The Weakerthans are a Canadian pop-punk group known for bringing a kinder, gentler musical lyricisim to a genre traditionally known for its scruffy, loud brashness. The members got to know each other as a result of their involvement in the Winnipeg, Manitoba, punk community, and in interviews they have made the genesis of the group sound simple. "We began playing with no expectations," Samson said in a biography appearing on MTV.com.
Members of the Weakerthans were interested in music from the time when they were very young. Stephen Carroll started playing piano and guitar, but stuck with guitar. He took lessons of a sort from a punk guitarist neighbor. John K. Samson, who was born in Winnipeg and attended the same high school as rocker Neil Young, sang and toured with the Mennonite Children's Choir in his youth. He has cited varied musical influences including Young, the Minutemen, and Randy Newman. John P. Sutton played upright bass from a young age.
Each played in various Winnipeg bands over the decade prior to the band's formation. Most notably, Samson was bassist for Propaghandi, a successful hard-core punk rock band. In 1997, Samson decided to concentrate on other projects and quit Propaghandi. "[A]t the time I didn't want to be in a band," he told Punk Planet. "It was one of the last things I thought was good for my mental health…. I've never felt even an iota of regret for making that decision."
"Winnipeg's punk scene is very small and there aren't a lot of factions. Red Fisher was the band that Jason and John were in prior to being in The Weakerthans and they played together for five or six years in that band. It was kind of an epic Winnipeg punk rock band that toured a lot and didn't see the light of success very often outside the city. I've known Samson since we were 16 and we played in our first band together," said Carroll in an interview with the webzine Sick to Move. "John Samson had a bunch of songs that he decided he wanted to record with a band back in late '96, early '97. He had a couple of guys in mind," Carroll recalled in the same interview. Jason Tait was tapped, followed by Sutton.
The band members began to realize that they enjoyed playing together, and they collaborated on some new songs to add to those Samson had brought. Gradually things took shape as creative decisions were made. Samson was ambivalent about his desire to have a lead guitar player for these sessions, and there was no real desire to do anything more than record. Finally the Fallow album came together in 1997 and was released on G7 Welcoming Committee, the collective recording label founded by Chris Hannah and Jord Samolesky, both members of Propagandhi.
"It was while we were playing live and through the writing sessions that followed that we decided to bring in another guitar player," Sutton said in an interview with eye. "Adding Stephen was an important step for us. We really began to come together as a band after he joined." Carroll, according to writer Ryan Watson, "took the Weakerthans to the next level."
The band, whose name came from a film adaptation of the Marguerite Duras novel The Lover, took punk into a gentler sonic landscape, which often didn't go over too well initially. "Punk rock … should slap you in the face with some sort of confrontation, be it politically, culturally shocking or just plain dumb for dumb's sake," stated Neal Weiss, writing in L.A. Weekly. "Evidently, John K. Samson forgot to read that part of the manifesto."
"Some people that we've encountered on this tour seem to think that my politics have some relation to how fast and loud my music is," Samson said in an interview with The Peak, a university student newspaper. "Which I find incredibly insulting and actually kind of disgusting, because I think those people are living in a ghetto. They ghettoize themselves. [A] lot of people who define themselves as punks have been really receptive and open to … the kind of music that we make."
Weiss found, in Samson's use of poetry and in his rejection of poppy choruses in his songs, "maturated punk rock akin to Lou Reed, Jim Carroll and Patti Smith." Jeremy Schneyer, writing in PopMatters, was equally positive, arguing that "John K. Samson's songs have that rare combination of extraordinary lyrical acuity and huge, memorable hooks to drive the words home, that, in total, make his music virtually impossible to ignore." "[S]omeone hearing the Weakerthans' poppy, thoughtful rock and Propaghandhi's speedy, pissed-off politico-punk for the first time would be hard-pressed to draw any connection between the two," Schneyer added. The difference, he pointed out, was that the Weakerthans, rather than "ranting in exquisitely pissed-off punk rock fashion about the wrongs of the world," internalized the political but imbued it with "a good dose of prairie roots."
The gap between Fallow and the group's next album, Left and Leaving, was needed to give Carroll a chance to learn the band's older material and to allow Samson a chance to write. The group released Left and Leaving in 2000, also on G7. Watson, in a review of Left and Leaving, found in the online publication eye, called it "one of the best Canadian albums in recent memory."
The group said 2000 was perhaps its best year, with healthy sales for its new release coupled with a successful but grinding tour schedule. "Writing and recording the music is the real focus and joy of what we do," Samson said in an interview with a Winnipeg newspaper archived on the Canoe website. "Performing is supposed to be the gravy but when it becomes the main course it gets a little difficult. … The thing of it is, touring is where the money is for bands like us. We don't get rich but we are able to sell our albums and our T-shirts and pay ourselves. It's a weird Catch-22."
By 2001, the group had been touring practically non-stop, and the road was grinding them down. "Physically, we're wrecked, and I think the songs need a break," Samson told NOW in an August of 2001 interview. "We always get a big rush out of playing, especially in places where we've never been before, but it's really hard to keep things interesting. It's also a matter of having lives, and right now these aren't really working. It's hard to focus on what actually matters, which may or may not be rock music." Aside from that, the group's popularity was on the rise, which Samson admitted made him uncomfortable. The band planned an extended break.
