By Sam SutherlandTodd Kowalski is disarmingly modest as he discusses his band's latest batch of songs. "We make the tunes just to have fun in the basement, and whatever happens, happens, I guess. We hope people like it." Never mind that the collective we he refers to are Propagandhi, one of the most respected, shit-disturbing punk bands in this nation's history. That their version of "fun" involves sitting on songs for several years before they are truly happy with them. And that this latest collection of basement tunes comes in the form of Potemkin City Limits, the brilliant follow up to 2001's equally powerful Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes.
Propagandhi aren't exactly known for their promptness in delivering new music to the eager masses. In fact, lengthy waits between records have become par for the course, with full-length releases arriving in 1993, 1996 and 2001. "If you don't like something, what's the point of someone hearing it?" asks Kowalski, the band's bassist and vocalist. "Why put out something until what you have to say is what you want to say? What's the point in people stocking store shelves with something that's not your best effort? And then forever you have to see it and think, ‘Oh, that sucks. This song sucks. It's there, but I don't know why.'" Four years of work have resulted in musical muscle that builds on the thrash of Today's Empires by bulking up the soaring melodies that perfectly complement Chris Hannah's intricate guitar work. "Lots of times you'll have a lot of lyrics or some riffs, but until you can mesh them together to form one clear vision, it's not going to happen," says Kowalski. "For us, because of the nature of the lyrics, you'll have so much to say but you don't want to make the song long and lame and tedious. It makes it pretty hard sometimes."
What might have made it harder was the "departure" of Hannah, who, in addition to leading the band's aggressive instrumental assault, handles half the vocal duties. In September, it was announced that Hannah had, oddly, left the band in 2003 to be replaced by one "Glen Lambert." "I wanted his name to be ‘Hair Hole' on the record, but he thought that was too dumb so he changed it to Glen Lambert," explains Kowalski. "He's some kid that used to bug Hannah or bug other kids, I think. That's who he is now. People are calling him Glen. People we know are saying, ‘When you talk to Glen, tell him this.' I didn't think anyone would buy it, but it's so dumb that it seems worthwhile." When the band posted the single "Die Jugend Marschiert" soon after the announcement, message boards were awash in kids decrying Lambert's vocal style, claiming he was "trying too hard to sound like Chris." Lambert was even made available for an interview, and as Kowalski points out, "Anything that gets a laugh will keep going. And if it doesn't, it'll keep going twice as hard." Not to mention Lambert joined the band with the promise to "make politics sexy again."
"That was a jab, for sure," laughs Kowalski, who, it should be noted, laughs constantly during any discussion of Lambert. With left-wing politics becoming a trend du jour in punk rock again, a band like Propagandhi, who have made a career of their hyper-politicised brand of punk, are left to wonder who their contemporaries are. "I think in some way, they genuinely want their message to get out, and they kind of believe their politics," Kowalski says of the current batch of angry socialist punkers with major label deals. "But their need to see their faces in magazines, and pose in front of the camera, and snarl and comb their halfheads into little fake mohawks is higher than their need for politics that people actually built over years. Now Oh Henry is in charge." So while other so-called political bands do their best to stay sexy, Propagandhi are anything but. "I have my sweats on with the fake pee stain. I also have sweats with a real pee stain."
Punk attire aside, Kowalski and the rest of Propagandhi, rounded out by drummer Jord Samolesky, are unlikely to find themselves lacking relevance in the fickle worlds of punk and politics any time soon. "I can see in my friends and lots of people who grew up listening to the band, it still affects them in their decisions in life. Even the way it would spread to people like my mom. There's a kid in Gambia who wanted a sticker for his donkey cart while he was working to build a well. I always hope that in the future, people are going to be able to take what we said, and do it better and more powerfully, and spread the message in a way that we're not able to as people with our own limitations."