This is one that's been on the backburner for six months now, even though it was my favourite interview of 2007. But this is as good a time to run it as any: not just because the three articles I extracted from it have now been published [one in Magnet, this one for AOL, and, most recently, this one in the SOCAN magazine], but because--after 16 years--I'm taking a retreat from music writing as a full-time job, and I may as well go out with a bang.
I had been a huge fan ever since I first saw them in 1999, playing an Exclaim party at the Reverb. A packed room knew every word of every song from 1997's Fallow, and I felt like a chump because I couldn't believe I hadn't heard these amazing lyrics before, set to stirring, anthemic folk/punk. When Left and Leaving came out in 2000, I bought it immediately and became quite evangelical about it--as did every other early adopter, until the album took its rightful place as one of the most beloved Canadian albums of the last decade.
I saw them live repeatedly, got to know one of them personally, and introduced them on stage at Hillside one year. But 2003's Reconstruction Site seemed like spinning wheels to me, with the country-ish shades in particular sounding like a typically conservative Canadian musical move, rather than elevating the material with fresh new sounds. Plus, my own tastes were starting to steer away from the conventional, and their live show seemed rote to me, no matter how much I still loved those earlier songs.
Which is why part of the reason I was so excited about the Weakerthans' Reunion Tour is that I had almost given up on the band. This album sounds like a rejuvenated band excited to be making music together, and singer/songwriter John K. Samson found miraculous ways to make his favourite four chords ring true again. There are songs on Left and Leaving that mean more to me personally, but I would argue that Reunion Tour is a much more consistently excellent album, and by far their best to date.
Despite my fandom and the fact we have many mutual friends, I'd only ever met Samson briefly, exchanging little more than hellos. In the seven years since Left and Leaving, I had never interviewed him before--which is part of the reason why this interview lasted a whopping 80 minutes. The other reason is that, as expected, Samson is an engaging conversationalist who speaks in paragraphs about a breadth of subjects. He chooses his words as carefully in person as he does in his prose.
This discussion took place three months before the album came out; it's probably the first time Samson was asked many of these questions about the new material. We talk about writers' block, capitalism, depression, the publishing industry, curling, Edward Hopper paintings, the Constantines, hospitals, regional writing and, of course, the Canadian identity.
Some crappy recaps of my favourite records of 2007 will likely follow sometime in the next week, but this is my favourite conversation of the year.
John K. Samson, Weakerthans
July 18, 2007
Locale: phone interview from his Winnipeg home
This is your best album in seven years!
I wasn’t sure what to expect. Maybe you didn’t either.
I didn’t, actually. Our expectations going in were—I wouldn’t say low, but we were a bit bewildered. We weren’t sure what we had. We tossed around the idea of doing just an EP. Then [producer] Ian [Blurton] flew into Winnipeg in March and it was still quite wintry. We shacked up in our soundman’s studio, which is out in a factory on the outskirts of Winnipeg. Ian kept saying, ‘What else do you have?’ We’d say, ‘Well, we have this, but we’re not sure.’ He said he thought there was a record there. It was really focused and fast and in-house. Everyone involved was intimately involved in the band one way or another. Our soundman Cam [Loeppky] has been with us for ten years. He did all the engineering in Winnipeg. Dave [McKinnon] from the Fembots is one of our dearest friends and musical associates, and he did the engineering in Toronto. It was comfortable that way.
And Mr. Blurton returned for his third time around.
We had vague discussions about who would produce it, and it always came back to the fact that we were the most comfortable and impressed by Mr. Blurton. Musically, we’re very different people, but he brings a really determined focus to all the proceedings and work that has to occur. He has a really nimble musical mind. He’s someone I implicitly trust. I think we all do. I’m of the opinion that this is our best piece of work, mostly because it sounds the most like us. It’s the most indicative of who we actually are as a band.
Does that have something to do with the speed with which it happened after such a long wait? Were other records overly thought out?
