John K. Samson, best known as the wordy lead singer of Winnipeg’s The Weakerthans, is releasing his newest album, Winter Wheat, on October 21 via ANTI-. I got a stream of it and it’s a wonderful record, full of all the literate idiosyncrasy we expect of Samson.
And for those who missed it, his last album, 2012’s Provincial, was also a great album.
Ontario-based experimental-folk-naturalist project Man meets Bear released its latest album this week, the wonderful, impressionistic I Want to Be a Gallant Rider Like My Father Was Before Me. Gallant Rider…‘s songs take the form of ambient, meditative soundscapes. The album showcases a change of focus, but not a change of sound for project mastermind Soren Brothers, as Gallant Rider… continues to haunt the same primeval psychic space he explored on previous albums, but without much approaching pop song formats.
M: You’ve been a fan of New Order for a long time. You even “referenced” them when you were in the Handsome Furs. In Operators, you’re showing more New Order influence than in any of your other projects. What drew you to New Order originally and why do you appear to be more drawn to their music recently?
D: When I was younger I was playing a lot of hardcore, and kind of came up in the hardcore scene in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a very ideologically narrow musical scene. It was kind of the height of 90s PC-culture and there was a real feeling of ‘us v. them’. The idea that you would listen to something with synthesizers – it sounds crazy now – in the scene I was in that was like a cardinal offence. You could only listen to a specific type of music and that was it. The focus was very narrow.
I used to buy a lot of tapes at thrift stores and I found a copy of [the New Order album] Lowlife. It’s like a middle-period New Order record. I think that’s the last great front-to-back record that they made. I used to secretly listen to that record and it was one of my guilty pleasures.
I think, growing up as a child through the 80s, that cold, minor-key synth pop informed a lot of my writing. But it was completely uncool to listen to when I was starting to write my own music. New Order was sort of like an anchor. You could always go to people and be like “New Order is cool because they used to be Joy Division.” For some reason Joy Division got a pass, but New Order was, like, ‘not cool’.
M: Just for reference, I was born in 1990, so for a lot of this stuff, I was too young to really experience it.
D: I was born in 1978, so my first memories of FM radio were not the early 80s stuff, but mid-to-late 80s stuff. The peak of synthesizer music. And that’s never really left me. And New Order is the best of all those bands, I think.
M: Is there a reason that with Operators you seem more into them than before? There appears to be a progression where your stuff has gotten more New Order-influenced and more synthesizer-heavy over time.
D: I think there’s a direct link between the last Handsome Furs record and the Operators stuff. When Handsome Furs broke-up I had been focused on writing that type of music for over ten years, so to stop doing it and start another rock band seemed silly. Operators could continue what I was doing in Handsome Furs, but just sort of flushed out more with live drums.
M: I get that. Live performances are generally a lot more visceral with live drums.
D: I guess it really depends on the kind of mood you want to create. Some stuff really lends itself to the cold, spacious digital sound. Really punishing drum machines and synth. You get this minimal iciness and sometimes that’s what you want. But with Operators I wanted something organic pushing and pulling against the synths. Kind of playing the same role the guitar played in Handsome Furs. I always tried to make the guitar work in Handsome Furs as sloppy and uncontrollable as possible to balance out the rigidness of the sequencers and the drum machine. With Operators we have this great drummer, Sam, who can sort of go off grid and snap right back in. That gives it a sense of danger and excitement, I think. Especially during the live set.
M: I once heard that the Handsome Furs record Face Control was influenced by dance or electronic records from the Soviet Union. Is this true? And if so, what records?
D: Yeah, definitely. It wasn’t just electronic stuff though, it was a lot of post-punk. Which I guess had a lot of electronic elements in it too.
