It’s always a good sign when you can go to a show and watch a band that’s been together for over twenty years, whom you’ve been listening to for half of your life, and still be blown away by their music – perhaps even more so than when you heard them for the first time almost fifteen years prior. Even better is when you realize that not only are they still, after all these years, making music without the help of a major record label, but the members of the band are also active in changing world views and bringing about positive change worldwide as well as in their very own communities. Not to mention you’re just as stoked on the performance as the rest of the rowdy, dancing, singing crowd inside the nearly sold-out venue. Sound like a band you know? Not likely.
Winnipeg, Manitoba’s Propagandhi have maintained a sharp focus in a music scene that has become heavily distorted with newly-formed punk bands whoring themselves out on the internet in attempts to make a quick buck and many of the old punk bands have seemingly run out of chords to play and things to talk about. The Canadian four-piece aren’t concerned with playing catchy riffs that sell records, looking good for the camera, how much money they make, or catering to a specific group of people. With a merch booth that features a prominent book display of various titles pertaining to everything from veganism to politics to social justice, it’s obvious that what Propagandhi are concerned with is shedding light on global issues that truly affect humanity. And it just so happens that they do just that – by making music that, since their beginning, has brought with them a large following of fans who consistently reinforce the value of the hard work the band has put in for the last twenty-three years.
On October 29th, Propagandhi played at Neumos in Seattle with Portland, Oregon punk legends Millions of Dead Cops. I arrived early and managed to track down Propagandhi members Chris Hannah (guitar/vocals) and Todd Kowalski (bass) backstage before the show to discuss beer, football, politics, and, well….music.
Randomville: As far as shows, cities, venues, is there any one place that sticks out in your mind – either on this tour or over the years – as the most memorable place to have played?
Chris Hannah: Santiago, Chile, at this place called the Victor Jara Culture Center…[Victor Jara] was a kind of folk hero who was killed by the state – had his hands cut off by the state because he was advocating for democracy. So it was kind of interesting to be in that place. The crowd was totally crazy and we didn’t even know anyone in Chile was interested in the band, so…that kind of stood out. Before the show, the state police were outside watching the kids and stuff so there was still that sense of strangeness.
Rv: On the new album and album prior (Potemkin City Limits), a lot of the subject matter is still the same, even as far back as How To Clean Everything, you guys are still just as political as ever. While the topics are still similar, you guys have probably changed over the last 20 years…can you talk a little about how you guys have matured personally or as a band?
CH: Personally, I don’t think we’ve matured very much. I think as far as the songwriting process goes, our ability to play is a little bit better. I think whether it’s an idea or just a string of words, you want to entertain yourself, too, like keep it interesting for yourself so you try different ways of stringing things together whether it’s riffs, or….you don’t keep doing the same thing. I think all the political impulses on the first record – I don’t regret anything on there, it’s all the same feeling, but as you get older your ideas get a little more broad and the lyrics try to accommodate that, which is harder. As your observations of the world get more complicated, getting them down to a little song is harder. That’s why I think the older songs are more simplistic sounding. Some people like that and don’t like the more complex stuff, but that’s the way it happens.
Rv: Yeah, there’s definitely been that progression…but I think it says a lot about staying true to what you believe in, that you guys are still talking about the same issues. What do you guys do actively, outside of music, to work on these issues?
CH: Todd does a lot of volunteering at a needs center in Winnepeg…
Todd Kowalski: It’s like an after school program for kids from places that are having wars, like Congo, Colombia…there’s kids from Burma and Kazakhstan, even. It’s crazy. It was my job, now I volunteer. I have a good relationship with the kids, you know? It makes me feel like I’m doing something more than just playing music. I like to play music often, but I just have to be part of the world I live in.
Rv: And being there with the kids, that’s direct contact with who those issues are really affecting…
TK: Yeah for sure, and I actually have a lot of the same interests as a kid, so I’m like a genuine friend, it’s not just me and some kid and I’m trying to show them how to do math or whatever. It’s a genuine connection.
CH: And Jord [Samolesky – Propagandhi’s drummer] is, believe it or not, one of the primary organizers of The Canada Haiti Action Network, which is doing a lot of pro-democracy and anti-intervention or anti-Canadian/French/American interference in the democratic process in Haiti.
