The Weaker-thans Grow Strong


While
a member of the influential political punk group Propagandhi, John
K. Samson played bass on progressive thrash tunes about veganism,
U.S. militarism, and homophobia. Just because his new band, the
Weakerthans, turns down the decibels doesn’t mean Samson has
turned down his social conscience. 

The
band’s music still tackles issues of consequence. “We
come from the punk rock community and that essential ethic will
always be with us,” Samson says. But the four-piece group from
Winnipeg, Manitoba draws as much from contemporary poets as they
do from radical political theoristst. This combination of influences
shows in the clear-eyed portrayals of life’s neglected corners
that have drawn the Weakerthans’ a dedicated and growing fan
base. 

“I’m
interested by the margins, in all senses of that word,” says
Samson, whose lyrically literate and musically textured songs offer
a distinct voice. “Part of our mandate is to talk about people
who do not get talked about in mainstream culture.” 

They’ve
been doing that since 1998’s Fallow, where Samson distinguished
his new trio from Propagandhi, with quiet, idiosyncratic tunes about
forgotten lives— from minimalist spoken word meditations on
modern life to bleak countrified narratives about mechanic school
dropouts. The Weakerthans’ just-released third CD, Reconstruction
Site,
is their most complete and mature to date. It tackles
themes of community, redemption, and how to be an active participant
in the world without offering easy or pat answers. Propagandhi songs
were and are about certainty, Weakerthans songs are about uncertainty.
“To me, that’s an important political trait— to be
uncertain,” says Samson. 

The
band’s politics have always been explicit on some tracks, such
as “My Favorite Chords” from Fallow (where Samson
sings “They’re tearing up streets again/They’re building
a new hotel/The mayor’s out killing kids/to keep taxes down”).
On others, universal human themes are given an activist bent. “Pamphleteer,”
still one of the strongest Weakerthans songs, chronicles the internal
life of a socialist leaflet distributor. 

It’s
not just the words that draw in listeners, but also the Weaker-
thans’ eclectic sound, which ranges from power-pop to gentle
folk, stopping at all stations in between. For their follow-up,
Left and Leaving, the band added guitarist Stephen Carroll
to fill out the sound while continuing to talk about human struggle
through the lens of fictional lives. All three of the group’s
full-length discs share that common element: they are filled with
compelling portraits of characters no one ever thinks about. 

It’s
that kind of politics, a politics of compassion for the ignored,
that the band offers. This is true whether Samson is writing songs
about socialism or spirituality, as he does on Reconstruction
Site

“You
kind of slide toward that [spiritual] vernacular when you’re
talking about redemption and reconstruction. I’m a secular
person, but I think the religious impulse is built into people,”
says Samson. “For the last record, I used the language of Marxism:
on this one, I used the language of religion. They’re two different
ways of getting at similar ideas.” 

Concern
over the state of the world aside, Samson isn’t afraid to write
quirky songs that somehow turn touching. One track on Reconstruction
Site
is sung from a cat’s point of view; another, “Psalm
for the Elks Lodge Last Call,” delves into the mysterious world
of the omnipresent men’s club. These songs transcend goofy
premises to send messages about common human (and feline) experience. 

“I
was trying to get inside the voices of people I, on the surface,
have nothing in common with,” he says. “The Elks are kind
of like the punk rock community, in that you kind of walk in and
feel like you belong. There’s a great allure and comfort and
beauty in that, and there’s also a great danger—that you
have an isolated, fraternal thing.” 

Then
there is the catchiest effort on the new disc, “Our Retired
Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961).” An imagined
encounter between an emblem of modernism and the famous French philosopher,
Samson’s wordplay (“Thank you for the flowers and the
book by Derrida/But I must be getting back to dear Antarctica”)
interacts with bouncy guitar hooks to create what may be a unique
commodity—a song about post- structuralism that gets stuck
in your head. 

Despite
his defense of uncertainty, Samson’s politics and music are
uncompromisingly and classically progressive. If pressed, he’ll
tell you that this makes him more like the retired explorer than
Foucault.

“I’m
a bit of a modernist—I think the Enlightenment was a great
thing,” Samson says. “I have a totalizing worldview, as
Foucault would say, and I’m pretty happy with that.” 

Like
the group’s previous two releases, Reconstruction Site
challenges Weakerthans fans to grow with the band. It also shows
how someone goes from playing chord-crunching, lyric-screaming punk
music to writing increasingly complex and subtle songs—without
compromising the convictions that made you want to scream in the
first place.
 


Jeff Shaw is
a freelance writer. His work has also appeared in
In These
Times,
the Nation and the Progressive.