Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Weakerthans

I've had the pleasure of interviewing and writing about the Weakerthans, one of my favourite bands, several times. This one was for Monday Magazine.

Talking poetry with the publisher
Discovering hope with the Weakerthans

If there was a gun to my head and someone was demanding what my favorite band is (and why do I imagine that will happen someday?), I would have to say The Weakerthans. Over the course of three albums, the group has touched me and many others in a pretty profound way for a lil’ rock band from Winnipeg. And although the music itself is wonderful, it’s the lyrics of singer/guitarist John K. Samson that help so many people feel so strongly about the band.
Samson, who has had his poetry published and helps run Arbeiter Ring, a book publishing company, penned his most uplifting lyrics so far for the band’s last album, 2003’s Reconstruction Site. “I was kind of conscious of it as I was writing it,” says Samson. “The theme of the record is, like the title suggests, trying to build a life worth living with the tools at hand. There are some dark moments on the record, but I think the overall message is one of trying to act, trying to be active and to move forward in a way.”
Speaking of moving forward, after a debut album that was lyrically despondent (1997’s Fallow – sample lyric being “with so much left to seek/the lease runs out next week”), a follow-up in 2000’s Left & Leaving that had a bit of hope in Samson’s words but was still tentative at best (“you said ‘true meaning would be dying with you’/and although I wanted to/I did not smile”) and the aforementioned inspiration of Reconstruction Site (“I’m so glad that you exist,” Samson sings through a smile), what direction is his writing taking for the next album?
“I’m not entirely sure,” he ponders. “I think the idea of usefulness and action are the themes I’m thinking about, and a kind of more directly politicized idea. I mean, these are very politicized times, so I’m trying to figure out a way to write about that. It’s a challenge.”
For Samson, his lyrics are a way to synthesize his thoughts and connect with people – something he insists everyone does, whether they realize it or not. “It’s not just people who are seen as strictly creative that do that. I think people do it in their everyday lives and their conversations and their interactions with other humans, and their interests and hobbies and desires. This just happens to be the way that I do it.”
-Greg Pratt

Cannibal Corpse

This one spread like wildfire on the internet. I've interviewed Cannibal Corpse several times and these guys are shockingly nice, friendly and down to earth. It's like interviewing your dad. This one was originally for Exclaim! magazine's website.

Cannibal Corpse’s Alex Webster
By Greg Pratt

It’s not easy making a 20-year career in death metal. Heck, only a handful of people on the planet have pulled it off, five of which are the longhairs in Buffalo, New York’s Cannibal Corpse. And to celebrate this milestone, the band is releasing a triple DVD, Centuries of Torment: the First 20 Years, on July 8. Over seven hours of footage awaits the eager death-head, including a three-hour history of the band, tons of live footage, going back to 1989—including a set from 2006 in Toronto—and seven music videos. We got bassist Alex Webster on the blower to chat about the DVD, the history of the band and growing older within a death metal context. While we chatted, his bandmates were in the same building working on a new song; the group’s next album is being recorded in September and October with Erik Rutan, who produced their last, Kill.

Where did the idea to do this exhaustive DVD come from?
It’s really the idea of Denise Korycki, the filmmaker. We met her when she worked for Uranium, which was the heavy metal show down here in America on Fuse. She did an interview for us for Kill, and that interview aired in 2006; then she stopped working over there and starting doing documentaries on her own. She was doing some backstage footage for As I Lay Dying when they were with us on the Sounds of the Underground tour and we got to know her even a little better. We had a bunch of footage that was filmed for Kill, and I approached her and Metal Blade with the idea of her doing a behind-the-scenes Kill tour DVD. We had done a behind-the-scenes studio thing before with The Wretched Spawn DVD but we had never done a behind-the-scenes on tour thing. That was the original idea; Denise came back to me with this history idea. She said she wanted to do that because we were one of the bands she had worked with that had such a long history. We have ten studio albums, we’ve been around 20 years, so that was something she really wanted to do. She’s the one who put it all into motion and did all of the work.

So is this celebrating your 20 years of being a band?
The timing is definitely right for it because 20 years is a bit of a landmark. I suppose we could have waited for 25 years but 20 years is a pretty significant anniversary for a band. She came to us with the idea; I don’t know if she realized it was also going to wind up being a 20th anniversary kind of thing, but it wound up being like that.