Around 2006, 2007, I basically told my booking agent I would book shows myself in territories he wasn’t comfortable booking in, like Poland and ex-Yugoslavia. And not the like Western-friendly parts of ex-Yugoslavia like Slovenia and Zagreb, but deep ex-Yugoslavia, like Serbia and Macedonia. So we started booking these shows and the response was pretty insane. The people I met at the shows seemed starved for underground music from outside their own country, and outside of the U.K. And as soon as I started talking to people, I started accumulating records from the Bloc. People would be like, “Oh, if you like this you should check out this amazing Polish band that put out records on the state communist record label in the 80s.” And it was really ex-Yugoslavia where I got a lot of records that influenced me. There’s a band called Belgrade, or Beograd, that’s a pretty gnarly synth-pop band that put out records on the government’s label. The state government had a label called Yugotone, which is a great name for a record label. Because Yugoslavia was a little more open than the rest of the Bloc – it wasn’t quite as repressive as say Bulgaria or Hungary; it definitely had less censorship than the Soviet Union, which had its own label called Melodiya – they were able to import records by [bands] like Gang of Four and Joy Division. And that stuff became like The Beatles in Yugoslavia. Joy Division was like Yugoslavia’s Beatles. Which is kind of insane because what happened was you had a whole strain of popular music in this country that was almost like an alternate universe pop. Cheesy-ass late 70s prog stuff never happened. It was like Joy Division, Sex Pistols and The Clash were ground zero for pop music in Yugoslavia. And the bands that were influenced by them were amazing. So I just overdosed on that stuff. I found as many records as I could. And that really crept its way into Handsome Furs.
M: Can you give me three or five all-time favorite Eastern Bloc records?
D: Definitely. There’s a band from Russia called Civil Defense which is, I think, the embodiment of punk rock. They’re a very abrasive band but musically they sort of have roots in Russian folk music. I think you can kind of pick that up.Yegor Letov was the lead singer when they were around. There’s a woman in the band namedYanka [Dyagileva] who wrote a lot of the material and died under mysterious circumstances in Siberia, where she was from. They were really like resistance music, so anything by Civil Defense is pretty good. It’s hard to imagine that type of music being made under those circumstances.
That band Beograd is amazing. Their first album is fantastic.
There’s another band from Zagreb calledParaf, which is sort of like a female-fronted version of The Cure, early Cure. That’s kind of selling them short but they have a really great record called Zastave.
And my all-time personal favorite band from that period is a band calledAzra, which was essentially the Yugoslavian Clash. They have a double live album called Ravno do dna, which means “straight to the bottom”. Which I have tattooed on my arm.
A good starting place is a compilation called Novi Punk Val, which I believe means “new punk now”. And that’s a lot of the great Belgrade-Zagreb bands from the early 80s.
There was a huge amount of censorship in the Eastern Bloc – outside of Yugoslavia, which is kind of an exception – over what you could and couldn’t say when you were putting a record out on the state label. And if you weren’t on the state label, your music wasn’t coming out. The only real exception to that (and another big influence for me) is ex-USSR – so Azerbaijani or Baltic or whatever – disco, which bizarrely never fell under the censorship board. [If] you listen to rock records made in the 70s and 80s in Russia, they’re pretty much across the board fucking terrible. They’re almost jazz influenced. They’re…just not for me. But in the 70s you had this bizarre bubble of freedom in disco. All of a sudden you could do totally fucking salacious disco songs that were talking about whatever. It was the opposite of this sort of grey, stock psych-prog that was coming out. It was also queer positive, a lot of it, albeit in metaphor or subtly. But the people making disco, and in Yugoslavia, the people making punk, could get away with things private citizens could only dream of. I’m not really sure why, in the Soviet Union, disco managed to slip by the censors. Maybe they didn’t take it seriously as an intellectual, artistic product that would ideologically conflict with the party line.
M: Are you and Operators still interested in Eastern-European culture and politics? When you sing “Speak, Memory” in the song “Nobody”, is that a reference to the Nabokov book?
D: Yes, it is. I always liked the ring of that. So simple and beautiful, you know? And that song “Nobody” is me just looking back at my childhood and I thought that was…it just worked in the song. I was riffing on the chorus and it just seemed to fit. But to your question, yeah, it’s sort of been a lifelong passion or obsession of mine. Post-Soviet, post-Eastern Bloc politics and culture. If I wasn’t playing music, I’d be studying it in an academic context. I did that for a while when I went to school, when I was younger. But I honestly ended up learning more about it by going there and interacting with people. Which obviously makes sense.
