I interviewed Steve Carroll, guitarist for The Weakerthans, early one August morning. We had problems figuring out the time difference, so I actually wound up calling him about an hour earlier than I was supposed to. Even though I woke him up, he was kind enough to do the interview.
I'm sorry about the time zone problem. You're in Winnipeg, I got the time zone from CNN and it turns out that they gave me the wrong time zone.
Steve: No way. They're wrong. They don't know what time it is in Winnipeg on CNN. That doesn't make any sense. It gets really confusing. Do you have what's called Daylight Savings?
Yeah, we do. We haven't changed though.
Steve: You haven't leapt forward? Sprung forward?
Not yet. Spring forward, fall back.
Steve: You haven't sprung forward?
No, we've already sprung forward. We haven't fallen back yet.
Steve: Nobody's falling back, man!
Never back, always forward! So the first thing I was curious about, especially since I haven't seen a lot of press on The Weakerthans, is how the band got started.
Steve: Well, it kind of started something like this. John Samson had a bunch of songs that he decided he wanted to record with a band back in late '96, early '97. He had a couple of guys in mind. He asked John Sutton, the bass player . well, he actually started playing with Jason Tait first, the drummer. Then they started about getting a bass player to come in and play on some of these songs and it was mostly for the purpose of recording "Fallow." Jason suggested that they get John Sutton. I actually started playing a little bit with Samson on the side, going over some of the songs he was writing. I remember him coming down to my apartment, because we lived in the same apartment building, and asking to help out with "Confessions" and stuff, but I was way too preoccupied with whatever I was doing at that time and he was a little uncertain if he wanted a lead guitar player at that time so I actually didn't join for another year after the project I was in kind of dissolved and I found I was in a place where I needed to be in The Weakerthans. That's how we all got together, but we've known each other for years. Winnipeg's punk scene is very small and there aren't a lot of factions. Red Fisher was the band that Jason and John were in prior to being in The Weakerthans and they played together for five or six years in that band. It was kind of an epic Winnipeg punk rock band that toured a lot and didn't see the light of success very often outside the city. I've known Samson since we were 16 and we played in our first band together. Red Fisher actually had a disc out on G-7 way back when G-7 first got started, or had maybe a false start let's say, back in '93, '94.
It sounds like The Weakerthans almost started as a session project.
Steve: It wasn't supposed to be that, but then it kind of turned into a snowball.
So did The Weakerthans start off with the intention of just recording records every year or two?
Steve: I don't think there was that much planning involved, really. It was not that intentional, in regard to the session project. I think that was a reason for the band to get band to get together and start playing, because John had these songs and he wanted to record them. Then they actually started playing shows. I think that was the reason he called Jason. As soon as he called Jason, I think it became more of a band project and they realized they kind of had broader goals than just becoming a session band.
So what's been happening since then? As a listener, it seems that the music is maturing. The first album seemed almost stark in terms of the tempos and the spacing of the notes. This album seems like it has a little more rock influence. What drove this change?
Steve: They got me. They got me right after they recorded the record. I don't actually play on the first album. A lot of things have happened. The songwriting has changed, our direction has changed in the sense that we're more ready to do whatever it takes for the songs to be good. John wants that too, whether that means we have to get insanely loud and torture our guitars or play the quietest, slowest song that's ever been written.
So how did you start playing guitar?
Steve: I started playing in Grade 7 when I was 12. It was either piano or guitar.
Steve: I tried piano and was really bad at it and the guitar, actually, I was really bad at it too, but it was more fun. I think The Weakerthans have this weird childhood history with music. Samson was a soloist in a choir that recorded records and toured to Australia when he was 10 or something. It was called the Mennonite Children's Choir, not that he's Mennonite. You know what a Mennonite is?
Isn't it relatively close to the Amish?
