In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Few bands are more openly weary of their older songs and records than Propagandhi, and for good reason. Their last three albums have redefined the band's sound and approach to songwriting in ways that leave its Fat Wreck Chords days in the hazy distance. The band is amiable—they still play a handful of older songs at shows, because people still want to hear them—but when you've been a band for more than a quarter century (!!), delving into the relics of your catalog can't be the most appealing way to go about making music.
The band's six albums cover a lot of musical ground, from the skate punk of How To Clean Everything to the brooding, at times brutal Failed States, their most recent album and their first on Epitaph Records. Six albums over 25-plus years isn't much—another band would have put out twice as many records in that time—and there's considerable distance between each album, both in terms of time and sonic style. It's little surprise the band prefers its most recent material. It's where Propagandhi is as a band today.
Noisey asked guitarist and singer Chris Hannah to rank the band's records. and explain why its new stuff is indeed its best.
6. How To Clean Everything (1994)
How To Clean Everything. Why is it your least favorite album?
Because it is so dumb. It's just so dumb. We were teenagers when we wrote those songs. I challenge anybody who is 45 to go back and dig out a book of poetry from high school to show it to the world—no, sing it to the world, when you've never sung before. I mean, I get why people like it. It's a goofy, skippy, cartoonish, laughable, Blink-182-ish kind of record. But it's just so… if I didn't sing on it, or had known what to do in front of a mic before that, instead of putting on this weird, bizarre inflection in my voice. I didn't know what to do, which is fucking mortifying.
Yeah, it's a totally different vocal quality.
It's a kid who hasn't sung in front of a mic before, approximating some band. I think I was trying to sound like the guy from Guilt Parade, mixed with maybe even Fat Mike. It's a disaster.
How do you reconcile it being your least favorite album artistically and musically, but it also being the entry point for your band for a significant number of fans? I mean, I'm not sure the shows would be as full if not for that record. How do you come to peace with those two things?
I guess I am at peace. I don't want to hear the record, but I see the practical value it has for our band still to this day. And I don't totally regret even the things we were saying. We were taking some stances that I don't think teenagers should necessarily attempt to take at that point in their lives, on the record that is going to be your biggest-selling record of all time. But we didn't get everything wrong, so I'm happy about that. There are some things that are wrong, but not everything. And I guess I'm glad people enjoy it.
We've come to this point with the band now where people who only like that stuff, they don't really come to the shows anymore. We've filtered them out over the past ten or 14 years. We've actually reached a point now that when we play old stuff, in some places, that's when the crowd seems kind of unfamiliar with what's happening. We've reached a latter-half kind of crowd that are more interested in the past three records, or especially the past two.
But then… where the fuck were we? Maybe it was Florida. We were totally taken aback. It was a total How To Clean Everything crowd, and we hadn't seen that in such a long time. All you can do is deal with in good humor and play a couple of tracks from that record. And we still do, we still play songs from it just for fun.
Let's say you skipped the record altogether. It never came out, and your first album was Less Talk. Do you think you have the same career? The same trajectory?
Less Talk wouldn't have come out, because Mike wouldn't have been interested. We were actually in the studio making How To Clean Everything, after we did some band tracks I started some vocals and he came in with a contract for us to sign to make a second record. And we said OK. He was obviously hearing something that he was excited about. He wouldn't have put out Less Talk. He wouldn't have been interested in that record.
So we'd be the same band we are now, except we'd just be playing around Winnipeg. And we probably wouldn't have any records out.
5. Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes (2000)
Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes was the first album with Todd [Kowalski], and the album that started to sound like what the band sounds like now. But you have it pretty far down on your list. How do you feel about the album now?
I think it has some great songs, some of our best, and some of our worst, or some of our most unnecessary. We as a band were just backseat drivers through the whole recording, mixing, and mastering part where we sonically ruined our own record. I just find it sonically not very listenable.
I have the master tapes and I go listen to those sometimes. I wish we could remix it, but nobody ever wants to hear a remixed 20-year-old record. We just didn't understand anything about recording, mixing and mastering, but we still felt like we were entitled to tell these experienced people how to do their jobs. I mean, listen to the guitar tone on it. It's just awful, and that was the second pass at recording those guitars. I actually had a second chance to do all the guitars and I fucked it up again. It's unbelievable.
So there are just a lot of haunting sonic qualities to that record. Which is too bad, because I would have ranked it higher, song-wise, than Less Talk otherwise.
4. Less Talk, More Rock (1996)
Less Talk, More Rock was the last record of that first incarnation of the band, with John Samson on bass. The album was also maybe an escalation from the first album politically, with some very frank songs about veganism and terrorism. What was the reaction to that album at the time, both internally and externally?
The reaction was pretty bad. Maybe it was not as bad of a reaction as… well, actually, every record after How To Clean Everything had a bad reaction when it first came out. Less Talk particularly. Maybe because it said "gay-positive" on the front, or because it wasn't particularly funny, skippy skate-rock.
That was probably one of our most conscious decisions we ever made. After How To Clean came out and we saw that people were actually listening, which was a total shock to us, we said, well fuck, let's get serious here. And we made a typically early-20s, serious, bordering-on-cartoonish record that I actually quite like.
It seems like you still play quite a few songs from that record at your shows.