M: Are you yourself Slavic or do you have a personal connection to that?
D: No. My family is German on my dad’s side and Irish on my mom’s side. I think they were the first two people to marry outside of their respective ethnic groups. They’re fairly recent immigrants to Canada, both of them. Both sides of the family fleeing either religious or ideological persecution.
M: What drew you to Eastern-European stuff?
D: I think being a kid that grew up at the tail-end of the cold war. I remember there is a huge teleset station in Cowichan Lake, where I grew up. I remember being in elementary school and we were talking about mutually assured destruction. At the end of the cold war it was a very hot topic. It was a real thing. It was basically that if either side launched one missile it was over. [The USA and USSR] had essentially reached some kind of peak equilibrium with the amount of nuclear weapons that were available and if one missile got launched it was game over. The Earth gets turned into some kind of ice ball.
So I’m living in this rural community seemingly far away from any sort of endangered target. I remember some kid in our class asking our science teacher, “Cowichan Lake would be fine, right? Nobody cares about Cowichan Lake.” And our science teacher said “Well, we have the teleset station which the American government rents out, and it’s a secondary target.” That made me incredibly paranoid and I started reading everything I could about Russia. But the more I read about it the more fascinated I became with it. And I wanted to travel there.
And it’s not just Russia [that I’m fascinated with], it’s the collapse of the whole ideological system in the East. There were utopian elements of that system in the less-repressed places like Yugoslavia. Travelling there and really seeing firsthand what the sort of shock doctrine of imposing Western capitalism on these formerly socialist countries did…it annihilated the economy in a lot of cases and created a huge class divide. When I was writing Face Control, it was late 2007, it was right before the great recession in the States. And you could see the same thing happening in places like Latvia and Lithuania. Huge amounts of capital were being placed in these countries and they were being shoehorned into the European Union, but with no real plan. It seemed like an ideological capitalist experiment more than like, “this country has something [to gain from joining] the EU and they’re going to get a return on their investment.”
M: When you travelled to Eastern Europe, what differences did you find between what you saw and heard from people there vs. what you learned about the region in school or from books? What specifically shocked you or made an impression on you?
D: The way people managed to deal with another economic reality imposing itself on them. When I was in school, I guess it was the early 2000s. I was at university and kind of studying this stuff. And what we got from our professors was essentially ‘communism was in a rotten state, everything was falling apart, and the Berlin wall came down. A lot of satellite states declared independence from the USSR. And then American and Western economists went into these countries and “helped” them out.’ And that was kind of the end. Utter bullshit. Yugoslavia, which was ostensibly the most utopian of the Bloc states, descended into the worst genocide Europe had seen since the Second World War. And Russia had a brief opening of personal freedoms, but that lasted like a couple of years. Then you had Gaidar being advised by…just douchebags, essentially, from the United States, who were like, “you have to unclench the hand of capitalism.” And when they did that in the ex-Soviet Union, the American advisors were horrified with what happened. Because they were utterly naïve. They were preaching this sort of Ayn Rand, objectivist, free-market capitalism without taking into account any of the historical background of the ex-Soviet Union. Or taking into account the fact that this shit just doesn’t work. It’s like a weird fiction.
So by the time the mid-90s rolled around, you had people getting shot in downtown Moscow on a by-hourly basis. There’d be five, six murders a day on the Arbat because of these economic reforms. The ruble collapsed and all of a sudden you had a massive class divide that the world hadn’t seen in that part of the planet since essentially serfdom. I never learned about any of that stuff in school. When I went there, when I actually started travelling to Moscow or Poland, I would see this stuff. I would talk to people. Eventually I made friends with people and I would go to their homes and meet their parents. And that was a big eye opener. It very much differs from country to country – I’m not trying lump all these countries into the same sphere. They’re all very different. But one resonating thing that I kept hearing from a lot of people’s parents was “yeah, we didn’t have a lot of freedoms, but we liked it better when we had a job and we could count on having an apartment.” It’s interesting, because there’s a danger to that type of thinking too, I think. In ex-Yugoslavia they call it ‘Yugo-nostalgia’. You can see it in places that had horrible repressive regimes, like Ceausescu’s Romania. There are people in present day Romania who are like, “it was better under Ceausescu.” Maybe for them it was, but for a lot of people it wasn’t.