Steve: No, not really. I mean, there are certain degrees of the lifestyle that are similar to the Amish for very strict Mennonites, but it's basically a German-based immigrant community that has its own church. I guess that's the best way of saying it. I think it's a faction of Protestantism. That's the best I know and there are huge settlements in Manitoba. So yeah, he was a childhood soloist and played Tiny Tim and things like that and toured around. John Sutton studied upright bass when he was a kid. I don't even know what Jason did when he was a kid besides light things on fire, but I took punk rock guitar lessons from this punk rocker down the street from me. He had served in Juvenile Hall and things like that and his band was called Lesbian Bingo and I had to learn all his songs. "Fun in Winterpeg" was one of them.
So the lessons were basically him showing you a C chord.
Steve: No, no. Here's the C power chord. Move it down one fret, move it up one fret, yeah!
Now, did he teach you to use all three fingers or fake it with two?
Steve: I don't even remember how many fingers were involved. It was all about the power chord.
So how did you move from straight-forward punk rock to pedal steel?
Steve: Well, I actually don't know how to play pedal steel. The guitar that I play, the slide guitar, is called a lap steel. Lap steel is just basically a guitar laid down on your lap with the strings off the fretboard so you that don't touch the frets when you slide. The pedal steel has all sorts of wires and gadgets and whistles and things that you use with your feet and your knees to bend the notes, like having a whammy bar on every string is how I explain it. I don't know how to play that though, but it seemed like a natural progression for me. I just started tinkering around with it and really liked that sound and picked a guitar up about two and a half years ago. I don't know what it is about that instrument, but it led me down this weird path where within six months of me having it, I had to do a workshop at the local folk festival which is this huge music festival just outside of Winnipeg and they had made the same mistake you just made and billed me as a pedal steel player when I had no idea how to play that instrument. So I found a bunch of people at this festival who seemed to know what they were doing and we all kind of lied our way through it. That was my first crash course and I had to get really good for that workshop because I didn't know what I was doing.
One of the fascinating things about "Left and leaving" to me is the instrumentation, like the whirly-wind. How did these forms of instrumentation come in?
Steve: Ah, the whirly-wind. The whirly-wind is not something you probably would remember from your record listening days because it's probably something you would remember from a childhood toy. People know of it, it's not that elusive or as eccentric as some people might think it is. It's on a Dirty Three record and that's where I know it from. They play it much better than we do, but that instrumentation finds its way into the band because our drummer, let's give him credit for it, he's a tinkerer. If it makes a noise, he kind of brings it into the rehearsal space, which we don't have right now, and usually his drums are holding back a wash of gadgets and gizmos that are kind of overflowing. He has them on little stands all around him and he picks them up and hits them so he brings that stuff in. He originally started playing the whirly-wind in that song as we were writing it last winter.
On the new record, you have Jason credited with drums, percussion, saw, rhodes and glockenspiel.
Steve: Yeah, it's all true and he's a really good saw player.
What's a rhodes?
Steve: Rhodes piano. It's an electric piano. It's really faint on the record, he just plays a couple of notes in "History."
And switchblade? Please tell me he's not knife-fighting.
Steve: Switchblade is actually on "Everything Must Go!", the first track. It's the last noise. It's a certain switchblade he smuggled into Canada from Germany that he bought on the Rieferbahn in Hamburg.
It's good to know that you're breaking the law to make better and more creative records.
Steve: Exactly. The law, man, they're holding us back!
The Man is holding you down.
Steve: They won't let us make the sounds we need to make.
The sounds you need to hear. Now, one of the things that initially grabbed me about The Weakerthans is that you seem more covertly political by describing the barriers that get put up between interpersonal relationships and effective communication between people, this feeling that if we can break through those barriers, perhaps social evolution and, more importantly, revolution can occur more rapidly.
