Interview: John K SamsonWritten by Kenny Leys
For those who actually read my interviews and reviews, you might have noticed certain favourites of mine over time. Fat Wreck and its band roster are along of my pet peeves, so is H8000 hardcore and related styles. But one band/artist that has been an all-time favourite for long is John K Samson of The Weakerthans. This Canadian singer-songwriter is my personal favourite when it comes to lyrics. So when John K recently did a small European solo tour it was time to speak with the man from Winnipeg himself. From the first show in Belgium to the one in the UK, we took the time to pick John K's brain on his past with The Weakerthans, his solo material on “Provincial Road” and of course his future plans.
For those who don't like to read all of this or want more, we also filmed the full interview and full set at the Eeklo show and it's available on Youtube (courtesy of my good friend Iheartweakerthans, go check out his YT channel for more). You can find the link below.
- Welcome to Belgium John, first time in Belgium or have you graced our land with a visit before?
I don't think it's my first time, I believe I’ve played here before, but it's been some time for sure. I believe The Weakerthans performed in Brussels, like ten years ago perhaps. But I'm excited, to be here. It's the first day of the tour. That's always fun, but scary.
- So today is the first day of a small European tour, this tour is revolving around your 2012 solo album “Provincial”.
To a certain degree, I've been playing a lot of Weakerthans songs as well. And some new songs I've been working on. There were a bunch of places I didn't get over to when I came over with the Provincial band. So I thought I would just come back and do some spots I didn't get to.
- And to start this tour you are playing the N9 venue today in Eeklo, Belgium. Did you know that the venue is named after the provincial road N9 that runs from Brussels to Ostend, so today's show fits perfect with the theme of the album.
Oh, I had no idea. That's superfitting, I like that.
- “Provincial” is a thematic album, the songs all deal with small town communities in Manitoba. What drove you to put the stories of these towns onto paper?
I guess I really wanted to have an excuse to drive around my home province of Manitoba. I had this idea in my head that I would choose like four roads and write songs about each of those roads. I'd try to write something historical and something about the landscape and something contemporary. And then at the end I would have all these songs. So this happened and at the end I had twelve songs. I took me a lot longer than I thought it would. It took like three years to write and record. It was kind of an enjoyable process. Kind of like a snapshot of the place that I'm from and its surrounding kind of areas.
- You performed intensive research for this album by visiting those towns and by digging into their background and history. Did this research lead to new insights about your province?
Absolutely, I did. I felt like just the amount of history contained in any one place can be really profound. There's a lot under the surface of things. So much has happened wherever we find ourselves. It's kind of our job or our duty as citizens to become aware of those histories that are beneath our feet in a way, to respect them and learn from them. I was really interested in the lives in small towns. Right now it seems to be a very interesting time to live in a small town, I don't, but I know a lot of people who do and I spend a lot of time in smaller towns and the way that the internet is changing these small towns so that people can become connected to other places but they are still living in these small communities with some real kind of community traditions. And it’s that I'm interested in. The internet is both harmful and helpful in that regard. It's bringing people together and pushing people apart at the same time. I really wanted to explore that. That's why there are a lot of video games on the record I guess.
- You mentioned Grand Theft Auto in the song “When I Write My Master's Thesis”. What inspired you to bring ‘the new world’ into your songs?
Well actually The Weakerthans drummer, Jason Tait, used to play Call Of Duty, which is the other game that comes up on the record. He played it online with other people all around the world, they play on a team. I thought that was superinteresting; all these people playing a game together from all over the world. I never heard of this before. That was really kind of cool. I never thought that was possible. I'm of the generation where video games cost like a quarter and you had to go to arcades to play. I missed gaming entirely; it's not part of who I am so I find it a kind of weird, fascinating culture. I think it's really interesting and I think there is a lot to be said for it. Like that people are sort of collaborating on the projects across vast distances and culture but also that it’s a great way to waste time. That's always going to be the case. I guess you could do the same for music, I think video games get a bad reputation.
- A place that holds many different and small communities is the internet. How do you feel about the internet and music nowadays? Is it easier for bands to spread your music all over the world?
