“We Live in a Bullshit Society”

Propagandhi’s Chris Hannah on Failed States and Failing States

  • Photo by Mandy Malazdrewich

There’s a moment about 15 minutes into my phone call with Chris Hannah, the guitarist and leader singer of Canadian punk/thrash stalwarts Propagandhi, when I stumble. 

“How much longer do you guys see yourselves doing this?” I ask him. “Because this is already, like… twenty… twenty-six years?” I say, trying to pinpoint the figure I’d come up with a few days ago, while preparing for the interview. “Am I overshooting the mark?”

As quick as I can, I do the mental math. Is that even possible? Twenty-twelve, and ‘86, that’s 14, plus…

“No, no, that’s right,” he confirms. “Twenty-six.” 

It’s not until a few seconds later that I realize this makes the band itself older than me. 

If Propagandhi—and its members—are getting a little long in the tooth, they can be forgiven. These geezers can still bring it.

Their most recent record, Failed States, released Sept. 4 by Epitaph Records, is as brutal and punishingly thrashy as any of their material so far, fitting in snugly next to their other late-period release, 2009’s Supporting Caste. 

The blazing speed of their riffs aside, one of the secrets of their longevity has to be the slow pace with which they move. Over the first 25 years of their career, the band put out only five LPs of new material, a glacial release schedule in today’s climate, where the average band drops a new album every two years like clockwork. 

It also helps that the band has experienced a remarkable stability when it comes to its membership.

Since bassist John K. Samson left to form The Weakerthans in 1996, Propagandhi hasn’t lost a member; in 2006, they gained a second guitarist, Dave Guillas, but those are their only two lineup changes since How to
Clean Everything, their 1993 full-length debut on seminal California punk label Fat Wreck Chords. 

Still, they had their share of scares this year.

Drummer and founding member Jord Samolesky was hit by a car in early September (he walked away, but his bike was totaled), and in Februrary, after years of bringing the ruckus onstage and, as Hannah puts it, “all these injuries from jiu jitsu,” bass player Todd Kowalski aggravated a back injury that left him in need of medical attention he couldn’t get in Canada.

After a trip south of the border, he’s back on his feet now, with a stand that holds his bass for him. It might not be the ideal situation for the band, but it’s better than nothing—especially considering how glum things looked only a few years ago. 

After leaving Fat Wreck Chords for Winnipeg-based Smallman Records, Propagandhi thought they’d finally found a home for themselves—until Smallman folded. Only a few months after releasing Supporting Caste, their fifth LP, they were out in the cold. 

“It was devastating,” says Hannah. “We were in a position of like, ‘What do we do? Do we make lo-fi demos of our music and sell them on the net and become janitors right away? Try to maintain a little of what we’ve built over the years for one more swing, at least, and seek out some professional help?’”

 Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. After, as Hannah puts it, “insider information” from some friends on the label, the band settled down at Epitaph Records. The label, along with Fat Wreck Chords, made up the two-headed ‘90s punk label dragon that brought the world bands like Bad Religion, NOFX and Rancid. 

The result is a surprisingly quick turnaround, at least by Propagandhi standards.

“After the last batch of touring from Supporting Caste, we came home and were like, ‘Let’s get down to it. Let’s not fuck around this time and kinda meander our way through practices. Let’s just get into the practice space and start making the tunes we have all these ideas for,’” says Hannah.

“And we managed to pull that off, despite a whole bunch of challenges that we had in the past few years.”

He lists them off. Kowalski’s injuries “were making it very difficult for us to consider playing live shows. It was hard for him to practice; he couldn’t hold his bass.”

There’s more.

“All on top of that, we were getting kicked out of practice spaces, and I had a kid and Jord’s working a fucking job he hates. Just everybody trying to juggle everything to make it happen. I’m kind of surprised it did happen so smoothly in the end.”

Hannah’s son, who recently turned three, turns up on one of the songs on Failed States, “Unscripted Moment,” being lulled to sleep by his mother.
“Upstairs I hear a voice,” Hannah sings. “She’s softly singing/To him and I come undone.”

It’s the kind of fragility you wouldn’t find on Propagandhi’s earlier punk classics, which explored the full emotional spectrum between snotty righteousness, sardonic mocking and inchoate rage. In fact, much of Failed States finds the band exploring personal or societal issues, rather than more explicit political references.

