|Photo by Dan Monick|
Punk rock is supposed to be immediate — a song should slap you in the face with some sort of confrontation, be it political, culturally shocking or just plain dumb for dumb’s sake. You should be able to sing along to it, or at least thrash along, after the first chorus.
Evidently, John K. Samson forgot to read that part of the manifesto. The vocalist/guitarist/songwriter of the Weakerthans consistently defies such conventions on the Winnipeg group’s recent third release and Epitaph Records debut, Reconstruction Site. His are verbose, metaphorical works, sometimes obscurely referential, oddly titled or in the form of Elizabethan sonnets, and usually lacking one of pop’s most engaging elements: the chorus. “Anarchy in the U.K.” this ain’t.
“I’ve got kind of an unnatural fear of choruses,” Samson says, on the phone from his Winnipeg home. “But political punk rock kind of always treated the song structure as, you know, you have this much time to say something, and there’s no reason to repeat yourself.”
Call it maturated punk rock akin to Lou Reed, Jim Carroll and Patti Smith. Poetry? Perhaps, although Samson counters that he’s but a “failed, frustrated poet at best.” Still, while guitars seethe and drums crack (shades of indie-pop, folk and country also abound), words are paramount to his explorations of societal outcasts who soldier on despite the oppression. Yes, the words on Reconstruction Site require a listener’s commitment. Give it several hearings, or none at all.
Samson has spent all of his 30 years in Winnipeg, a near-700,000-person city known for little more than Neil Young (who was born there and attended Samson’s high school), the Guess Who and the National Hockey League’s Jets. Its official Web site boasts that Winnipeg is “the geographical centre” of the continent, but a municipality 150 miles due north of Grand Forks, North Dakota, and 10 hours from the nearest major North American metropolis hardly qualifies as an axis.
“You get the feeling the populace always thinks that life is elsewhere, that lives here don’t really count,” says Samson, but he gains strength from his home’s low self-esteem. “It’s a big metaphor for me. There is great power in the margins, geographically and politically. This is where interesting things come from — just because, I think, they have a chance to exist for more than five minutes without being devoured.”
Joined by guitarist Stephen Carroll, bassist John P. Sutton and drummer Jason Tait, Samson funnels that outsider spirit into Reconstruction Site, beginning with the hymnlike opening sonnet, “(Manifest),” in which Samson offers in reedy tones, “I’m permitted one act I can save, I chose to sit here next to you and wave.” On the country-rock-tinged “New Name for Everything,” a downtrodden man is told, “Stand with your hands in your pockets and stare at the smudge on a newspaper sky, and ask it to rain a new name for everything.” And in one of the album’s most poignant and lighter moments, “Plea From a Cat Named Virtute,” a feline gives his owner a pep talk: “I swear I’m gonna bite you hard and taste your tinny blood if you don’t stop the self-defeating lies you’ve been repeating since the day you brought me home. I know you’re strong.”
“Plea . . .” exposes what may be Samson’s most revealing influence, the very un-punk and often whimsical folkie John Prine. “I don’t know if it ever shows, but I always come back to him,” he says. “Laughing is a big part of life. People think I’m this mopey manic-depressive — which, you know, I am — but I also like to laugh about it.”
Samson also counts Young, Lou Reed, the Minutemen, Randy Newman and Tom Waits as touchstones, which helps explain why his punk rock is so far removed from the commodities of the Warped tour and MTV. Calling him just another songwriter would be like calling Karl Marx just another freethinker. His is a more ambitious pursuit of iconoclastic rock music and, ideally, revolution in the name of those whose lives don’t seem to count in a capitalistic society.
“Anyone who honestly tries to express themselves and who takes in voices from a broad cross section of humanity is immediately kind of radicalized by that,” Samson says. “Just the realization that there are all these human beings and that all these human beings deserve dignity is really profound. That’s the great thing that art does — it brings up all these voices that you would never otherwise hear.”
The Weakerthans play the Troubadour on Thursday, September 18.