Propagandhi Nazi Baiting and Hardcore Raging
Published Sep 24, 2012Although Winnipeg punks Propagandhi have only released six full-length albums, they've had an incredibly storied and controversial career. Since forming in 1986, they've endured years of skinheads crashing their shows, with the band themselves self-sabotaging concerts with reckless crowd antagonizing and punk preachiness that either turned people away or made them love the band more. Since Propagandhi started, they've championed causes like animal rights and spoke out against sexism, racism, and government wrongdoings. They parted ways with a bassist who went on to form one of Canada's most popular indie bands ("I feel a lot about it," says John K. Samson about his time in Propagandhi, "and I never really bring it up"), publicly called out the owner of their ex-record label (on an album released by that very label), and released a split record with a classic Canadian metal band. That last one makes a lot of sense, really: Propagandhi have embraced metal more and more as the years have gone on, crafting a sound that is part hardcore punk, part thrash, and part classic crossover. With the release of their new album, Failed States, Propagandhi have yet again created a new sound, one that is miles away from their pop-punk roots, just like their live shows are miles away from the skinhead-laden, audience-baiting debate-fests they once were.
1986 to 1988
Propagandhi forms in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba by guitarist/vocalist Chris Hannah and drummer Jord Samolesky. Hannah comes up with the name. "I'd like to say it's Jord's fault, but it was mine," he says. "I was a teenager very much impressed by band names like Ludichrist, and I thought Propagandhi was as genius as that at the time. The entire world now understands that to be untrue." The band's lyrical approach is heavily political from the start, a result of the punk bands that the two had been discovering. "The activist side of punk music drew Chris and I in quite a bit," says Samolesky. "That was something that I thought was really interesting and fresh about music that I'd never been exposed to." For the first two years of the band's existence, it is just Hannah and Samolesky. "It was me and Jord until 1989 because we were outsiders in a true outsider scene back then," says Hannah. "The punk scene was so weird and crazy. You'd go to a show and there were just cartoon characters, true misfits, either toppled over in the stairway or scowling at you. There were no starter caps, no jocks. We were two young kids from fucking rural Manitoba trying to go to shows in the big city wearing hockey jackets and Venom pins and thinking we were fitting in. It took us three years to meet anybody who would even fucking talk to us."
Scott Hopper joins the band on bass. "We were all still in high school," says Hopper, who also plays in a metal band called Crawl with Chris Hannah around this time (Hannah is also moonlighting in a grind/black metal band called Altars of Nocturnal Armageddon with two Crawl members; both bands release demo tapes). "I think we were jamming at my parents' place. I moved into my first apartment shortly after we got together, so we lost our jam space." The band attempts jamming at Jord's apartment on the University of Manitoba campus. "We jammed in the basement of his dorm room once," says Hopper, who currently plays in Ditchpig and co-runs a surf and paddleboard company. "It ended with campus security and nowhere to practice. It was the time of my life, if only I could remember it." The band take their time getting to the stage. "We never actually played live with him," says Hannah about Hopper. "He was trying to figure out our songs and they weren't very hard but he couldn't quite figure them out." They release the We Don't Get Paid, We Don't Get Laid, and Boy Are We Lazy demo.
"Stinky" Mike Braumeister joins the band. He had played in a local skate rock band called Orange Juice but got "pushed out" of that band while he was sick; a friend suggested he try out for Propagandhi. "I didn't really think a whole lot of the band at the time, to be honest," says Braumeister, being interviewed for the first time about his stint in Propagandhi. "It seemed a step down from Orange Juice, and at the time it was. Propagandhi were completely unknown and hadn't even played a show yet, while Orange Juice had a bit of a following. Plus, the songs seemed really overwrought and far too earnest. All I wanted to do was meet girls and play really ripping hardcore punk rock in a band. I didn't give a fuck about Haile Selassie or veganism, or any other 'ism."
The band play their first show in spring of '91 with Grog (featuring Scott Hopper) and Immortal Possession at the Royal Albert in Winnipeg. "There was five people there," says Hannah. "We were on top of the world." They release their second demo, Fuck the Scene. "My brother-in-law, who lives in the neighbourhood in Winnipeg that Chris lives in, found it at a garage sale last summer," says Samolesky. "The guy wanted a dime or a quarter for it. He gave it to me; it was funny seeing it again." The band's first vinyl release, a split seven-inch called Kung Fu Daniel with John Bartles and Sockeye, is released with Birth zine in the North-eastern US. Braumeister moves to Vancouver; he currently lives in Yellowknife, where he's a newspaper editor. He says he hasn't totally kept up on the band's output over the years but says he heard a recent album and feels "they've still got it." "Really, there is a reason why Propagandhi are such an enduring band," he says. "They really do kick ass. They've come a long way since that first crappy demo. Part of me wishes I hung on long enough to take part in some of the more monumental moments in the band's journey towards greatness but I really would be just kidding myself. It's not who I am. I just got back from Kugluktuk in Nunavut, where the idea of vegetarianism is as alien as a vegan ordering lunch at Arby's. I love fishing, I'm a hunter. I'm the fucking enemy."
Local Winnipeg band Toothpick Hercules' John K. Samson, who will later go on to much success with indie rockers the Weakerthans, sees a poster the band put up at local skate shop Sk8 saying, rather ambitiously, that they were a "progressive thrash band" looking for a bassist (incidentally, the K in Samson's name stands for Kristjan: "I started using it because my dad and grandfather are both Jon Samsons, and there were three other guys named John/Jon S. in the Winnipeg scene at the time," he says).
"Me and Jord had a house on Beverly Street, which is a crazy street in Winnipeg," says Hannah. "Samson's mom drove him to our house one day to try out. We used to jam in the living room. Fuck, it's weird. We were almost like, 'First person through the door who can play anything close, you're in.' So we played for 20 minutes, said, 'Ah, okay, you're in.' That was it. We had no idea he was going to become 'John Samson from the Weakerthans.'"
"I think I was probably the only one they tried out," says Samson, speaking at length about his time in the band for the first time. "I was excited about it; I learned all the songs in my parents' living room on their stereo with my bass unplugged." The band's impact starts to be felt locally. Winnipeg scene vet Mike Alexander, who has sung for Swallowing Shit, Head Hits Concrete, and Putrescence, sees them for the first time. "The band had a tremendous impact on the Winnipeg scene from the beginning," says Alexander. "They were truly one of a kind. Searing contempt and rage mixed with a complete who-gives-a-fuck sense of humour and topped with a level of intellect that really challenged many of us. They attracted a cross-section of goons who wanted to kill people in the pit, and politically charged vegan straight-edge folks with crossed arms who disapproved of the mayhem and who were just trying to watch the band play. It was the fucking best because it was more than just a show. It would usually end up being totally crazy. I barely survived my first chicken fight at the [Royal] Albert watching them play."
The band releases the Martial Law with a Cherry on Top demo, which was recorded in Hannah's mom's basement on his four-track. "I don't have a copy," admits Samson. "I wish I did. I don't even remember what's on that tape. I remember helping to put together the boxes. That was fun." Hannah sums up all of the band's demo output in a sentence: "lo-fi four-track horridity." The band don't utilize the demos to try to market themselves in any manner whatsoever. "We didn't really go out and use all these demos to play a bunch of shows and take that money and reproduce a whole shitload of demos and send them off all over the place and go tour," says Samolesky. "We didn't come at it from a logical standpoint in terms of even how the indie DIY scene was; we were just hacks at the whole thing." Hannah and Samolesky play in another metal band, Sweet Medusa.
Propagandhi plays with NOFX at the Royal Albert in Winnipeg. Fat Mike, NOFX's bassist/vocalist, is just starting a new record label: Fat Wreck Chords. He approaches the band after seeing them play a couple songs. "I was really impressed with their playing and how they could pull the harmonies off," says Fat Mike. "Back then, not many bands were doing that."