Perhaps. The record previous to this one was the hardest record we all made. We had a lot of troubles. This one, we had trouble getting enough songs per se but we always knew we had a record in us. Once we started, it just flew out of us. That was exciting to watch. We felt lucky while we were making it. We were looking at each other saying, ‘Wow, this is really easy and fun.’
‘We should do this more often!’
Exactly: why did we wait so long? Why didn’t we just do this a year ago?
Weakerthans fans are used to waiting for three years, but, you know, after four years they start getting antsy.
(laughs) Well, the stretches might be getting longer.
Is it wrong for an audience to expect an album from an artist every year, even if it’s of varying quality?
I do. There are artists for whom it’s interesting to do something every year, and they have something to say every year, and artists like that often fail and their failures are really interesting. You’ll have a great record and then a great attempt. I think we realized who we are: we’re just slow about it. And we have lives and we’re all doing different things. We’re all trying to make adult lives for ourselves, and being in a rock band isn’t always necessarily conducive to that.
With the kind of lyrics you write, they read as refined prose with nary a stray word, very compact. So if the audience puts those lyrics in that category, the analogy would be that no one expects a novelist to put out a book a year—unless they’re Stephen King or another genre writer.
That’s true. There is a certain spontaneity and thrill to those artists who can write more productively than I can. There is an excitement to it. I just don’t know how to write that way. I like to carry the songs around with me for a long time, because they are good company. I become attached to them. Especially in my winters, I’m focused on thinking about them. If we put out a record every year or every two years, I’d be kind of lonely. (laughs)
It makes you wonder about the relationship that Dylan or Costello or even Dan Bejar have with their songs. Often those songs can be clever phrases or tidbits with seemingly little connection to each other, they just throw it all at you all the time, and it’s up to you what you parse from that.
Sure, yeah. Maybe that’s more fun for a listener.
It’s kind of exhausting for me, actually.
But I got to know John Darnielle and [The Hold Steady's] Craig Finn in the last couple of years, and they are both those writers. They just spew out this really wonderful and impressive poetry, constantly. There are models there for people that I really envy who can do it. They are two people who both complained to my face about how slow I was, and how long I was taking with this record.
And your retort was?
I had no retort.
‘No, you shut up!’
Exactly. Craig Finn came up to me a year ago in New York and said, ‘Since you put out your last record, I’ve put out three.’ And what do you say to that? They’re all really good records. That was a nice impetus. You don’t often get people coming up to you and telling you, ‘Get to it.’
During this time period, are you writing a lot and then self-censoring, or are you whittling down a few pieces?
I did a lot of editing, especially on this record. There was more that we decided not to include. It’s the shortest record we’ve ever made: it’s 37 minutes long and 11 songs. I think we all felt like it was concise. We were taking that W.H. Auden quote to heart, which I always think of. ‘The same rule for confession applies to writing: Be brief, be blunt, be gone.’ That was our thinking.
I was thinking of the quote from Catherine Hunter that you included in the last record, which was: ‘I’m always forgetting what I wasn’t going to write about, what I wasn’t going to say again.’ When you’re taking time with these things, is there a fear of repeating the past? Old themes?
Certainly. Even when I’m in the midst of writing, and thinking that I’m doing something I haven’t done before, I finish and realize that it’s similar to something I’ve already done. There’s a commonality there that’s unavoidable. The first song on the record, ‘Civil Twlight,’ I was writing it at the library downtown in Winnipeg. I would take the bus there every day in the winter for the afternoon, write there and then come home. It’s about a bus driver, so I would take notes on my way there. I thought I’d never written a song about this before. The Winnipeg library is a hub for the buses, so you see all the drivers taking their breaks there. Then when I was done, I realized it was another song about Winnipeg that fits with all the other ones. I was a little disappointed.
I don’t see it that way. I do love that song. But there are certainly recurring motifs in your writing. You personify abandoned machines again here, which you did on one of the first two albums, I can’t remember where.
Oh yeah, and that came up twice on this record. An earlier me would have said that I can’t do that.
And now it’s part of your oeuvre.
Exactly. I thought, well, that’s the way I write, and there must be something in that idea that I want to talk about.
Do you think different albums have motifs and themes?
