Having formed over 25 years ago, influential Canadian punks Propagandhi need little introduction. The band have just released their sixth studio album and Epitaph Records debut, Failed States, which further raises the lyrical and musical bar set by 2009’s critically acclaimed Supporting Caste. Kill Your Stereo spoke with singer and guitarist Chris Hannah about the new record, signing with Epitaph and… Kurt Russell.
Failed States is your first release on Epitaph. How did that partnership come about?
Well, it started with the demise of our last label. Our last label was called Smallman Records and it was out of Winnipeg, and we thought we’d found the perfect home on a label here in our hometown, you know, with guys we knew. They put out the record and were doing a really great job, and pretty much fifteen minutes after the record came out, they told us they were going to stop being a label. So we had to start the search again for a label, and put the feelers out there, and got some responses from some really decent labels. But we didn’t really know anybody at these labels to give us firsthand accounts of how things worked, until we decided to ask a couple of the bands that are on Epitaph, like The Weakerthans and Converge, what their experience was like. Their reports were overwhelmingly positive, and our thought was those two bands in particular, The Weakerthans and Converge, although very different bands from each other and from us, there’s a thread that ties the bands together – maybe aesthetically, just the way the bands operate. And we thought that was a compelling consumer report from the bands themselves. And so far so good, they’ve lived up to the reputation.
From what I’ve seen and heard, Failed States is getting positive responses. Have you ever paid attention to that sort of thing when releasing a record?
Well, kinda. When you’re younger maybe, you pay more attention to that, but eventually you realise that none of it really matters. For us, it’s been more of a curiosity in earlier years. Now it’s not a curiosity, because all you’re going to do is make yourself feel good with these random anecdotal subjective opinions from people saying what you did is great, and then you’re going to feel bad when you come across one where someone says it sucks. So it doesn’t matter. All that matters for us is what the four guys in the practice space think of the material, and think of the record. If we think it’s good and it goes out there and everybody hates it, it’s still good, so I don’t put a lot of stock in that. I know there are things like quote unquote "tastemakers" out there that can make or break a band, but we’ve been around so long, it doesn’t fuckin’ matter. It’s all just silliness.
You’ve mentioned bands like Sacrifice, Razor and Rush as influences. Musically, Failed States is a little closer to that kind of sound. When you started out, is that more the style of music you wanted to end up playing?
I think when we started it was probably less Rush and more of the progressive thrash metal from the mid and late 80s that we were interested in. We were sort of interested, then and now, in stuff like Sacrifice, Kreator, Voivod, and seeing if we could mix it up with stuff like MDC, Dead Kennedys, DRI and that kind of stuff. And when we discovered the Bad Religion Suffer record in about 1988, I heard it and I thought, "Oh wow, this is cool, this is like Motorhead meets the Ramones." We had just started playing our instruments and I thought right then, "We could kind of approximate this. We could pull this off better than we could pull off us trying to be Kreator." For sure, that was the case then. And so the band kind of became as much a part of the melodic punk scene as it was part of the heavy metal scene or whatever back then. And I think just over the years as we’ve gotten better at our instruments, and better at arranging songs, we’ve been able to get a little closer to that original vision that we had when we were teenagers. We just didn’t know what it was. We couldn’t pull it off.
What was your approach to song writing on Failed States? Were there any issues you set out to write about?
We never really have a plan or any sort of agenda. Especially with this record, I think we just let things evolve on their own, more so than we have in the past. We went into the studio with songs that were relatively complete instrumentally, but maybe weren’t complete lyrically, and we almost didn’t know what some of the songs were about until we’d finished the record. So that was kind of an interesting way to approach it. We’ve tried to be a little less vested and kind of obsessed and meticulous with some of the lyrics and stuff this time around, and I think I kind of enjoyed that a bit more.
What is it that you like so much about Kurt Russell as Captain Ron that he warrants a lyric being written about him?
Have you seen the movie?
Okay, you’ve seen it, well then you know!
Oh yeah, I know, but other people might not know.
I don’t know what it is about that movie, it’s so funny. The scene where it’s at night and they’re lost out in the Caribbean and he’s explaining to him how he knows where they are and what island is ahead of them because they’re out of fuel. You know what scene I’m talking about?
I dunno, that movie just makes me… incredibly happy. I own a copy, and it’s the kind of movie I go to when I can no longer take any more bad news about the world.
Is there anything you’ve written that you look back on now and regret, like maybe your opinion’s shifted?
I mean, I don’t know. Often I’m kind of impressed that our intuitions as teenagers were as good as they were. Our values have kind of remained intact over the years. The songs from the first record, obviously I wouldn’t write them the same way now, even if I agree with the base idea of a song. Maybe a song like ‘Haillie Sellasse, Up Your Ass’, I wouldn’t do that now, even though I totally understand what I’m saying in the song. I totally understand. But I just don’t think I would say it that way at all now. I don’t regret it, it’s just insufficient for describing what I actually feel about all that stuff now. I guess that’s why people look back on things they said and did when they were younger and they’re embarrassed by it. It’s not always because it was wrong, it’s because it’s not sufficient to describe how they actually feel about stuff as the years go by.
