A conversation with John Adam Weinland Shearer
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Like Bon Jovi, the name Weinland is both a man and a man's band. And really that's where the similarities between the Jersey boys of Jovi and the Portland gents of Weinland come to an abrupt conclusion.
Having started as a solo act and attracted the attention of some of the local Portland press, John Adam Weinland Shearer realized he was "no longer in control" of his music, which - slowly but surely - had drawn a proper band to Shearer's doorstep.
The group's new album, La Lamentor, is one of the true treats of the spring. While the band Weinland offers the man Weinland plenty of support - with a rich tapestry of steel guitars, banjos, mandolins and much else - the cores of the songs would be compelling even if stripped away to Shearer and an acoustic guitar.
Shearer took some time to discuss the new Weinland record with The Red Alert, along with his relationship with the band's esteemed co-producers (Adam Selzer and Dylan Magierek) and his former day job, in which he confronted a broken mental health system.
In reading through your press clips, it looks like the Portland music press has been almost universally supportive of Weinland from the beginning. Is there some local crank that you have yet to win over, or are they all members of the Weinland army?
Ha! The Portland music scene is dope, but not in a crank way. That’d be sweet if we had an army... except we hate war... so it would have to be an army of conscientious objectors.
I don’t know how we got so lucky with local press. I guess we’re lucky enough to live in a city where the press has great pride in its local bands (who wouldn’t with bands like Modest Mouse, The Shins, The Decemberists, M.Ward, Spoon, Chris Walla, Laura Viers, etc, etc, etc, holy shit!). The best part about the press here is their seemingly unwavering commitment to song-writing as the most important factor in selection. The first record of WEINLAND songs I put out way back in 2003, was a vinyl only, no mastering, recorded at home, iffy vocals and bad guitar sound DIY project full of hopeful songs… and local press loved it: Willamette Week said it was ‘brilliant’ and the Portland Mercury gave it 4 stars. I never even sent it out.. they just found it. I don’t know how, but I’m very grateful!
A lot of luminaries are invoked in those clips as a means of comparison - Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, Iron & Wine and so on. Are you generally comfortable with the names that get floated around, or do you often think “What the hell are they talking about?”
Anytime someone compares WEINLAND to a genius I am happy. The thing about those comparisons is this: I am influenced by, and a huge fan of, all of those people... but in my mind don’t sound anything like them. I think maybe its because I’m so familiar with their music, and mine, that I know the difference. That and I feel like it would be crazy egotistical to think I was as amazing as those folks. The only comparison that I go “oh ya” about is the Neil Young voice comparison... and that’s not because I compare myself, or the band, to him in any way, but rather because I just got dealt those pipes. My dad and my brother both kind of sound like him (when they sing) as well. I don’t know if there’s anything I could do about it! Once I step into my high register its all feeling, baby, and that’s how it feels.
At what point did you decide that your music was calling to be expressed not via a solo bedroom project but via a full-blooded band?
It wasn’t my choice to stop being a solo bedroom project, the music just took over and did what it was going to do. The band formed one un-intentional member after another… all of us friends before band-mates. Kinda like, “Hey, I’m going to play a show tonight, you should come?,” said Adam. “Cool, mind if I bring my dobro and play on something?,” said future band member. “Ah… that’s cool I guess,” said future non-solo act. The last instrument we added was the drums. That was the point at which I knew I was no longer in control.
La Lamentor is broken into two sets - the Adam Selzer songs and the Dylan Magierek songs. Was it clear from each song’s inception where it belonged? Or were there songs that started off headed in the Selzer direction and then wound up in the Magierek group?
Oh, cool question! We like for the records we listen to, and make, to have lots of dynamic variations. I knew I wanted to have a couple of mostly acoustic songs on this record to break up some of the really full instrumentation tracks (which include everything from dobro, to mandolin, viola, cello, accordion, lap steel, pedel steels, etc). I was a fan of Dylan’s work on the Mark Kozelek records. I was also aware of his record label (Badman). We hatched a plan to ask Dylan to record the acoustic tracks for the record with two goals in mind: 1) to facilitate our desired acoustic dynamics on the record and 2) we thought if we got his hands in the project he would be more likely to want to put out our record on Badman… both goals met positive results! Surprisingly no songs jumped from one queue to the next. We did record "God Here I Come" with both so we would have a full band version (Selzer) but of course we went with the original acoustic version for the record. Adam Selzer and Dylan are both brilliant engineers.
Speaking of Adam (who’s also been an interview “guest” on The Red Alert), you guys will be hitting the road together. For readers who Weinland on record but have never seen a live show, what can they expect? A show that is pretty faithful to the album or a different sort of listening experience?