I really do. Especially different Weakerthans records have different vernaculars to them. It depends on what my interests are at any given time.
Fallow to me is obviously a much younger man’s record.
Even the title suggests that I was conscious of that at the time. I had to put these things to rest, to get these reflexive you-done-me-wrong love songs out of my system. That’s a neutral gear for pop songs, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I felt I dwelled on those too long.
We’ve been talking about lyrics, but I’m wondering if the music itself is any easier to write. Is there a gap between writing the music and then waiting for the right words to match it?
It’s different each time, but it is a difficulty I have. We’ll have a song worked out with the band, and there just won’t be lyrics for a year or 18 months until I figure it out. It’s frustrating for the band members, and it’s annoying for me, too. Also, we live in different cities now, which has been an interesting challenge. But the internet has made that a different problem. We send songs back and forth. Jason sent me a loop that we made into ‘Civil Twilight.’
You probably come up with different material than if you were four guys in a room staring at each other.
Especially on this record, the unfinished quality of the songs we had going into the studio was a real advantage. It was the first time Ian had a chance to really get his elbows in and mess around with things.
I’ve always been impressed by your use and abuse of meter. On this album—which I just heard a few days ago—lines seem to rhyme even less, and yet there’s still this flow and cadence to them. Are you no longer a slave to rhyme schemes?
I hope so! I was working with meter on this one. Part of that is that I was off and writing without music. I wrote a lot of them in the last three winters, in places outside my house, where there wasn’t a guitar. That was a challenge to me, because I would write during the day and then come home and play it with the music and it often didn’t sync up. I’d have to alter things, and sometimes I’d alter the music instead of the lyrics. I’ve been reading a lot of poetry in the last couple of years.
Is that different from the years before that?
For the last record I was reading more prose. Poetry has really come back into my life lately. It’s been a big influence in the last couple of years.
Newer poets, older ones?
Both, but a lot of newer people. I’m really excited by Canadian poetry especially, it’s a good time for that.
I like Ken Babstock a lot and a lot of the Toronto poets. Elisabeth Beshinski. Hmmm. Now I’m blanking.
What does it mean to throw hack-weight?
It’s a curling term for when the skip calls the weight you should throw. Hack-weight is when you throw it from one hack, which is where you dig into the ice and slide out from, and if you throw hack-weight you mean it to land at the opposite hack. It’s used as a soft take-out. But if you’re trying to draw, which the person in the song is trying to do, draw to the button, and you’re throwing hack-weight, it means you’re too heavy. You’re sliding right through the house.
How extensive is your own curling experience?
[Guitarist] Stephen [Carroll] and I both play in a league together for the past two years. I grew up curling. It’s something that’s come back to me in the last two years. I go at least once a week, and Sunday afternoons I go just for fun. It’s a wonderful game and I really love it. I wrote a thing about it for the CBC Radio3 about curling in general. It’s somewhere I’m really comfortable, with people I wouldn’t generally be comfortable with. The league we play in is Stephen’s dad’s business league. You curl, and you drink with them afterwards, and it’s very comfortable and reassuring. It’s a fine form of human interaction.
Is it far removed from hanging out in black-walled rock clubs?
There are some similarities. There is fraternity. It’s more fun. Stephen and I do most of our drinking in curling clubs now as opposed to rock clubs.
Even though I never assumed previous songs were necessarily autobiographical, there are a lot of songs here that are explicitly not about you. I know that you don’t drive a bus, I’m assuming that you’re not a medical experiment, and I’m also assuming that you’re not a cat.
Yes. I was conscious about that this time. On Reconstruction Site I made that effort, but I don’t think I succeeded. On this record I wanted to pick some challenging people to write about. Specifically, I wanted to write about people that I didn’t like.
You don’t like curlers? You don’t like bus drivers? You don’t like cats?
