On 'Victory Lap,' Propagandhi Go from Political Punk Pioneers to Participants
The band that once set the tone for the conversation is now content to just be observers.
Foto: Greg Gallinger
For a certain subset of punk fans, Propagandhi was the spark that ignited a political awakening. While many punk and hardcore bands had politics implanted in them, in the corner of the scene that Propagandhi found themselves, that wasn't necessarily the case. Putting out an album with phrases like "gay-positive," "pro-feminist," "animal-friendly," and "anti-fascist" printed boldly on the cover art wouldn't have been noteworthy if Propagandhi was on Ebullition Records or ran with the Maximum Rocknroll crowd, but they were on Fat Wreck Chords and were part of the skate-punk scene that was in vogue in the mid-90s. At the time, the act of simply stating their progressive beliefs on the cover of their album drew a line in the sand with the audience they'd fostered. But as the band has previously said, the release of 1996's Less Talk, More Rock was a deliberate action, one meant to alienate the bro-sympathizers in the skate-punk world while courting the open-minded, progressive fan base they had always wanted.
"I think everybody who liked Pennywise got off the wagon really early," says Chris Hannah, the band's vocalist-guitarist. But for those who did latch on to Less Talk, More Rock, they'd be gifted more than just a punk record, they'd be given a beginner's guide to activism. With lengthy writings on social justice, feminism, homophobia, and capitalism, and with a laundry list of periodicals, authors, poets, bands, and activist organizations called out in the liner notes, Less Talk, More Rock gave kids attending the Warped Tour a bit more to chew on. This kind of pamphleteering would, in essence, become Propagandhi's calling card. And they'd be met with harshly opposing reactions to such vocal advocacy. "The 90s were something else. We used to get death threats," says Hannah, acknowledging that their opponents have stopped showing up with such violent threats. "The people who wanted to come and kill us, they don't bother anymore," he says.
But the scene that Propagandhi was ostracized from ended up becoming active whether the band knew it or not. By the mid-2000s, the band had undergone lineup changes and left Fat behind, just as bands like Green Day and NOFX would begin retooling their lyrics to oppose then-president George W. Bush. And this shift to socially conscious pop punk wouldn't just be welcomed, it'd be outright embraced. Green Day's American Idiot would top the Billboard charts, giving the band a shot in the arm after years of declining commercial success, and NOFX's The War on Errorism would go to number one on Billboard's Independent Album chart.
Not only that, an entirely new crop of bands raised on Less Talk, More Rock would emerge. Rise Against would fill the liner notes of 2003's Revolutions Per Minute with a suggested reading list that was a deliberate callback to Propagandhi. And a year later, they'd soften their melodic hardcore sound all the more, becoming a radio-friendly hard rock band with twinges of dissent found in the lyric sheet. Similarly, NOFX's Fat Mike would convince everyone from the Foo Fighters to No Doubt to contribute to his Rock Against Bush compilations. And hell, even Pennywise was getting in on this action with records like Land Of The Free?
In the present day, artists from all walks of life are vocal about their political beliefs, be it in their art or on their Twitter feeds. But where Less Talk, More Rock was a resonant time capsule, as Propagandhi prepares to release its seventh album, Victory Lap, they aren't afforded the same luxury. In the age of Twitter, dialogues move quicker than ever, as it's become a platform that both pushes us ever closer to nuclear war and allows dissenting voices to be amplified. In 1996, Propagandhi could release a song taking aim at Shell's politics and have it come across like a revelation. But now, everyone is already up to speed, the minute it happens. And Propagandhi is taking part in the conversation, too. " gives us license to feel like we don't have to write a song about a trade agreement," says Hannah. "We can, up to the minute, chime in with some stupid, sarcastic remark and then it's done. I just filed that grievance away, now let's write a song about headbanging."
And while Victory Lap doesn't have many songs about the joys of riffing, it instead catches the band in a transitional moment. As they grapple with the issues of the day, Hannah understands that instead of shouting at government organizations, it's his job to force introspection in the listeners that think listening to Propagandhi is the end of their duty as an activist. "I think our effectiveness is probably more as a conduit between movements that we may not, personally, as these white, middle-aged Canadians, have personal experience with, but we want to be a conduit for these voices—say the Black Lives Matter movement, or the Indigenous Resurgence movement that is resisting settler colonial states in the US and Canada," says Hannah. "I find those movements to be the most inspirational, hopeful things that are going on in North America."
In songs like "Comply/Resist," Hannah speaks directly to the white liberals who identify as allies but often ignore—or shout over—the voices of those directly involved. "I found this article Christopher Hitchens wrote from the early 90s and I extrapolate what he's saying in a manner," says Hannah, "It's this esteemed white academic who, in the past, I'd been interested in his work, but it's using something he said to talk about an observation and suspicion I have about what white society—living in a de facto white supremacy—really wants from people of color." The song serves as a belated critique of Hitchens' article while also allowing Hannah to use a bit of satire to address his opponents. It's what allows him to adopt the language and ethos of the other side while poking holes in those arguments.
"Essentially, the song is making references—thinly veiled or direct references—to the Indigenous Resurgence movement, how it's viewed by people who think they're liberal or moderate—white people—and, say, the Black Lives Matter movement. But I'm writing it from the perspective of the white person basically slowly revealing to themselves, and to the world, their racism, the essence of white, liberal racism," says Hannah.
It's here that he strikes the balance that defines Victory Lap. At once, Hannah is advocating for a cause while holding himself accountable. He's still pointing a finger, but he knows that it's just as important for the critiques to come back at him. "I'm trying not to appropriate people's stories for our own purposes," says Hannah, "I'm just making an observation about my own people. I don't know if I succeed, but that's what I'm trying to do."
That concept of appropriation is one that Hannah is acutely aware of, quick to mention that his perspective is still that of a middle-aged white guy. "I think back in the Less Talk era, it was more like, 'Give me the fuckin' bullhorn and let me talk about me.' But I've modified that position somewhat," says Hannah. "People say they're tired of hearing white, male voices, and so am I. I'm fuckin' tired of hearing my fuckin' self." And as a result, he's willing to take a back seat if that's what's necessary. A song like "Cop Just Out Of Frame" sees Hannah asking himself what he really knows of sacrifice and struggle, bartering with what it means to sing songs of resistance when other people are the recipients of such violence. This dichotomy is something the band has long grappled with, and on Victory Lap it's never been more pronounced. "I wonder if we have evolved our dialogue," says Hannah, "I hope we have."
"I think back in the Less Talk era, it was more like, 'Give me the fuckin' bullhorn and let me talk about me. But I've modified that position somewhat. People say they're tired of hearing white, male voices, and so am I. I'm fuckin' tired of hearing my fuckin' self."
When Hannah contextualizes the work that went into Victory Lap, he sees it as a logical progression that's been in the works since the early 90s. "There's no such thing as a different song. I kind of think that about the entire body of work of Propagandhi. There's only one song there, it's just chopped up into chapters," he says. And when Victory Lap is released, it will usher in a new era for the band. With all that's shifted over the past two decades, it'd be nigh impossible for the band to drop another eye-opening album onto an unsuspecting punk scene, as the band's once radical ideas are now accepted norms within that world. It's no longer Propagandhi's job to be the punk scene's moral conscience—for once, they just get to be a part of it.
David Anthony is on Twitter.