John K Samson: The Complete Interview

In the current issue, we have a piece about John K Samson, lead singer of the Weakerthans. He’ll be playing at the Exchange on March 28 as part of his tour for his solo album, Provincial.

It’s one of those interviews I wish we could have run in its entirety in the paper, but space wouldn’t allow it. So, below you will find a complete transcript of our conversation.

Stuff that didn’t make it into the paper that’s worth reading is the complete back story to the song “Letter In Icelandic From Ninette San” and Samson talking about how he got really protective of the Winnipeg Jets when an audience member in Hamilton started trash talking the team.

prairie dog: Looking back over the last 12 years, we’ve gone from the Battle in Seattle to Occupy, from 9/11 to a global depression, it seems all the ideas that were bopping around at the Weakerthans concerts I used to go to about how globalization just isn’t sustainable and people are going to push back against rampant capitalism, it all turned out to be right. I’m wondering if as a politically engaged songwriter, were you ever tempted to not put out an album like Provincial but an album called something like We Told You So.

John K Samson: I think there are a lot of people who said it a lot more succinctly and better than I did. And there’s really no joy in “I told you so,” at this point I think. It’s a frightening development. Everything seems to be converging. I know people throughout history have felt this way. But it does seem to be more extreme and more accelerated these days. So I think you’re right.

The politics that I think I’ve always clung to are the politics of empathy and respect. And those are things that I think are under attack even more so now than they ever have been.

But also you did mention Occupy, or Decolonize as I prefer, starting with the Battle in Seattle and the echos of the antiglobalization movement have been building and ricocheting off of more and more things and events in more direct and exciting ways. In that sense I’m really inspired to be alive right now. I think ten years ago I would have been more pessimistic than I am now.

Things do seem dire. But the collected resistance to what’s happening, to me has never felt stronger in my lifetime at least.

pd: In your music there’s always been these touches of hope, but Provincial again is this bleak and wintery album — a lot of talk of snow plows. How come your music seems so… I don’t want to say depressive and pessimistic, but….

JKS: I think because I am depressed. I do have struggles with that. Certainly. And it’s a big part of my life.

But also it’s a duty of a citizen to point out what’s wrong with the world. There are obvious things we can prevent and we can change. And the primary one is being able to communicate with one another and being able to reach other people. And I think that’s the most important political act we can all do.

And so yeah, paradoxically, by singing about those of us who have real difficulties actually making connections with other people like I think i do, I think that there’s something kind of hopeful about trying to analyze that and figure out why that is and how that happens.

pd: All of your writing seems to be well situated in place, in Winnipeg and Manitoba. Especially in this album. And when I read a song like Heart of the Continent, and a line like “our demolitions punctuate all we mean to save and leave too late”, it seems there’s a lot about Winnipeg that frustrates you as much as it enchants you.

I have to ask you, what’s going on in Winnipeg that irks you?

JKS: Where to start? An incredibly inept mayor, frankly. And a really disingenuous one. One who I think is more interested in his developer friends and his business interests than he is in the welfare of the city. He’s just opposed in every way to the idea of what I think think Winnipeg should be.

Yeah, it’s a distressing time in that sense.

But there are some great lights on council. And the provincial government is an NDP government and there are elements of progressive politics in the provincial government. Although, I wish it would be more overt.

Winnipeg continues to struggle mightily with addressing a very fundamental racism that occurs. There’s almost a quarter of Winnipeg’s population is aboriginal and they certainly don’t get the respect and support they deserve. And I see no signs of that changing. Though I am really inspired by the fact that that population is growing. So eventually it’s going to be inevitable and I’m really excited for that day to come. Where the aboriginal community can take the lead. It’s going to be an exciting time. So there’s elements of hope in there too.

pd: There seems to be a lot of parallels with what’s going on in Regina.

JKS: I’m sure. Regina has always seemed pretty similar.

pd: I read your piece about the Winnipeg Jets logo in the Winnipeg Review. You’re not happy about it. And you’re not going to buy any new Jets merch?

JKS: You know what? I’m going to be sporting a St John’s IceCaps hat. They’re our farm team. It’s a really cool logo. It’s got an iceberg on it. And I think it’s great and I love St John’s. I love the Jets. I actually last night, we were playing in Hamilton and I realized that I actually a big fan when someone just started saying really cruel things about them in the audience. And I just freaked out. Like I actually got incredibly upset. Afterwards I was like, “Why did I get so upset?” And I realized it was because I had a real affection for the team. And I can talk crap about them but some guy in Hamilton certainly can not.

But I think the logo and the name are atrocious. I think it’s just a terrible, terrible mistake. And I’ll continue to say that. I can’t understand why they caved to the pressure of a bullying minority in the city. Or even maybe a bullying majority who wanted to call it the Jets and then tie themselves to this awful war machine to have as a logo. I just think it’s a terrible idea.

And the Winnipeg Jets franchise is skating around in Phoenix, Arizona. The numbers are retired there. All the records are there. It seems weird that there are two Winnipeg Jets now. But I do love the team. And it’s great to have hockey back in Winnipeg.

pd: Um. I’m not really a hockey fan. One of the things you said in your article is comparing sports with war oversimplifies things. But as an outsider to the sport, I can’t help but do that. What is it about hockey? Why shouldn’t I be doing this?

JKS: I think the elements of sport are not warlike. They’re community building in a way. They’re like a distillation of what a community can do together. A team sport is a wonderful thing. And, ideally, you’re really competing against yourself. You’re trying to do your best and learn about what it is to be a human being.

And that’s the exact opposite of war. The people who inject elements of combat into sports are disingenuous and are warping everything that’s great about the game.

pd: And yet that seems to be what we’re doing with everything these days.