Steve: Well, I believe you're correct. I mean, I think one thing we were kind of longing for was the sensibility that was lost in, how can I put this, the ethics of Propagandhi and that genre. I played in a band that was just as hit you over the head with the idea of revolution and ideas of social change, but we're certainly looking for something that took into consideration, right from the get go, that the personal is the political. I think John's songwriting reflects that entirely. It's strange, there are two circles of people that have been talking to us about this lately. There are circles of people that know about Propagandhi and think he's mellowed and he's had to walk out of interviews because people have just looked at him and said, "So why'd you sell out?" If somebody asks him that question, they just don't understand what we're doing at all. The other circle of people look at us, like all over the Canadian press and it seems that the big tag line is that we're raging political leftists. Somewhere in there, it seems that there's an understanding that we're a political band, but I think, and I think John agrees, that we are no more political than any other band in the world. Every band has a choice that it's made and they've taken a stance and they are following a course of action, an economic plan of some sort. They have decided who they want to work with, what kind of companies they want to support, what kind of products they want to put out, how they want to market themselves and what they want to encourage and that is just as political, even if it's an apolitical stance, as us who have taken a relatively softer political course of action.
But it also seems that what you're doing is far more radical in terms of slowing the tempo down and adding different melodies and focusing on songwriting. It just isn't that radical to grab a guitar, learn three chords, play power chords and scream "Fuck the system!"
Steve: That's the folk tradition.
Yeah, like Phil Ochs and Woody Guthrie.
Steve: I don't think we're breaking new ground. This is just another tradition of political music that I don't think a lot of people recognize as being as political as it is. They think of it as folk music, it's softer but there's certainly an activist stance in a lot of folk music. They certainly set out with those goals. They certainly believed in them.
Here, most people think of "This Land Is Your Land" as a great patriotic anthem. They think about Woody Guthrie as a great patriot. They never realize that Woody Guthrie was a socialist, that his guitar had "This machine kills fascists" written on it and they never listened to the last verse of "This Land Is Your Land." They misread everything about it.
Steve: Yeah, that's true. Maybe if he swore during the song then they'd understand. Maybe if he had written in a couple of swear words, there wouldn't have that confusion. If anger is represented in your songs, then people don't understand, they cannot see what stance you're taking.
Why is that?
Steve: Well, it seems that people don't associate the emotions of being disenfranchised, or the emotions that can be tied with disenfranchisement like depression, alienation, loneliness, the desperation of poverty, things like this, which are all emotions of being politically maligned. Those are not known, those people don't recognize those political consequences of all those emotions. They recognize anger and frustration as the consequences of political disenfranchisement.
They don't recognize the bitterness and despair that come from being left out.
Steve: Yeah. They know the bitterness but the despair takes on a lot of forms and I think that people, especially in music, want to feel their anger represented rather than their sorrow.
On both albums, there seems to be a gallows humor about the futility of it, lines like "Enlist the cat in the impending class war." It's one of the greatest lines I've ever heard on record, especially a vaguely politically themed record. While I recognize the commitment and underlying struggle, it also seems that lines like that question why we even bother.
Steve: Well, yeah. That's the thing about our music, it's definitely self-aware. I think that's where a bit of the levity comes from. I think that's John's signature, that style of writing. I think it gives people a chance, a touch of humanity and humility.
Do you think that might also be part of the reason why people misunderstand or misinterpret what you're doing?
Steve: Well, yeah. I mean, it's hard for me to say how people will interpret and what points they will misunderstand, but I certainly think that it makes it more complicated if you're looking at it singularly as a political band. In the tradition of punk rock songwriting, certainly there is a lot of humor in a lot of punk rock bands, but I don't know if it's necessarily simple.
Right, like "Let's Lynch The Landlord," "Kill The Poor," pretty much every Dead Kennedys song ever written.
Steve: Yeah. I even think that they thought that was funny too. It was a ridiculous thing, there was a bit of ridiculousness in everything that they were saying, even though they were yelling it. It seems that Mr. Biafra has a very wry sense of humor.
It seems like something got lost in the translation. It bothers me that pop bands like Blink-182 are considered punk when the socio-political aims of punk have been lost.