Yeah, look: I think it's a good record. I like the way it's recorded. That was prior to ProTools, so we were just in a room, set up some mics, recorded the tape without any editing or bizarreness. I guess I just really like that vibe to start with. And I thought the songs were… I mean, it was the end of where we were going to go with John, but it was a good way to go out. It was sort of like Propagandhi meets The Weakerthans. It worked for that one record, and I don't think it would have worked again. But I really like the way it turned out.
Again, there's some embarrassing, cringeworthy shit on there, as there is with everything you ever do—two months later, you cringe when you hear it. But overall, I don't disagree with the essence of what the record says. I still stand by most of it. I just wouldn't say it anywhere near the same way. But yeah, it was just the zenith of where me, Jord, and John could have gone with what we were doing at the time.
3. Potemkin City Limits (2005)
It strikes me that Potemkin City Limits was the band's first opportunity to respond to 9/11, to the "war on terror," the Iraq war, and so on. Was it cathartic to write those songs?
I don't know. I thought it was over. I thought we were done. And the way the record was received really emphasized that for me. The record was a fucking flop. And to this day. It's only now starting to get any attention from people.
Hearing it now… I don't have too many regrets, but I do regret not asking Beave [David "Beaver" Guillas] a couple of years earlier to play in the band, because that really would have put it over the top. To me, I always think of Rush's Grace Under Pressure or Signals. Those were a couple of records that came after their really big hits where people thought it was a step down, but when you actually sit with them, they are by far their most interesting records. That's how I felt about [Potemkin], but everybody hated it. "What happened to this fucking band, this is terrible!" And I was just sitting there like, "Fuck, I guess we just do not belong in this music scene." And it seemed we had very few options for what we could do, because nobody wanted to buy the record. And the record label had obviously lost some interest in what we were doing at the time. But Beave kickstarted us again.
2. Supporting Caste (2009)
Supporting Caste was your first album as a four-piece. How did that change your songwriting process, your recording process—everything that went into the album?
It made it way more exciting, way more fun. Beave is a riff master. He has all these fucking riffs, thousands of them. Maybe like 90 percent we don't really have a use for, because they're so outlandish. But just having another songwriter and arranger in the band is really useful in terms of how much content we can sift through to make songs.
I'm really one-dimensional on guitar, and every time I would play something, he would play some counterpoint thing that would add more ambiance and atmosphere to the song. Which sounds ridiculous in the context of Propagandhi, because we're sort of a straight-ahead punk band, but he adds dimension and depth to our songs. I wish he had been on the previous record, Potemkin City Limits. I think that would have been a game-changer to have him on that one. That record would have been a lot different.
But on Supporting Caste, it created a lot more opportunities, and directions for songs to go in. We were still pretty new and feeling each other out and figuring out how it was going to work. He was new to a studio environment like that and didn't really enjoy that recording process so much, because he felt like he was under so much pressure. We were making it at the Blasting Room, and they are the master of churning out records in a limited amount of time. And they make records that are, sonically, pretty in your face. So it really worked well for that record.
There's a kind of rising technicality as you go through your catalogue, especially on the last two albums. Is that something you're aware of? And happy with?
We're not super conscious of it. But we push ourselves, especially Todd, our bass player in the band. I think he really pushes us to make songs that would otherwise be fairly standard, to come at them with a little more effort so they don't sound like standard fucking, you know, songs from the genre that we're supposed to belong to or whatever.
Again, Beave, he plays… he just plays strangely. He doesn't play the typical kind of, you know, all these fucking guys in all these fucking 90s punk bands. They all have the same fucking style with all that octave. You know what I'm talking about. It's just good to have people in the band who absolutely despise all that shit. Because I'm probably the guy in the band who despises it the least, and I despise it. But I'm the laziest guy in the band. If a song sounds like an approximation of something you'd hear on a record, I'm almost satisfied. It's good to have people who push it farther.
In reality, I'm a much bigger fan of bands like Rush than of all that melodic punk shit that's been churned out over the years. I guess that's what we're aiming for without being too ridiculous, because those guys can play a million times better than we'll ever be able to play. It's just more interesting. We're not trying to be technical or trying to be a metal band or anything dumb like that.
1. Failed States (2012)
Failed States seems heavier and maybe darker than your previous records. Why is at the top of your list? How do you think the album comes across, musically and lyrically?
Generally, if someone making music doesn't think their most recent songs are their best, then they have to quit. You have to keep moving forward. You have to keep trying to outdo what you've done. What you're saying about the record, I share that same feeling. Sonically, it's a darker-sounding record. It's not jumping off of your speakers like a modern, hyper-compressed record does. We weren't going for that. We were just trying to be a band in a room and have the sound be very natural.
So we succeeded. But even as we were mastering it, I thought it's possible that people who were used to hearing modern "punk" records. I still think it's fun to have a different approach with each record, instead of just churning out the same record sonically you did last time. But Failed States is really the first time the four of us made a record where we found our groove as a four-piece. Supporting Caste was made as a four-piece, but Beave was new to making a record with us and writing songs with us. Supporting Caste is a strong record, but it has almost a potpourri, pastiche feel to it. There's not necessarily a thread to the whole thing, where with Failed States, I feel like it captured our depressed mental state as a collection of depressed, mentally unstable people at the time. So I like that people have that reaction to it—that it's a muted, depressing record.
Ron Knox is on Twitter - @ronmknoxdc