"He liked the fact that we did a Cheap Trick cover and that was pretty much it," laughs Samolesky. "He was saying, 'I've started a record label, if you guys are interested,'" says Hannah. "I was just like, 'What the fuck? Are you serious? Are you stupid?' We couldn't believe it, he was offering for us to come down to California and he'd pay for time in a studio. We thought, this is fucking insane. This is insane. We had just played at the Royal Albert. We were a bar band that just went there to insult skinheads. That's all we wanted to do." The relationship, which would publicly deteriorate years later, gets off to a somewhat ominous start. "There's this weird video footage," says Hannah. "My friend was taping the show, and we finished our set with some terrible song and before the VHS tape kinda goes [makes fizzling noise] you see Fat Mike walking up and saying, 'Hey man' and shaking my hand, and then we both look at the camera and then the video tape ends."
Fat Mike flies the band to California and produces their first album, much to their surprise. "Mike was phoning," says Hannah. "He'd follow up, and we were like, 'What's this all about? He's following up? What's he talking about?' I was telling him, 'I could just do this on a four-track' and he was trying to tell me, 'No, we're trying to do it on a different level.' We'd never been in a studio, just in a basement with some Radio Shack mics and a four track. We were so fucking naïve. We went down there and just fucking blasted it out and we were very unhappy with it."
"We threw ourselves into it," says Samolesky. "At the time, it seemed like six days to record, right through from setting things up to getting sounds through to the end of mixing, we thought that was just an extravagant amount of time. We went in there and tried to nail it out as fast as we could, basically." The band's trip to L.A. solidifies some differences early on between them and their pop-punk peers. "Even off the get-go it was kind of amusing," says Samolesky. "The real entrepreneurial and promotional side of it was something that we'd never encountered."
How to Clean Everything, their first full-length, is released on Fat Wreck Chords. To date, it is their best-selling album. The band meet with NOFX at the Calgary airport to transfer to Europe for a tour together; Fat Mike shows the band the album for the first time. It has a different cover than what the band submitted. "The cover art, that was the biggest fucking shock," says Hannah. "I had sent down the original graphic, which was similar but it's in this '50s Ayn Rand style, it was supposed to be black and white, it had a totally different vibe. So Mike hands me this record and I remember I was standing beside Samson, and I remember this cold sweat. But that was partly our fault, he was bugging us for ages, saying, 'We need cover art, we need cover art.' We just didn't take anything seriously."
The difference in business approaches foreshadows what will eventually be a nasty divorce between band and label. "We just didn't understand the gravity of what he was trying to do with the label," says Hannah. "He was trying to do something pro and he did a good job of it but we were just drinking a lot and didn't give a shit about anything about making a business of the band." Hannah says that the album at least carries the same fundamental values that he has today, but the delivery is hard for him to handle. "If I hear it with other people around, I'm like, fuck, turn it off," he says. "It's too much. Too ridiculous. But we didn't know what else to do. Just press record, go! Start singing in some snarl and some weird accent and I don't know what to do. But it was fun; it was a crazy time. On that record, there are fucked up drum rolls, guitars that are not in sync, but I kind of like it now that ProTools has taken over and you go see a band live and 90 percent of them don't resemble the recording at all." Hannah has learned to live with the album and to accept it for what it is. "I wish our debut was more like [Venom's] Welcome to Hell or [Bad Brains'] fucking Rock for Light," he says, "but we're not those bands, we're some guys from Portage."
Samson, who says he hasn't listened to the album in at least 15 years, says those songs changed his life and he was thrilled to be a part of it. Even if he'd rather forget his contribution to the album. "I'm really embarrassed by the song of mine on there," he admits. "It's called 'Greenest Eyes'" ― listed on the album as "Showdown (G.E./P.)." "It's a song I wrote when I was 16. To me, it shows the before and after of me as a writer, if you see what I was like before I joined Propagandhi and what I was like after, it was an education and made me into a much better and more focused writer, I think. So that one makes me cringe a little bit." The band tours for the album; Samson recalls the randomness and horror of showing up in a town, looking for a pay phone, trying to find the hall. "I'm nostalgic for being that lost," he says. "Having the map open in front of you and having no idea where you are and having a quarter tank of gas and not knowing where you're going to sleep and no one being able to reach you. In some ways, I have ecstatic moments thinking about… just moments being joyful thinking about that experience that I'll never have again."
Samson describes the shows as fun, a feeling that will go away soon enough for him. "There'd be pockets of places that knew the record and then mostly places that didn't," he says, "and we'd just show up and play and connect with people and it was fun." The band's notoriously devil-may-care attitude shows up early. "I don't remember us having merch in those early days," says Samson. "We had a record out but we didn't have any copies with us, I remember. The organization side, I don't know if we were really clear on what we were supposed to be doing out there. I think we had some records, but we would sell out and we'd never bother to get more."
Samson releases an acoustic solo cassette, Slips and Tangles. The band release the two-song How to Clean a Couple o' Things seven-inch on Fat, using cover art from NOFX's The P.M.R.C. Can Suck on This seven-inch as the backdrop for their cover art. (In 1996, NOFX will then use the Propagandhi cover art for their Fuck the Kids seven-inch.) The band become known fairly early on for having confrontational and antagonistic live shows. "You know, I grew up and I didn't like people at school," says Hannah. "I didn't like people in society in general, and you're suddenly in a band and all these people are in front of your band, and you're like, 'You think you're going to have fun? Fuck you. You fucking made life miserable for me.' Plus, I had these values, but I was also young and very reckless. You have this death wish, to a degree. Back then if the crowd was hostile, I fucking… I loved it. I don't know if it made me feel more righteous… no, it was just super exciting. The odds are against me; there are 300 people who are mad right now and if I wade out into the crowd and antagonize them more and I get beat down? Fuck, good for me, because I wasn't scared of those 300 people. There was some weird psychology going on there."
Despite this confrontational relationship, Hannah says that the people who support Propagandhi basically come from the same place that the guys in the band do. "The people who have always supported our band have never been cool people or punk rockers," says Hannah. "It's just white guys in starter caps who take the time to think a little more than they did before they heard the band, and that's where we came from. Talking to those people… someone's got to talk to them. Why not white guys who are into professional sports? We know what they think, to a degree."
The band stir up the anger of white power groups, who take to crashing their shows. "Most of the drama was in Winnipeg," says Hannah, "because we actively went to shows, got up on stage and tried to fucking bait the skinheads. Because they ruled the scene, they fucking ruled the shows. They were this presence at the shows, they'd just randomly beat people up, inside, outside, so our band, we were like the meekest of the meek and we just got up on stage and said things about skinheads and people liked it." Hannah says that back then skinheads were prominent in punk scenes all over the place, so the drama followed them on the road. "We'd go on tour and every show it'd be 'Some skinheads are going to show up tonight'" he says. "Sometimes they would." Despite this, and despite being a trio of underwhelming-looking scrawny Canadian punks, the band never get beat up. "It was weird how buffered we were from some of the violence," says Hannah. "I don't know why we never got our asses kicked. Groups of skinheads would show up, storm the show, but even if there was a face-to-face thing, it kind of fizzled. I don't know what the psychology was, why they just didn't fucking do us in every time. We're pencil-necked geeks; we always have been." Samson takes a backseat to Hannah's more confrontational approach on the stage. "Chris, he's incredibly charismatic and also thrived on that confrontation," says Samson, "which is an interesting combination in a singer."
Not the best year for releases: the band drop the Where Quality Is Job #1 double seven-inch on Recess; one record is pee coloured, the other is poo coloured. The release is a mess of live and demo material with liner notes that are more or less impossible to decipher. The band release the song "Portage la Prairie" on Play at Your Own Risk, Volume 2, a double seven-inch/single five-inch compilation on Recess. It's actually not Propagandhi at all, but a horrible electronic joke song created by John Sutton, who would go on to play in the Weakerthans with Samson. The band's concerts around this time often devolve into audience members ranting into the microphone due to Propagandhi's Consolidated-inspired open-mic policy. "I don't know if it was really a 'policy' so much as a pre-internet attempt at moderating a message board," says Hannah. "I think in our youthful innocence, we were interested in making ourselves accessible and blurring the line between the performer and the audience. It certainly made some otherwise boring shows way more interesting."