We never learned any of that stuff in school. It was a very whitewashed story that was very Western-centric, very pro-capitalist, and didn’t take into account any sort of cultural or personal things.
M: You’ve been a fairly political songwriter since at least your Atlas Strategic days, if not earlier. We’re in the heat of perhaps one of the craziest American elections ever. People seem not only more polarized than ever before, but with the assistance of social media, more vocal as well. Do you find the political pressure of the moment fueling your writing more or are you starting to feel burnt out by it?
D: I find it fueling my writing. I’d say the same for about half of the record we just put out too, it’s pretty political. Like the songs “Control” and “Mission Creep”, those are very political songs. I get up in the morning and I read the news. I read news and I drink my coffee, then I go to the studio, or sit down and try and write-
M: Where do you get your news?
D: I read The Guardian a lot, but I’ll read everything. I read Balkan Insight a lot. I read Al Jazeera. I even read Breitbart because I think it’s important to know what the enemy is up to. (Laughs). I started reading this blog called The Right Stuff, which is probably one of the more reprehensible corners of the internet-
M: This is like the kind of source where Donald Trump gets his news?
D: Yeah, well, I don’t know if you read this but Trump fired his campaign manager-
M: Yeah, I heard.
D: When he hired that guy, I read his name in association with some super fucking shady Ukrainian dealings back in the mid-2000s. So I was kind of shocked when he hired him, and I was doubly-shocked when he hired the guy who’s in charge of Breitbart. I think Bloomberg just did a big profile on him. [note: Dan might also be referring to this older profile] But he’s a complete…cynical political operator. He’s an incredibly corrosive element in American media. And he’s the [former executive chairman] for Breitbart. So he’s kind of tertiarily associated with this blog, The Right Stuff. Yiannopoulos, that guy too, he posts frequently on that. They’re sort of the American alt-right. I started reading a lot of that stuff when Trump announced his candidacy and I had to stop because it was so infuriating.
M: I know what you mean. I was doing an internship last year in Washington, D.C., and I went to the Cato Institute, which is funded by the Koch Brothers, to see two events they had on environmental stuff, because I’m a big environmentalist. And it was like entering an alternative universe where you hear the opposite of everything you’ve ever heard before. Like global warming isn’t real, but if it is, it’s actually good for people and plant life. It felt difficult psychologically to even be exposed to it.
D: Yeah. I mean, that is the real seat of power in a lot of ways. The Cato Institute partially funded this total piece of shit Jason Miko. He’s an American, he comes from an upper-middle-class family, kind of failed his way up through several academic institutions in Arizona. He’s from Arizona. He went through the Cato Institute, then ended up becoming this super shady…He appeared in Macedonia, which is an ex-Yugoslavian territory, it’s been going through a decade-long name debate with Greece, it doesn’t have EU status, it’s really poor…so this American guy, kind of shitty dude, ends up as an op-ed columnist at their biggest newspaper, and was instrumental in getting a completely illegitimate government “elected”. He was paid by this political party to disrupt the political process and get them into power. And a couple years ago it came out that that government was implicated in hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of embezzlement, surveillance on basically everybody in the country, and a couple of super shady deaths, essentially sons and daughters of the opposition party. And this guy quietly slunk away like a fucking vampire squid into the night. That’s the stuff, when I read news, that I’m really fascinated with. I’m more fascinated with these sort of ‘grey agents’ than I am with Trump blustering or whatever. Because I feel like those are the people that are really engineering negative political change in the world.
M: How have recent political events – including but not just the recent American election cycle – influenced or changed your worldview, if at all?
