Perhaps it's the Winnipeg weather that explains the deep well of creativity existing in that prairie city. Too cold in the winter, too mosquito-ey in the summer – your best option is to stay indoors and hone your artistic skills. It's the only reasonable explanation for the inordinate amount of talent that Winnipeg fosters, among the most beloved of whom have got to be the Weakerthans.
With songs that reference topics as quintessentially Canadian as curling or hockey heroes, or as esoteric as monologues by a cat, or a dinner shared between a French philosopher and an Antarctic explorer, the Weakerthans are a hard band to pigeonhole. Philosophically, they are not afraid to wear their politics on their sleeve; melodically, their music varies from tightly infectious to deeply introspective. Is mid-continental/vegetarian/literary/indie/folk/punk a genre?
The Weakerthans formed in 1997 when frontman John K Samson left his gig as bassist for the highly political Winnipeg punk group Propagandhi, in order to start Arbeiter Ring Press. Along the way to becoming a left-wing publishing house maven, he once again felt the Siren's call of music and joined forces with other members of Winnipeg's punk alumnae – drummer Jason Tait and bassist John P. Sutton of Red Fisher.
The Weakerthans' debut album, Fallow, garnered positive reviews for its poetic imagery and tight musicality, with tracks varying from the infectiously rhythmic “Diagnosis” to the achingly beautiful acoustic title track. As principal songwriter, Samson brings a poet's precision with words and exquisite attention to detail to the lyrics; as frontman, he sings with such clear elocution, in his distinct Manitoba tones, that every word is discernable. It's no small wonder that Weakerthans concerts are known to turn into sing-alongs.
Shortly after the release of Fallow, guitarist Stephen Carroll from Painted Thin joined the band, and in 2000 the Weakerthans released their sophomore album, Left and Leaving. It was nominated for a JUNO Award for Best Alternative Album and was also ranked at number six in Chart Magazine's 2005 poll of top 50 Canadian albums of all time. With Left and Leaving, the Weakerthans continued producing songs which chronicle life's tiny details and which often reference Samson's conflicting emotions for his hometown of Winnipeg.
With the release of Reconstruction Site in 2003, the Weakerthans began to acquire some serious accolades. The album took home the hardware for Outstanding Independent Album at the Western Canadian Music Awards in 2004, while Samson scored with Outstanding Songwriter. The video for “Psalm for the Elks' Lodge Last Call” also garnered a WCMA nomination that year. Reconstruction Site was nominated for a JUNO Award for Alternative Album of the Year, and the video for “The Reasons” was nominated for a Juno the following year. Around about that time, John P Sutton left the band and was replaced by Greg Smith.
Reunion Tour, the Weakerthans' most recent studio album, was released in 2007 and was greeted with a great deal of praise from fans and musical style-makers alike. The band took home the Artist of the Year nod at the Verge Awards in 2008, as well as the ECHO Songwriting Prize for the track Night Windows. Notably, and perhaps cementing the Weakerthans' reputation and critical reception, Reunion Tour was also shortlisted for the 2008 Polaris Music Prize.
Collectively and individually, the members of the Weakerthans frequently collaborate with other Canadian musicians and take on side projects that often extend beyond the realm of music. Jason Tait is a sometimes member of Broken Social Scene and The FemBots, and currently drums with Bahamas. Samson often collaborates and tours with his wife, fellow musician Christine Fellows. Tait, Samson and Fellows all worked with filmmaker Clive Holden to produce the multimedia project Trains of Winnipeg.
Weakerthans collaborations and side projects reached critical mass in 2010, with the release of a documentary We're the Weakerthans, We're From Winnipeg, a live album Live at the Burton Cummings Theatre, and a collaborative album with Jim Bryson entitled The Falcon Lake Incident. Meanwhile, Samson's embrace of Manitoba stories and places evolved from a planned series of 7″ releases into a full-length solo album, Provincial, which made the long-list for the 2012 Polaris Prize.
The Weakerthans have always had a strong literary bent, which is perhaps not unexpected when the frontman and principal songwriter owns a publishing house. It's not often that a song referencing Michel Foucault or a Martin Amis novel makes you want to dance. It's certainly not every day that words like Gestetner, semaphore, and cartography make it into the lyrics of rock song either. But a love of words is part of what defines the Weakerthans and what unites a sizable portion of their ravenously-devoted fan base. I once saw someone walking around during a Weakerthans' concert, reading a book, oblivious to the lustily singing fan boys and girls who were jammed up against the stage. I wouldn't be surprised to see him show up as a character in a Weakerthans song one of these days.
– Barbara Bruederlin