Propa Dose: America looks like familiar territory though the eyes of a Canadian anarchist punk rocker.
Politics, punk and Visa worries fuel the anger of Winnipeg's most vocal punk group
By Peter Koht
WHILE THE Department of Homeland Security is busy keeping any Cuban with the ability to properly play a guajira out of the country, it will let Propagandhi over the border with nary a whimper of protest even though the Canadian band has spent the last 16 years broadcasting a message of atheism, socialism and anarchy. (The band once described its hometown, Winnipeg, as "a legitimate military target," in an interview with Canadian Dimension.) Damn that porous northern frontier.
Caustic in the extreme and diabolically clever, Propagandhi's recorded output is sporadic at best, but its contents pack more lyrical bile and pure punk nihilism than anything that Epitaph has put out in the last decade. Reached on the phone seconds after clearing Customs and Immigration outside Bellingham, Wash., while en route to the first gig of its latest tour, the band took some time to vent about politics, punk rock and its utterly unique career path.
With a message as politically powerful as Propagandhi's, one would think that the band would have as many records out as Jack Chick has tracts, but since 1993, Propagandhi has only released three albums and a collection of B-sides. All told, its total recorded output can be listened to in under than three hours. The group's latest release, Potemkin City Limits, begins with a tune called "A Speculative Fiction," in which Canada storms south to militarily defeat its American neighbor. But just how does America look though the eyes of a Canadian anarchist punk rocker?
"Well, Canada has embarrassed itself internationally too," Kowalski says. "We have this reputation of being great, but we do some bad stuff. Canadian diamond companies work in the Congo, and there are Canadian-owned sweatshops in China, so we can't point the finger or anything, except that Jean Chrétien didn't take us to war in Iraq. But yeah, the States look pretty terrible."
This kind of candor should come as no surprise to a band that brags that unless it starts a bar brawl then it isn't sure that its message is being received. The members have received death threats, taken on skinheads and spent the last decade being poster children for the kinds of political speech that will never make it into mainstream political discourse. The band was even banned from the Alternative Tentacles compilation, Rock Against Bush, for refusing to edit out a dig at billionaire philanthropist George Soros. When Jello Biafra is telling you to tone it down, you must be doing something right.
"You have to say what you want without being intimidated by anybody," Kowalski says. "You have to get the message that you feel is important out, not just for yourself but to support other people who might be up against the same things through no choice of their own."
Propagandhi's agitprop agenda is a little hard to nail down though. While underscoring the importance of free expression and autonomy, most of its lyrics deal with the overwhelming effects of a monoculture being led by a nefarious political class. The band reserves special animosity for those who are conducting the Iraq war. In an eloquent soliloquy, Kowalski sticks it to the neoconservative man.
"It seems like they are hoping that to keep the place warring. There is no way that they are coming out of it easily. I think that they just want to settle with it being in strife and keeping the region unstable. They have blown it at this point, and they knew it. They blew their objectives years ago."
But what about burnout? How does the band deal with delivering a consistently dour message to its fans at every concert? Kowalski takes issue with those who categorize his band as purely negative. "I think that we are less nihilist than other people. Some think that the world won't get better. All we want is a world that seems fair, which seems like an easy thing to ask."
Propagandhi plays the Vets Hall in Santa Cruz (846 Front St.) on Wednesday, Nov. 30. Tickets are $12 and the show starts at 8pm. More info: www.vetshall.org or 831.457.2142.
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