Full interview with John K. Samson
I’ve been a huge fan of John K. Samson (and, by extension, The Weakerthans) ever since I heard “Anchorless” on Propagandhi’s Less Talk, More Rock back in elementary school, so I have to admit that interviewing him was a bit of a thrill. He was jet-lagged from a trip to Australia, but was still polite, open and well-spoken, if a bit quiet. In any case, here’s the full transcript of the interview.
Last summer was supposed to be your vague, no plans, take-it-as-it-comes summer. Did that go how you wanted?
Geez, I suppose it did. I think this next summer coming up is even vaguer and has even less planning, so that’s good. But yeah, last summer was good. It was kind of more relaxed than any of the summers we’ve had previously in the last decade or so, so… yeah, it was good. We’re kind of winding down operations for a while and going into writing mode now, for the Weakerthans, so, yeah, we’re all going to be going off after the live record comes out and just kind of… playing a few shows with the Weakerthans, but just kind of doing our own things and starting to write for the next Weakerthans record, which could be, who knows how long — two years, probably.
So you feel like it’s time to work on another Weakerthans record, then?
Yeah, I think so. I think we’ll start picking up the corners of that pretty slowly and just see what happens. I know we’re all focused on other things right now, as well, so I think that’ll be probably good for all of us to get out and stretch our legs a bit, and walk around doing other things for a while.
You’ve already been doing a bit of that with backing up Jim Bryson on his new album…
That’s true, that was a lot of fun.
Between that and the ARC project and this new solo project, some might see that all as a sign of creative restlessness. Is that a fair comment?
I think that’s fair enough, yeah. No, it’s true — I think we’ve been playing together for, geez, 13 years now? And we certainly still love doing so, but you do need to shake things up sometimes, definitely.
How about the flip side of that question — why has it taken 13 years for you to get to that point?
I don’t know, that’s a good question. I guess in creative processes, you always have ebbs and flows. There’s certainly times when you think that you never want to do this again, and other times where you can’t imagine doing anything else. And so, yeah, I’m not sure why we’ve managed to keep moving forward for so long. And I don’t see any real danger in us doing other things for a bit; we’ve gone through periods like this before. I went to school for a year, our guitar player went to school for a year; we’ve all fit other things into the life of the band.
What did you study?
It was like nine years ago. I went back — I went to university when I was 18 for about six months, and then always wanted to go back, so I did go back for a year and took, mostly politics courses, actually. And some post-modernism stuff and some literary theory stuff. It was fun though. I’d like to do it again. I thought maybe I’d do it every 10 years, I’d pick up a course and then I’d graduate by the time I’m 170 or something.
Those outside influences can’t hurt as an artist in general.
Oh, absolutely. It’s true. And I do lots of other things, too. I help run this publishing house in Winnipeg…
Yeah, so that’s a huge part of my life, actually, and certainly feeds the other things I do. I don’t think I could be one of those people that just sat down and wrote. I think I need input from the world in order to make things.
You’ve said in other interviews that you aren’t particularly prolific.
Yeah, it’s true.
So when you do write a song like cruise night, what makes you decide that it’s for a solo project and not for The Weakerthans?
I guess that was specifically written for that project, so it was almost like an assignment that I gave myself, was to write these three songs about this one street in Winnipeg. And so, yeah, a song like that, actually when I wrote it I was kind of tempted to bring it to the band, because I thought they would do a much better job of it than I did, and I think that that’s true. They would. But there’s something to be said for context with a song like that, that it fits in with those other two songs in a way that it wouldn’t anywhere else. And because it was written specifically for that project… So, yeah, I guess these days I’m more assignment-based. I have a clear idea of what I want to write about and what project I’m writing for, and to me it’s just a lot of fun. It’s more constructive for me because I have some kind of framework for what I’m doing. And I guess once we start writing the next Weakerthans record, which could take a lot of time, I’ll get back to that idea of not having one theme in mind yet, and let it coalesce and take shape as the writing progresses.
But for now, I’m really enjoying these little assignments that I’ve been giving myself, or that people have been giving me.
You do seem like the kind of writer who benefits from specificity. What about those limitations works for you?
I really enjoy, especially in the past few years, I’ve really enjoyed the research side of writing, and I do find that, maybe because I’m really undisciplined in general, I find it really helpful to have structure and direction. I’m also just really more interested in other people’s lives than I am in my own anymore — I mean, writing about other people’s lives. I don’t really find much interesting about myself to write about. So that’s another thing, I guess — I just want to push the ideas I want to explore through these characters.
It does seem like a limitation for writers who focus on love songs that once they get to a point where they don’t have that angst, there’s nowhere to go.
I think that there’s something useful about it — I think everybody has to write those songs. But I do feel that I don’t really have many love songs left in me, and if I did, I would probably not put them on a record. They would maybe serve a purpose in some other way…
But it’s true, I think the writing that I like the best doesn’t really have much to do with… I guess I’m finished with “you done me wrong” songs, and I’m glad about that. I don’t have much use for them. I think that everyone has to write those songs, and everyone has to consume those songs at a certain point in their lives. They’re really useful. But I think there comes a time when you just have to let those go.
Do you ever worry you’re getting too specific? How does Germany feel about a song like “Cruise Night?”
