Winnipeg’s favorite sons, The Weakerthans, released one of their best and most beloved albums over a decade ago, entitled Left and Leaving. The band toured the U.S. and played Fireside Bowl in support of said record, and we spoke with singer/guitarist John K. Samson after the show. We talked about the landmark album, some of its lyrics, touring, the band’s hometown and more. The Weakerthans issued a live album last year and hopefully they’ll return in 2012 with a new studio full-length and multiple tours.
Bill – Earlier this year you guys played the Fireside and now you’re back again, touring in support of the new record. Do you enjoy playing at the Fireside Bowl and how do you like the city of Chicago?
John – I love Chicago, it’s great, and I love the Fireside. It’s a really cool place that everyone knows about, that all the bands know about, and I think they always have a good time here. We really love it. It’s a great atmosphere.
Bill – Has touring in America always been a good experience for your band or do you prefer playing shows in Canada?
John – It’s easier in Canada. Our first tour in the States was a disaster. It’s always that way for bands, like their first tour in the States just sucks because there’s so many bands and so many cities that it’s totally hit or miss. You just have to keep doing it. It’s like anything, you just have to keep going back and trying again. It can’t all be bad, even if there are only a few people who came to see you it can still be a good show.
Bill – You’ve toured Europe twice now. What’s it like playing there and are you planning on heading back anytime soon?
John – It’s really great. It’s the best place to play in the world. It’s really well organized and has a great infrastructure for the music scene there. They can still do it on an independent level and it’s great. I love it. This November we’re going for another tour there.
Bill – How would you say the new album, Left and Leaving, reflects the growth or change that the band has gone through since releasing its first record?
John – I think this is more of a band record. The first record we kind of recorded just a few months after we started playing together. This one had a lot of time to grow up. It’s a lot more of a collective experience. I think lyrically it’s a little less angst-filled and a little more deliberate.
Bill – Something that’s present in your lyrics from both albums is a theme of all-night restaurants and also the landscape and climate of your hometown of Winnipeg. Why are those topics so prevalent in your writing?
John – I don’t know, but all-night restaurants do keep popping up. I just saw the Edward Hopper painting at the Art Institute today, the famous Nighthawks painting. There was a quote beside it by him that said, “An almost empty restaurant really represents the loneliness of being in a city” and I think it does. I mean, there’s some kind of comfort in being alone with other lonely people. There’s that, and certainly place has a big impact on my writing too. I think the point is to recognize the details in your daily life and to recognize that they’re important, and I think that’s universal. Hopefully it translates well and the songs make people look at their lives more closely.
Bill – The winter season is brutal here in Chicago and I can imagine that it’s a lot worse in Winnipeg. How do you tolerate that kind of weather and what do you do for fun during the winter months?
John – I like it and always look forward to it. I actually really hate heat of any kind. The cold can be punishing in Winnipeg, but it’s also great because it drives you inside to do stuff and just come up with things to entertain yourself. It’s when I get a lot of writing done. I also run a small publishing house in Winnipeg called Arbeiter Ring Publishing and that’s my day job. I’m an editor and I layout books.
Bill – Most would agree that your lyrics have a personal feel to them and I think you have a definite ability to describe specific emotions with a clever phrase of words. Does songwriting come naturally for you or does it typically take a lot of time to finish the words for a song?
John – Both, actually. It’s really the only thing that comes naturally to me in my life, but it does take a long time. A lot of my friends are songwriters and they’re always just popping-off the hits, but it takes me forever. I’m okay with that though. We’re an independent band, we all work really hard and we can take the time to make it work. We always play new songs live in front of people to see what happens to them, and usually they change a lot after we do that. We just played a song tonight that was brand new, like we’ve only played it once before, stuff like that.
Bill – Is there a political message that the band is trying to convey through its lyrics?
John – I guess all those things I just discussed about details in personal lives and certainly I think that’s political, any kind of expression is. I think the themes are also strongly about alienation and the way our culture and society alienates and disconnects people from each other.
Bill – Tell me about the non-profit organization that will receive a portion of the proceeds from your new record.
John – It’s called Art City and it’s kind of a community center in Winnipeg, but instead of focusing on sports it focuses on the arts. Winnipeg is a very poor city, there’s lots of child poverty and the inner city is really devastated, so we wanted to do something that would kick some money that way.
Bill – What else is in the future for The Weakerthans?
John – I guess a lot of touring and a lot of writing. I’d like to do another record and I think the rest of the guys would too, so we’re going to do one of those. It could take a year or it could take six years, you never know how long it’s going to take to get a record together. But when we have one ready we’ll do that and then do this all over again, I guess for the rest of our lives, because we don’t really know how to do anything else.