Chris Hannah was a typical air-force brat with a world view as straight as the runways on the base near Portage la Prairie, Man., where his father flew fighter jets. Then Hannah heard a few punk bands during the so-called second wave that arose in opposition to the neo-con revolution of the eighties.
"I had a pretty infantile, extremist view of the world; hyper-patriotic, very pro-military and jingoistic," he recalled on the phone from Winnipeg. "I remember being pro-Reagan. I can't exactly remember why, and hope not to remember."
A few barrages from such bands as Corrosion of Conformity, the Dead Kennedys and MDC (Millions of Dead Cops) put an end to Hannah's Reagan sympathies, and gave him an urgent need to arm himself with a guitar. He and his drummer friend Jord Samolesky moved to Winnipeg, advertised on a music-store bulletin board for a bass player to join their "progressive thrash band," and Propagandhi was born.
Nearly 20 years later, Propagandhi is one of the few political bands from that era to survive with disillusions intact. Supporting Caste , their latest album, is a hard-driving survey of much that's wrong with the world, including imperialist domination, history as written by the victors, the killing and eating of animals, and the rantings of Don Cherry.
The title track imagines mainstream history as a film that "exalts only the pornography of force … as we, the two-bits, are ushered on and swiftly off the stage." The song's terse rhetoric resonates with the cover reproduction of The Triumph of Mischief , a huge canvas by Cree artist Kent Monkman that burlesques both the standard history of Canadian settlement and the pictorial codes of 19th-century frontier art.
The satire Human(e) Meat proposes a compassionate form of cannibalism modelled on the way we treat animals raised for slaughter. And Dear Coach's Corner appeals to Ron MacLean to agree that our national game shouldn't be used to promote conformity and organized violence.
"That song comes from the experience of going to the world women's ice hockey final with my niece," says Hannah, a lifelong hockey fan. "Canada beat the U.S., and a bunch of soldiers came on the ice, and others started rappelling down from the rafters, and my niece said, 'Why do they have guns?' "
Propagandhi's music runs at these topics in a tight formation based on Samolesky's fast-tripping drum beats, Todd Kowalski's nimble bass, and the fleet, metal-minded roar of Hannah's guitar. The band added second guitarist Dave (Beav) Guillas in 2006, to give more heft to the group's sound, and especially to its live performances.
The band members are directly involved with organizations that act to fix some of the ills identified in their songs, including Sage House, a Winnipeg outreach centre for sex-trade workers; PETA2, the youth wing of the animal-rights group; and the Canada-Haiti Action Network, which has accused the Canadian government of systematic hypocrisy in its relations with the Caribbean country. Last month, the band offered advance downloads of two tracks from the new album in exchange for donations to three activist groups: the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Partners in Health and PETA2.
Hannah and Samolesky have never been keen on the music industry as embodied by big corporations, and again put thought into action by co-founding the G7 Welcoming Committee, a trouble-making progressive label that in the past 12 years has released more than 50 albums by the likes of International Noise Conspiracy and Warsawpack. The label went into hibernation this year while the band wrote and recorded its new songs, and prepared to tour Australia, Europe and North America. Supporting Caste came out last week on Smallman Records, another Winnipeg label.
Propagandhi has mostly operated outside the mainstream, so it was a surprise to many when the band's song A Speculative Fiction won the first $5,000 Echo Songwriting Prize, awarded by the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada, in 2006, beating tunes by indie favourites Final Fantasy and Wolf Parade. The band's head was not turned. "Awards are like hemorrhoids; eventually every asshole gets one," says a note on its website.
"A lot of heavy, loud music doesn't get taken as seriously as a guy strumming on a guitar in a coffee shop," Hannah says. "But there's some crazy, adventurous stuff going on in heavy music," including the recent revival of Sacrifice, the venerable Toronto thrash metal band from the eighties.
"For me, the most enjoyable moments with anyone else's art have been when I've been challenged to make any kind of change, small or large, in my view of the world," he says.
"If we have a goal, it would be to offer the modern 15-year-old kid in rural Manitoba a chance to see the world through different eyes."
Propagandhi plays the Garrick Theatre in Winnipeg on Friday and Saturday.