Weakerthans definitely not weak

By Peter Hemminger

“I like this quote I heard from [filmmaker Guy Maddin] lately that it’s his job, his mandate, to mythologize Winnipeg,” says Stephen Carroll. “I kind of feel that we have the same mandate. To make the myths for Winnipeg.”

And Carroll is in a good position to do just that. As the guitar player for Winnipeg’s Weakerthans, the press has constantly assumed him to be a cultural ambassador for that city in the center of North America. Despite the fact half the band has relocated to Toronto, Carroll and the rest of the band still believe their music reflects life in Manitoba’s capitol.

“There’s a loyalty to Winnipeg that all true blue Winnipeggers feel that never leaves them wherever they go,” Carroll explains. “It’s such a strange and awkward city, the magic that it does have never leaves you, wherever you go. I think most people who grow up in Winnipeg will always consider themselves Winnipeggers, even though they’ve left, and I think that’s true of the two guys in our band who were from Winnipeg. I think when any city endears itself to you on the level that Winnipeg has it helps you make sense of who you are as a person.”

Carroll’s description of Winnipeg–strange and awkward but oddly endearing–could just as easily apply to the band itself. Formed from members of Propagandhi and Painted Thin, two politically-charged pop-punk bands in the Fat Wreck Chords vein, the Weakerthans’ sophisticated blend of folk, country and punk rock initially took their audiences by surprise. The strength of the song writing and the depth to singer John K. Samson’s lyrics won over crowds. Now, after years of being the only folk band in punk rock line-ups, their upcoming show at the Calgary Folk Festival puts the band in the opposite situation.

“I feel a little awkward,” admits Carroll. “This will be the first time our slow songs fit the bill. Maybe that’ll be a relief. It’ll be how they deal with the rockers that’ll be awkward or interesting to see. “We’re just going to play. We can’t pretend. I think we’ll just take the same attitude that we did when we started out playing punk rock shows and playing whatever–country influenced songs. We’ll just go to this folk festival and play our punk influenced songs and let them be what they are and not pretend we’re something that we’re not. I think that’s always better, to simply stick to your guns. That proves to be more interesting for people. That’s why when we started out we were more interesting to some people. It’s part of who we are as a band. These are the songs we write, we can’t deny that.”

It’s clear the Weakerthans are a group who defy easy description. Their sense of individuality has forced journalists to stretch for classifications when trying to describe the band. Having been tagged as everything from emo to alt-country you’d think Carroll would be sick of lazy labels.

“I don’t care,” he says. “I think it’s funny. We used to refer to ourselves as adult contemporary punk rock. We have no problem with it, all those things are kind of meaningless and are simply for one’s own entertainment. Generally when you make up a category there’s not really any truth to it. We feel confident in carrying any type of slogan or description. It’s not our business to name it, it’s for journalists to busy themselves. It helps explain what music is, which is kind of an intangible.”

The music, not any particular genre classification, is what landed the band a deal with Epitaph records. Carroll admits the band has always admired that label “from afar.” It wasn’t until punk’s biggest label decided to diversify its sound that the band had any real chance of being signed. While the label is working “harder than anyone else ever has” for the band, it hasn’t drastically changed their lot in life.

“It’s always the same issues. Nothing’s changed, really,” Carroll says. “The work that we face every day hasn’t changed. It’s a bit of a myth about record labels. I think unless you become a massive radio success your life doesn’t really change no matter what independent label you’re on or what size. The issues you have are still the same. You need to play concerts to get known, and you go on the strength of your songs and your integrity and your reputation. We still do that, so it hasn’t really changed anything. The people we work with have changed, and that has a certain different ambiance to it, but otherwise I feel that we’re still in the same quiet place we’ve always been as a band–doing the same thing amidst the turmoil of this ridiculous industry. “

Leave a comment