Published Sep 28, 2017Propagandhi have been a band for longer than many of their fans have been alive. The Winnipeg punk outfit has been growing more assured in their sound and their unapologetic politics over the past 30 years, developing from the scrappy pop punk signee of Fat Wreck Chords into the self-sufficient thrash rockers that release their seventh LP, Victory Lap, this week. Exclaim! chatted with guitarist and vocalist Chris Hannah about being an outspoken ethical force in punk for so long, and balancing that role with the tribulations of middle age.
Despite the seriousness of their lyrical themes and social commentary, Propagandhi, in their own words, "came here to rock." On the record's opening track, the notoriously sceptical Hannah shouts a winking prayer, asking "God, are you there?! It's me in the denim jacket." This plea is followed by scathing indictments of Canada as a colonial nation, orders for "deadbeat dads" to move to the back of the room to make space for single mothers, a typically sardonic vegan anthem in "Lower Order (A Good Laugh)," and a chilling sample of Donald Trump on the record's closing track.
The juxtaposition of heavy subject matter and occasional moments of irony or tongue-in-cheek abandon is part of what makes Propagandhi so compelling. "Our perspectives on where things are heading are very dark so the gallows humour really helps us literally stay alive," Hannah says. He recently had his second child and struggles with the dire circumstances that will shape their future lives. "I think I view everything now through the eyes of children. In some ways that makes life so much more rich, and in some ways it makes it so much more terrifying in terms of the prospects we face."
In addition to these larger social concerns and the expectation of fans that they be turned into hardcore missives, Hannah has had to reconfigure his approach to balancing family commitments with creative work. "Before I had kids, I had 24/7 to fulfill that 100 percent, but now I go even harder in the less time that I have," he says. "On this record, I tried to observe a rule I had made for myself, which was that I'm not going to sit here and labour over these songs. Whatever the first thing out of my mouth is, whatever the first thing I write down on a piece of paper is, that's gonna be the song. It was impossible to stick to that completely — some stuff did get laboured over — but it actually worked, it actually got to the essence of what I wanted to say in a more honest way, and it was more fun to do it."
As the band have gotten older, their fans and the social climate around them have shifted as well. Hannah makes the surprising point that reactions to Propagandhi's fierce political sentiments tend to be "far less negative than they were in the '90s." Despite the fact that North America seems dangerously polarized, he notes that in some limited respects "the world has caught up to and maybe surpassed the band" in terms of the pro-feminist, queer-positive, anti-fascist themes featured on a record like 1996's Less Talk More Rock. "We don't have the death threats that we used to get," he says with a grim laugh, "so I like that!"
The band's politics have also evolved over the past decades. Hannah describes how "in the '90s, racism was about Nazis. Now it seems very clear to me that we live in a de facto [society of] white supremacy, but I don't know if I even thought that in the '90s. What we were concentrating on then was racism on the fringes, but in recent years, I've come to understand that at their core, things have never been not-racist."
It's this open and reflexive attitude that has helped establish Propagandhi as stalwarts of Canadian leftist punk. Hannah mentions that even playing shows in Trump's America doesn't feel as dangerous for the band anymore. "People know who we are and they know what we're about and even if they're not totally on the same page as us, there's a celebratory feeling at our shows. Despite what's going on, people are coming to have a good time and very generally look out for each other."
Although reaffirming this sense of solidarity and continuing to inspire young people to engage with progressive politics is undoubtedly crucial, Hannah has no illusions about the degree to which Propagandhi are actually forging radical change. He cites the Black Lives Matter and Idle No More movements as providing truly encouraging examples of grassroots activism, while acknowledging that punk rock, for its part, can only accomplish so much.
"Being in a band at this point in history is completely inadequate if your stated goal is to actually salvage some kind of civil society. We need to do something beyond having good ideas, there actually has to be something more and I'm not sure how to do that because I'm equally alienated from my fellow citizens and subject to the allure of all the entertainment systems we provide ourselves."
It's reassuring to know that Propagandhi are still talking the talk and rocking the rock in an era where their musical presence is needed more than ever. Hannah is quick to reiterate his own limitations and hypocrisies, though.
"I'll put it this way," he says. "If I really did what I thought I should do, I would probably lose everything I have because the right response to all this at this point will land you in prison and I'm not sure I'm up for that." It's a bleak observation coming from someone who just described the difficulties of balancing his political and musical ambitions with the demands of raising two children. For now, Propagandhi will be taking their incisive and celebratory live show on the road for a five-week North American tour. It's up to us to take their message and the energy of their performance to heart and translate it into action.
Victory Lap is out now on Epitaph.