Steve: Oh yeah. Punk rock is facing the situation that a lot of music has faced and that every form of music faces over the course of its life. Let's say punk rock is a legitimate form of music, if we can define it and it exists and we know how to categorize it, just like you can categorize jazz because punk rock is a little ambiguous, just as any category is for music. In this one I think it's pretty ambiguous because it's simply about the energy that people put into it, or can be.
And the spirit as well.
Steve: So punk rock has faced what every other form of music has faced, which is the eventual incorporation by and popularity in the mainstream and then the mainstream adopts its policies and usurps punk rock's legitimate roots and replaces them with its glossed over plastic version which is Blink-182. Blink-182 is probably one of the most extreme. They certainly have a Southern California punk sound but I don't even know if they call themselves a punk rock band. They might just say they're pop, but every form of music faces this. Folk music faced it in the 60's, jazz music has been suffering from it for years, rap has been living through it and this is what we've been witnessing in recent history, especially in the late 80's, that was the time that really happened for rap and now it's running its course. The mainstream has this really absurd version of rap that lives on the airwaves. Rap was a very political form of music too. It was part of the genre.
Are The Weakerthans a political band?
Steve: No more than any other band is a political band. This is important, no more than any other band is a political band because every band is a political band. We take politics seriously. We wouldn't be in this position, we wouldn't have made the decisions that we've made without having some political motivation.
It sounds like your politics aren't reflected so much in your music as they are in the process of creating it and how you live your lives.
Steve: Exactly. I mean, that's the ultimate measure, how we live our lives. We're no saints, we're not saints of any sort, we're just regular people who are completely faulty, just as any other individual is. We are struggling to be a successful independent band against all odds. There's a market monopoly that exists and for a small business, which we are and which is what we want to be and which every independent band is, it's an uphill battle to become something sustainable for the members involved and for the people that work with us. We are trying to become a mobile utopia for ourselves where we are able to create the music that we want for the conditions that we want using the economic model that we desire which is where we're coming together, because we have a network now. We have a complete network of record labels rather than one giant monopoly. We have five record labels.
Right, you have G-7 in Canada, Sub City in the United States, another label in Europe, another in Australia.
Steve: We have two labels in Europe, actually. We have But Alive Records from Germany who cover our German territories and then we have Bad Taste Records which does the rest of Europe and then we have Shock Records who just picked up the new record in Australia.
Do you have Japanese distribution yet?
Steve: We do. I think it's through Sub City. I think they own those rights.
I really admire this. You're focusing on doing something that lets you live in a fair, ethical fashion while allowing you to do anything you want to do creatively.
Steve: Yeah. Everybody wants to live in a fair, ethical manner, right? It's not just us. Everybody wants to create the utopia where they work in the place that they want to work and under the conditions that they want to work. We are a mom and pop business and we are our own bosses; we have the chance to make the best decisions for us.
Going back to the music, you mentioned in an email that John comes up with the lyrics and a couple of chord progressions and that the rest of the band adds texture and harmonies and the complexity.
Steve: The arrangement.
So how does the arrangement work? Do you sit in a studio together, do you write your own parts?
Steve: It depends on what the time is like, how much time we have. Time is a huge issue. Time dictates a lot of stuff. We're really busy and generally we're working our other jobs or John is working at Arbeiter Ring or we're between tours or we're planning stuff, so it takes on a couple of forms. Either John and I will get together, or John, I and John Sutton will get together and work on the guitar progressions and trying to find some parts that work together and make a small arrangement. Then we take it to Jason and we all lay it together and work though it and work the bugs out of it and make suggestions and sweat and ponder and then record and examine and then start all over with the next one. Or it can be that Samson just shows up and he's got it. We know where the parts are or it needs some parts and we just do it right there, everybody yelling out what they want to do.
It also sounds like the songs evolve. When you played songs from "Fallow" live. They seem to be a little faster, the progressions might have changed.