I do like all those things! But I don’t necessarily like the dot-com capitalist in ‘Surplus Value’ and despite the frightening similarities between myself and the protagonist in ‘Reunion Tour,’ I don’t really like that person at all. I think that person is despicable. I wanted to set those kind of standards for myself. The other people are people I don’t have first-hand experience with, like a bus driver or a medical experiment victim or a guy who saw Bigfoot. A couple of those things were also commissioned pieces. I wrote the Bigfoot song for a documentary a friend of mine made about the actual guy. It’s called There’s Something Out There. It was made for CTV last year.
When was that incident?
It was about three years ago. It was in Norway House, Manitoba. It’s an interesting story about this guy who saw Bigfoot and was then taken advantage of by everyone who could take advantage of him. That was interesting and frightening, writing about someone that existed. Same with David Reimer, who was the idea for the medical oddities song.
I actually just read the record company bio five minutes before this interview, and didn’t realize what that song was about. Is this the guy that there was a really interesting book written about him a few years ago?
Yeah, As Nature Made Him by John Colapinto. This friend of mine Matthew Patton, who is this composer here in Winnipeg, decided to write a requiem for David Reimer. He started asking people if they could write things for it. It’s this incredible case of this Winnipegger who was born a boy and through several mishaps was raised as a girl and then decided he wanted to be a boy again when he was in his teens. It seemed to contain so much pathos and so much Winnipeg in his story.
How so the latter?
I’m not sure, really. If you see pictures of him or this BBC documentary made about him, he is quintessentially Winnipeg: his accent, the way he talks, the way he smokes, the way he speaks, what his concerns are. They all seem so true and to me confidential. They seem like only I could know them because I’m from here.
His story ended tragically, didn’t it?
It did. He killed himself in a parking lot. I tried not to allude to that in the song. If you know that, it paints the song in a different way at the end, because he is in a parking lot at one point in the song. That was a tricky one.
It may have been what inspired it, but the song is much more universal, because I had a clear understanding of one level of it without knowing who it was about specifically.
I still haven’t decided if I should talk up how the song came to me or what I feel about it. I don’t know if it’s necessary, or if people even want to know that. That’s one of the dilemmas I’m having now as I start talking about it for the first time.
It’s the second time you’ve written a hospital narrative. On the last record, there was a character who, if I’m interpreting the song correctly, is ashamed of their religion in the face of mortality. They’re asking a friend to block the hospital camera while they kneel and pray.
I hadn’t thought of that, but that is a real connection. That frightening, faithless world of medicine and the way we try to keep ourselves alive. I’m using that in a broad way, of course.
If I was a man of greater faith, I would say that we try and defy God and resist our time to go. We find ways to prolong it. It isn’t surprising to me that some of your songs are set in hospitals, because a lot of them are dealing with very vulnerable people, and when are we ever more vulnerable than when we’re in a hospital?
That’s true, it really does winnow down everything that’s extraneous about us. When you walk through the doors, either to be admitted or to visit someone, you’re stripped bare. It’s one of those places where you find out who you are. Which is both frightening and great.
You don’t have to answer this, but have you spent time in hospitals lately?
No, not as someone admitted. But in the past five years there have been some hospitals, sure. No more or less than anyone else who is in their thirties. It’s certainly a part of getting older, is that idea, that reality that you have to face.
The song ‘Utilities,’ to me, is about the perceived futility of working with the mind rather than the hands.
That’s deftly put. It’s true. I think all of us have those moments where we wonder—well, maybe not all of us do…
…Where we wonder if what we’re doing is of any use whatsoever.
‘Why don’t I know how to fix a car?’
Exactly—the most basic things. I think about how I’m probably going to spend some period of time of this earth and never know how to change the oil in my car. That’s depressing, sometimes. That desire to be useful is noble. I purposely wanted to end the record on that note. It’s the one kind of purely hopeful song on the record. It came out of a lot of reading. I think Annie Dillard was involved.
Another running motif through every Weakerthans record is that of characters grappling with communication, trying to find the right thing to say and the right time to say it. I’ve read interviews with you before where you draw direct connections between this kind of emotional stuttering and the effects of capitalism on the way we interact with each other. But is that a scapegoat? With many of these characters, they seem to be suffering from some form of depression and I’m wondering if those two things—depression and capitalism—are eternally linked for you in a cause-and-effect relationship.