The open mic situations happen more at basement shows than in typical venues; once the band gets a bit bigger and can't realistically play basement shows, the open mic will become a thing of the past. "Also, the internet showed up and I quickly decided my quota of enduring stupid opinions had been filled for the rest of my life," laughs Hannah.
Samson tries to deal with his anxiety over the band's confrontational shows. "There were some really amazing shows and there were some really antagonistic shows," he says. "The seeds of my real anxiety about it came pretty early. There were some really serious, strangely frightening shows. We'd have eruptions of really scary moments. I remember being in Bakersfield and the people who brought us there had tire irons out by the stage because the white power people said they were going to come by. I remember being in Chico, California and members of the audience throwing raw meat at us because we were vegans. There were really random, frightening times, we found. For me, it just made performance… I didn't thrive on that, the challenge of an antagonistic relationship with certain parts of the audience, which was just part of punk rock, and especially with this band."
The I'd Rather Be Flag-Burning split ten-inch/CD with Regina punks I Spy (featuring guitarist/vocalist Todd Kowalski, who will later join Propagandhi) is released. "You know what?" says Samson. "I think that's my favourite one." Recess Records releases the vinyl while the band handles the CD version, right down to the DIY packaging. "I remember we would have stacks of CDs," says Samson, "and before we figured out that we could just put them in plastic sleeves, we would build packaging ourselves, with homemade glue to stick the labels on the cardboard, which we would cut and glue into CD packages. I recall being happy sitting in the back of the van on a tour in Western Canada, cutting and gluing." Samson releases a split solo CD with Winnipeg punkers Painted Thin, featuring material from his solo tape. (Painted Thin featured at various points in its ranks Stephen Carroll and Jason Tait, both of whom would later join the Weakerthans.) A Propagandhi/FYP split seven-inch is released; Propagandhi's song is "Letter of Resignation," a Samson solo song that he will later rework as a Weakerthans song. Propagandhi release the Yep live cassette on Applecore Records. The members of the band start being able to nearly live off of the band.
The band covers Venom's "Stand up and Be Counted" for a compilation, but it becomes apparent that Samson is on a different musical train of thought than Hannah and Samolesky. "I remember Chris and Jord wanting to do a Venom cover, and we did it, and it took me weeks and weeks to learn how to play it," says Samson. "And I kept thinking, 'What's the point of this song?' It sounds kind of terrible, but they insisted on playing it. But you know, that should have given me a clue. I remember just being mystified by the song, like why don't we just play it without all the stupid stops and stuff? Why is it in a weird time signature? Just straighten it out. To me, that was a big thing, like 'What is this song about, and why would you want to play it?'"
Hannah also feels like this incident is noteworthy. "I remember John couldn't quite get the timing," says Hannah. "You know, Venom weren't particularly talented but some parts were a little weird. If you're not really into something, sometimes you can't really invest yourself to get it. So, that, plus me and Jord trying to play John's songs, it was just hard." Early recording sessions in San Francisco for their next album ― taking place at a studio in the house where Anne Rice wrote Interview with a Vampire ― are aborted and the band head back home. "I remember driving down there and starting recording without having all the songs finished, and we had to just drive home," says Samson. "I recall driving straight home, driving home in 36 hours from San Francisco, and it was a blow, I think. I just remember being in San Francisco in the Metro hotel, which was just down the street [from the studio] and I think we got a room there so Chris would have some space to write and I just remember just how hard that was on him, trying to write that way." The failed recording session give the band an early lesson in being ready when going into the studio. "That was a learning experience too, just getting a little frivolous with our preparedness," says Samolesky.
After a second, more successful, recording session, the band release Less Talk More Rock on Fat Wreck Chords. "There was quite a space between records, which set a precedent for my writing life and I think theirs as well," says Samson. "There's a deliberateness about it." The album (which has as its cover art an old Calgary Stampede promotional poster) has the pop-punk sounds of its predecessor but also has more hardcore aggression as well as two Samson songs, "Gifts" and "Anchorless," the latter of which he'll later make a Weakerthans staple. "Playing with those guys really shaped my writing," says Samson. "Pretty much invented me as a songwriter. It gave me a clear idea of the kind of song that I wanted to write. So those two songs were the first songs where I actually felt like I was making steps towards being the kind of writer I wanted to be. I knew they had to be good songs if they were going to be played with those two guys, because otherwise, why would they play them? And I've tried to keep that in my head ever since, to aspire to that kind of level of not playing a song you don't believe in."
Less Talk sells well but not as much as their debut, and remains their second-best-selling album. "Less Talk sounds less like NOFX, so there's half your crowd gone right away," says Hannah. Still, because the band is associated with a sound, and a label, they're selling a good amount of albums. "One of the odd things that propelled Propagandhi," says Samolesky, "was the fact that we were a band that was identified with skate rock, and where people would buy every friggin' record that came out on the label. That by no means was a small chunk of change. At that time, it really, really, really helped us, the whole Fat thing."
Less Talk contains one small bit of history from the band's past. "[Less Talk More Rock] contains my one lasting contribution to the band," says Braumeister, "the silly little disco riff at the beginning of 'The Only Good Fascist is a Very Dead Fascist.' Uncredited, of course. But that's okay." The album absolutely does not contain less talk; the lyrics are novella-length essays about various political and social issues, which was a result of both the band discovering so many new political and social ideas as young men, and also reacting against the apathetic pop-punk scene.
"Everybody was just into snowboarding and eating fried chicken in an SUV," says Hannah. "We had a sense that if we just did this… like, How to Clean was provocative to the scene, but we can fucking antagonize the scene like we've never antagonized a crowd before. That wasn't the goal, but we can do two things at once." The album was also a reaction against the band's fans, many of whom came out to see them play after the first album but didn't share the same values. "When How to Clean came out, we had no idea anyone would like it, then we went and played some shows and all of a sudden, oh, who are all these fucking jocks and skaters and surfers here? Fuck them," says Hannah. "Let's draw a line in the sand, let's make sure we're not misunderstood. We have these values, let's make sure nobody misunderstands them, even if it separates the wheat from the chaff and we're the chaff and it's just us. Let's lay it out on the table." Hannah feels the album stands the test of time well. "I think of it more in the same terms of Potemkin or the newer records," he says. "I feel like it's one of our better records."
The troubles with white power groups escalate due to the album's explicitly gay-positive lyrical stance. "More Nazis," says Hannah about the shows around this time. "Way more Nazis. It wasn't just the Nazis then, it was everybody who didn't like gay people. Because before that, Nazis came and skaters would be on your side, some jocks who showed up might be on your side. As soon as we put the gay positive thing on our record…"
A Propagandhi urban legend is borne when Hannah decides to put drumsticks in his butt during a concert. "I think that happened like, once, or something," laughs Hannah. "It was a one-time thing! They never went 'in' all the way. Just between the cheeks, essentially. I never inhaled!" he laughs.
The band start to take things more seriously, and as the California pop-punk boom starts to explode, they ride the wave, even though they're worlds apart from those bands. "I was sort of at the threshold where I had to choose between going to grad school and moving away or making somewhat of a medium-to-long-term commitment to the band and we decided to go with that," says Samolesky. "For the touring on Less Talk More Rock, we started actually getting a booking agent to look after our stuff, having a roadie for the first time and doing longer tours." The band also begin a long Propagandhi tradition of having tables of books for sale at their shows. "We had AK Press setting up shop every night," says Samolesky. "It seemed like the best way we could… whatever you could get into a two-minute song, we just wanna have maybe some books that we'd read or authors that we really, really respect, have that kind of information on hand, invite local activists to come out and do info tables, allow people to potentially get involved if they want to, help create the idea that these things exist and people can participate in them if they choose to."