D: I think my worldview has been pretty consistent. I’m maybe a little more cynical now…Meh, I was always kind of cynical about American politics, but I think I’m even more cynical about them now. I don’t know if it’s changed my writing process. I’m a lot more angry than I was a couple of years ago. And I don’t feel like anyone, any musicians – myself included – are really taking a pretty hard-line political stance. This is just a theory, but I think the availability and immediacy of social media has acted as a weird venting mechanism for people’s political anger and it’s sort of shunted all this energy away from people putting those thoughts and ideas into song form.
M: I remember back in 2004-2005, around when Wolf Parade released Apologiesto the Queen Mary, a lot of bands were really political. Then towards 2008, 2009, 2010, bands weren’t really political like they were during the heat of the Bush era. The exceptions were what you and maybe Arcade Fire were doing. What do you think of newer bands in general?
D: That’s a big question. I think there’s a lot of bands outside of North America and outside of the Pitchfork-sphere that are incredibly political and are writing songs, or even making instrumental music, that’s in opposition to whatever’s going on in their own respective countries. But I also think the ability to just get on Twitter and kind of yell about stuff, yeah, like I was saying, is sort of a bizarre pressure valve. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing either, at least for musicians. I’m not talking about like Black Lives Matter or any of these sort of social media-sourced political groups. I’m just talking about music.
I’d like to believe music is a force for political change but…I think at its best it can sort of educate people or at least get people interested in something they didn’t think about in the first place. When you’re 14, at least for me, it was better to listen to the Clash song “Spanish Bombs” than read about the Spanish Civil War. That made me read about the Spanish Civil War. Because the song is badass.
Or Bikini Kill, for instance. I knew absolutely nothing about political feminism until I bought the first couple of Bikini Kill 7”s. And that got me reading stuff that I wouldn’t have touched if it weren’t for that band. And I think there’s bands like Perfect Pussy or Sheer Mag that are doing what Bikini Kill were doing in the 90s. But beyond that I don’t know if music has the power to effect.
M: I feel like it does. I was 15 when I was listening to you in Wolf Parade, and I think listening to that and a lot of other indie rock, as well stuff like The Beatles and Bob Dylan, affected my political perspective in a huge way.
D: Yeah? That’s good. I mean, I don’t want to be cynical about it. And maybe you’re right. My ideology was shaped or guided by bands. That was my entry point. Thank g-d it was that and not The Fountainhead, right? Because you could go either way. You could sit down and read The Fountainhead or you could listen to Bikini Kill.
M: Well, luckily Bikini Kill’s stuff is a lot shorter than The Fountainhead.
D: Yeah. It’s a lot more to the point.
M: In the Operators song “Space Needle” you sing, “I love you California but you only make me blue.” Why did you decide to move back to Canada recently and what differences do you notice between the two countries, the United States and Canada, after living in both?
D: I wanted to move back to Canada for a couple of reasons. I was living in San Jose, California, so kind of the heart of Silicon Valley. And the toxic, tech-utopian, libertarian culture there, and the class divide, was so acute, and it was becoming so expensive to live there that I just felt like I didn’t belong there. Also I have free healthcare in Canada. (Laughs). [Also] I was feeling a sense of impending dread as the election approached.
M: The last Canadian election or the upcoming American election?
D: The American election.
M: Yeah, I’m feeling that dread right now. Anyway. Your songs on Apologies… and the Handsome Furs album Plague Park famously evidenced a distaste for the modern world, specifically cities. Your bandmates in Wolf Parade all moved back to British Columbia in the last little while. Why did you go back to Montreal and not BC or someplace less city-like?
D: Those songs on Apologies… and Plague Park are sort of me working out what my place is in the world, like where I belong. I never really felt like I belonged in the place where I was born. I definitely didn’t fit in there. And when I moved around to bigger metropolitan areas like Vancouver or Montreal, I didn’t feel like I belonged there either. And when I wrote that stuff, my heart was conflicted about where I wanted to live. I get a lot of inspiration, and I felt like I had gotten a lot of inspiration, from the place I grew up in. And the space and emptiness of it; the lack of people. But I was also hyperstimulated by being in cities. A lot of those songs like “Handsome Furs Hate This City” and “Modern World” were me sort of working it out in public.
M: Do you feel like you’ve worked it out?