I guess a strict Marxist would tell you that depression is another biproduct of capitalism, and I wouldn’t go nearly that far. I think you’re right, perhaps it has been a scapegoat. And maybe what I was hoping to think about on this record was not necessarily saying the right thing, but saying the honest thing.
Hmmm. That could be a whole record right there, exploring that thought.
I think there’s a lot less comfort on this record. I’m trying to talk to and about these people in a more honest and direct way. A blunt way, I’m hoping. Lyrically it’s less palatable because of that. Trying to face certain realities about the world we live in and the people we are. I would still contend that capitalism has a lot to answer for in that regard. The process is more interrogatory.
Do you find other Weakerthans records more comfortable, that this is somehow less comfortable? Or less honest?
No, I can’t say that. Other people could say that. I think it comes down, for a writer, to the last thing you’ve written. That’s the only real test for what you believe in, is what you’re writing right now. It’s hard for me to revisit those records. I don’t listen to them. We play those songs live, but they mean different things to me now.
There are no direct allusions to politics on this album, that I can discern.
‘Relative Surplus Value’ is a Marxist term for the value that a capitalist extracts from technological advances. That was trying to be my most directly political song on the record.
What is political about what happens to that character? It could be anyone who is lonely and about to lose his job. You can argue about the value of his job…
I was trying to think about the idea that Marx and Engels pointed out in the Communist Manifesto, this idea that capitalism doesn’t just devour workers, it devours bosses and the humanity in everyone. I think of this character as someone that people like me would feel certain joy in their downfall. Trying to empathize with that, the us vs. them idea doesn’t necessarily work. Marx pointed this out a century and a half ago.
Is ‘Sun in an Empty Room’ about a branch plant economy?
A branch plant economy? No. I wish it was! (laughs) Man, it could be though, eh? That’s pretty good!
Particularly at this point in Canadian economic history, it’s on a lot of people’s minds.
No, it’s based on a painting, actually. It’s one of two songs about paintings, Edward Hopper paintings. I went to this show of Edward Hopper paintings on our last big Reconstruction Site tour, when I was really burned out. We ended the European tour in 2004 and I went to London to visit some friends. I went to the Tate Gallery there, and there was a Hopper exhibition.
Everyone’s familiar with Nighthawks at the Diner and some of his really iconic paintings, but seeing them all in one place was really overwhelming. I walked in there thinking that I didn’t want to write songs anymore, and I walked out thinking I did. I took two paintings and sat with little prints of them for a long time, and ‘Sun in an Empty Room’ was one of them. His paintings both invite and resist narrative in a way. They’re incredibly lonely and alienated and evocative cityscapes, those are the ones that appeal to me the most. There’s also something about them that just begs to be told, you just want to tell a story about them.
I noticed on that and ‘Civil Twilight’ that this record is much more visual. On ‘Civil Twilight’ I get a very vivid visual of the bus driver’s route, and the house in question. Same thing with ‘Sun in An Empty Room.’ I found your earlier writing very emotionally evocative—things I’ve felt before—but with this I can also picture it.
I’m happy you said that. I think it’s our most visual record. There was something conscious about that idea.
Is it because a painter convinced you to write?
I think it is, in a way. I walked out of that gallery thinking that I would write a record just about twelve paintings I loved, just to see what happened. It turned out that only two of them worked. I do think it’s our least emotional record, and our most visual one.
Before, when I was callously suggesting there were no politics on this record, I thought it was interesting because this is a time, six years after the political landscape changed, a lot of artists who were sleeping all that time are now surfacing with very simple, knee-jerk, the-president-is-bad kind of statements. I don’t know what to make of it.
I do think there are politics on this record. Setting that Mark Strand poem at the beginning, I think it speaks of a time after the war.
Sorry, is this in the artwork? Because I haven’t seen it.