How long did it take to put the whole thing together?She started to do some of the filming when we were on tour with the Red Chord, the Black Dahlia Murder, Goatwhore and the Absence, the Metal Blade 25th Anniversary Tour. So there was all that going on, she was able to interview a lot of our fans on that tour and interview the other bands. I guess she started working on it September or October of last year, and she really just finished it up probably a month ago [May]. She had something like three terabyte hard drives full of raw footage [laughs].

Was it a very daunting project?
For us, the big thing is that we’ve never really let people take this close of a look at us before [laughs]. You know, there’s footage of us at home. We’ve let people in a little bit more with our personalities than we ever have before, and the history of our band has never been so extensively covered in anything, be it an interview or anything else. It’s very comprehensive look at the band.

Now you can move on to the next 20 years.
Yeah, that’s how I feel about it, honestly. For me personally, I’ve always preferred to look forward. So looking back and doing a history thing has been very different for me. Maybe the other guys feel the same way, too. We’re always looking forward to the next record, the next tour, and so on. We don’t normally do things that revolve so much around things that happened before. But it was good timing—with the 20-year anniversary, this was the right time to try and do something like this.

Did you ever think you’d be in a death metal band for 20 years?
When we look at it and think, ‘We’ve been around for 20 years,’ it seems kind of impossible, especially if you put yourself in the frame of mind we were in when we first started. Would I have thought when I was 18 this was going to be where I was when I was 38? No way; no way. We were hoping to maybe get one or two albums out. We had a no idea a 20-year career in death metal could even exist. Death metal was really in its nascent stages, there were only a handful of bands that came before us, like Morbid Angel, Death, and Possessed. You couldn’t say, ‘Wow, look at this band, they’ve been around for 20 years, we want to do that too.’ There was nothing like that, it was like, ‘Hey, this band’s got a great demo, I love this music, I want to do music like this.’ [laughs]. All of those bands were a couple years ahead of us. Most people would say the earliest death metal started was probably in 1983; I could be wrong, maybe a little bit earlier. We got started in 1988 so that was about five years after the beginnings of it, so it was still really new. So it’s remarkable to us; we’re kind of surprised, and being able to look back at it like this has given us some sort of perspective on how incredible the whole thing has been.

It is pretty crazy that you’ve managed to pull it off.
It is. [laughs] You never know what’s going to happen. That’s why we gave it the subtitle “The First 20 Years.” Why shouldn’t there be a second 20 years? We couldn’t have predicted these first 20, so we don’t want to predict it’s going to be over in 20 years either. We also wanted to let people know the band is very open-ended, we see our career as being ongoing and hope our best years are actually ahead of us. So this is the first 20 years and hopefully there will be a second 20 that will be just as fun. In 20 years I’ll be 58, so we’ll see about that [laughs]. But you know what I’m saying: we are far from being done and that was something we wanted to get across in the title.

Is there an age limit in death metal?
I think it’s not an age limit as much as a physical ability limit. One person might hit the wall when they’re 45; like some of these drummers that are playing so fast, they’re doing something that’s the equivalent of being an athlete, so it might be difficult for some of these drummers as they get older. Somebody like me, the bass playing, the guitar playing, that kind of stuff, [it’s possible] if you headbang a little bit less—which of course I don’t want to do, I want to be out there banging as hard as I can and putting on as good of a show as I did when I was in my 20s. But physically, my fingers will be able to do this until I get arthritis or something, which hopefully will never happen. You see jazz musicians playing really fast guitar and bass playing well into their elderly years.

As you get older do you find the themes—the gore, the violence—interest you as much?
I like horror in general, so I think we just try to capture an evil, dark vibe with the horror songs. I always thought that was an important part of death metal. I think there needs to be a darkness in the music and lyrics you’re trying to capture and that’s something that still interests me. Cannibal Corpse is the outlet for that for me as a musician. I do a few other things that are different, Blotted Science being the main one I do as a side band that’s a little different. But Cannibal Corpse, death metal, it should be horror, all the way. It should be dark, evil stuff that we’re doing.

