There’s that sound, that rustle you hear when you’re walking through a field. Hip-high grass quietly bends in the wind, blending together like brushstrokes on canvas. A few trees shimmy like flappers. In the distance, water glides over a few rocks. Something cracks underneath your feet. It’s a restless silence, the world moving around you.
John K. Samson knows that sound—the quiet cacophony of the northland. You can hear it in his voice, that sound that reminds you of drops landing in a puddle. You can hear it in his band, the Winnipeg-based Weakerthans, who can go from a thunderstorm to a crisp fall day. Samson revels in the quiet moments. The breath before a kiss. The rain hitting the pavement. “The silence knows what your silence means,” he moans on the band’s latest disc, Left and Leaving (Sub City). Even when things seem they can’t get any louder.
It didn’t used to be that way. Samson used to scream for revolution, playing with punk politicians Propaghandi. He preached from a four-string soapbox; he helped the group become a hardcore legend. And while he wouldn’t trade that time for a string of platinum albums, it’s made Samson’s switch to the more mellow side of life a little difficult.
“When we first started, I remember someone put on a flier ‘The Weakerthans, formerly Propaghandi,’” Samson says. “When all the punk kids showed up, they didn’t know what to think. Some left, but others stuck around and gave us a chance.”
“The funny thing is people think I’ve changed, went soft or something. I don’t think I really changed anything,” Samson continues. “I wrote songs like this with Propaghandi and they didn’t fit.”
It’s the reason Samson left the group four years ago. While he felt Propaghandi still had important things to say, he was ready for something different. Pulling in a few of Winnipeg’s punk stalwarts, Samson put together The Weakerthans, using many of his passed-over songs as the foundation. Within a couple of months the group had released its first CD, Fallow. It caught most people off guard. Sure, Samson’s roots were still evident. But Fallow was about as punk as a poetry reading, full of the calm and the compelling. It was also an instant indie hit, settling into the College Music Journal charts for a solid 10 weeks and scoring some serious airplay in the band’s native Canada.
But rather than quickly capitalize on Fallow’s success, Samson kept to his punk roots, opting to spend the next three years touring and living a real life. He started a small publishing company, printing up leftist-leaning literature and fiction. “We really needed something like this in Canada,” he says, pride oozing into his voice.
In his spare time, he started writing songs again, building up material for the group’s second disc, Left and Leaving. It turned out to be just as much of a surprise as Fallow. While there’s still some of Samson’s early bombast—like the Foo Fighters-inspired “Aside,” and the straight rock of “This is a Fire Door Never Leave Open”—he’d written an album that comes off like a sigh. There’s stories of late-night coffee and complacency, lyrics dipped in the longing of a man still young enough to get sucked in by a crush but old enough to know better. Guitars gently stroll by. A lap-steel guitar says hi from across the street. It all comes off like the Flaming Lips working their way through Wilco’s Summerteeth. And though Samson realized what he’d written, he couldn’t help but worry a little that he’d gotten too quiet.
“I was a bit nervous when the record came out because there’s some slow, quiet things and it’s a challenge to listen to,” Samson says. “But you can’t worry too much. You write these songs in the basement and people will listen to them if they want.”
Plenty of people wanted to listen. Like Fallow, Left and Leaving camped out on the CMJ Top 200. The disc also scored a nod from the Juno Awards, Canada’s version of the Grammys; it was nominated for Best Alternative Album last year. While Samson thought it was kind of cool to be selected, he didn’t put much stock in the whole thing. Most of the show was clogged with the normal pop crap. “It’s really mainstream and pretty ridiculous,” he says.
So, rather than hoof it to Toronto to sit in a roomful of Celine Dion wannabes, Samson decided to go on vacation during the Junos. “I wanted to get as far away from there as I could, so I went to Victoria and sat at my aunt and uncle’s house and watched it on TV. We didn’t win. I wasn’t surprised.”
In fact, the only thing that really surprises Samson anymore is people’s urge to toss The Weakerthans into the emo pit. Sure, the band has a sensitive side that it’s not afraid to show. And the band can switch from a depressed shuffle to a bouncy gallop. But Samson says that’s no reason to throw The Weakerthans to the emo wolves.
“I try not to let it frustrate me anymore,” he admits. “It’s natural to want to put something into a container that’s easily sold. And look at the band. It’s hard to pin us down. We’re not this, and we’re not that. So what are we? So people go, ‘Well, it’s Propaghandi, but emo.’ The funny thing is, I’ve never even heard any of those bands that are called ‘emo.’ I don’t even really know what it is.”
The Weakerthans open for Dashboard Confessional at Kilby Court, 741 S. 330 West (320-9887), Sunday May 20, 8:30 p.m.