Yeah, it’s in the lyric booklet, as an epigraph. There are a couple of points in the songs where I allude to this idea of an unending war. That’s what we’re living in right now. In my mind, I think we’ll be living in a state of war for many years, perhaps the rest of our lives. It’s so hard to comment on that state when you’re within it. Maybe it’s a failing of mine, but I can’t find a strategy of speaking of it: this idea of the trough of history. I can’t comment on it except in indirect ways. In the lyrics it does rise to the surface occasionally, in ‘Sun in an Empty Room’ when they’re wrapping up things in newspapers that are about war. And then they’re going to unwrap those things when they move, and wrap them up again in war again when they move again. We’re going to be wrapping our possessions in war for the rest of our lives.
And pending elections.
Yeah, and crosswords. And in ‘Night Visions,’ “de-pluralizing our casualties and drowning generals out in static,” this idea of resisting this idea of constant war. I hoped that it would be more explicit, but it’s not, and I can’t figure out why. It’s a frightening and interesting time to be alive. It’s really difficult to write about directly. And maybe it feels a little dangerous to me.
I wonder if that is some of the older man talking, as opposed to some of the writing on Fallow, where you might have dove right in to that—or certainly in Propagandhi.
Sure. There’s a certain certainty that has worn away with getting older.
And yet, there are new Propagandhi records that aren’t any less…
Strident, yeah. They’re valuable, and I think there needs to be people doing that. Just as there needs to be people doing what I’m trying to do, which is approach it through whatever angle is available to us and try and work on the ideas of interconnectedness and alienation and the immediate everyday ideas and the details of life that bring us together. It’s pretty impossible for someone to empathize with another person, which is why fiction and poetry are the most valuable art forms. It’s impossible to empathize with someone who is foreign from you, and then go to war with them. I think the arts are a really powerful tool, a subtle tool, and shouldn’t be overlooked.
It’s hard when your enemy [the Taliban, for example] doesn’t believe in art, however, and even goes so far as to ban music.
Yeah, absolutely, it’s a curious struggle, it really is. Which is why it’s hard to approach it directly, or it’s hard for me to, anyway. The subtleties and complexities are enough to drive anyone around the drink.
Here’s the whopping identity question, which is if you’ve ever thought there were distinctly Canadian themes in your work, even right down to the band name. We as a nation beat ourselves up all the time, we’re torn on issues of identity and our role in the world, and often we let ourselves be defined by uncertainty—to a fault, I think, especially when it comes to Liberal party hegemony. We try and pretend that we don’t, but we do have a certain weakness in relation to the rest of the world. And the challenge then becomes to translate these qualities into strengths. It’s a big question to ask any songwriter, but these seem to be common themes.
Of course. I think that’s totally true. I think there was a time when I would deny vociferously that I was a Canadian artist on principle. I still would, just because theoretically to me it just doesn’t work.
This idea of a national identity. I don’t know why that should be true, but the evidence is clear that there is, and I fit right in there. Maybe on this record I embraced it a bit more. No one really knows all those curling terms I’m using, but if anyone does, they’re going to be Canadian.
Yeah, but you knew some of them, right?
One or two.
OK, but anyone west of Ontario will know them. You know, there are a million curlers in the world, and three-quarters of them are Canadian. I think it defines us more than hockey does, but that’s a whole other interview. I do feel like there are some obvious nods to the Canadian vernacular and society, and now that I have some perspective on it, the [band] name is quintessentially and maybe sadly even, Canadian.
But I find I’m more interested in regional writing, those people who explore the places they’re from and distort them in a way that allows us to hear those places in different ways and understand our own communities in fresh new ways. I often feel more comfortable in Minneapolis than I do in the streets of Vancouver, and that’s something to do with the landscape and the impact of the landscape on people. That’s a huge force.
That’s what I’ve always been most interested in: the localities. In an accelerated culture like ours, that is the most valuable tool for exploring the world. The centres of culture are so difficult for me to get a handle on, and the people writing about the world from the margins—either marginalized places or marginalized positions—are, to me, having the most insight into who we are right now. The idea of a Canadian identity is a bit troubling to me, but it’s certainly there.
As someone who has now dictated a national book reading program [CBC Radio’s Canada Reads] not once, but twice, the sway you’ve had over hundreds of thousands of Canadians who might not even listen to your music…
(laughs). It’s true. I certainly had some issues with that. But yeah, that was a big theoretical mindfuck for me!