Rock writers didn't take a break from praising the band, though. "The Weakerthans' songs reveal lovingly what a craphole this city, Winnipeg, is," stated Ed Janzen, writing in Canadian Dimension, "while at the same time reflecting back at us the things we do or might do … to make it bearable and to make it ours. … [W]e Winnipeg-gers love the Weakerthans. … It's about our lives." Carl Wilson, writing in the Globe & Mail, called them, "the kind of band people quote in their Internet diaries and compulsively evangelize to friends…. Along the way, the Weakerthans have glamourized the unglamourizable, leading kids in California to dream of visiting Winnipeg, to see the streets that launched a thousand ambivalent John K. Samson lyrics."
Watermark, an EP, was released by the band in 2001. They followed it up with Reconstruction Site, which the band financed and recorded independently. That album was then picked up by Epitaph, a United States-based independent punk label. Label owner Brett Gurewitz, best known as the guitarist in the band Bad Religion, saw the Weakerthans perform in Los Angeles and was impressed enough to sign a distribution deal.
For the Record . . .
Members include Stephen Carroll , (joined group, 1997) guitar, keyboards; John K. Samson , lead vocals, guitar, songwriter; John P. Sutton , bass, vocals; Jason Tait , drums, percussion, keyboards.
Group formed in Winnipeg, Canada, by John Samson, 1997; slowly added members; released Fallow, 1997; added Stephen Carroll as guitarist, 1997; released Left and Leaving, 2000; released EP Watermark, 2001; released Reconstruction Site, 2003; record picked up for distribution by U.S.-based independent punk label Epitaph.
Awards: Prairie Music Awards, Independent Recording of the Year for Left and Leaving ; Video of the Year for "Watermark," 2001.
Addresses: Office— 2-91 Albert St., Winnipeg, Manitoba R3B 1G5, Canada. Record company— Epitaph Records, 2798 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026, phone: (213) 413-7353, website: http://www.epitaph. com. Website— The Weakerthans Official Website: http://www.theweakerthans.org.
Writers once again praised the new release. "While long-time fans might miss the mopiness of Left And Leaving and the Weakerthans' debut, 1997's Fallow, Reconstruction Site offers the sound of a band fleshing out an already solid sonic skeleton, adding layers of atmospheric percussion and tinny horns to the wispy indie punk foundation they established on their first two records," wrote reviewer Sarah Liss in the Toronto publication NOW in August 2003. And for some writers, the Weakerthans were veterans by this time. "The Weakerthans are simply one of the best bands out there who are still beating the stuffing out of the old indie rock horse," wrote Jeremy Schneyer in Pop Matters. "Their music proves that there is simply nothing that substitutes for the inherent beauty of the human voice. Singing one's heart out will always touch a chord that no quantity of fancy electronics will ever be able to reproduce."
After several years together as a group, the members of the Weakerthans began to diversify their activities. Samson began to operate Arbeiter Ring Publishing, a not-for-profit, worker-owned and collectively run publishing house. Guitarist Carroll managed the careers of other artists, while Sutton and Tait both took up residence in Toronto and became active in its music scene. Sutton worked in sound engineering and production, while Tait started performing with a number of other bands. Awards and recognition began to come to the band that had epitomized the independent and the local for so long: the Weakerthans won two Prairie Music Awards for Independent Recording and Video of the Year, and they were nominated for a Juno, the Canadian equivalent of an American Music Award or Grammy.
Fallow, G7 Welcoming Committee, 1999.
Left and Leaving, G7 Welcoming Committee/Sub City, 2000.
Watermark (EP), Sub City, 2001.
Reconstruction Site, Epitaph, 2003.
Canadian Dimension, July 2000.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), August 4, 2003; August 23, 2003; September 3, 2003.
Punk Planet, July-August 2001.
"The Weakerthans," MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com/bands/az/weakterthans.bio.jhtml (November 5, 2003).
"The Weakerthans," The Peak, http://www.peak.sfu.ca/the-peak/98-1/issue9/weaker.html (November 20, 2003).
"The Weakerthans," The Philadelphia Enquirer, http://www.epitaph.com/news/article.php?id=998 (November 20, 2003).
"The Weakerthans," Sick to Move online, http://www.punkrockacademy.com/stm/int/weak.html (November 20, 2003).
"The Weakertahans: Concert Review," PopMatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/concerts/w/weakerthans-020504.shtml (February 6, 2004).
"Weakerthans feeling stronger everyday," eye, http://www.eye.net/eye/issue/issue_09.14.00/music/weakerthans.html (November 20, 2003).
"Weakerthans get strong," NOW online, http://www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2000-09-14/music_feature.html (November 20, 2003).
The Weakerthans Official Website, http://www.theweakterthans.org/ (October 31, 2003).
"The Weakerthans: Poetic Prairie-Rock Foursome Learn To Laugh on Their Stunning New Album," NOW, http://www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2003-08-21/cover_story.php (November 20, 2003).
"Weakerthans wiped: Winnipeg punks need a break," NOW, http://www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2001-08-02/music_feature5.html (November 20, 2003).
—Linda Dailey Paulson
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