Published Mar 01, 2000If it's true that good things come to those who wait, fans of Winnipeg punk legends-in-the-making Propagandhi deserve an extra special reward. It has been five years since the band last released a record of new music, the acerbic, irreverent, melodic and profane classic Less Talk, More Rock. And in that time the band has done nothing but tease and taunt fans with the odd contribution to a compilation here and a disc of demos and studio outtakes culled from various points along their 12-year career there.
But as vocalist/guitarist Chris Hannah explains on the line from the band's headquarters in downtown Winnipeg, the delay in releasing their third record, Today's Empires Tomorrow's Ashes, was not intentional things just kind of worked out that way. And although lengthy between-record waits are nothing new the band took three years to follow up their debut, How to Clean Everything this one seemed especially long if for no other reason than things really seemed to be clicking for them after Less Talk came out.
First there was the effort required to get their fledgling counterculture record/publishing company, G7 Welcoming Committee, off the ground. "At first we thought we were going to have it up and running in months," Hannah recalls, of the initial discussion with Propagandhi drummer Jord Samolesky to launch G7. "It turned out it took years to get it to a point where it wasn't a living embarrassment. That took up a lot of our time and energy. It wasn't until two years after we were able to start concentrating on getting back into the basement and trying to learn how to be a band again, and put out songs we were going to be really proud of."
There was also the shake-up in the band itself, with the departure of bassist John Samson, who left to start the Weakerthans (they all remain friends and G7 has put out both Weakerthans records). Samson was replaced shortly after the release of Less Talk by former I Spy front-man Todd "The Rod" Kowalski.
"[Todd] played with us on the Less Talk tour but when it was time to start writing it was a whole new dynamic and a more thorough process we adopted so that was an adjustment," notes Samolesky. "On top of that there was a whole slew of shit that happened to push the album back even further. It was supposed to come out a year and half ago."
That shit? Just as recording was to begin Samolesky broke his leg playing hockey, which pushed recording back. When they finally did get into the studio and set a release date for last November, at the last minute they decided to re-record all the guitar tracks. "Everybody outside the studio who heard it said it sounded weird," says Hannah. "When it was mastered especially we noticed the guitar had this buzz that made it hard to get through the record because your ears got tired when you cranked it. We went back and redid the guitars because we'd worked so hard on it we wanted to get it close to where we're not going to be crying over it."
You'd think such delays would have their record company knocking down their door. Not so in the case of Fat Wreck Chords, their home since the beginning. (Fat is releasing the new record everywhere but Canada, where G7 will put it out.)
"Fat has been so accommodating and patient with us throughout the whole process of putting the record together," Samolesky notes. "There's never been any contractual obligation to get it out sooner rather than later. They were operating under the principle that when we're ready to have it come out, they're fine with that. It's been a pretty easy situation to deal with."
But whatever the reasons for the delay, no matter how valid or lame, Propagandhi is finally back with a screaming vengeance. While Today's Empires... is evidence of a band that is a little older, fatter and more cohesive as a songwriting unit, the message of social and political justice behind the music remains the same. (The album title itself is pulled from a quote by jailed social activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former radio reporter convicted of, many believe wrongly, and awaiting execution for the 1981 shooting of a Philadelphia police officer.)
"I think the obvious changes come with getting a little wiser and perhaps not being as ham-fisted with the message you're trying to put across," says Hannah. "That makes it more interesting for the listener and hopefully for yourself as well. There's nothing worse than writing words you don't stand behind or you're not interested in putting to paper or singing through a microphone."
But it wasn't always been that way. In the enhanced CD-ROM discography portion of the new disc, Hannah laments the way the band presented itself on Less Talk. Not to the point where he's embarrassed about it, but in hindsight admits it presents a limited picture of the band.
"It's not that I would retract anything that was said or done on the last record," he says. "I think it was a valuable record for the time. It was a snapshot of people in the process of becoming political. This record in terms of scale and impact is a far more political record. It's something I'm way more proud of and I think it's way more representative of what we believe and what we think is important.
"I feel I know a lot more about the institutional realities of the context we're living in and I'm more scared and angry than I was five years ago. But at the same time I've experienced more people and more places and have developed a sense of patience and understanding. The combination of those things have definitely coloured the record."