Part of the reason the band want to do this is because a lot of the people they were seeing come to their shows weren't necessarily politically-minded anarchist punks. "There was a shift happening and we're noticing that a lot of the crowd is maybe a little bit newer to that kind of scene, maybe conservative, or they just haven't been exposed to that kind of thing very much," says Samolesky. "Those are the people you want to connect with on that level. We thought we could merge activism with music in a more practical way, I guess." For Samolesky, selling books at cost was personally gratifying. "You kinda feel better at the end of the night when you see a young person walking down the street with this radical book and not just buying all the shag and how hokey that whole thing is."
Due to the escalating troubles at shows, and a particularly problematic show in Denver, Samson realizes that things are "winding down" for him. "I was having real troubles. I don't know why," he says. "It's hard for me to say now. I do remember getting more and more anxious about the live shows. I remember there was a show in Denver. The way I remember it is we were in a Legion or something down the street, and we were getting ready to play the show. We had gone into the venue and it was like 400 degrees in there and there were way too many kids. They had oversold it or something had gone wrong, and we just got a really bad feeling. We were watching the TV news, and there was basically a full-on riot going on at the show. 50 police officers with mace just beating the crap out of kids. Helicopters and news crews, and I just remember being like… I just had no idea what to do. We were in the United States illegally, we basically caused this crazy violent event, it wasn't our fault, but you know. That whole tour I had just been struggling when we were playing shows, I couldn't get over it, I just felt really anxious, it was just making me really nervous. It just got more and more uncomfortable for me. There are 100 reasons why I had to go. One of them was that I just didn't enjoy the shows."
Musical differences between Samson and the rest of the band grow after he brings songs that will later end up as Weakerthans songs to Propagandhi sessions (such as "Leash") to little success. "The song would end and we'll be standing there thinking, hmm, something's not…" says Hannah. "There were a few songs that were on that first Weakerthans record that we tried to get going in Propagandhi. At the time we were just thinking, 'It's too lightweight for what we want to do.' But I understand now. He's always had a different aesthetic. He just needed to do his own thing. Obviously it worked out for him. Clearly."
The band do some touring for the album before Samson departs. "It was almost something that inevitably had to happen," says Samolesky. "Both parties moved ahead with their real artistic intentions being cultivated in different ways. It obviously worked well for us and for him."
"It was mutual," says Hannah. "I told him, 'I think we're going to look for somebody else.' He was like, 'Okay.'" The split may have been mutual, but things get ugly. "There were hard feelings," says Hannah. "I've seen it happen a zillion times. People are trying to do something creative and it's not working out. It didn't have to go that way. We had a lot of pretty strong differences but it didn't have to get to the point where someone's feelings were hurt, but you start nattering about things that aren't really relevant and years later you won't give a shit. I think we both had some hard feelings about it not working."
Samson reiterates that it was a mutual split but there was anger involved. For him, the hard feelings came from him feeling that he couldn't cut it in the band. "I was angry, I think," he says. "And I think looking back now what I was most angry about was I wasn't good enough to be in the band. I wasn't a good enough player. And I think that's just true, it's nothing to be ashamed of. But at the time I was, I was ashamed that I didn't have the ability. But I just listened to 'Failed States,' the title track [on the new album]; I couldn't air bass to that. That is so beyond me, physically. So it makes perfect sense now, looking back, that I was just the wrong person for that band." Samson says that he's proud of being in Propagandhi and that, even though he doesn't talk about it publicly much, it's something that comes up in his life often. "Probably at 80 percent of my shows that I've done ever since then, someone's yelled 'Propagandhi!' And I'm still not sure what that means, why they're yelling that. So I'm reminded of it a lot. Sometimes it's a bit of a burden but also I don't think I'd be even close to the kind of writer that I'm trying to be without them. I learned so much from them. And they're such great musicians; incredible musicians." Samson plays his last show with the band in San Francisco on August 22. It's a benefit show for AK Press; the band know that it's Samson's last, but don't tell anyone. Lance Hahn of melodic punkers J Church senses something's up and asks Samson what's going on. "I was a huge fan of Lance as a writer and a person," says Samson, "I really admired him, Cringer and J Church were very important to me, so I recall being grateful that he was just human about it, he made me feel like it wasn't the end of the world, just something regular that happens to humans ― we work together, we part."
Samson forms Arbeiter Ring, his book publishing company, and the Weakerthans in October. "I think about it occasionally, what a fluke it is, that I stumbled into this really interesting moment in this band and then stumbled out again," he says. "That's kind of what it feels like to me. It's super lucky." Samson still speaks of his ex-bandmates with admiration. "I've always been and I still am really fascinated by what they do and who they are," he says. "They're remarkable musicians. They're also hilarious. They're the funniest... you get the sense of it on their records, but in person they're just fucking funny. They're just really fun. A fun gang to be a part of, so I was upset that I wouldn't get that anymore. So that hurt a little bit." The admiration goes both ways. "When I see how well the Weakerthans have done and how much impact they've had, I think it's kind of neat: the guy was in our band," says Hannah. "How many other bands can say John K. Samson was in their band?"
Todd Kowalski of I Spy and Swallowing Shit joins as their bassist; unfortunately, he's never played bass. "What a weird thing to do for your livelihood," says Hannah. "Get a guy who has never played bass to play bass in your band. But it was the way we thought of things: who do we like the most and who's the funnest guy to be around?" Kowalski enters the fray undeterred. "I take things seriously but all you do is just start playing it, you know what I mean?" says Kowalski. "It was like, 'You want to join the band?' 'Okay.' 'You want to play bass?' 'Sure, yeah.' Just start playing. You don't really have any other choice." For the guys in the band, having Kowalski playing with them instead of Samson makes sense. "We did the line-up change and I think it fit the personalities," says Samolesky. "John was able to start his other projects and reflect his interest at a more personal level than he would have been able to do with us."
G7 Welcoming Committee is launched by Hannah, Samolesky, and their friend Derek Riel. [Editor's note: In the print edition, we misidentified Derek Hogue as a founder of G7; Hogue worked at the label starting in 1999 after the departure of founder Derek Riel. Exclaim! apologies for the error.] The idea for the co-operatively run record label came about in 1996 after Propagandhi spent so much time dealing with record labels. "It's something we were grappling with as a band on these labels," says Hannah. "Like everything about this industry is just conforming to the larger infrastructure that's been told to us. Labels aren't acting like Dischord Records, and we wanted to be a democratically organized workspace instead of, 'I'll be the president and you guys do what I say,' or some childish thing like that." The label releases albums from Consolidated, ...But Alive, the Weakerthans, and Propagandhi, as well as spoken word discs from Noam Chomsky and others. "It was stuff that was just way off the commercial radar," says Samolesky. "It was an exciting time for me, going into 'work' on a Monday morning and seeing what people ordered over the weekend and seeing someone buying a CD that people aren't really interested in too much and a William Blum book. It seemed like a really positive thing at the time."
Hogue feels that G7 served its purpose. "I think for the most part G7 did what we set out to do," he says. "We released music and ideas into the world that most labels would not have taken the chance on, simply because we felt they needed to be heard, irrespective of financial considerations." Hogue mentions the label's collective organizational structure, use of organic fair-made shirts for the bands, willingness to poke fun of themselves (and their bands, and the industry as a whole), and, near the end, getting rid of physical product altogether, as ways how they challenged themselves and their listeners. "Plus, we released some of my favourite records of the past 20 years, and I'm immensely proud of that... despite simultaneously regretting having been responsible for the manufacture of thousands upon thousands of pieces of plastic," he says. The record label takes the antagonistic attitude of Propagandhi to new levels, particularly to the Weakerthans, whose first two albums will get released by the label, while the label simultaneously pokes a whole lot of fun at the band in ad campaigns and bio materials. "G7, the way we operated, our mandate was 'fuck the bands,'" says Hannah. "Literally, it's about us. Every band on G7 got insulted by G7. It always started with little needles here and there. With the Weakerthans it just self-generated into a real thing because they're from Winnipeg and there's that relationship. Obviously, the Weakerthans were always 'featuring John, formerly of Propagandhi,' and [Propagandhi] were self-conscious, like, 'No, we don't have anything to do with that kind of music.' Just stupid shit. It's all stupid shit. But again, we were drinking a lot, and I'm just not as snarky as I was then. G7 was a really snarky thing. I see the entertainment value in all the snarkiness, but I listen to the old podcasts and reading some of the descriptions of the bands we were trying to represent, I wouldn't do it the same way now."