Will the band ever run out of lyrical ideas?
I think that, unfortunately, there’s enough evil shit going on in the world that there’s almost limitless inspiration just by watching the news. If you’re going to be writing about dark subjects, there are a lot of dark things happening in the world today and throughout human history. And some of it, in a macabre way, is interesting. I think that’s why people watch shows about serial killers. We just try to not rehash our own stuff and look for different storylines. There are only so many songs you can have about people being eaten by a zombie. I mean, we have a bunch [laughs]. We probably have more than most people and I’m not saying we won’t do another, but we would probably try to look at a different angle for it. One thing we’ve tried to make clear is that as much as we enjoy writing about horror and gore we’re not into real-life violence at all. Other than boxing and mixed martial arts [laughs]. As far as real violence and crime, we’re obviously against it like any normal people would be.


This one was fun, because I've always had a small obsession with floathomes. After doing this piece, that small obsession blossomed into a large obsession and now I want to move my family on to one.

This was originally published as a cover story for Monday Magazine.

Ups and downs and ups
The unwavering truth of floathome living—it’s great

Laura Fellman’s house shakes as we’re sitting in her living room. She doesn’t notice as I instinctively grip a bit harder the arm of the comfy chair I’m nestled in. She’s lived under these conditions for 16 years; to her these teeny shakes are imperceptible.
She lives in a floathome (commonly and erroneously referred to as houseboats; those are actually the boats you see in lakes that are indeed homes but have a motor). Hers is one of 33 located down at Fisherman’s Wharf, the popular tourist destination known for the always-busy Barb’s Place fish-and-chip joint and those funny floating houses that we locals regard with a lot of curiousity as we stroll past. (Incidentally, 33 is the limit for floathomes down there, so until someone leaves, no one new gets in.)
“I came to Victoria and didn’t really know the town,” says Fellman, when I ask how she ended up living on the water. “I had just rented an apartment. One day a friend asked for a ride to his girlfriend’s place; he’s directing me around, and we ended up at West Bay Marina. As we were pulling in there, I looked around and saw a for-sale sign on a floathome; I went down and knocked on the door, and two weeks later I owned it. And that’s the place you’re sitting in.”
Fellman’s home is noticeably small but not crowded; she admits that the floathome lifestyle dictates the person lives a minimalist life due to the generally smaller size of the homes.
“A lot of people living in a floathome are people who are ready to get rid of the excess in their lives,” she says. “Definitely you have to think twice about what you bring in. You can’t be much of a collector of anything. Some people rent a storage locker somewhere; I don’t do that, I make myself live in this space.”
And although the costs of floathomes vary (a very rough estimate Fellman gives is $200,000-$500,000), one thing seems to be the same across the board: the prices are rising.
“They’re going up and up,” says Fellman. “They vary a lot with the sizes and amenities. This is not an inexpensive way to live. We have a monthly moorage fee that includes an administration fee, then we’re charged by the square foot. That includes water, garbage removal and recycling removal. We pay for our telephones and propane ourselves. We also pay property taxes.”
It’s almost hard to pay attention to our conversation; the sun is shining through the sunroof and the many windows, while the stunning views of the water are distracting, to say the least. We step out onto Fellman’s back porch and serenity washes over me. Any thoughts I had about floathomes not being safe are laid to rest—unlike a normal boat, they are flat-bottomed and they are much heavier than a normal boat. This, no doubt, is the life.
Then come the seaplanes.
“I find sometimes with the airplanes you have to stop your conversation for 14 seconds until it takes off. That’s about how long it takes—we’ve timed it,” she laughs. “The rest of it is pretty interesting—you see all the interesting boats going in and out. But the planes were here first, so you have to learn to live with it.”
I ask Fellman about learning to live with the floathome rocking back and forth during windy times. She says it’s nowhere near as bad as us land-lubbers probably think.
“I’d say that in all the years I’ve been living here, maybe one night a winter I’m awakened by the movement,” she says. “You get used to it. I’ve only once in 16 years had something fall off a shelf, and that was just one item. That’s it.”
It seems a small price to pay for such a beautiful home. But it is a different life on the Wharf; while there’s no cable access for television, people make do with satellite dishes and the internet. Residents need to keep an eye on their floatation devices, so periodically hire a diver to go underneath their home to make sure everything’s as it should be. But the relative simplicity of this life is appealing; the peaceful atmosphere, despite the planes and taxi-boats whipping around, incredible.
Then come the tourists.
“I think most of us vacillate,” says Fellman on the endless stream of rubber-neckers, many of whom are attracted to her home because of the large amount of plants she has on the outside of her boat. “The tenth time somebody asks you the same question that every single tourist has asked you that day, it can get a little tiring. If I’m working outside my house, many tourists will stop and ask questions. On the other hand, they’re interesting, they’re from all over the world, they’re curious; it can get tiring, but it’s nice too. Every now and then I’ll have someone walk right in thinking it’s a business because we have our names on our homes. They think it’s a store. Sometimes I’ll have it locked and I’ll hear someone trying and trying the door,” she laughs.
There are also electrical limitations of living on a floathome, which the residents choose to keep low as one of their (many) contributions to green living. Their water comes in through hoses, which tend to freeze in the winter, and they heat with propane; most residents also cook with propane. Living on a floathome, especially in a busy area like Fisherman’s Wharf, sounds like a lot of work.
“Well, hey, we don’t mow lawns,” says Fellman. “We don’t have to clean out the garage. It’s a trade-off, but it’s not a lot of work. It’s just different.”
Another way the Wharf community is different than your average city block is that it is just that—a community.
“People really look out for each other here,” says Fellman. “We had a really big storm once a few years ago and one of the homes was just hanging by one rope, and everyone was out here at three in the morning, all the floathome owners helping out. When people go away there’s always someone down here willing to look after your place.”
“The people down here are a very eclectic bunch,” she adds. “It’s a very interesting group of people, and there are some very artistic souls down here.”
As we sit on her floathome, which at this point seems to me to be the only reasonable place to live on the face of the Earth, Fellman says this is indeed the life for her, and has been ever since that fateful day 16 years ago.
“I’ve been living this way ever since,” she says, “and I always say they’ll probably take me out in a pine box.”
Of course, it'll probably float.
-Greg Pratt