I don’t know! It was that whole idea that I’ve loved books and worked with books all my adult life by running a publishing house, and turning that into a reality contest was troubling to me. But it was also fun. I had a really good time with it. And it was actually productive in some ways. But—okay, you really called me on that one. That whole program is predicated on the idea that there is a national character and a national book and a flagship for the culture.
Your first choice [Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness] was a very regional thing, though obviously it spoke quite universally.
I think both choices were quite regional, actually. Lullabies for Little Criminals is set in Montreal and is set in a four-block radius. It’s incredibly evocative of a place that was totally foreign to me and totally interesting and something I can relate to. I think Montreal is probably the most foreign place you could be in Canada.
Quebec City, actually.
Sure, but I’d rather be in Montreal.
I just finished reading [Michael Ondaatje's] In the Skin of a Lion for the first time.
Oh man, what a good book.
Again, you see Toronto completely differently. I’d been living in the east end for the last year, on the other side of the Don River, and I crossed that bridge [the Bloor Street Viaduct, where part of the book is set] every day.
That was a huge book for me when I first read it, even though it was about Toronto and we’re bred not to like Toronto here. It was a huge revelation on how one might be able to write about a place with all its histories.
The work that really translates elsewhere is usually very regional, and that’s true of Canadian books and films—the Canadian films that try and look like Hollywood aren’t the ones that do well elsewhere. It’s the Guy Maddins of the world that the rest of the world loves. But the Arbeiter Ring [publishing company], you’re still involved?
Yeah, more so than ever, actually. It’s been an exciting time for us. I’m planning on doing more, even though we’ll be touring.
Is publishing the one pursuit that make less money than rock’n’roll?
Actually, it is. It’s a hilarious and financially silly thing to try and do. But worth it, I think. We just had a launch for the first novel we published, which is by a woman named Deborah Schnitzer. It was an ecstatic event; we had the best time and we sold 50 books. We got it back from the printer and it looked amazing, better than any book we’d ever done before. There are those moments when I think, ‘Wow, this is such a great job.’
What exactly is your day-to-day role?
I’m a member of the editorial collective, and I’m acting managing editor right now. I oversee a lot of the day-to-day stuff, especially grant writing, which is a big part of my life. And guiding books through the printing process, with printers and designers. It’s really fun. I feel lucky, because Winnipeg is really the only place I could do this. Ten years ago, my friend Todd and I decided we wanted to start a publishing house and really had no business doing so. Then we did, and everyone said, ‘good for you!’ Anywhere else, people might have said, ‘Why are you doing this, and why should we give our book to you?’ But in Winnipeg, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Financially, it costs less to live here, too.
And the Manitoba arts grants are the envy of every other province.
That’s true, too. The Manitoba Arts Council and the Winnipeg Arts Council and Canada Council. It’s a fine machine we have running up here!
You did a dance piece with Susie Burpee. What can you tell me about that?
It was really fun. My wife Christine Fellows does quite a few dance commissions, and has for a long time. It’s something that’s always interested me, so we decided with Susie that we would try and do something together. Susie set the scenes and Christine and I wrote the music. We spent about six months working on it. We would go to rehearsals. It’s a much more intense kind of collaborative effort than songwriting. It reminded me most of poetry, in a way.
Was it similar to [Clive Holden’s music/poetry piece] Trains of Winnipeg, in terms of your approach to writing? [Samson, Fellows and Jason Tait all contributed music to it]
In a way. But with that, we had the luxury of certain structures. There’s a poem there that exists. With movement, it’s much less rigid and things changed all the time. I’m in awe of what choreographers do: it’s so much more than just a blank page. It’s just a blank. It’s a terrifying, blank space, and they have to express themselves entirely through movement, and that they’re able to do so is remarkable to me. Just watching that process was a real delight. Christine is working on a few other things now, but I don’t think I’ll have the energy or time any time soon.