Kowalski tours with the band for the rest of the Less Talk dates, which take them to Eastern Canada, Australia, and Japan. His recorded debut is a cover of the Cro-Mags' "Hard Times" on the Return of the Read Menace compilation. The band's transition from house shows to more professional venues occasionally raises the ire of punks. "I think we eventually just wanted to play places that just sounded good," says Samolesky. "That small DIY scene, for what it is, it's great, I would never take anything away from it, but there are a lot of people doing it without a whole lot of experience. Sometimes the rooms that are rented are clearly not amenable for good sound. And what do people want to see, a little tucked out of the way thing that doesn't really get promoted? Probably we did alienate a lot of people in the more underground scene at a certain point, but that's the direction we went."
The Weakerthans release Fallow and start their gradual climb to becoming Canadian indie sensations. The album comes out on G7. "There was still a relationship but I was kinda distant in it a little bit," admits Hannah. Unfortunately for Samson, early Weakerthans shows are marred with the antagonism that caused him so many problems during his time with Propagandhi; because he was in Propagandhi, people go expecting fast punk. "Part of the reason I named the band the Weakerthans was to pre-empt the idea of what people were going to get," Samson says. "That was a big part of it for me because I knew this was going to happen. And the first few years of the Weakerthans were a struggle; we would play the same kinds of shows that Propagandhi were playing and people would be upset. And there's nothing I can do about it. And sometimes it got intense. People were really upset and angry and would express that, because I didn't play fast enough or loud enough. It sounds absurd, but in the context of a show, you can't really control that kind of thing." The confrontational nature of the shows threaten to cut Samson's musical career short as he struggles to deal with antagonistic crowds on a Hannah-less stage. "There were times when I thought, 'If live shows are going to be like this, I don't want to be a musician,'" he says. "Without the quick-wittedness and mental engagement of someone like Chris, facing an audience that wants to challenge you is really hard. I find it really difficult and not something I want to do."
The band release Where Quantity Is Job #1 on G7; the rarities collection includes the Quality double seven-inch, the split with I Spy, and other live, demo and rare material. They try to find their feet again with the addition of Kowalski as writing for the next album continues and the band find themselves playing faster, heavier material.
The Curse of the MTV Punks bootleg is released, capturing a particularly hostile show at legendary Cali punk venue Gilman Street. The bootleg captures the band at the height of their crowd-baiting preachiness; at times, it seems like there's more arguing with audience members than playing songs. "The Gilman show became a bootleg because of the way the show went down," says Hannah. "The entire place wanted to kill us." By this point, the members of the band are able to live off of the band, with side jobs here and there to help out. The first attempted recording session of Propagandhi's next album has to be cancelled after Hannah and Kowalski see punk-grinders the Locust play live. "Fuck," says Hannah, "me and Kowalski, we were in San Francisco recording and went and saw the Locust. Kowalski thought it was ridiculous and all the way home he was imitating the vocalist. I was laughing so hard. He lost his voice and I lost my voice. We were like, 'Fuck man, we gotta go home. We lost our voices.'"
The band successfully record their next album after the botched attempt, which also featured a guitar sound Hannah was unhappy with. He doesn't make things much better. "I went back a few months later to redo the guitars and made them even worse in the process," he laughs. "I showed up at the studio with essentially the exact same guitar and amp setup and made it even worse. Too funny." That's just the beginning of Hannah's battle with the guitar sound on this record. The Weakerthans release Left and Leaving.
Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes is released. In Canada, the band release it on G7; in the U.S., they're still on Fat. There's more raging hardcore, more metallic overtones, fewer pop-punk melodies. The album sells less than Less Talk, a sign of both the downloading times and the fact that the music is veering so far from their pop-punk debut. "With Todd in the band there was more of a common vision for heavy music," says Hannah. "They went more speed metal," says Fat Mike. Samolesky agrees that speed was the theme for the album, almost to a fault. "I just remember for that record thinking, 'I think we've got to chip it down just a little bit.' I was thinking it was getting a little too fast for what we wanted to do. I remember being in the studio and thinking, 'Come on, we've had it this fast for so long and now everybody wants to ramp it up even further. This is too quick, we're losing some of the impact of the music, sacrificing that for speed, just for the hell of it.' I think at the time I was actually going through this kind of grave, 'I don't want to be in a speedcore band...' thing. There's a reason why my fucking elbow's fucking almost falling off. Those guys and their relentless fucking speeding up of everything."
Despite this, Samolesky feels the band is getting closer to what the essence of Propagandhi is. "We were excited at the direction change, we felt like that was getting close to how we originally envisioned the band sounding."
But not close enough. The album becomes the victim of some post-recording disasters. "That one's tough for me," says Hannah. "It could have been such a good record for me. We fucked it up." The album is marred for the band by a production sound they are very unhappy with. While the original recordings are very raw, the band keep messing with the sounds, the engineer puts samples on Samolesky's kick and snare, and, the final straw, the band attend the mastering session and, in Hannah's words, destroy the record. "We were with Eddy Schreyer, this legendary metal mastering guy, we were backseat driving it," says Hannah. "I remember him turning around and saying, 'You can't keep doing this. We're going to ruin this record.'" The end result was a guitar tone that Hannah is still very unhappy with. "We fucked up the most on that one," says Hannah. "We really screwed up what could have been like Less Talk, a very natural sounding record, and we made it sound really weird. We just couldn't leave well enough alone. We had no recording experience, and here we are telling [producer] Ryan Greene or Eddy Schreyer how it should go? It's crazy. It's ridiculous. It's one of my bigger regrets."
Although the heyday of Nazis showing up at their shows has long passed, the band run into trouble at a show in Jacksonville, Florida. "The early '90s was the worst part for skinheads, but Florida never forgot," says Hannah. "They just kept going." At one particularly tense show, the word on the street is that the white power guys aren't just going to beat the band up: they're going to kill them. "Because they're part of militias down there and they want to start a race war," says Hannah, "although I've never understood why killing another white guy is a race war."
The Anarchist Black Cross start coming to the band's shows in Florida, armed and ready for Nazis; at the Jacksonville show, an armed anarchist explains to the band beforehand that if there's trouble at the show, he's wearing a headset to talk to his colleague who is up in the rafters with a rifle. And if anything goes down, the meeting point is the bell tower across town. "Man, this was so crazy," says Hannah. "I'm starting to think this should be cancelled. What if there are kids here? Not just innocent bystanders but people under the age of 18 who are at this show and are going to be caught in this Nazi skinhead crossfire."
The craziness doesn't end there: the venue is holding a hip-hop show later that night, so some hip-hop fans show up early, find out about the skinheads, and stand up on the stage while Propagandhi are playing, armed, wearing fatigues, looking for the armed Nazis. "So we're having a good show," Hannah, incredibly, says, "and at one point I see this skinhead guy coming up on stage and I see this light go on his forehead from behind me and I'm thinking, 'Oh my God,' and I turn around and it's just a security guard with a flashlight. You can imagine the tension. I don't want a shot fired; this guy can come punch me if he wants, I don't want you to shoot him." And, because this is Propagandhi, the craziness doesn't even stop there. "So the show's going alright," Hannah continues, "so we play a couple of extra songs, and we don't know it but the guy running the next show, who has a gun in his pants, comes up to the guy who is tour managing us and says, 'Get these guys off stage now or else,' and he shows him the gun. So our tour manager is telling me to stop the show and I'm just like, 'No man, it's going good!'" chuckles Hannah. "So there's some fucking faceless skinheads somewhere with guns in the crowd, there's anarchist black cross guys in the crowd, the hip-hop guys, and it's like Pulp Fiction or something."