This is one of my favorite pieces. Not only was the experience of meeting James Hetfield and doing a (extremely brief) in-person interview a blast, the resulting piece was one I'm quite proud of.

This was originally published in Brave Words and Bloody Knuckles, and Metallica linked to it on their website.

The BW&BK Interview

By Greg Pratt

In two hours and 25 minutes, Metallica’s James Hetfield is going to go in front of 21,000 people and exorcise his demons. But right now he’s taking a second between interviews in the labyrinthine backstage of the night’s venue, which looks just like the countless backstages across the world where Hetfield came of age. He’s not screaming, he’s not running around; he’s just standing, silent.

When introduced, our handshake doesn’t quite meet up; we fumble to get it right; we wait a minute while the room we’ll be chatting in is cleaned up; we sit, and as I take a look at James, the years show on his face. This isn’t James Fucking Hetfield, Metallica monster. This is James Hetfield, human. It’s a reminder that James Hetfield is fallible, and James Hetfield is a really nice guy and James Hetfield is not some kind of monster, at least not anymore. He’s not larger than life, although he is really big.

Music critics are, as we know, also fallible: I recently placed the band’s newest disc, Death Magnetic, at the top of my “worst of the year” list for this publication; now that a few months have passed, I’d throw it in my top five for the first four songs alone. The band has come back after much internal strife and shocked the world with an album that is as angry as they’ve ever been, despite the fact that Hetfield is all smiles when we sit down to chat with him.

BW&BK: How are you feeling about the album?

Hetfield: Amazing. Very, very surreal still. Thinking that, you know, we were just about to break up or yell each other into not wanting to be with each other anymore and then we come out stronger than ever and put together an album that feels like we’re alive again.

BW&BK: It must feel great to sit back and hold the CD and just say, Fuck, we did it.

Hetfield: (laughs) It does feel good. And obviously, getting some positive response back, it helps, man. No matter what, I don’t want to speak for all artists, but at the end of the day the artist says, We’re doing this for us, I’m doing this for me, but yes, it feels good when someone else says you did a great job. It’s human.

BW&BK: Your lyrics… Lars says that he was surprised and a little bit sad about your lyrics, that you still have so much anger in you. How do you feel about that?

Hetfield: I feel happy about that (laughs). I’m glad that I do. It’s fuelled my life. Along with other things that fuel my life now, as well. But you know, we’ve all got our thing. We’ve all got our defect, of sorts, that we’ve hung on to, that seemed to work for us, or we’re wanting to shake or work on; there’s still some there. As far as anger goes, it’s not just anger anymore, for sure. I get to display it in my work. Lars, his defects come out other places (laughs), where people aren’t reading them, I would guess, but we all have our stuff that we work on. I’m able to express it. That’s one of the easiest things for me to express, so that’s kind of where and how it goes.

