This band still stands for something more than just a faded sticker on a skateboard.
After a five-year interlude, rumors that the band broke up prove false as Propagandhi returns with a new bass player, a new album and a new record label – Todd Kowalski, Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes and G7 Welcoming Committee, respectively. Artsweek stole a bit of frontman Chris Hannah’s time at the Majestic Ventura Theatre to find out “aboot” how this Canadian punk band, still on Fat Wreck Chords, has evolved musically and politically.
Artsweek: In an airplane: crash and burn, hit water and drown?
Hannah: Crash and burn. I don’t know about drowning. Burning you’d be instantly incinerated.
Trapped on a desert island: I know you’re vegan, but who do you eat first of your band members?
Jord [Samolesky]. He’s got the most girth. He’d last a few months, at least.
Better to stay awake: coffee or speed?
Coffee. Speed is dangerous.
Better to sleep: alcohol or NyQuil?
Alcohol. Much more pleasant.
Scarier: nuclear destruction or Michael Jackson’s impending comeback?
The two are somehow connected. I’d actually have to say nuclear holocaust would be scarier.
Do you believe in ghosts or aliens?
I don’t actually believe in them, but I enjoy the thrill of getting scared of them. Ever see the movie “Communion”? I got scared in that.
If you could get one piece of info from the FBI, what would you get?
Who killed Anna Mae Aquash, if they had the information. She was a AIM activist throughout the ’70s and was killed under dubious circumstances, and it’s still a mystery today. They believe the FBI had something to do with it.
Worse for the United States: big business, pollution or Dubya?
They’re all connected. And each one encourages the other. Bush totally collaborates with big business to create pollution for the purpose of capitalizing at everyone else’s expense. They’re all equally pieces of shit and must be removed from this great mark of reality.
The past five years you guys have been pretty busy – band members going away, coming in, record label stuff …
Yeah, mostly record label stuff kept us a little too busy, more busy than actually ever thought we would be.
Are you glad to be back?
In some ways yeah, in some ways it’s overwhelming again – being away from home for a month. It’s just overwhelming. It’s the same thing every night, all these people and loud music and people talking the whole time.
What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you on this tour? Your insert says there’s severed fingers, getting chased by a moose.
Oh, that’s at home though. Getting chased by a moose was pretty weird. I almost got killed. Probably the heaviest thing was we had a lot of death threats in Florida. And a friend of ours from an organization called Anarchist Black Cross, a prisoner support group, showed up fully armed to one of our shows in Memphis.
Have you received any marriage proposals or free face-lift coupons yet?
None of the coupons, no marriage proposals, two death threats and one guy who asked if I was single, but then he said ‘I’m not gay.’ So I was all, “OK.”
Coming back to how you took five years off, how do you feel Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes reflects what happened in those five years?
The change in the lineup really contributed to the sound of the new record. We finally got a third person [Kowalski] who shared a sort of aesthetic history that Jord and I have. Cuz we all grew up on sort of faster, heavier music and political music. [This record] is the first thing I’ve ever done in my life that I’m actually proud of.
What’s your favorite part of the new CD?
I don’t want to pick a favorite part. I like the fact the CD-Rom information contextualizes the lyrics. You have lyrics – you either understand them or not – but if you have something that relates to them, for years that can take up your time.
Are you going to put out your new stuff on G7 or are you gonna stick with Fat Wreck Chords?
We’ll stick with Fat insofar as we definitely feel a loyalty to them because through all these years of us doing stupid things, they’ve stuck by us, and they were the only people to stick by us. You know, they’re our friends before they’re our business partners, so I think we owe them something beyond turning our backs on them. But we really do wanna do stuff with G7. We put out the new record in Canada on G7, and hopefully we’ll do even more stuff, – it just makes sense.
In “Fuck the Border” you say, “Fuck this country, its angry eyes, its knee-jerk hordes.” Anger can be productive, but hate is not. How do you tread the line between anger and hatred?
I think in the past there was more of a tendency to be misanthropic rather than just be productive, and I think over the past 10 years we’ve learned that it’s more important to increase the circle of allies than to increase the circle of enemies. You have to stand your ground, but you also have to have patience and understanding. I think we’re making room for that and still keeping our messages as strong as possible.
Your messages are very strong, which is interesting because you’re a pretty sarcastic band. So, it’s like you’ve got this serious message but you’re jokesters.
No, we are; we’re morons. We admit it, but it’s like I hate the fact that, especially with Less Talk, More Rock, people had this idea of us just marching on the street 24 hours a day, when the actual fact is we’re these idiots who happen to be compassionate about injustice. We try to feel less hopeless and try to be productive about our anger.
So are you guys out there a lot doing protests and rallies?
In Winnipeg we try to add to the numbers that are in protest. I don’t think going to a protest is the final action about what activism should be. That’s more a solidarity thing between groups, I think. But, I think our forte is sort of media activism through the band and the label, and that’s sort of where we spend most of our time on. Not that I think media action is … it’s the best we can, it’s what we try hardest to do, that’s all.
Who writes the lyrics? Do you all collaborate?