You sat out of the Greg Graffin experience. [The Bad Religion singer/songwriter recruited the rest of the Weakerthans to back him up on his rootsy solo project, both on record and on tour.]
I did. I guess I wasn’t invited! I’m sure if I caused a stink about it they might have invited me, but I don’t think I had anything to contribute. I think he could walk around any city in the world and three out of every ten guys on the street could play guitar better than I can.
Did you want to do it?
I didn’t, actually. It was the middle of winter and I was fully into writing. The idea of going down to L.A. was appealing, but I also felt it would be fun to know that they were off doing something really cool and unusual and having a good time, and I was working on stuff to do later. It’s a cool record. He opened a few shows for us on the east coast last year, right after it came out. It was really fun.
I wanted to ask about the  Rolling Tundra tour [with the Constantines, which hit every major and semi-major Canadian town from coast to coast], because very few people bother to do that anymore—with the exception of the White Stripes.
It’s true. I was super impressed with what the White Stripes did. What a feat!
But you covered more cities, didn’t you?
You’re right, but they hit the far north, so I’m jealous. The Rolling Tundra tour, we all realized afterwards, was the best time we’ll all ever have on tour. There’s no point in trying to replicate it. We had so much fun.
Both. Each band would play together each night, and we traveled together, 11 of us. We chose all the opening bands. Both bands voted on the opening band for each city. We’ll never have that much control or fun again. It was totally self-directed and wonderful.
No wonder you didn’t want to make another record and tour again.
True, there was some temptation there.
A couple of years ago I was talking to Sarah Harmer, right before she recorded with you on Reconstruction Site. She said she listened to Left and Leaving all the time and thought there was so much room for harmony on it, and yet there wasn’t any. Then of course she sang on that one track ["Benediction"], and now on this album there are tonnes of harmonies, lots of man-choruses. Who is it?
It’s all of us singing. I guess we also allowed me to do a few back-ups.
They didn’t trust you before?
The idea was that it didn’t fit into our theory of recording, which had a certain beauty to it. We thought it would sound weird if you heard me singing back-ups and lead.
Like you were Annie Lennox all of the sudden.
Yeah, but we let go of that this time. Everyone else sings too. I was really hoping there would be a female voice on the record, but there isn’t. That’s another weird thing that troubled me and interested me at the same time, is that it’s a record about men. It didn’t seem like a woman’s voice would fit on it anywhere. It’s weird, because Christine is just finishing a record about women right now.
You’ve done choreography pieces together and the Clive Holden project together. What role do you play on each other’s records? If any?
Pretty intense roles, at least certainly Christine’s role on my records since I met her, which was ten years ago now. We edit each other pretty mercilessly, and that’s been huge. I don’t know what kind of writer I would be without that. It’s a big deal for me and hard to describe how important it is. And more so on this one than any other.
For a record that’s all about men, doesn’t the song ‘Tournament of Hearts’ refer to the female curling championship?
I just assumed that character was female.
I assumed that the man was at the curling club and that the woman was waiting at home. ‘Tournament of Hearts’ is just too awesome a title to let go of.
Or not use twice.
The Constantines used it [as the title of their 2005 album], and that’s a testament to how good the title is. My favourite band in the world put out a record called that and I still wanted to use it as a title. Or maybe that’s just a testament to my own dumbness.
That album doesn’t have a title track though, does it?
No, there are no curling songs on their record. Before the Rolling Tundra tour, we were playing with them and they had just made the record and were talking about titles. When Tournament of Hearts came up, everyone—me especially—told them that was the one. Later, when I was writing my song, I thought, ‘Fuck, I should have told them not to use it.’ But I certainly don’t mind being associated with that record, which I think is going to be one of those records that people look back on and return to. I think it’s great and will only grow in appreciation.
Well, I should go back and listen, because I’ve actually enjoyed each of their records less as they go on. I still like them, but I loved the first one so much.
See, Shine a Light for me, I couldn’t believe they could even be a band after that record. I thought it was so good. But I thought Tournament of Hearts was a really thoughtful and brave and smart record. Give it another chance. Put it away for six months and then listen again.