D: I choose cities. (Laughs). I like it. I like being around people. I like being around different types of people. I think living in a rural environment…it’s beautiful, and if you like nature it’s great, and I do like those things. But it limits you to one experience socially. Whereas in the city I can walk around and kind of disappear, melt into a crowd. I can hear 15 different languages in 5 blocks in this city. I can have any kind of experience I want. And I like that. That’s the kind of life that works for me. It keeps my stimulated.
M: Last question: in the song “Repatriated” you sang “I see the future and it’s coming low.” How do you feel about the future these days?
D: Uhh…(laughs). I don’t feel so hopeful about the future. I think there’s a lot of parallels between geopolitics right now and the years leading up to the First World War. There’s a barely understood civil war raging for like ten years now in a place most people can’t even find on a map. And its having very far-reaching geopolitical effects. I feel like Canada is a bizarre oasis from this, but I feel like America is irreconcilably divided. And I also feel like there’s this new paradigm in the way people talk to each other and what they believe in. The way people express themselves politically or their convictions. I feel like [it happened] somewhere in the last ten years. And I really put the blame on the post-Bush administration Republicans and the media outlets that serve them. Fox and Breitbart and stuff like that. But the Left is also considerably to blame for this. That it seems totally ok that if you believe in something, it doesn’t matter if there’s a mountain of facts going against that. Just believing in something is enough for you to be right. I remember getting into arguments with people in San Jose, people I respected, about vaccinations, and them just being like, “well, that’s what you believe. I believe something different.” But no. There’s facts.
M: Don’t you feel like, in the age of Google, facts are seemingly negotiable?
D: Facts are entirely negotiable. It’s true, and it’s really, really disappointing. Post-modernism applies to political discourse. And that, combined with the retreat of the Left into…the general vibe I get from the Left is just an utter selfishness. I’m not including positive stuff like Black Lives Matter, which seems to be a legitimate political wing that is actually going to effect change in the country. But the basic discourse of leftist politics right now is personal identity, which is necessary but it’s also incredibly selfish. And I feel like it’s going to have negative effects unless people can sort of unify with each other. Because there’s a terrible movement in North America, and globally, by the Right. Whether Trump loses or not, it makes no difference. The Right is motivated, delusional, and really strong right now. And I’d like to see leftist politics move beyond the obsession with the self into more community-based action. There are forces for positive change in the Left and the general idea is good. And I think the Black Lives Matter movement – they released a platform, which I think is great. Because Occupy Wallstreet crashed and burned and got absorbed by the people they were railing against, because they couldn’t decide on a platform. And that’s where the Left loses a lot. The Right has a platform. They’re convinced that it’s true. And if you present them with facts contradicting it, they just have conviction of belief. So that’s one thing I’m kind of worried about. But the BLM platform that came out a couple of weeks ago made me really happy and maybe a little more hopeful than I was last month.
M: Other than supporting Black Lives Matter, what do you we do? What do we do to save the world?
D: I don’t know! (Laughs). I have no idea, man. Sometimes I think it would take a complete overhaul of government where banking becomes strictly regulated and taxes for the poor are abolished; taxes for the rich are raised to Britain levels from the 60s, where if you’re making billions you’re going to have to give up 60-80% of your income until things are equalized.
I moved to New York in the summer of 2014. I walked inside the famed Brooklyn DIY venue Death by Audio once, but never ended up seeing a show there. I tried to see one of the big end-of-the-venue shows one night, but the place got to cap while my friend and I were in line. We came back later that night and they said they would let us in for $10 each, but they wouldn’t tell us who the “surprise act” playing was. I later found out it was Les Savy Fav. They should’ve told us – they’d have made $20 and I’d have seen at least one show there before it closed.
But for all those who never got to see a show at Death by Audio, or did and dearly miss the venue, Famous Class‘ recently-released compilation Start Your Own Fucking Show Space is a welcome consolation prize. The 25-song compilation features performances from a variety of great, noisy bands who played the venue in November 2014, the last month of Death by Audio’s existence. The album does an excellent job of capturing the sound and spirit of Brooklyn DIY, even if most of the bands aren’t from New York.