Propagandhi: A Band With Values
They are thrasher, punk, and political. With almost 20 years on the music scene, Canadian punk rock band Propagandhi has made more than just a musical name for themselves. Propagandhi has come a long way politically and artistically since forming the band in the mid-1980s, when Chris Hanahh posted the ad: “progressive thrasher band looking for bassist” at a local record store. The members of the band— singer/guitarist Hanahh, bassist Todd Kowalski, and drummer Jord Samolesky decided to put the band at the service of social change, which has inspired their lyrics, benefit shows, and volunteer work in their hometown of Winnipeg, Ontario.
The band embarked on their first tour through Latin America in October. While in Buenos Aires, Propagandhi stayed at the BAUEN Hotel, which has been under worker control for the past four years in the heart of the city. Enthusiastic about staying at the 19 story hotel with no boss or owner, they asked all kinds of questions about how the cooperative is organized. Many of the questions were rooted in their own experience self- managing a band and record label, G7 Welcoming Committee. Long- time Parecon [Participatory Economics] advocates and Z readers, Hanahh and Kowalski sat down in the basement of the BAUEN Hotel, at video collective Grupo Alavío’s office, to talk about Propaghandi’s political growth and artistic future.
TRIGONA: What is Propagandhi?
HANAHH: The name is just something that we came up with when we were 16. Maybe it still has meaning, but it’s basically a name to us now. The band is value based.
KOWALSKI: I think in terms of what the band is—songs, lyrics, things that we support, benefits we play.
How do you produce music?
HANAHH: There’s not a specific set of job complexes for the band. It’s a pretty natural evolution of how things happen. We try our best to make everything collaborative. We try to get everybody’s input, when you do it like that the final product is better when everybody contributes. Luckily, it’s just naturally how it’s been, we haven’t had to force that process. I think that speaks to a natural tendency for how things can be. Things can be better when everybody contributes rather than one person tells everybody what to do and you end up with their product rather than everybody’s product.
What is the underlying philosophy of G7 Welcoming Committee records?
HANAHH: First and foremost, to deal with artists or musicians that we actually like and that we think are ignored by a music industry that is more profit-driven than value-driven. That’s a certain aspect. The other aspect has been the workplace structure, to always make sure that it doesn’t replicate what I think is an immature way to organize your workplace, which is to have a president or a boss. Then everyone else follows a chain of command where directions come from the top down. We’ve seen it with our former U.S. label, Fat Records, and other labels. There’s a king, then everyone does what they are told.
In my estimation, it’s ruined the projects that the label has been responsible for. Whereas G7—despite what’s happening with music where records aren’t selling and downloading is more popular—will survive because of our workplace structure. It’s more resilient in a lot of ways. Everybody—well there’s only two guys now—but even when we had five people working at it, people were there because they were interested in the values rather than turning a quick buck. That’s important to us.
How has being a band that owns its own label affected distribution?
HANAHH: Per capita we’ve done a better job than the top-down rich companies. The workplace structure is an internal, practical application of the idea. Outside of that we provide distributors with records on time. Outside of our workplace structure we are still slaves to the market.
What social and political movements have inspired Propagandhi’s work?
KOWALSKI: Most recently, Sisters in Spirit based in Winnipeg. We’ve played benefits for them. Sisters in Spirit works with aboriginal Canadian women. They try to find missing aboriginal women in Canada who’ve been murdered and cops aren’t doing enough to find them. Also, to bring awareness of the abuse of aboriginal women in Canada’s society. Also for me there’s a place called the Welcome Place, a center for recent refugees to Canada where I’ve spent a lot of time volunteering. Showing people around, getting library cards, showing them how to use the Y.
HANAHH: Really, over the past 15 or 20 years of involvement with organizations, things that make our ears perk up are groups that are doing something different than the existing institutions that are clearly failing everybody on almost every level. When we were kids our ears would perk up about anarchism or socialism, anything that seemed more about values than pure profit. That’s brought us to where we are today, still trying to find what is effective or efficient in people making that real.
Now that you’re in Latin America what have you found inspiring?
KOWALSKI: Some of the art we’re seeing in the street.
HANAHH: As far as human social institutions go, this [BAUEN Hotel] is probably pretty unique for what we’ve seen so far. The other thing that’s impressed me, not totally positively, especially in Central America, was how much people knew about, almost to a fault, North American culture. I expected to come down to Central America and get deluged with different sounds and people not knowing what’s going on in North America and showing us what’s going on with the bands here. It’s very Americanized. That really surprised me. It’s a one way street—North American culture to Latin America. It’s not healthy to have a one way street with culture exchange.
KOWALSKI: You come down here and you don’t want to rip people off. You also fear that if a tour goes reasonably well, you’re opening the door for dickweed bands that want to come and try to make money off of kids. So it can be a double-edged sword.
What is an artist’s role in social change?
HANAHH: I’m not ashamed of saying something on stage that is regarded as political or using the stage as a political platform. We usually say something at shows.
Personally, and we probably share this perspective, I have a responsibility as somebody born into this world and who sees the world in a certain way. And who sees the world in such a crazily wrong way [I have] to comment on it. Through the band it’s the least we can do to be responsible about…how can you walk through the world and see what you see, whether it’s on the news or on the street, and get together with a bunch of people and comment on it instead of pretending it’s not there.