For someone who might just be getting into Propagandhi, probably someone younger, which Propagandhi album would you suggest they listen to that best represents the band?
Well… Epitaph would be very happy if I said Failed States. Actually, I don’t think people who are fans of the band would agree with this, but I would say either Potemkin City Limits or Failed States. Failed States for the obvious reason that it’s sort of the culmination of all the years into one record so far. And Potemkin City Limits I think was a very difficult record to make right, and it was not very well received, but I thought it was one of our most interesting records.
Do you still like playing your older stuff live, or do you prefer to play new songs?
I prefer the new songs as songs, but they’re much more difficult to play, so there’s sort of a trade-off. The old stuff is so easy to play that in some ways it’s almost more fun to play live, but it’s less satisfying than playing a new song. We don’t play a ton of stuff from the first record, we play maybe one or two songs, and we don’t just play any song off that, there are one or two specific titles off that record that we’ll still play. So we make sure it’s not a completely unbelievably embarrassing one.
I guess a lot of the issues you’ve been singing about over the years are still relevant, but as you grow older, are you more optimistic or less optimistic?
Well, I am definitely more frightened, and part of that is just from seeing more of the world. Part of that is that I’m the father of a three-year-old child now, and so I worry about his future, what will be left for him. I didn’t worry when I was younger, I didn’t fucking care. I was like, "When I’m dead, I don’t give a fuck what happens to the rest of this world."
…That’s not actually true. But you know what I mean? This raises the stakes for me more. I am the person who’s accountable to this young person, and it just hits home a lot harder that everything that has happened on this planet is going to happen to him, not just some person I don’t know. I know that sounds bad, but that’s how we all behave in the world. But on the other hand, despite all that, I see way more widespread effective organising against the insanity of the prevailing order. I think everywhere we go in the world, the people that are doing work against the evil (laughs), are doing it in a more efficient and diverse way than they were doing it back when we started the band. So in that sense I’m very optimistic.
What do you think of the state of the music industry now compared to when you were starting out?
Well the bubble has totally burst; that insane monopoly on consumer dollars has fizzled away, and even though it’s at our expense also, I don’t mind at all that the industry is in a free fall. I think the industry brought this on themselves through total greed and avarice, and they’re getting what, quote, "they" deserve, which is that people are no longer paying for garbage. People will stop paying for it, once they realise it’s garbage and not art.
Are there any newer, sort of up-and-coming bands that you’re into at the moment?
Oh, there are tons, and they’re everywhere. Pretty much every city I’ve been to on the planet in the last few years, every city has sort of an underground scene where there’s still interesting and compelling and engaging music happening, and it’s happening off the radar of all the mainstream stuff. It’s the kind of shows when you go to some indie record store and there’s a show at midnight or something, and it’s a bunch of extreme hardcore bands or grind bands or something. I very rarely get out to those kinds of shows, but when I do or when I hear the records, I’m reminded of the shows that Jord and I first went to when we were kids here in Winnipeg, before punk rock had been totally commodified in the 90s. In the 80s, the shows were happening in very strange places that were very scary to go to. They weren’t sanctioned by the city or by parents, and there was no security. There were no metal detectors to get in, and there weren’t security guards and all this shit, and so it was a very underground, interesting time. And I see that everywhere we go, so if people are bored with the music they’re getting on iTunes, fed by whatever industry, they should try to find that scene in their city and see that there’s still exciting stuff going on.
A few years ago you were voted number two on a list of the Worst Canadians – mostly because you asked Propagandhi fans to vote for you – but if you were compiling your own worldwide list of the worst people, who would be on it?
Of the worst people? I wouldn’t even know where to start. I guess all the usual suspects – the politicians worldwide, who serve the interests of the corporations over the people they’re supposed to be serving. Then the behind the scenes, hidden faces of the heads of those corporations that have made politicians their indentured servants. I would find that would be a very, very, very long list of very, very, very bad people. If I pick one right now, I’m sure I could think of a worse one. There’s always a worse one. If I pick Stephen Harper, then 20 minutes later I’ll be like, "Oh yeah! There’s a worse one! Oh, Obama’s not far behind him!" You name them, they’re probably on the list.
Even though Propagandhi toured Australia recently, is there a chance you’ll be back any time soon?
We definitely want to. It’s just a matter of asking the guy who helps us get over there whether or not it’s feasible, since we have maybe worn out our welcome a little bit. We’ve been there twice in the past four or five years I think. Hopefully a new record will be justification enough for coming back again, but you just don’t want to bore people, you know what I mean?
No, it wouldn’t be boring, I think you should come back.
Okay, we will. Done!
Great! And just to finish up, what are the band’s plans for the rest of the year?
We’ve got a tour out through Eastern Canada and the Eastern Seaboard of the States. Then one through the Midwestern states and then Western Canada, and that takes us to the end of the year. Then we’re going to start talking about maybe Europe, Western States and maybe Australia next year.