JKS: Yeah. It is. It’s a very troubling thing. So I do think people have to stand up and speak out against it when they see it. And people are doing that. I’m also really excited about the movement towards banning fighting in hockey and I think that’s a wonderful thing. And stopping concussions and making the game cleaner and more exciting and more skillful. Again, there’s lots to be depressed about and lots to be hopeful about as well.

pd: I wanted to ask you about the song “Letter In Icelandic From Ninette San.” Did this come from an actual letter?

JKS: No. Actually, it’s a long rambling story. I was trying to connect two of the places I was writing about. It’s actually the last song I wrote for the record and in my mind it ties it all together. It’s right at the centre of the record. I wanted to tie all the different locations together on the record.

There’s four different roads. So I thought about how, I’ve always been fascinated by this place called the Ninette Sanatorium in Ninette, Manitoba. It was open between 1910 and 1972. And it housed tuberculosis patients from all over Manitoba. And they would send out X-ray vans all over the province and people would have their X-rays taken and if they had tuberculosis they would often be shipped off on the train to Ninette, Manitoba, and not know, one, if they would survive, and two, when they would get better. And they were placed in this culture that must have arisen in the sanatorium of all these people of different backgrounds pushed together in this one place.

At the same time I was studying Riverton, Manitoba, and there’s this old small pox graveyard, called Nes Cemetery where a whole bunch of small pox victims were buried in the late 1800s. And then this man, another Icelandic settler there, built his house on the grave mysteriously. And used pieces of the grave as the foundation. And then died this mysterious death.

So I kept thinking of this guy and all these elements together and invented a fiction for him that he died and his family was left to fend for themselves. And there were two sons, an older son and a younger son and the mother. And the sons got together an worked and made enough money to buy a boat and fish on Lake Winnipeg. And then the X-ray van came through and the eldest brother had contracted TB and was shipped off to Ninette. And the youngest brother was left there to fend for himself with the boat and to take care of the mother. And so, I picture the younger brother becoming really frustrated by this and writing a letter to his older brother in the [sanitorium] saying, “I can’t do this anymore. I have other things I want to do with my life. I don’t want to do this forever.” and I just pictured the older brother thinking about this for a long time and then just deciding to write back and tell his younger brother to just forget about him. That his life was over and he should just move on and put his mother in the old folks home and get on with his life. and how difficult that would have been for him to set this younger brother free and acknowledge that his life was probably over.

So, I invented that. And then I was thinking about how to actually write the song. And I became really frustrated with that. I had this narrative ready and so I eventually settled on the form of a letter. And I thought about it as a piece of research that ended up in the desk drawer of someone who was writing their masters thesis about the culture that emerged in the sanatorium. And I thought, maybe that someone would study the parties that would happen there. Like the Halloween parties, for example, which I decided to pick up on. So I thought about this guy, this kind of feckless guy, trying to write his masters thesis about the parties at the Ninette Sanatorium and not being able to write it. And yet having this artifact in his desk drawer, this letter, untranslated, that he just had sitting there that would have tied it all together for him.

So these two songs emerged from it. “When I Write My Matters Thesis” is about that guy. And then the Letter In Icelandic From Ninette San, I pictured as the piece of research sitting in the desk drawer that the guy in the previous song has just not discovered yet. It’s the key to his future in a way as an academic.

pd: I’ve always kind of suspected you’ve had these long narratives behind your songs. Ever going to blow this up into prose. Will there ever be a John K Samson novel?

JKS: No. I don’t think so. I think I’ve figured out this is my form. I can’t seem to get a
I’ve never really written anything longer than six or seven hundred words. I’d find it incredibly difficult to do so. So I think these very short stories are what I’m going to be working at for a while.

pd: I think for a piece like this I’m required by law to ask you about the Weakerthans. Are they over for good?

JKS: No, no. I think we’re going to start working on another record some time this year. I’m going to be out touring [Provincial] for a while. Our drummer Jason [Tait] and his wife just had a baby. Everyone is just doing different things right now. Jason is also playing in Bahamas. But we do intend to get together some time later in the year and start playing music again.

pd: So, doing a solo project, was that a timing thing?

JKS: It all emerged I think sort of by accident. I had this project in mind and it was fun. And eventually I realized about half way through it, I was going to do a seven inch project. I was going to a series of seven inches and I did a couple of them. Then I realized I had about half a record and I hadn’t brought the Weakerthans in on it already. So that it kind of was already it’s own thing. It just kind of emerged naturally that way.

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5'10'' tall and he was born in a place. He's not there now. He's sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It's "Girl From Ipanema", thanks for asking. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.

4 thoughts on “John K Samson: The Complete Interview”

  1. “Ninette San” jumped out at me; I had a step-aunt who became a patient there in 1945. She was a lucky one; she survived, and married a fellow patient a few years later. They raised 4 kids and lived to be quite elderly.
    Someone wrote a book about Fort San; someone should do the same for Ninette, which closed in 1972.(I think it later became a group home for people with cognitive disabilities, for a time). There’s a recently erected monument there to all the patients who died.

  2. Paul touches on the similarities between Winnipeg and Regina. The whole time I was reading this I was thinking about Fort San, as you mentioned Barb. The likeness between the provinces is quite striking, which I guess is to be expected to some degree. I actually got married at Fort San and perhaps surprising to some there is a lot of positive energy there. I wish we as a province cared more to preserve that history. As far as I know it’s still closed from when the government sold it.

  3. In 2000, I attended an orientation weekend at Fort San, hosted by the Sask School Trustees Association, as it was then called. While the place was still being used regularly as a convention/retreat centre, there was a good deal of talk about the development potential, especially of the lakefront property. What’s happened since I don’t know, but the locale was beautiful.
    Pelican Lake, where the Ninette San was located (and I don’t know if any buildings are left) has long been cottage country.

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