Rv: Is hockey in Canada basically the same as football in the US as far as the mentality and people behind it?
CH: Yeah, the production values aren’t as good yet, not as fucking crazy, over the top – but the attempt is being made. Everybody in the upper echelons of the hockey world are total asslickers of the military. It’s crazy. And, the level of – I mean, it’s too much…it’s unbearable.
Rv:Yeah, U2 played the halftime show of the Superbowl this year – the money being put in to it is overwhelming.
You guys have obviously been moving toward a heavier and more technical sound on your most recent albums. Is there a particular thrash or metal influence that you have?
CH: I think it’s just getting a little better – like when me and Jord first started playing, like 1986, we were trying to sound like we sound sort of now. And it’s just taken us twenty-three years to get close to that, which is sad, but at least we’re getting closer and closer to it. I mean, we’re playing with one of our influences tonight, MDC (Millions of Dead Cops) – that was literally the starting point of the band.
TK: I think we’re not trying to go for metal, we’re trying to go for a heavy, intense, you know… you start picking a little tighter [plays air guitar to emphasize point] and making it more percussive and then people think it sounds more metal. But we’re just, I think, dark and heavy, I mean I think that’s about it, man – just fucking dark and heavy and not cartoony.
Rv: Kent Monkman, the artist who did the painting that’s on the cover of the new album – his work is brilliant. How did you find him and do you plan on doing more stuff with him in the future?
CH: Well, we don’t really know him. I went to his exhibition at an art gallery in Winnipeg. I mean if you see our banner out there, it’s a reproduction of the cover art and it’s the size of his actual paintings. We just bugged him and bugged him until the very last second and he finally got back to us and said, “Sure, use it.”
Rv: The song, “The Bangers Embrace” has a real sense of nostalgia and passion for the music of that time (namely the band Sacrifice) and for that event (The Equinox Festival in Toronto), which I’m assuming you attended. Are we at a point where kids in the punk scene aren’t as passionate about the music?
CH: Some of it is bands not offering previous listeners anything new to go on. The band that the song “Banger’s Embrace” is about [Sacrifice] – that’s what happened to them in the 90s. They actually – they said, “Yeah, nobody liked us anymore. We’re playing great music but no one came to shows”. But the point of that song is not just nostalgia, those guys [were at Equinox Festival and] played as good as they ever did, so…
TK: I think some bands deserve to be back and some don’t, you know? I mean, I get bored with people just trying to play old school punk for the sake of trying to be old school, whereas the band that that song is about – they truly, truly, truly, truly kick ass.
Rv: In terms of the availability of music to listeners, or the ways that music is distributed now, or any other forces of technology, do you think the true passion we have for music is affected? Do we listen to so much so quickly that it’s hard to be excited about it?
CH: Yeah, partly that, but there’s so much bad music being foisted on people that I think people don’t want to put up money for fucking lame records. It’s all there for free to just check out what they like. I think if a band offers people something they find compelling, they will somehow repay that band. If people just listen to it passively, then maybe the band doesn’t deserve to be repaid, but if someone’s engaged by what you’re doing – even if it’s just a small group of people – they’re going to somehow come to a show or write you a letter with words of support, something to pay you back. So many bands aren’t offering anything, except putting out records, then they’re like, [does a whiney band voice] “Well why aren’t we getting paid? File sharing is ruining music.”
Rv: Well, it’s like MySpace – anyone can get on there and throw their music on there – which is good and bad, I guess…
TK: As bad as it is, it’s kind of good that there’s not the monopoly that there was in the 70s, where they had control over everyone’s actions to the point of [bands] not being able to make the records they wanted to make. And I think that all these relatively young people who are so against file sharing, they have this assumption that bands have made livings off of music for time immemorial. But it’s only been for forty or fifty years that people have and only since the late 80s that anybody’s been getting paid for it. It’s like this little blip that we happened to be there at the time and it’s gone, so stop making plans for a career as a fucking punk band.
Rv: So if you could be playing music in any other era or time when would that be?
CH: I guess…the early 80s.
TK: Me, too, man.