BW&BK: Is there a lot of happiness inside of you that doesn’t get expressed as much?

Hetfield: Absolutely. It’s getting more and more. It’s easier to do that. Possibly tonight when you see on stage, it’s all goofy, seeing four guys smile so much, but it feels good to be up there and really know that this is why we were put on Earth, I believe, to be together and to create music and create a fun live show where people can let loose.

BW&BK: Do you ever think there’s going to be a time when you’re too old to do this? When does it stop? Why does Metallica stop?

Hetfield: Sure. Why? It stops because… (long pause) Well, death doesn’t stop it, pyrotechnics don’t stop it, people leaving don’t stop it. Yeah, what does stop it? Bus accidents, all that, I don’t know. I think when Lars and I decide to not do it or we don’t feel it or something happens to one of us then it probably stops. But that doesn’t mean the spirit of Metallica or the love for it stops. Writing music will always be a part of me and my expression.

BW&BK: James Hetfield… there’s the James Hetfield persona. Onstage, you’re a mean motherfucker…

Hetfield: (laughs) Really?
BW&BK: Talking to you, you’re a nice guy, you’re smiling lots. Where’s the onstage persona come from?

Hetfield: 27 years of playing live and growing up in Los Angeles, disliking the music scene. I think a lot of the persona did develop out of where we came from. The speed, the intensity, the loudness, we wanted the attention. Growing up in Los Angeles playing with all the glam bands when the scene was all about looks, hair, whatever, and we were certainly not about that, we wanted music, we had to play louder, faster, for people to notice us. And you know, along with your normal mannerisms that’s part of what you develop, and it’s your sword up there, it’s your shield, it’s your everything, you’re able to hide behind it, you’re able to go further than I would just sitting here talking to you. I think it’s taking your body, your voice, your soul, your being to a higher elevation. When you get on stage, there’s something. I certainly wouldn’t do the things I do up there in front of my family at Thanksgiving (laughs). I wouldn’t. The music and the people take me somewhere. It’s like the Olympics for us (laughs). You go farther.

BW&BK: Do you need it?

Hetfield: I do. It sounds like a new addiction, and it’s not new. It’s just clearer that it’s somewhat of a healthier addiction (laughs). Being on stage, it is… (pause) I feel bi-polar up there. I go from just mean, crazy monster to “Nothing Else Matters,” where I’m trying to reach into people’s souls and connect. So there are a lot of extremes up there, and depending on the song, it takes you there.

BW&BK: Some Kind of Monster: now that it’s had a bit of time to sit, any regrets?

Hetfield: I watch it every night (laughs).

BW&BK: It’s two-and-a-half hours.

Hetfield: Yeah, I get off stage… (laughs). No, no regrets. No regrets. I would say it’s probably one of the best things that… it was a very big gift that was handed to us at that point. The making of a record and we started to… it turned into something else. It turned into the disintegration of a band, of friends, of a long-term career. It filmed us when we didn’t want to be filmed (laughs), it filmed us when we really wanted to be filmed… it was there, and it’s been an amazing mirror for us all. We learned a lot about ourselves and each other. There’s a lot of freedom now because of that. It has exposed our ugliness to the world so it’s made us stronger. Also, when someone tries to hurt you with something, something about your album or this or that… you can’t hurt me. You’ve seen me in the corner, crying. You’ve seen Lars yelling at me while I wanted to kill him. You’ve seen all of the ugly, dirty laundry. It’s given us freedom, it’s given us a lot more friends, because they see us as humans now, and it’s given us a lot more respect, I think.

BW&BK: People put you on a pedestal. And it showed the human side.

Hetfield: Yeah. And like you were saying, they want that stage persona. They think that’s you, so when you meet them at the airport you should jump on the luggage carousel and scream at them, “Fuck you!” Now they know a lot more of us. And along with that comes some psychoness, where people think they really know you. But it is nice to be known, and people can say, “He’s with his family having dinner and I’m not gonna go bug him, I remember in the movie he said it kind of bugs him and if he gives me the ‘hi’ sign I’ll come over.” So it has connected us with the world.