About five years ago, the hard-core punk trio Propagandhi was playing a show at Gilman Street, a club in Berkeley, California, that had a hand in launching the careers of bands such as Rancid and Green Day. Still run as a collective, the club is an institution of sorts and has continued to nurture the San Francisco Bay Area punk scene, one of the strongest in the country. But when Propagandhi played there, the crowd, for whatever reason, became antagonistic toward the Canadian group, which billed itself as "animal-friendly, anti-fascist, pro-feminist, and gay-positive" on 1996's Less Talk, More Rock, the album it was touring to support.
"As I recall, as soon as we took the stage, I was getting spit on and called a vegetarian communist faggot," recalls singer-guitarist Chris, who goes by only his first name, in a recent phone interview. "'Go back to Canada, you faggot.' I was like, 'Okay, this is the last show of the tour, and here I am in Berkeley, this supposedly progressive city in America, and I'm just going to go off here.'"
Chris then proceeded to berate the crowd -- and did his best to incite a riot. A bootleg copy of the concert circulated among punk aficionados, and the band quickly developed a reputation as a troublemaker. It's something Chris says he's still trying to live down.
"It was this ridiculous, totally nonconstructive confrontation between me and the crowd," he says. "The crowd was an idiot, and I was an idiot. It made for an interesting spectacle. It's almost like performance art. It was embarrassing. I was going off the handle. It's kind of funny, the more I get away from it. I don't like it to represent what the band is about, for people's first impressions. It has made a lot of people think that this is how we behave. They think, 'I'm not going to go to this show and listen to these fucking goofs.' I was trying to escalate it to the point that nobody would forget the show. I guess nobody has."
Having rarely toured since then and only recently released Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes, the follow-up to Less Talk, Propagandhi has kept a low profile since the Gilman Street debacle. The last time the group toured the States, the trip was so disorganized that the band ended up playing in unconventional venues, often to audiences that weren't even familiar with its music. (In Virginia Beach, for example, Chris says it played in a garage to "three kids who didn't know who we were.")
Formed in the late '80s in Winnipeg by Chris and drummer Jord, friends from high school, Propagandhi started as many a punk band has -- as a reaction against the environment in which its members were raised. Brought up as an army brat, Chris spent much of his youth on military bases and had initially accepted the culture that was handed down to him by his father.
"My value system was a little weird -- I was pro-imperialist, pro-nuclear proliferation, pro-intervention against communist threats," Chris explains. "I happened upon bands like MDC and the Dead Kennedys. I was hostile to their messages at first, but loved their music. When I moved off of military bases and into cities, I started seeing the world outside of the bubble I was living in. I held up the value system I grew up with and compared it to the value system of some of these political hard-core bands. I had to make some choices about what I was for. It sounds so silly that punk bands can make that change in somebody, but that was the first step toward radicalization in my life. It's taken 15 years for me to gain confidence about what I'm thinking, but you got to start somewhere. If a guy like me can change, fuck, anyone can."
Propagandhi had released a couple of singles on the Southern California-based Recess Records when it opened for NOFX in Winnipeg in the early '90s. NOFX singer Fat Mike, who runs the punk imprint Fat Wreck Chords, was so impressed by the group, he signed it shortly after that. After putting out the seven-inch "How to Clean a Couple of Things" in 1993 and the full-length How to Clean Everything that same year, the band released Less Talk, More Rock, an album that, because of its "gay-positive" lyrics, would leave yet another false impression.
"I'm about as straight-edge as Andy Capp," Chris says, when asked if he adheres to a lifestyle that excludes drugs and alcohol. "Our bass player, Todd -- he had a really rough upbringing, in terms of drugs and alcohol, so he doesn't touch anything. Jord and I have been known to experiment -- every night. I have no problem with people who choose not to, for whatever reason. People extrapolated, from lyrics on the last record that challenged the concept of sexuality, that we must have been gay. 'And they say they're gay-positive, so they have to be gay.' But we're not. We're all lady-lovers."
Littering the liner notes of Today's Empires with references to left-leaning books and Web sites, and writing songs such as "Bullshit Politicians" and "With Friends Like These, Who the Fuck Needs Cointelpro?" (a reference to the counterintelligence agency that's a joint program of the FBI and the CIA), Propagandhi makes it clear that it's staunchly opposed to Western capitalist power structures. In recording the album, the group drove down to San Francisco from Winnipeg and was particularly dismayed when it witnessed a Memorial Day celebration in Montana, on the way there. "It reminded me of propaganda from Nazi Germany," Chris says. "Marching out the troops and big productions. I don't know if that's making it too melodramatic -- I'm not sure that it is."
If Propagandhi is against consumer culture and all of its attributes, what is the band actually for?
"The simple answer is that we're in favor of the democratization of power and wealth," Chris says. "And how you get from there to here is a 14-year interview. We do have visions of that, in the work of radical economists that I could refer to, but I don't know if you want to head in that direction."
Propagandhi's radical political beliefs place the group within an anti-authoritarian tradition that goes back to punk's early roots, when bands such as the Dead Kennedys, Suicidal Tendencies, and Black Flag wrote about sociological, if not political, issues and conflicts. It's a tradition that, with the exception of a few groups like Rage Against the Machine (which Chris described as "probably the most important band in the last 15 years, maybe of all time, for bringing politics to the mainstream"), has been lost in a world where apolitical acts such as the Offspring, Blink-182, and Green Day pass as punk.
"I don't think there's a rule that all rock should be political," Chris says. "If we're a political band, it's only by default. The things that move us to write lyrics are stories about injustice and stories about resistance to injustice. Otherwise, maybe we'd be singing about booze. Sometimes, I just think that at this time, the world is so crazy, it seems weird to me that bands aren't more thoughtful.
"I'm not going to begrudge anybody who uses their band to do something distraction-oriented," he continues. "But contemporary punk rock doesn't resonate with me. The infrastructure to it seems antithetical to how I grew up, when it was more underground or DIY. There are people who are truly bankers getting involved and promoting tours. I don't begrudge bands for playing those shows. We've been in a lucky situation. We don't have to prostitute ourselves. I'm not sure what it's like if you have to make that choice. I would say that it's not something we're interested in or want to encourage. I just think it's bullshit, really."
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