childhood church choirs and the punk rock he discovered at 15 or 16 that made him want to play guitar and be in a band to the alternative country he found in the late '90s with Wilco, Townes Van Zandt and John Prine, whom he calls one of his biggest influences as a songwriter. All these different sounds and styles were funneled into Reconstruction Site, along with the goal to write songs from the perspectives of other people (or felines, as is the case with "Plea From a Cat Named Virtute"). But that's nothing new to him. "I always thought of my songs as more fictional," he says. "The character in my songs, the 'I' in my songs, has never been clearly me. It's been sort of me."
Now Samson has a new influence. When longtime bass player John P. Sutton left the quartet in August, the Weakerthans, rather than decreasing in size, grew into a six-piece with the additional players adding Rhodes, keyboards, more guitar, more percussion and more vocals. "We spent a long time just reworking our repertoire," Samson says. "Initially we went in thinking that it would feel quite crowded with that much new things going on, but all of us have remarked that it's had the opposite effect." It's a lineup he wants to continue working with and writing songs for.
Besides reworking old songs, a few new ones have been added to the set lists. They're the beginnings of a record that--true to the Weakerthans' form (Reconstruction Site came three years after Left and Leaving, the band's second album)--is still at least two years away. Though only a few songs have been penned so far, Samson has an idea in mind as he did with Reconstruction Site, and he'll focus on it after the American tour and a few others are finished and he's back home in Winnipeg. "The idea that I'm working with is the word 'agency,' being able to act. The last record was about building the machine out of the materials at hand to make a life that's worthwhile and a world that's worthwhile, and I want to keep moving in that direction and now write about actual action," he says. "But then again it could be a record about cars. I don't know."