CH: But I really don’t regret not being a few years older. I really enjoyed seeing it unfold. I wasn’t interested in music, really, prior to Venom, 1981. I mean, I love Sabbath, but it’s not the same feeling or anything
TK: I feel the same. I’m glad I was going to see SNFU in their prime. I remember being thirteen and standing there like I didn’t even have pubic hair, and that’s not even a joke. I was at that show like, “Fuck, if my sweat pants come off, I’m fucked.” You know what I mean? That’s where I belong.
Rv: As artists, what are some internal or external factors that make writing music difficult?
CH: External would probably be financial – if you want to make a record it costs money.
TK: Finding someone who sees what you see in your own band or songs. Internally, we have a lot of drive, but we don’t have a lot of competency. We just flail. We flail around and try to get close to that part.
Rv: What’s your favorite song to play live from the older albums?
CH: Anti – Manifesto. I think the one song we do play, the crowd still gets a kick out of. Unless, we’re just falling apart.
Rv: I was going to ask your beer of choice, but [referring to two ice cold cases of beer on the floor] is it safe to say Heineken and Dos Equis?
CH: That’s just what they brought in here.
Rv: What’s your beer of choice?
CH: Oohhhhh [laughs]… Nothing I would advertise for!
It wasn’t long after the interview that The Rebel Spell from Vancouver, B.C. took the stage. They put on an impressive set, their vocalist every bit as intense as a young Henry Rollins. Millions of Dead Cops followed and performed a lengthy, highly energized set. MDC did not fail to impress, playing plenty of their heavier old songs about dead cops, no cops, and anti-corporatism. The highlight of their set was watching the band’s original singer, 52 year-old Dave Dictor thrashing about the stage while performing a series of three consecutive 40-second songs from their 1982 debut album, Millions of Dead Cops.
Propagandhi showed up on stage at somewhere around 10:00, sending the crowd in to a frenzy as they opened up with “Supporting Caste,” the title song from the new album. Both floors of the venue were packed and the crowd in front of the stage went nuts through the duration of the show. To call the crowd for Propagandhi “lively” would be a huge understatement. Between songs (i.e. no music being played), a fan jumped on stage and just as quickly hurled himself in to the seemingly attentive mob of people below. For whatever reason, no one bothered to catch the guy and he hit the floor with a pretty decent “thud,” evoking a collective burst of gasps/laughter from the audience and even the band. Having chosen to stand on the same bar stool near the wall as I had for the Bouncing Souls show a week prior, I was sure that as the stool swayed with the motion of the crowd, I would certainly be the next thump on the floor.
I avoided injury and spent my time singing along with everyone else. It seemed as though everyone in attendance were long-time fans who knew the words to every song. So when the band began playing “I Was a Pre-teen McCarthyist” from the 1995 album Less Talk, More Rock, more than half of the solid crowd transformed in to a massive tangle of flailing limbs. Bassist Todd Kowalski was feeding off of the crowd’s energy at every moment. Sweat sprayed from his hair with every enthusiastic mid-song fist pump and forward thrust of his head – I’m guessing he gets a hell of a neck workout at every show with all the head-banging he does. It was no wonder that when I walked in to their dressing room a few hours earlier, the band members seemed so relaxed – they need to be in order to come out and keep up with crowds like that.
The remainder of the set consisted of mostly newer songs, interspersed with a few old songs from the early 90s. “The Banger’s Embrace” set the crowd off again and everyone was forced against the stage as they chanted the lyrics along with Chris Hannah, fists in the air, as if to embody every meaning of the words in the song. As I’m pretty sure most of the crowd was anticipating, Propagandhi ended their encore beautifully with “Anti-Manifesto,” the first song on 1993’s debut album, How to Clean Everything. With witty and sarcastic lyrics about speaking uncensored and standing up for one’s beliefs – what could be interpreted as the band’s values – it’s a song that introduced so many to who Propagandhi are and what they stand for. I’m pretty sure that when Propagandhi plays the same song ten years from now, it’ll still have the same significance to them and anyone who might still be listening.
Propagandhi’s new album is called Supporting Caste (G7 Welcoming Committee/Smallman records). Check out the band’s website here