Musically, the record is noticeably more even-handed as well. While the first two records were solid in their structure, there were two glaring musical forces at work. Samson was obviously the more melodic influence as is evident from the folk-rock of the Weakerthans. With Kowalski, another middle school (1983-1986) punker, in the mix, the softer side of the band has been replaced with more frenetic energy.
"Most of it came because of the new line-up," Hannah says. "It's a much more passionate line-up. It's actually three people who share a similar lyrical, political and musical vision; three guys who grew up in the mid-'80s listening to political hardcore. We want to pay testament to that era but we also want to move what we think hardcore punk is ahead.
"We did an interview with an Italian magazine and the writer was the guitar player in [European hardcore legends] Negazione. He said he felt proud of us for continuing on the tradition of '80s political hardcore that he lived through while paying homage to the roots of the music and moving it ahead. That was the greatest thing we could ever have heard."
The glaringly obvious effect of that collective inspiration is a record that has prompted several reviewers to call the album a throwback to those glory days of crossover thrash/punk/speed metal.
"It could be that in the past however many years people's reference points for punk rock has become so pop-ish that anything that sounds heavy is metal to them." Hannah offers. "Back in the day, a lot of bands we grew up on like COC, MDC and Bad Brains incorporated a lot more 'metallic' influences in their music than a lot of bands do today. I think they did it brilliantly and I don't think there's anything wrong with being metallic."
In fact, Hannah, Samolesky and Kowalski not only take great pride, but seem to revel in being unlike any of their contemporaries; daring to do what they want when it's the less overtly political pop-core of bands like Green Day, Blink 182 and almost the entire Fat Wreck Chords catalogue that too many people associate with punk rock.
"I can't imagine a scene where we would actually fit in except maybe Europe," Hannah says. "I don't worry about it too much. I think a lot of those bands have messages that aren't too far off what we're trying to deliver. I wouldn't want to begrudge or berate anybody for making music for a different reason. People make and listen to music for a whole wide variety of reasons and just because we do it this way doesn't mean it's the right way or the only way.
"Sometimes it's a little shocking considering the state of the world that people are so apt to write seemingly meaningless lyrics. I think we're more interested in encouraging and promoting resistance culture rather than trying to berate complicit culture."
With one exception, it seems. "Back to the Motor League," one of the standout songs from Today's Empires finds Hannah expressing frustration with the state of rock music with not-so subtle disses on Korn, Limp Bizkit and Eminem. So frustrated, the song suggests, that Hannah would rather go back to his job at the CAA than be part of that world.
"Obviously hyperbole and exaggeration are tools we use but that's the frustration of the song; what is the point of us doing all this if nothing means anything?" he says. "It's not something we're consumed with every second of the day, we're just saying we're going to put out this record, it's going to kill and there's a good chance nobody is going to recognise it for what it is because we live in such a fucked up, shitty culture. We have to wonder if we have any relevance. Are people so brainwashed by MTV that this is going to just be lost in the sea of records?"
Still, despite the fact their record may be ignored by the masses, Propagandhi soldiers on. Their drive to educate and inform supersedes any need to be commercially viable. And it's a philosophy that extends to their business venture as well. G7 Welcoming Committee and its mission to give politically like-minded musicians and authors an outlet for their message is every bit a part of the band as the music. It's really just a logical extension in much the same way Alternative Tentacles was for Jello Biafra and Dischord Records was for Ian MacKaye.
And while Samolesky and Hannah admit it's tough to maintain the balancing act between musicians and entrepreneurs, it's a labour of love. And if it occasionally means putting the band on the back burner for a while, so be it. "The band was always a primary focus but some of the business end of things proved to be a very large undertaking... like if you don't pay attention to accounting for three years," says Samolesky. "A lot of that stuff just generally takes a lot of time to settle in and function in a proper way. Throughout the whole thing we ultimately wanted to have this situation accommodate Chris and I being able to take off for touring purposes.
"But I wouldn't pick one over the other. There's just a shit load of stuff going on and ultimately one can overtake the other in the amount of time you need to put into it. We're trying to identify that and come up with workable solution to balance both things. With the new album, the responsibility to work on the band is a little more important right now."
Propagandhi are on tour in the U.S. with Avail throughout March and are scheduled to play their first Eastern Canada shows in almost four years later in the spring. A full Canadian tour is being worked on for the summer.