I think the internet has been both wonderful for musicians and a problem for musicians. It puts the means of production into the hands of the worker. Straight-up economic Marxist sense, it's a good thing I think. All these artists that weren't able to be record before can now. Like I think I would spend a 100 dollars a day on recording on something I could do with this now [pulls out his iPhone]. It's crazy to think that 20 years ago we all would have thought it was a bonkers idea. I have a really conflicted idea and relationship with the internet. I'm not on the internet anymore, which is weird, I stopped. I don't have social media, I just use e-mail. I feel a bit like an outsider now that I’ve stopped. I'm kind of missing or I get it later because I read newspapers and watch television or listen to the radio but those are my main sources of news now. For me it's been an interesting experience to try and stop. Not to be moral about it, I think the internet is a wonderful thing but I think what it does to my specific brain is wonderful. As an artist I find it difficult too; there's so much opinion on the internet, so much criticism and I feel it's hard for anyone to develop as an artist if they don’t pay any attention to that. I feel like a whole bunch of the musicians that we know and love and made music in like the 80's could never make music nowadays. They could never get past that social part of the media where you to have to be friendly and open and encouraging. I think there are a lot of phases in an artist’s life where they can't be that. They should just be in a room somewhere locked with their words and their song. It's really complicated and there's no turning back. I'm still waiting to see what really sticks and what falls by the wayside. So I'm fascinated by what happens next. I kind of like the weird by-product of this advancement is that everyone seems to go to shows nowadays. More and more people are going to shows, more and more musicians are playing a show. That's where to connect with people in real life. That's where they can make a living. I feel like 20 years ago the live show didn't seem to be the future for anyone. Now the live shows are the future. I happen to love live shows so I'm pleased about that.
- Your hometown of Winnipeg is ofgreat influence to your lyrics. What makes Winnipeg so enclosed in your heart?
I guess it's a really unique place and also a really normal place. It's right in the middle of North-America, almost dead centre. It's a city of about 800.000 people and I’ve been living there for almost 41 years now. It always felt like a place where people felt that life was elsewhere. So it felt to me in the beginning, when I started reading and listening to artists from Winnipeg, it felt like a real liberation and exciting to hear people speaking about that place. It's like a place where people grew up and left. I wanted to stay and kind of explore that place. It sort of became my main theme in my writing life. It's something I feel I still haven't figured out yet. It's like a problem I can't solve.
- You've toured the world, both with the band and solo. Right now you're doing a solo European tour. As you often write about places and landmarks at home. Any plans on writing songs inspired by your travels in Europe?
Absolutely, I weirdly feel that makes me want to write about Winnipeg even more. Just being away gives you a different perspective on where you are from. I like coming to a place like this that I’ve never been before and discovering the unique things about this place and that to me makes me think about the place that I'm from in a different way. I do have one song that is set in London; that is kind of interesting for me. Maybe I'll do more European cities.
- As a writer, language must mean much to you. How do you feel on the current status of language? I mean like phenomena such as 'texting' abbreviations, or just the decline of spelling and grammar in general? I just read something in the newspaper this week about Finland planning to cancel writing from their schooling program because everyone is using computers nowadays and nobody seems to write anymore.
Well, I think weirdly, that's another thing the internet has done, it made us all readers. People read all day long on their screens everywhere. And on those screens there’s like text, the written word, and it still has great power to influence and change and do what language does; this incredible act that it does to connect people. I feel actually more kind of hopeful to language than ever because it is everywhere and people are doing interesting things with it. It does kind of spook me that people won't write anymore. I'm okay with it. I do most of writing as a typist now anyway. It was the only thing I learned in high school, it was how to type. And I'm glad I did, I was of the generation where boys didn't learn to type. I was like the only boy in my grade ten typing class. I'm really grateful I learned how to do that. It's the one skill that I actually use.
- The output of your work is rather laidback, your writing process leads up to something of three or four songs a year. Do you consider your lyrics as babies that need to be nurtured?
I like spending time with them. I like the process of writing a song, I like worrying at it, just poking at it until it's ready. I'm down to one or two songs a year. I'll try to make that better in the new year. Maybe one of these days I will like write ten songs in a week, part of me is, I like the process. I was just reading this book and a character in it said 'You should write songs, just not too often'. If I would write to many songs, it would get annoying.
- And once you release the songs onto the world, are you happy with them or do you feel like they are still works in progress?
I do feel there's still a work in progress to all the songs. The great thing about playing live is the songs do different things when you are playing them in front of different people and each night is a room full of different people. I feel a great privilege and really lucky to go around the world and do that. To me I feel the songs are at their best when I'm a room with other people in it.
- And now the question everyone has been waiting for, the obligatory Weakerthans question: are there any plans to release new material in the nearby future, or even new JKS solo material? Or even a Weakerthans European tour?
I don't know frankly, I’m not sure. We'll see, the songs will kind of dictate what will happen. All those guys are doing things right now for the foreseeable future. I'm doing other things but I would never say never. It could happen.
- David Marote / Arjan Van Geel