He laughs recounting the story now, but shows like this take a toll on a person. "The five hours of a show like that take years off your life," says Hannah. But despite the Jacksonville incident, Propagandhi shows are generally no longer about skinhead confrontation or preaching to and antagonizing the audience, they're just good hardcore shows. "I got over getting off on antagonizing a room full of people," says Hannah.
2002 to 2003
The band tour for Today's Empires. For the first time, Propagandhi play in Hannah and Samolesky's hometown of Portage la Prairie, where the band started. The band film and record a show in Winnipeg at the Zoo, which will eventually be released as a live album/DVD benefit release for the Grassy Narrows Blockade and the Middle East Children's Fund. Propagandhi play a show with Giant Sons, who are Hannah's favourite local band at the time; their guitarist will eventually join Propagandhi. Doing G7 for a number of years starts taking its toll on Samolesky. "I was just feeling like it's a very treated industry from above, and people's intentions and motivations for starting bands was increasingly gross to me at the time; I was backing out of the music scene in general," he says. "I was developing some hearing problems, too, and didn't want to go to shows and have people yelling in my ear while the band's playing. I'm not going to say it was a negative time but there was a monkey on our back a little bit. It wasn't feeling so great just producing within that kind of machine." He leaves G7 and focuses more on activist work in his non-band time. "The next natural progression was eventually getting a little sick and tired of just selling items and moving things around and shipping things all over the place and trying to get involved in stuff at less disconnected and more localized level." Hannah records and mixes Where there Is Power there Is Always Resistance by Winnipeg grindcore band Malefaction. The Weakerthans release Reconstruction Site, their third album.
Propagandhi write material for their next full-length. A minor controversy ensues when Propagandhi submit an alternate version of Today's Empires cut "Bullshit Politicians" for Fat Wreck Chords' Rock Against Bush Vol. 1 compilation. Along with the song, now called "Free John Hinckley," the band submitted liner notes to the song that criticize businessman George Soros. The song is removed prior to the compilation's release. Hannah helps Winnipeg singer/songwriter Greg MacPherson record his Maintenance and Night Flares releases. G7 continues to be active, releasing material from bands as diverse as Clann Zú, Malefaction, and Submission Hold.
The band record their next album in Vancouver in Bryan Adams' studio, thanks to someone who had a deal to get the studio at an indie rate. The album is Potemkin City Limits, released on CD in Canada by G7, vinyl in Canada and the U.S. by G7, and CD by Fat in the U.S. The album is difficult from the get-go, which sets the tone for the next couple of years. "It was a real struggle to make," says Kowalski. "A real, real struggle. We were all over the place with that. We eventually ended up at the Blasting Room, like, fucking, 'Can you please mix this?' So I think just how hard that record was for us to make kind of burned us right to the ground."
The band's relentless schedule has also begun taking a toll. "We were kinda dumb, and still are," says Kowalski. "We never take a break. We never take a month off. Let's say we're burning out or something, we just fucking push through with marathon jams even when we're all depressed. Even if you're in the Olympics, you try to take a break." Potemkin is a huge step forward for the band, with longer songs and a more technical and mature approach to the playing and lyricism. There is more melody and more emotional nuance, but Hannah doesn't quite reach what he's hoping for with the album. "It could have been the one," he says.
Samolesky feels more happy about the release. "I like how that album fits with me," he says. "I always felt like we hit some circumstantial things as we were touring and we kind of ended up putting the band on hiatus at a point where we could have still been promoting the record, I think." The longer songs and more intricate arrangements appeal to Samolesky. "I really remember liking the musical and lyrical angle of things at that time," he says. "Just feeling like we were progressing as a band and going down a good path that way."
Hannah says that being a part of the pop-punk landscape had begun to take its toll on the band. "We felt culturally isolated," he says. "Even the punk scene we grew up in in Winnipeg was maybe a little more modest. It sounds immodest to say that, but it wasn't about all the buying and selling and having big shows with all the sponsorship deals or whatever the fuck was going on. But it was either that or nobody knew about us." Lyrically and in the album's liner notes, the band seems to have hit a low point. Things are bleak, dour; even the humour has a sadness to it. The band's morale is down further than it's ever been. "At that point, we thought, 'This is the endgame. We're done," says Hannah. "Let's just say what we think and that'll be it.'" Kowalski has mixed feelings on the record. "I'm kinda up and down, I guess," he says. "I kinda like it and I kinda think some of the tunes are sometimes a little long or something. I like the vibe and the outlook that one's attempting to have. It's more of a transition record for me. Like, we're trying to get somewhere, maybe we didn't hit the mark but we were fucking really trying to get somewhere. I appreciate that as much as if everything just worked out."
Lots of the downer vibe is due to Hannah's despair at seeing politics becoming trendy for bands for a brief moment in time. "They're all trying to lead this parade suddenly when everybody through the '90s was snowboarding and fucking brokering video game deals for their bands and laughing at political punk bands," he says. The album's mix of despair, more progressive metal leanings, and longer songs is met with no shortage of shrugged shoulders from fans. "A lot of people are like, 'Oh yeah, Potemkin... let's forget about that one and listen to the records before and after,'" says Hannah.
The album marks the end of the band's relationship with Fat Wreck Chords after Hannah calls out Fat Wreck Chords main man Fat Mike in one of the songs on the album (the liner notes also feature a picture of Fat Mike alongside the song in question, "Rock for Sustainable Capitalism"). The lyrics to the song reference a NOFX song, "The Separation of Church and Skate," which posed the question "When did punk rock become so safe?" In their song, Hannah sings, "When did punk rock become so safe?/Well, you'll excuse me while I laugh in your face/as I itemize your receipts/and PowerPoint your balance sheets."
"It really hurt my feelings," says Fat Mike. "It totally surprised me and I couldn't believe that they would go after me like that." "At the time, I didn't think he minded it," says Hannah. "I didn't think he'd take it as personally as he ended up taking it." But Fat Mike questions how he could not take it personally. "If you write about someone in a song in a negative way, you're basically saying that they're the enemy or what they're doing is pointless, I don't know how feelings can't get hurt," says Fat Mike. "I'm not a fucking idiot. I graduated college, I took political science, I read Chomsky, I know what the fuck I'm talking about. Our goals are the same, but we were going at them in different ways. So of course I'm going to get my feelings hurt."
"For me," says Hannah, "it was more like you asked a question in your song: 'When did punk rock become so safe?' And if we're going to write these ideas in our songs, I'll tell you why it's become so safe. And I stand by that. It's absurd. It's absurd to ask how it got so safe when everything's so corralled and served up." Hannah also takes major offense to Mike supporting John Kerry through PunkVoter. "I think in the context of the election year that was coming up, the safe choice was fucking John Kerry," says Hannah. "There's nothing more safe and corporate and normal and status quo than that choice. If they hadn't launched an assault on Ralph Nader, I don't think I would have been so upset about everything. But I believe in democracy and I don't think people who were attacking Nader… that's anti-democratic. To say democracy should not run as a candidate. You want the duopoly? That's all you want? That's an oligarchy, and a clearly corporate oligarchy. I really found that reprehensible. To this day, until the end of time, I will not forget. I won't forget that; I don't think it's something that should be forgotten."
The album also calls out the Vans Warped Tour ("I hear this year's Vans Warped Tour's going green/I guess they heard that money grows on trees/I hope they ship those shitty bands overseas/like they did the factories"). The band tours little for the album. "We didn't tour much on that record," says Kowalski. "I would say that mentally that was our low point. Maybe we tried too hard and cared too much and felt a little disappointed or something. It was just hard, even though I think it turned out good and we did our best."
Fat, who refer to them as the most uncooperative band in the underground at this point (Fat Mike also called them the most important band in punk around this time), promotes it little; it only sells about half what Today's Empires sold. "It'd be easy for us to blame Fat, they didn't put too much into us at this point, but they thought we weren't going to tour so you can't really say they didn't try," says Kowalski. "I don't think anything bad about what Fat Wreck Chords did for us or anything." The relationship between the band and label fizzles and comes to an end. "We thought we should do [the next record] through Fat, and the last thing we heard from Mike was he had sent a message through somebody saying, 'Is it a death metal record?' We were like, 'That's it, we're finished.'"
