John K. Samson Only Wanted to Be Interviewed via Postcard, so That’s What We Did
We talked to the former Weakerthans frontman about his new solo album, ‘Winter Wheat,’ the old-fashioned way: through the mail.
When John K. Samson, frontman of the defunct Canadian darlings The Weakerthans, announced back in August that he would be enlisting his former bandmates as the rhythm section for his second solo effort, Winter Wheat, I was understandably excited. So excited, in fact, that I wanted to talk to Samson specifically about this new collection of songs. But when I reached out to his publicist, I was informed that Samson only wanted to do the interview if it was conducted through the mail. (To the millennials reading this: the "mail" the thing that companies use to deliver your hoverboards.) While this initially seemed like an odd request, it actually made more sense once I got this reply from my editor at Noisey, Dan Ozzi: "Yes, definitely interview him via postcards or whatever. That is such a Weakerthans way to do it."
For once, Dan was right. Samson is, after all, famously old-fashioned and heartfelt, so a postcard interview made perfect sense. And so, in preparation, I started listening to Winter Wheat a lot, hoping to connect with John on some of the themes of the album, which include loneliness, isolation, technology, and his hometown of Winnipeg. All subjects I'm kind of an expert on... except Winnipeg, which I learned through my research has been named Slurpee Capital of the World 15 years in a row. That said, the first thing you should know about Winter Wheat is that it's the kind of record that's best listened to when you're alone and free of brain-freezing distractions because it demands your full attention. Over acoustic guitars, sparse percussion, and lyrical cadences, Samson tells the stories of fictional characters with the economy of Raymond Carver (an author who Samson unsurprisingly mentions during our correspondence).
"One of the themes that runs through this record is delusional thinking, and how sometimes we need to learn to live with our delusions, accept them, in this case turn them into a useful reason to live," Samson says of the album. "Especially if the only other option is to let them control and destroy us." Like most things that seem sad on the surface—such as Todd Solondz movies or the underrated Clint Eastwood masterpiece Gran Torino—there's an underlying hope to Winter Wheat, which is communicated through the tiny details of these songs: the image of someone praying in a parking lot or calling in prescriptions from a fort near a stream. Even when one of the characters is pining to exist on another planet where everyone is "happier and tall," it's communicated not with judgment but instead with an understated optimism. Few of us regularly explore that fine line between contemplation and collapse, but maybe we should visit more often.
Ultimately, Samson sums all of this up on the album's title track in one sentence when he sings, "We know this world is good enough because it has to be." Because without that foundation, none of these songs—or any songs, really—matter anyway.
It is surprisingly hard to buy a postcard when you live in Brooklyn, so I waited until I had an appointment in Midtown Manhattan to buy this first one. Also, did you know how cheap postcards are? The place I went to sold 20 for a dollar, so I asked how much it would cost to buy two and the dude working there said I could just have them. I mean, I'm pretty sure he worked there. If he didn't, I guess I technically stole these.
This is Jonah from Noisey. Excuse me if my handwriting isn't great, I haven't done this in a while. Ironically I did write some letters to Propagandhi during the Less Talk, More Rock era and a nice woman named Lorna wrote me back and sent stickers. This seems like a good segue into your new solo album Winter Wheat because so much of it seems to be about communication and connection.
Do you think the 'Net makes you feel more connected to others or more alone? It's kind of both at the same time, right? There's also a lot of illusions to healing/sobriety on the album. Do you think being present is crucial? Is staring at your phone ultimately as damaging as blacking out? How can we be better people?
Samson's reply took a while to arrive, so for a while, I was convinced that it was lost. It has a futuristic building on the cover which I thought was the Canadian NASA but turns out to be a library. I used to go to the library on Saint Marks, which kind of looked like a dilapidated middle school. This is probably, like, some kind of metaphor. Think about that.
Thanks for your postcard, always nice to see handwriting. I'm similarly out of practice but it feels great to try it out again. I think the only time I really write things by hand these days is when I'm composing shopping lists. Though that reminds me of the shopping list that Raymond Carver's wife Tess Gallagher found in one of his shirt pockets after he died that went, "eggs, butter, hot choc, Australia? Antarctica?" I do love a list. Maybe too much.
I definitely think you are right. The internet makes us more connected and more alone, often at once. I think living with that depends on how comfortable we are with our delusions. For example, the internet deludes us into thinking we are less alone than we really are—our public projections online are intimate and public at the same time, but in reality the only way to truly be less alone is to be in the same physical space as another creature. I'm not saying that our delusions of intimacy are always bad things, on the contrary, I think that's one of the things I was trying to explore on this record—the idea that maybe our delusions can help us survive, you know? (Having said that, I often feel like we are all a bit tyrannized by our phones.)
I love your question, "How can we be better people?" I've been thinking about it for a day now, and I really have no idea. Maybe we can't be better, but we can be more useful to one another wherever we are? I help run a book club for inmates at a federal prison here and after a year or so I've realized that the books themselves don't matter much, but all of us sitting in a room together and paying attention to one another actually does. So maybe the best we can do is show up in and pay attention?
I think I was a little harsh on New York with that whole library discussion earlier, so for this postcard I proved that we have some culture here as well, since it features a sketch of Central Park. However, it seems as if this was drawn during medieval times, which seems weird because didn't the Dutch colonize New York after that? I don't really know. I bet John would know this, actually. Maybe I'll ask him in my next postcard.
Your friend Jonah here. Thanks for your last postcard, that was great. One thing that really stuck out to me was that "maybe our delusions can help us survive" and how you tried to explore that on this new record. Specifically when you talk about how "the good old days were most bad" on "Select All Delete."
Do you think whatever this is, let's call it nostalgia, is a type of survival trait? Like if we were actually cognizant of all of our disappointments it would be too hard or futile to keep up life's charades? That may seem dark but I think there's something hopeful about that idea—and the record—in the sense that when we look back and whatever we're going through, maybe it won't seem so bad.
This one also took a while to arrive, which was annoying because I really wanted to keep corresponding with John forever. Unfortunately, I received this one right before the article was due but I'm hoping he doesn't see that it actually ran so I can keep writing him. If you meet him on tour, please don't mention this article. Maybe just mention how fun it is having pen pals, and talk about how you wish you had a cool one in the United States who definitely didn't recently end up on the Thomas' English Muffins Wikipedia page on a Friday night. That would just be pathetic.
Thanks for your card. I'm enjoying this. I'm writing from the Winnipeg Millennium Library (see front of this card, last one) where I just started a job with my partner Christine as writer in residence. We get an office in the library for the next seven months, which is a literal dream come true. No windows but it is right next to one of those Season Affective Disorder lamps, so that's something.
I like your points about nostalgia, definitely something I obsess about. You are right, being able to smooth out our disappointments with some delusions might be important for survival. And there's a real danger in valourizing the past. There isn't anything to make great again (to unavoidably borrow from the bewildering moment we are living in) because it hasn't ever been that great and I agree there's something weirdly and abidingly hopeful there.
It gives us the opportunity and motivation to transform the present, I guess? Which is all we've got.
Best, Yrs, JKS, Winnipeg
Jonah saw the Weakerthans open for Fifteen in Ohio in the late-90s. He also probably stayed out too late and got grounded. Follow him on Twitter - @mynameisjonah.