KOWALSKI: I think that people react when people listen, they react to what they can relate to. Different crowds react to different segments of the lyrics. If you get this part, if you don’t, you don’t.
HANAHH: We don’t say things to try to be different from everybody. Our idea is that there’s a principle of mediocrity in effect. Most people can relate, for example, if I feel that it’s wrong for there to be a boss-employee relationship. If I feel that there’s something fundamentally wrong, that I’ve never personally enjoyed about that relationship in my entire working life, then my assumption is that the majority of people also share that experience of having a negative boss-employee relationship. I’m not a particularly unique person. So when you put those ideas out there and you start seeing that, yeah, everybody has had a similar experience. If you ask for a show of hands about something like that, all the hands go up. It’s just that most people don’t organize or else they feel like they can’t organize. Everybody feels isolated and that’s why nothing ever seems to change too much.
Do you think music can send a message better than other mediums?
HANAHH: It could, but it doesn’t because a lot of the bands—especially in the punk music scene—choose not to. They enjoy the social relationships that exist, they enjoy the gap between the rich and poor that they can leverage to their benefit. Despite what they say, I believe that most of the established punk bands in North America have no interest in making change. Music could be a powerful tool.
KOWALSKI: The thing about music is that it makes you feel something, or you can understand how someone else is feeling about something. You hear it and then you say, “Yeah.
HANAHH: DIY culture has definitely informed it from the very beginning. When Todd was in Eye Spy, his previous band, and Propagandhi and Eye Spy were growing along together, DIY was the ethic we were aiming for. To this day, every practical, every impractical aspect, we try to create in our own realm.
KOWALSKI: One time we had 5,000 CDs and we sat and cut pieces of cardboard for every CD trying to make cases.
HANAHH: DIY to the point of absurdity in some cases.
KOWALSKI: Then the ink rubs off the cardboard onto the CD and wrecks it.
HANAHH: But the logical extension of DIY is people cooperating instead of somebody imposing their ideas on everybody else.
What are the overall political goals?
KOWALSKI: One of our main goals as musicians is to make the ripping-est songs we can when we get home. Make good lyrics and good songs. I’d like more of what we are doing to have more impact on our website. Sometimes we’re inching along and disappearing in the shadows. It would be nice to stay up front with new ideas all the time and more stuff going on.
HANAHH: Times are changing for music and bands. Making songs that make us incredibly happy—you can’t lose because people will hear and say “Yeah, I can dig that.” And then that matters for the ideas and music too. You can have great ideas but if you have totally crappy music, people aren’t going to buy into it at all.
How have you grown artistically and politically?
KOWALSKI: Artistically, we’ve grown ridiculously. When I think about my own actual playing over the years, I can’t believe we faced a crowd in any form. I have videos of my old bands and clearly we’ve gotten better.
As veteran punk rockers what are you most proud of in your career?
KOWALSKI: It’s hard to say. Certain songs or parts of songs.
HANAHH: Maybe even just keeping it real for as long as we have. Watching a lot of our peers either selling out or just getting shittier and shittier. We never went for the perverbial brass ring. We’ve kept it real. It’s four friends who are literally in the basement making music each guy likes.
KOWALSKI: Sometimes you got to be proud that you know that the band you’re in is what you would have liked as a kid, but as a kid you wouldn’t have been able to imagine the music you’re making because the exact sounds and styles weren’t there when you were a kid. You took the music and you made it new.
HANAHH: On a more abstract level and a more cliché level, getting feedback from people, not even just young people, people in general. Them claiming that the band has had an impact on their lives in a way that reflects our values, that’s huge. Up against the entire system that teaches certain values, a band manages to turn a person to values that you think make way more sense. You could say that’s your life justification, even if it’s just anecdotal.
What’s the song that’s closest to you?
KOWALSKI: If I was to go with one that I made, “Bringer of Greater Things,” that I wrote the lyrics for. I grew up in Regina. It was so racist. My family was racist. To manage to turn it around in my life and realize, when I was 17-18, we’re all fucked. To see my mom latch on and say “Yeah, we are fucked” and my brother latch on and say “Yeah, we are fucked.” To write a song about it that isn’t lame and has some meaning for me and carries a weight that I can view in my head as a full picture. The song is about, in Saskatoon, the cops taking aboriginal people out of the city and making them walk home in 40 degree below weather. A few guys have died from that. You know it happens. I feel proud of having got something off my chest in a way that is artistically enjoyable for me.
What’s in store for the future ?
KOWALSKI: Going home to thrash as hard as we can.
HANAHH: Another record in whatever format that market forces allow. More playing, more rocking in the basement, keeping it real, connecting lyrics with the bands to what we do in our real lives. Trying to support people also doing things that are connected to the band’s professed values. A huge part of the band is supporting people actually doing the dirty work.
KOWALSKI: We’re trying to do the same work. There’s the band and trying to do that kind of work. All of it’s enjoyable. None of it seems like work. None of it is paid work either.
Marie Trigona is a writer, radio producer, and filmmaker.