The live show is an upper. We play sincere and often serious music, but we aren’t cryin’ over here, we are in love with playing music and enjoy every minute of it! We’ll take shots with you between songs, make fun of ourselves (and you), and do whatever we can to make sure everyone has a GOOD time. Our band is about making things better and finding hope in shared experiences. Oh, and expect some really, really quiet acoustic guitar and singing numbers right next to some full blown face throttling rock outs (add in our varied instrumentation). And, ya, we’re fairly faithful, but only to the extent that it keeps the live show fresh. If a song works great on a record one way, but kills another way live, we’ll play to kill.
There are some sad songs on La Lamentor, obviously. But does it feel good to play them? Is it an effective coping mechanism?
Ya, it feels great. For me music is healing. I write all those sad songs and they make me happy. That was my experience with great heartfelt music growing up and I want to carry on that beautiful tradition: Feeling like you’re not alone = feeling better.
The follow-up to that, I guess, is how do you avoid the numbing effect from playing an emotionally charged song night after night after night on the road?
Once a song has run its course and is no longer emotionally charged, we don’t play it anymore. Then sometime down the road, just like with any nostalgia, the emotions will come back and so will the song. If we had a huge hit and had to play it to death, I suppose we would, but I’m sure at that point the power would be coming from the audience. Half the rush that makes songs emotional is in the response from the listener.
Help is a recurring theme on the album - both the desire to help and the inability to help. The press materials helpfully suggest the root of that theme, which is your experience working in the mental health system with troubled teenagers. But I wouldn’t have picked up on that thread without the press kit. Did you consciously keep that from entering into the songs too autobiographically or specifically?
Working with mentally disturbed children has had a huge impact on my life, and therefore my songwriting, but I would write songs regardless of that experience. I write more about emotions than situations. There is definitely a theme of “helping” related issues, but that’s just me, or you?
I really like music that tells enough of a story to make it interesting, but keeps itself general enough to be applied to multiple situations (another way I can keep meaning what I’m singing time after time). At the time I was writing the songs for La Lamentor I was feeling really helpless.
I’d like to linger on that for another question, if you don’t mind. I read a story in Mother Jones a few months back about a mental health hospital in New England that was still using electroshock “therapy” on kids - much to the outrage of some, but everyone who I told about the story thought I was making it up or had my facts wrong. I’m sure you never had to deal with electric shocks (hopefully, anyway!), but what do you think the general public is missing or neglecting when it comes to how we deal with these patients as a society?
Well, electroshock therapy is still used. It’s used after all other treatments for “depression” have been ruled out as viable options and a patient is showing severely suicidal tendencies. No one can tell you why electroshock therapy works, but its effectiveness has been proven (first tested I believe in the late 1950’s around the same time that trans-orbital lobotomies were performed as outpatient treatment).
I’ve seen a lot of things that most people wouldn’t dream up (my justification for that belief is the absence of my experiences from popular ‘mental health’ thrillers – which makes me angry by the way). I think the general public misses one main truth when talking about, or trying to figure out what to do with our vulnerable populations: We are all people trying our best to survive in a very difficult world. We have beautiful people with success and millions of dollars purposely taking their lives and, as a tabloid nation, we feel for the difficult circumstances which led to their downfall. Then we have unattractive, poor, and dirty gentleman getting arrested for sleeping on the streets because they’re too mentally ill to hold a job. Handing out spare change isn’t the solution to this discrepancy... compassion is. Everyone should consider learning more about the vulnerable populations in their communities and what they can do to help; we will all benefit from this behavior.
“In This The End” puts a sort of surprise capper on the album - it’s more abrupt than one may expect. Was it always written as such a short track, or had there been more to it at some point?
Another good one! I’ve been kicking around that riff and that lyric for a couple of years. I like it. A short, sweet, and amicable goodbye to a lover you’ve lived with. We just thought it would be a neat little bow at the end of the record.
Obviously Portland has a pretty tight-knit music scene, ranging from local luminaries to major players on the national stage. From your own experience, and from talking to all your peers and friends, what do you think is the key for a band to lift themselves from local relevance onto the national radar?
Shit! I don’t know! Maybe I’ll be able to tell you in a year, or maybe I’ll still be looking for the answer to that question myself.
We all work hard and we all try and take the right steps, but this is an unclear path on which we walk.
The requisite dumb question for the closer: If Weinland was joined on stage by Scott Weiland, what song do you think would make for a scorching duet?
If Scott Weiland got on stage I would be scared. Then I would ask him what “Half the Man” was about… then we would just kill “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen!