Volume , Number
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
The Weaker-thans Grow Strong
While a member of the influential political punk group Propagandhi, John K. Samson played bass on progressive thrash tunes about veganism, U.S. militarism, and homophobia. Just because his new band, the Weakerthans, turns down the decibels doesnt mean Samson has turned down his social conscience.
The bands music still tackles issues of consequence. We come from the punk rock community and that essential ethic will always be with us, Samson says. But the four-piece group from Winnipeg, Manitoba draws as much from contemporary poets as they do from radical political theoristst. This combination of influences shows in the clear-eyed portrayals of lifes neglected corners that have drawn the Weakerthans a dedicated and growing fan base.
Im interested by the margins, in all senses of that word, says Samson, whose lyrically literate and musically textured songs offer a distinct voice. Part of our mandate is to talk about people who do not get talked about in mainstream culture.
Theyve been doing that since 1998s Fallow, where Samson distinguished his new trio from Propagandhi, with quiet, idiosyncratic tunes about forgotten lives from minimalist spoken word meditations on modern life to bleak countrified narratives about mechanic school dropouts. The Weakerthans just-released third CD, Reconstruction Site, is their most complete and mature to date. It tackles themes of community, redemption, and how to be an active participant in the world without offering easy or pat answers. Propagandhi songs were and are about certainty, Weakerthans songs are about uncertainty. To me, thats an important political trait to be uncertain, says Samson.
The bands politics have always been explicit on some tracks, such as My Favorite Chords from Fallow (where Samson sings Theyre tearing up streets again/Theyre building a new hotel/The mayors out killing kids/to keep taxes down). On others, universal human themes are given an activist bent. Pamphleteer, still one of the strongest Weakerthans songs, chronicles the internal life of a socialist leaflet distributor.
Its not just the words that draw in listeners, but also the Weaker- thans eclectic sound, which ranges from power-pop to gentle folk, stopping at all stations in between. For their follow-up, Left and Leaving, the band added guitarist Stephen Carroll to fill out the sound while continuing to talk about human struggle through the lens of fictional lives. All three of the groups full-length discs share that common element: they are filled with compelling portraits of characters no one ever thinks about.
Its that kind of politics, a politics of compassion for the ignored, that the band offers. This is true whether Samson is writing songs about socialism or spirituality, as he does on Reconstruction Site.
You kind of slide toward that [spiritual] vernacular when youre talking about redemption and reconstruction. Im a secular person, but I think the religious impulse is built into people, says Samson. For the last record, I used the language of Marxism: on this one, I used the language of religion. Theyre two different ways of getting at similar ideas.
Concern over the state of the world aside, Samson isnt afraid to write quirky songs that somehow turn touching. One track on Reconstruction Site is sung from a cats point of view; another, Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call, delves into the mysterious world of the omnipresent mens club. These songs transcend goofy premises to send messages about common human (and feline) experience.
I was trying to get inside the voices of people I, on the surface, have nothing in common with, he says. The Elks are kind of like the punk rock community, in that you kind of walk in and feel like you belong. Theres a great allure and comfort and beauty in that, and theres also a great dangerthat you have an isolated, fraternal thing.
Then there is the catchiest effort on the new disc, Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961). An imagined encounter between an emblem of modernism and the famous French philosopher, Samsons wordplay (Thank you for the flowers and the book by Derrida/But I must be getting back to dear Antarctica) interacts with bouncy guitar hooks to create what may be a unique commoditya song about post- structuralism that gets stuck in your head.
his defense of uncertainty, Samsons politics and music are
uncompromisingly and classically progressive. If pressed, hell
tell you that this makes him more like the retired explorer than
Im a bit of a modernistI think the Enlightenment was a great thing, Samson says. I have a totalizing worldview, as Foucault would say, and Im pretty happy with that.
Like the groups previous two releases, Reconstruction Site challenges Weakerthans fans to grow with the band. It also shows how someone goes from playing chord-crunching, lyric-screaming punk music to writing increasingly complex and subtle songswithout compromising the convictions that made you want to scream in the first place.
Jeff Shaw is a freelance writer. His work has also appeared in In These Times, the Nation and the Progressive.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.