Chalk it up to cultural differences. "We're from Portage la Prairie, Manitoba," says Hannah. "Trying to roll with people from L.A. and San Francisco doesn't always work if you're from a farm community and these guys are from Hollywood; we're talking different languages, and a different way of being in the world." On Potemkin, the band, jokingly, said that Hannah had left and Glen Lambert, a former Portage Terriers player, had joined the band; on the album, "Lambert" (who is clearly Hannah) is an over-the-top sad sack, depressed and living alone in a tiny cell of a room, muttering about the end of the world.
NOFX will later write a song seemingly about Chris: "One Celled Creature," which seems to be attacking the Glen Lambert character more than Hannah himself. Fat Mike admits to Exclaim! that it is about Hannah. "Sure," he says. "I was just putting forth commentary on how all that negativity is not always positive. At some point you have to embrace your friends and embrace life, and you do what you can to help society. But you have to have a good time, too."
"I think he thought it was real," says Hannah about the song being about Lambert. "When Potemkin came out, I went on tour as Glen Lambert, only for a few shows. I was doing it because Kowalski was finding it very entertaining. I'd wear a housecoat on stage, walk around saying weird things to people, but I couldn't keep it up, I don't have the talent for it. The Glen Lambert character in a way was supposed to represent the exasperation of Potemkin. 'You've driven me crazy, this whole world has driven me to sit on a mattress with a fucking shotgun.' It was totally a joke, and I think [Fat Mike] thought it was real and it helped him come to terms with the dissolution of our relationship at the time. We didn't talk after that, so he thought, 'Oh, he's crazy, that's what's going on. He's crazy.'"
The animosity continues on the road. "I went to see them at Gilman St. when they were still on the label, and Chris called me out again," says Fat Mike. "Chris said, 'This song's for all those punk rock millionaires.' And I was like, 'Fuck, I can't even go see them play without him fucking talking shit about me.'" On their song "The Marxist Brothers," NOFX will mention Propagandhi again, this time referencing Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes in a humorous manner but get the name wrong ― despite having released the album, Fat Mike refers to it as Today's Empires are Tomorrow's Ashes. "I dunno, maybe he needed the extra syllable for the song," says Hannah. "There's no joke, I just, I don't know, I just didn't fact check," laughs Fat Mike. "I just got the title a little bit wrong. So many people give me shit about that, but I wrote a song about Jerry Garcia dying and called it 'August 8,' but he fucking died on the ninth. I got it wrong."
Despite their differences, Fat Mike says that he is proud to have worked with the band. "I'm sad they left the label but I've always been super proud to put their records out," he says. "It was always an honour. There isn't really bad blood. Chris emailed me the other day about Tony Sly [of No Use for a Name dying]. It was good to hear from him. Whatever differences we had, they're petty."
Hannah says that he does recognize what Mike did for the band. "I should say explicitly I appreciate the fact that Mike helped us at all," he says. Hannah and David "The Beaver" Guillas (Giant Sons and Rough Music) start talking about starting an AC/DC cover band and a project with original music; neither come to be. Because Potemkin's songs featured more than one track of guitars playing different things, the touring cycle for the album is particularly hard on the band, who can't recreate the sounds live. "We started making songs more where there were going to be two guitars, then to take them away live becomes pretty difficult," says Kowalski. "Then to imagine you go on tour and you know that all these things are going to be missing, I found that tough, actually. That tour was maybe for me the least fun of all our tours." Hannah just wishes that there could have been a second guitarist on the album. "That would be my for sure favourite record if Beave [guitarist Dave "Beave" Guillas, who will join the band next year] had been there, because the songs were so close to being an ideal moment for me, the way I like music, but they were missing what I know now a guy like Beave can add, a little more depth and dimension and a little more mood." Hannah had talked to the guys in the band before about adding a second guitarist but is now at a breaking point. "That's when I was like, 'We can't do this like this,'" he says. "I think we thought we were done."
New life is brought in and morale is boosted: Guillas joins as second guitarist after the band approach him with the invite. "Joining was indescribable," says Guillas, who had been a fan of the band since their first album. "It still is; I still can't believe I'm in the band." "He's just a good guy, he fit in with us, he's from a small town too, Gladstone, Manitoba, so he knows the mentality, no ambition to be something bizarre, he wasn't bouncing around on stage doing giant kicks and stuff," says Hannah. "Too bad he wasn't one record earlier." After a hiatus from touring while the band adjusts to having a second guitarist, they hit the road again in the fall for more touring for Potemkin, now as a four-piece. The band wins the first ECHO Songwriting Prize for Potemkin's "A Speculative Fiction"; they donate the prize money to the Canada-Haiti Action Network and the Welcome Place, a refugee support agency in Winnipeg.
The band release the DVD/CD of the filmed 2003 concert, Live from Occupied Territory, on G7. Hannah is voted one of the worst Canadians in history in a journal published by Canada's National History Society. He places above Stephen Harper and Paul Bernardo but comes in second to Pierre Trudeau. Hannah demands a recount. (There was apparently a targeted campaign aimed at Hannah during the online vote.) The Weakerthans release their fourth album, Reunion Tour.
Propagandhi head back overseas, playing Scandinavia, Belgium, and Germany. The band play Japan for the first time in a decade, with Comeback Kid in tow. They also play a show at the Royal Albert, where they got their start, as a benefit for the Tyendinaga defendants, as well as a Sea Shepherd fundraiser in Toronto. The band hunker down at the legendary Blasting Room recording studio in Ft. Collins, Colorado to record their next album. During the sessions, the band are living in the studio.
Samolesky is plagued by nightmares of the worst kind. "I remember having nightmares about Todd Kowalski fucking having to fart on my face, and I remember waking up yelling and Todd asking me, 'Are you okay?' That was about the third week."
No formal announcement is made, but G7 fades away and, more or less, ceases operation. "I don't really know what happened," says Hannah. "We kinda soured on it. People moved on. We had to get rid of some people, some people weren't working out, some people don't know how to work in that work space." Hogue starts doing more design work, and when he moves to Halifax, it's pretty much the end of the label, which was starting to get in the way of Hannah's focus on the band. "For me, it was just torn between the band and doing label stuff; it wasn't helping either one, really," says Hannah. "I don't really miss it, to be honest," says Hogue. "If we did, we wouldn't have pulled the plug. We had our time to make an impact, and when the friction of dealing with the mores of the industry overcame our tolerance, we knew it was time."
Supporting Caste is simpler and more positive than Potemkin, definitely a return to a more upbeat and concise sound, but with a unique edge thanks to the addition of Guillas. It features some immediate Propagandhi staples such as "Dear Coach's Corner" and the title track, and also what is probably Hannah's most personal song yet, "Without Love." The album is released on Winnipeg's Smallman Records; it will be the band's only album for the label. "We were genuinely very excited about dealing with it through Smallman," says Samolesky, "a couple guys that we knew here in Winnipeg. They're down the street, it'd be a good organic home-grown relationship, fully trustworthy. I have to say with Fat Wreck Chords, they were 100 percent above board more or less pretty clear with all the money stuff; it was all very very professional on that level."
The album is the band's first as a four-piece, and it results in a more textured, layered album, guitar-wise. The album's production is more polished and less hard-hitting than Potemkin. "I think the recording process, it's a less perky natural sounding record, it's got this plastic sheen to it," says Hannah. The writing sessions leading up to the album are a challenge for Guillas, who is trying to find his feet in the band. "It was tough," he says. "I was working doing landscaping, so I'd be working 9 to 5 out in the heat, being exhausted by the end of the day, then had to be in the basement for another three hours writing. It was very difficult and I feel like I maybe didn't devote as much effort as I would have liked. In the end, I'm very very happy with how it turned out, but it was definitely a challenge managing working with being in a working band at the same time. It was taxing but so gratifying to be part of the creative process."