Steve: Well, yeah. Songs change from the get go because I started doing whatever the hell I wanted with them, regardless of what was on the record. That automatically gave them a bit of fresh air and now it's just one of the nice things about playing those songs still, is that they've actually evolved with us. They've changed and maybe they've changed a little lyrically, too, but they've certainly changed musically and that's refreshing. It makes them fun. We certainly do not want to be stagnant and let these songs slide away so they seem to be changing all over the place, they're growing in crazy ways. They're finding second lives.
Or extending the one they already had.
It's like watching a child grow up.
Steve: Yeah, a little bit. There's a country version of "Confessions" that's supposed to make its way into the world on "Hopelessly Devoted To You 3." It won't be a very good quality recording because we did it on the radio, all sorts of weird versions. We have lots of plans to screw up our songs.
And you have a sense of humor about it too.
Steve: Yeah. Sometimes it's just farcical and embarrassing.
It seems like The Weakerthans as a unit have an intense desire to communicate with people, to reach out and build new bonds. Is that the intent that you approach the band with?
Steve: Certainly. It's weird, I just watched a video tape of us playing in Austin and I had only seen a couple of shows on tape that were taped locally, but it was strange how much we were all projecting. It threw me, I didn't know we played like that. We were all really pushing our energy forward and this is something that has just started happening. John, as he's gotten more comfortable being a singer, is certainly starting to project more. That's the idea behind singing and singing well is that you're projecting to your audience and that you're bringing them in and that there's an energy exchange between everybody.
It seems like John is shy.
Steve: Yeah, he's sheepish. He's pretty embarrassed about being a lead singer. There was an interview that just played over the weekend on the Canadian music video channel. They did a spot on us and he did this long-winded interview and he said, "Most of the time, the record industry is just embarrassing." That's kind of a good motto for us. Embarrassing. At the same time, it's really fun, but he's a little reluctant to take on the role of the glam hairdo, gel, whatever, eyeliner lead singer.
So we're never going to see him with hair extensions.
Steve: I don't think so. Not unless Lauryn Hill needs some help or something.
Are any of the other band members going to get hair extensions?
Steve: I wouldn't put anything past John Sutton. Seriously. He might just do it. Jason doesn't need the hair extensions.
Anything you'd like to add before we finish?
Steve: It's been thorough.
I'd just like to thank you for two amazing albums. I've spent the past few months being blown away and amazed that people can combine these folk and country influences into albums of such stark beauty. These records just rock my world.
Steve: I like them too. Sort of. It's almost there.
I think I actually like "Left and leaving" better than "Fallow."
Steve: People are saying that, but I think people are just saying that because it's new and they don't know the songs that well. I like the first one. I had nothing to do with it and I think it's one of the greatest records ever.
I really like "Exiles among you," "Aside" and "Left and leaving" on the new album.
Steve: I think there are going to be other songs that people start liking. People generally like those songs. I think that as the album grows, there are going to be some secret ones that it took us a while to really like that I think people are going to like.
I think those are the three that are the easiest to get into in terms of the melodic progressions.
Steve: Yeah, they certainly translated pretty well to the record. "Left and leaving" is a crazy, weird version on the album. We were completely taken aback when it was finally mixed because it's so far off the demos that we were doing of it. The demos were a lot more clean and straight-ahead and shinier. Now it's kind of all dark and clangy.
It's always good that something can change and mutate in production. I like hearing things that are never the same, that always change because it gives me a reason to listen over and over again. It's been probably 15 years since I picked up my first Hüsker Dü album. If I had to make a conservative guess, I'd say I've listened to it over 1,000 times and I'm still hearing notes and chords that I didn't pick up on the first, second, twentieth, fiftieth listen, so I have a deep and abiding appreciation for albums that allow a constant sense of discovery.
Steve: Yeah, definitely.
Thanks for the time Steve.
Steve: Thank you very much. I'm glad we figured out what time zones we're in.