I do worry about that a bit. But I think it’s a gamble that we’ve taken before with some songs on Weakerthans records, and it seems to work. It seems that there’s something really universal in writing about specifics, in that it makes people recognize the specific things about their own lives that maybe have been underexplored by the culture, and whose meaning hasn’t been fully explored. I don’t know, there’s something tricky about that, and something, I think, kind of interesting about it, too. That there’s something…
I’m not being very articulate about it, but it’s kind of a nice feeling when someone seems to get what you’re saying about a place that you care about, and relates it to a place that they care about. Or the people that they care about.
There might be something in how “place” isn’t something that a lot of songwriters focus on. What is it that drew you to make place such an important part of your songs?
The writings that I’ve liked have had a real sense of place. And maybe that makes me kind of a provincial writer, but I really like those writers who redefine a place, and re-explore… I’m trying to think of a way to put it better than that.
Could you maybe give some examples of writers that do the same thing?
Oh, sure. Um… hmm.
Now I’m blanking again. It might be the jet lag. I guess I think of fiction writers as the people I take the most inspiration from, so, I don’t know. I just read a Tim Winton book about this neighbourhood in Perth, Australia, called Cloud Street, and it’s just this remarkable construction of this street in Perth, Australia that was so vivid, and I’m sure so specific and unique to Tim Winton’s brain. I’m always inspired by that, even though it’s a place that’s entirely foreign to me, I felt that I could relate to it, because it’s so vivid and so detailed, and so lovingly constructed. I think that’s what I hope for or aim for, is that maybe I could re-create the place that I’m from in such a way that it would move other people.
Your writing draws from a lot of areas — from literature to Edward Hopper paintings to thoughts on world affairs — but Winnipeg is always the first thing that gets latched onto. How do you feel about the prominence it has in people’s perceptions of your art?
I don’t know why that is — well, I guess I know. I certainly purposefully insert it into the songs in some ways, but I guess it’s that Winnipeg is kind of a marginalized place, and in that sense, it’s kind of interesting to people. But Winnipeg has become the way I interpret the world. It’s a city that has everything I think a writer needs. It’s got elements of a big city and elements of a small town, and it’s got injustice, and a vibrant arts scene, and terrifying politics. It’s really got it all, I think, and yet is this really geographically isolated place. And despite our extremely connected world, there’s something psychological about the real, physical isolation of a place that has an impact on the people who live here, and makes for some really unique things.
I think you might enjoy spending some time in Perth, along those same lines. It’s, I think, considered the most isolated major city in the world.
Is that right? Because we were there for just a day, and I hadn’t started reading that book yet.
I don’t think you get a sense for it when you fly, but when you take the train from Melbourne, it’s something like a 72-hour train ride.
Did you do that?
I did. They make you stop at Adelaide for a night, but it is remarkably distant.
I did feel like there was something really unique about — well, Australia in general, but Perth, the people there seemed really, all the quirkiness was amplified, and it was 39 degrees, and I just felt like it was… what a bizarre place, and so beautiful. That’s good to know, actually.
Did anything ever come of the “small town’ project you were working on?
Actually, that’s kind of what the seven-inch project turned into. For the first one, I just stuck with Winnipeg again, somehow, but the next one is going to be called Provincial Road 222. I decided to take sections of roads instead of actual small towns, so the roads that I’m choosing go through small towns. So the next one is kind of north of Winnipeg, a couple hours north. It’s a small town next to Lake Winnipeg, called Riverton, Manitoba. So I’ve been going up there and researching Riverton, and I’m about to record that one. It should come out in July. And the next one is set in southwestern Manitoba, and those are the ones that I have planned. We’ll see what happens after that.
So that project kind of altered a little bit, but it still maintains that idea of taking that small-town element of Winnipeg and actually exploring what it means, and exploring what small-town life is actually like these days, as best I can.
I mean, just going and sitting in a small town for a few days isn’t going to give you a sense of what it’s like to live there, but it’s, I don’t know. It’s something that I’ve been really interested in, and I’ve been really enjoying.
Well, yeah, nothing short of living in a place can really give you a sense of what it’s like to live there.
That’s true. It really is true, so I’m kind of grasping at things a little. But I’m enjoying the struggle.
To wrap things up with a sort of vague and hard-to-answer question…
Oh sure, sure…
A lot of your art revolves around your relationship with the city. What do you think is the ideal relationship between an artist and the city they live in?
Hmm. I guess the ideal is a dialogue, or a dialectic of some kind, I guess. It’s, for me, it’s using the city to interpret the world, or elements of the world. I think that cities are great for that. They’re a very handy tool for that, I think. There’s something unique about all of them, but you can pick at least one street in every city in the world, and it’ll be the same street — it’ll be that street of strip malls and McDonalds, and whatever the Canadian Tire is, whatever that place may be.
So I think it really is this kind of useful brace that writers can use to pull themselves up on, not to horribly mix a metaphor right at the end.
I think the jet lag is a solid excuse.
Yeah, it’s really… I didn’t expect it to be this bad, but I’ve never had it this bad before. It’s really get up in the middle of the night and make lunch kind of bad.
It wasn’t your first time to Australia, though.
No, but I don’t remember it being this bad. And it was so long ago. I guess it was 15 or 16 years ago.
So I guess the reception down there has changed.
I guess. I don’t know. We played these strange festival shows for five of them, and then we did just two of our own shows. They were fantastic — it was like a show anywhere, actually, it was really beautiful and really great, great people. Great people that I felt I recognized even though we’ve never been there before.