Kowalski injures his throat again during the recording process, resulting in one of his songs not being finished; it will end up as a bonus track on 2012's Failed States. The band hit the road for Supporting Caste and do some of their most extensive touring ever. Kowalski loves having the band as a four-piece. "If Chris is on the mic and Jord is on the drums it left me feeling like I'm one lone guy mentally, the one guy not anchored to something," he says. "I remember after a while I'd start to actually feel self-conscious a little bit. I don't know why." Hannah's son, Francis-Riel Voyager, is born. Samson continues his post-Propagandhi output with City Route 85, a three-song EP.
The band are riding a wave of renewed energy when the bad news hits: Smallman is closing its doors. "Smallman brokered deals to have Supporting Caste released on different labels around the world; they were going to manage us, everything seemed really good," says Samolesky. "We were riding a really good wave, they decided to really promote things properly after the Potemkin situation allowed things to fizzle. We really gave it as best a go as we can at this point in our lives. I was really excited about it, only to have the wind taken out of our sails with Smallman folding, which was just another indication of the whole music industry imploding." The band understand why the label folds but still feels the sting. "I remember being really... not disappointed or upset or surprised by that whole thing but it just felt like, 'Shit, now what can we do?'" says Samolesky. "Things were looking really good for about a year and a half, and now it's just, holy shit. And not finding anyone at fault for the decisions or anything like that, it's just the way things were going."
The band struggle to deal with the changing times of the music industry. "Now it's been apparent for a number of years that you have to go out on the road if you want to try to make even a part-time living on music, and you have to be really willing to commit to that, and we've never been a band to really go overboard touring, so I don't think it'll ever get to that point," says Samolesky. "But it's been really hard, now we're without management, we're dividing up tasks ourselves and going through that. It's really difficult, I'm not going to say it's easy. It adds another dimension to it. We're not really paid for it, but at least we're not paying somebody else to do it, so we're saving money. But we need it, we've got to do those extra things to keep this unit alive for a while."
The band release the Recovered EP as a digital-only release on the otherwise mainly defunct G7, benefiting Partner in Health, who help the poor with health care options; it features unreleased, remixed material from the recording sessions from their first two albums. They also release a split seven-inch with Sacrifice on Winnipeg's War on Music Records; Propagandhi contribute a Corrosion of Conformity cover tune (Sacrifice do a Rush song). "I've always been a huge Propagandhi fan," says Sacrifice guitarist Joe Rico, "so when the idea of the split came up I was going to do it no matter what. They are more of a punk band, but they have an intensity that you can't get much in punk these days. They are an intense band, period. They are one of the greatest bands in the world." For Hannah, the record is a dream come true. "When we did the seven-inch I was kinda worried about it, because I thought there was nothing that was going to make me more happy than that," he says. Samson releases another EP, Provincial Road 222, and the Weakerthans release Live at the Burton Cummings Theatre.
Touring continues while the band struggle to figure out what label home will fit. While on tour, the skinheads return: in Australia, 16 Nazis try to get into a Propagandhi show in Melbourne. "But it's 16 guys against a room full of 500 people; they're not gonna stand a chance," says Hannah. "Plus, all they want to do is throw a bottle at you." It ends anticlimactically, proving the skinhead turmoil is a thing of the past.
Samson releases Provincial, a solo album that collects his last two solo EPs with additional material. Propagandhi release their sixth album, Failed States. It is their first for Epitaph Records, a fact not lost on Fat Wreck Chord's Fat Mike. "I advanced them $50,000 to start G7," says Fat Mike. "I helped them start their own label and was very supportive of them doing their own label, and they stopped doing their own label. Now they're on Epitaph. I don't really see how Fat Wreck Chords went wrong, or how we wronged them."
The band decide on the label after hearing nothing but good things from people they know who have worked with Epitaph. "Converge were like, 'It's fucking awesome, they leave us alone.' They leave you alone? Awesome," says Hannah.
Failed States finds the band progressing yet again, with tons of frantic, crossover/thrash metal riffing, songs that take a sombre personal approach, and an overall vibe that really can't be pinned down. "Instead of being like, 'Oh yeah, it sounds like Supporting Caste,' it's its own record for sure," says Hannah. "It's not the same as Supporting Caste where you can hang your hat on it, and be like, 'Yeah, this is what it is.' Sonically, it sounds a lot different. It doesn't deliver the goods as predictably, but for everybody in the band it delivers them in a much more satisfying heavy way."
Failed States finds Guillas coming into his own in the band. "The other guys had been playing together for so long and I joined in… maybe I felt a bit more comfortable as an equal member in the band [on this album], and less timid to bring in ideas and less afraid for my ideas to be not used, necessarily."
Kowalski says that the band approached the new album, which they recorded in Winnipeg, with a much more relaxed vibe, which worked wonders for him. "I'm not really that specific or rigid with art or music," he says. "I do that if that's the situation, you know? But I've realized that for me and the way that my mind works, I'm way better if it's just lively and we're going for it. Instead of worrying about doing something so right, I'm just feeling the vibe and going for it, I'll be way better for sure."
Recording it in their own town helps the whole process a great deal. "Being able to do it in Winnipeg for me was a fucking huge bonus," says Samolesky, "after going through nightmare-inducing experiences with sharing a room with Kowalski for three and a half weeks to be able to sleep in my own bed at night and walk 15 minutes to the studio, even though it was fucking freezing like shit out here. It felt good; the guy we recorded with was great. It felt proper at this point."
The new album marks an interesting little footnote in the band's history, as Samson, who hasn't been listening to the band's albums since his departure, admits to being very interested in the songs he's heard so far. "I've listened to both singles off of this record and I'm pretty transfixed by them, actually, I think they're pretty amazing," he says. "And maybe that's just me: it's taken me this long to be able to listen to them again. Maybe this is the record where I start listening again and then I'll go back. But part of me always was afraid that if I listened to their records it would be so much better than what I was doing. It's stupid, it's just one of those things, there was something psychological about it. I've never seen them play either. Which I think I'd like to do someday, but to me that was too weird. But they're a remarkable band."
Things are going well on the live setting for the band; they survived the boom and bust of pop-punk by not buying into big festival tours and over-hyped concerts. "For us, it's kind of good that we didn't ever do any of that stuff," says Hannah. "A lot of those bands, you can tell they feel like their time has passed and they're phoning it in. Psychologically, for us it's like, people are still coming, cool, there's still some young people here, it's not just 45-year-old guys with faded tattoos still wearing clothes that look like they're shopping at a skate shop." So the band get set to hit the road, enjoying their skinhead-free shows. "I'm glad I wasn't a part of that, to be totally honest," chuckles Guillas. But as far as the crowd-baiting and relentless antagonizing of years past goes, Hannah has learned to live with the legacy. "Whatever, we did what we did," he says. "Part of it's entertaining and part of it's just fucking human frailty. Young and stupid. I have a million regrets, but I'm in a pretty content place and if we did anything differently maybe the band wouldn't exist or I wouldn't be in a band with Jord, Todd, and Beave, or I wouldn't be with my son now. It all led to here."
The Essential Propagandhi
Less Talk, More Rock (Fat Wreck, 1996)
Musically, it's melodic pop-punk but it's deceptive: there are vicious hardcore undertones hiding away on this classic. Except on Samson's two songs, which break up the fast-faster tempos of the rest of the album perfectly. This one caps off the band's early pop-punk era by going totally over the top with the lyrics and the liner notes, delivering a huge middle finger to the scene they found themselves in.
Potemkin City Limits (G7 / Fat Wreck, 2005)
An underrated masterwork of emotional frailty, molten metal riffing, and the sound of a band dealing with intense alienation from the scene they'd been unfairly lumped in with. The first three songs alone are game-changers; by the time album closer "Iteration" rips you a new one ― poetically, to boot ― you'll be forgiven for not even understanding what genre of music this is.
Failed States (Epitaph, 2012)
Very, very rarely has a hardcore band sounded this bold and energized on their sixth full-length. Never on their sixth album has a hardcore band taken this many chances and come out victorious on every single one. "Rattan Cane" finds the band dabbling in sludge metal, while "Unscripted Moment" is Hannah's most naked moment as a songwriter yet.