The songs tackle and mock
a host of issues: our society’s consumerism, its car-centricness, social networking, space tourism, prostitution and the mainstream media. Nowhere is there mention of Barack Obama, Wikileaks, the Keystone XL

“We live in—as The Crumbsuckers said back in the ‘80s—we live a bullshit society. We don’t see it. It’s so crazy what we allow to transpire. We think we’re just part of it and we have to follow along with it.”
-Propagandhi Guitarist &Lead Singer Chris Hannah

pipeline or drone killings.

It’s not for a lack of frustration, though, according to Hannah.

“Maybe [the songs are] less direct or specific on particular topics, but honestly I feel more outraged now than I even did then,” he says. “In the prospects for the future and the behaviour of the prevailing order. In the States, everybody voted for change. And what did we get? More of the same.

“It’s a chronic problem that people see it that way,” he continues, going after the American two-party system.

“You know, if you look at the Romney/Ryan ticket, it’s as fucking dismal and horrifying as the McCain/Palin ticket, and you’d like to think that there’s a difference [between the Democrats and the Republicans], but the difference isn’t substantial enough to silence a third option, or a fourth or a fifth option.”

He reaches back to the 2004 American election, when many blamed Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush on the presence of a third option, Ralph Nader’s Green Party, eating into the Democrats’ voter base.

“And to throw people like Ralph Nader under the bus, you know, a true American hero under the bus, just because you wanna elect some fuckin’ slightly less maniacal corporate suckling? And nothing’s changed.

Things are as shitty as ever, civil liberties have eroded more under Obama, and so when do you finally decide, ‘Let’s do something outside of these two options’? When is the right time?

“They always say, ‘It’s not the right time! It’s not the right time for something like—’ Well, when is the right time? There won’t be any more time, eventually.”

“Duplicate Keys Icaro (An Interim Report),” the final track on Failed States, brings up an unorthodox suggestion for a way forward. Propagandhi’s taken a stance against straight edge before, covering Sudden Impact’s anti-sXe anthem “Bent” early in their career, but this track has Hannah contemplating a drug without much history in the punk community: ayahuasca.

Hannah stays coy about whether he’s had any first-person experience with the Amazonian psychotropic tea, and the icaro, a healing song associated with it, but he advocates exploring.

“I think there’s something to be said about reconsidering our states of consciousness in general—I don’t mean just people on the far right; I mean everyone—and considering our quote-unquote neutrality in any very secular sense, because the way we see ourselves now within this technocracy we’ve been born into […] we are failing ourselves.

“We live in—as The Crumbsuckers said back in the ‘80s—we live a bullshit society. We don’t see it. It’s so crazy what we allow to transpire. We think we’re just part of it and we have to follow along with it, but if you were to look at the song as a literal encouragement for people to take mind-altering substances, I think people probably should, to see the ways things really are—or are not. To shake things up a bit.”

That’s not the only area where he thinks we could use some shaking. When I ask him about the effect of illegal downloading on the music industry, he gives off a hint of the blinded Samson trying to take the temple pillars down with him—if only to find out what might grow in the rubble.

“It is the way it is now. There’s no putting a stop to that,” he says.

“I understand artists’ frustration with feeling like they’re not getting anything back for what they put in, but on the other hand the industry has set up this whole problem for themselves through complete greed and arrogance […] and making money hand over fist at the expense of artists and foisting garbage on the consumer in return for their hard-earned dollars.

“So,” he admits, “I mildly enjoy watching the whole thing.”

He’s optimistic about the future, however.

“I don’t necessarily think there needs to be an industry around music and art. It’ll live and exist regardless of whether or not there’s major labels and funding bodies and rock ‘n’ roll venues.

“Like, if I go to [underground punk] shows now, […] the vibe there is the same vibe that Jord and I experienced back in the ‘80s when we first started going to punk shows. You know, it’s an exciting, engaging, wild feel, you know, like, borderline, ‘What’s gonna happen here?’”

He wraps up the interview with a typically Propagandhi answer—grim, frank and confrontational, but with a certain hope to it.

“I think all the good stuff is happening despite—and will continue despite—the death of the music industry.”

Propagandhi w/ Comeback Kid and Dig It Up! / Sept. 28 / La Tulipe (4530 Papineau Ave.) / 7:00 p.m.

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