Mostly me and then Todd. But we all look at them and kind of collaborate on directions for them.
Need I even ask who you would have voted for if you were a U.S. citizen in the last election?
I would have been compelled to vote for the Green Party, just on the basis that if the Green Party got that 5 percent, there would have actually been a president at the public debates that would have possibly undone the official rhetoric. … You know, neither Bush nor Gore wanted to be taken to task about economics or the environment by someone who knows what they’re talking about. And I think that not just the American public, but the world public has to see someone just destroy them in the debates. I think it would change a lot of minds. And I think if someone says, “oh well, you’re not an anarchist if you’re voting for Nader,” well you’re somebody who cares about social change when we’re in a crazy time where the world is near ending if we don’t do something. You know, incremental change is better than no change at all.
Where do you see the future of the United States, given that Bush won?
I see some craziness ahead. And I see repression increasing. See here’s the thing, I see mainstream media repression increasing, and I think Western industrial capitalism is becoming more police states than they ever have been, but at the same time I see much more resistance. So it’s just seeing which one increases more. And so things are either gonna get really, really, really bad or there’s gonna have to be some fundamental change in the next 20 years because people are getting fed up with repression and disparity between the rich and the poor, which is getting ridiculous even in rich countries like Canada and the U.S.
How do you feel your views about the U.S. change, being a Canadian?
We get a lot of people who say, “Well, you’re from Canada. Go talk about your own country.” Well, we are, but we’re talking about it via the United States. Canada’s just a smaller version of the states. It does the same shitty things that America does.
So that’s why there’s an American flag covering a map of the world on the cover of the new album?
Yeah. Like look at the world’s superpowers, see how the concentrations of power in the U.S. behave towards its own people and towards other people abroad, and then use those patterns to apply to your own country, and you’ll see some similarities because the concentrations of power behave the same way.
You did not have a barcode on Less Talk, More Rock. How come there’s a return of the barcode?
We thought we were going to conduct this incredible experiment by taking the barcode off and seeing if we could track what happens to a record without one. But there was no real way of tracking it. And then Fat Mike at the record label said it doesn’t matter because you guys wrote “gay-positive” on the cover, and the average 15-year-old kid isn’t gonna go pick up that record. And I thought, yeah, cuz when I was 15 there was no fucking way I would have brought home a record that said gay-positive on the cover. It was just a failed experiment.
You begin the new album’s insert with “Knowledge is power. Arm yourself.” How is Propagandhi armed?
I think we’ve armed ourselves by opening our minds and trying to allow alternative perspectives. I used to be a pro-imperialistic, pro-nuclear-proliferation, pro-Reagan, pro-NATO nutbar when I was a kid. And I had no knowledge, and I didn’t want any knowledge, except what was given to me by recognized authorities. And then, over the course of the next 15 years I started actually giving different perspectives a chance. We’re not these powerhouses of knowledge, but we’re people who’ve changed drastically since we were kids.
Would you say your experiences stand for the rest of the band?
When we were kids, Jord was always a little, I think, smarter. I grew up in the military; he grew up in civilian life. His parents were sort of liberal Catholics, so they kind of weren’t these crazy fundamentalists. They were sort of community-oriented Catholics. So, he grew just more accepting of other things than I did. And Todd for sure was like me because we talk all the time about how stupid we were when we were kids and that it was political hardcore bands that actually forced us to reevaluate things
Would you say your political views keep changing, maybe evolving?
They evolve, yeah. I think the intent for the general worldview I have now had its inception when I was 15 or 16, but it wasn’t informed or evolved at all. I think it’s still evolving now. I look back at 5 years and cringe even.
Well, at presentation for instance. Cuz things were so new to us that I think we were overzealous; we couldn’t understand why people couldn’t immediately see our point of view.
On the last album, you mean?
The album or outside of the album, just everyday life and how you interact with your family or your friends, and you might lose some friends by acting like “you’re moving too fast,” and “you’re moving too slow.” But I think we have evolved from there, again to try to produce the allies instead of enemies, without watering down.
In “Albright Monument, Baghdad” you say “I drink myself to sleep because I’m losing faith.” What keeps you going?
I guess the choice I have is either to fall into despair and don’t do anything, or to do something, maybe fail, maybe have some impact. I think that’s the obvious better choice – to try to do something, try to stay hopeful.
One of the last quotes in Today’s Empires … is a quote by Phil Ochs, and it says “I believe there is still something inherent in the fibre of America worth saving.” What do you perceive this fiber to be?
Even though the United States was constructed at the expense of Native Americans, I still think that there are some principles in the myth of the American Revolution that are worth reviving about independence – rather than what the U.S. does now, or Canada does now, which is economically and militarily support dictatorships that suppress independence movements. Plus, there’s all these kids wherever we go that are excited about doing things in their community and excited about getting access to new ideas they otherwise don’t have access to. And just the general cynicism about the government and “big business” – even the average guy on the street is like “I’m getting ripped off by these corporations.” That’s something to try to exploit because if you can change cynicism into productive action, that’s great.