Propagandhi: An Interview with Todd Kowalski

(This was one of my most exciting interviews. Once I had established some full time writers for I was able to secure interviews with some of the bands that informed me as a person and as a musician – this was one such occasion.)

propagandhiArrhythmias in Music

So you may be wondering, “Why the nine-dollar title?” Well, it’s quite simple really. Manitoba’s powerhouse thrash-punk trio (Glen Lambert-vox, guitar, Todd Kowalski-bass, vox and Jordy Samolesky-drums) has been shredding wicked riffs while ripping to shreds everyone from Bush to organized religion to COINTELPRO for the past 13 years. They are the irregular beat in the black heart of punk rock, eschewing pop affectations and single-minded punk politics (they don’t give a fuck if YOU don’t think they’re punk enough), fashion and desire to sell more units and make tons of cash. They don’t even get along that well with their record label (Fat Wreck Chords), which isn’t entirely true but what’s entertainment without some controversy?

They represent the elephant in the corner that no one wants to talk about. I mean, who wants to be in a circle pit when some guy is singing about sticking an American flag in an uncomfortable place, especially some guy from Canada? Next thing they’ll do is make fun of “Freedom Fries” and all the hard-working Americans who make up the McDonald’s labor force.

Propagandhi has put out several significant albums in its decade-long history. Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes saw the band grow and mature while still maintaining its tongue-in-cheek humor, and its Fat Wreck Chords debut, How to Clean Everything, took the ‘Jock’ out of punk rock, while nodding to SNFU, Venom and Iron Maiden. Their latest pièce de résistance, Potemkin City Limits, is a drastic evolution in musicianship, songwriting and unfettered aggression.

We recently caught up with Propagandhi bassist Todd Kowalski who answered our email questions faster than any interviewee for The Music Edge in our two-and-a-half-year history.

Oh, and we finally got the skinny on the whole Chris Hannah/Glen Lambert thing. Intrigued? Read on.

Shane: Aside from being in Propagandhi, what do you do employment or career-wise? I’ve read that you don’t consider yourself a full-time musician-what do you do to keep sane when not playing music?
Todd Kowalski: I think Glen/Chris is going through a whole-life crisis. Actually, believe it or not, we are full-time musicians. Haha. We all practice really hard and spend a lot of time writing songs, etc. I like to play all kinds of music. I’ve started taking jazz guitar lessons. However, my heart lies in the thrash! When not playing music, I spend a lot of time fighting Jiu jitsu and boxing. That’s a lot of fun for me. I draw and paint all the time. Someday I’d like to draw my own comics. I also want to be an astronaut, form my own space traveling company. Or maybe swim with the fishes.

SR: One of my fondest memories of Propagandhi was the show at the VFW in Denver in the mid-nineties. I had patiently waited a few years to see the band play live and then never got the chance because the promoters oversold the show; then the cops showed up and started tear-gassing everyone. What really happened?
TK: Well, I wasn’t in the band at that time. From what I’ve heard, the cops went out of control when a kid threw a chair at them or something. Yeah, I’ve been tear-gassed a couple times also. It burns like hell. It can’t be good for you. Imagine a bunch of cops gassing kids at a show. That is assault. No one should have to tolerate that.

SR: In regard to the San Fran show, was the “McShit Shake” costume appreciated overall?
TK: Shitty McShake never really made it to the stage that night. He just hovered along the outskirts of the stage. After that show he kept turning up the juice! Shitty was a great addition to the band and a great sponsor for us. I’d like to thank McDonalds, Burger King, Vans, Schneider’s Wieners and Krusty Burger for sponsoring the tour.

SR: How did you decide on the opening acts? (Greg MacPherson, Western Addiction, etc.) How did the crowd respond to someone as diverse as Greg Macpherson?
TK: The crowd was really into MacPherson. He’s a great performer and really honest. I’d rather take people with spirit and a drive to communicate [on tour] than just bands that will help sell a lot of tickets to the show. We’ve been friends with Chicken and the fellows from Western Addiction for years. They’re great! I thought it’d be nice to have them along. We then added Toys That Kill because they are very old friends of ours as well. Todd from TTK put out the Propagandhi/I Spy split 10″ back in the day. They kicked ass as well.

SR: Concerning the new album, Potemkin City Limits, how long did you spend writing it? Did you have a specific vision for this album?
TK: The record took a long time to make. A lot of riffing and lyric-writing took place. The vision for the record just comes naturally as the songs are made. The theme of the record came when we saw that the lyrics could all fit in some way to the idea of a Potemkin City or Village, which is a facade. Four more years of Democrats or Republicans makes me depressed and angry enough to keep the tunes coming.

SR: What do you want people to take with them from this record?
TK: I want people to thrash and to feel something. I hope they can identify with the despair we feel/felt about the world and we can help them get through it. For me to help someone out and help myself get through life using music is my only goal. Many musicians have done the same for me, that’s for sure.

SR: The artwork is pretty incredible as well-how was it chosen?
TK: We’ve known about those artists, Eric Drooker and Sue Coe, for a long time. We chose their art because it’s great and really emotive. They have something good and honest to say. I painted the CD face as well. I wanted a photo of those kids on the CD but figured I’d paint them so it looks a little different than just going to copy a photo into a CD.

SR: What would you tell people who are concerned about the well-being of animals? Is there something people can do right now to stop animal suffering (aside from not eating them of course)? (In fact if you currently live in California you can help in the fight against farm cruelty. Signatures are being turned in Feb. 22 so next time you are going to Whole Paycheck or Trader Ho’s stop and talk to those friendly hippies out front and sign your name! Learn more from this PDF; The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act.
TK: There’s a lot of organizations that help animals. You could donate money to them or volunteer. Everything we do affects animals–be that urban sprawl, agriculture, war, etc. The more we think about where we spend our money, the things we eat, where and how we travel-all those things affect wildlife and animals. If we recognize that they are vital to our own well-being, mentally we will be much better off. We need them physically as part of our ecosystem as well. The first easy, easy step is to stop eating and wearing them, of course.

SR: Does the band plan to tour a lot during 2006?
TK: We’re heading off to Australia in 2006. After that I’m not sure what the plan is. I’d love to see South America or Africa. We have been offered an opportunity to play shows there. It would be great to go to these places and see what’s going on. I think that would be a huge benefit to us so we understand different shit and meet lots of different people. Touring other cultures is so great. I make a point to support world music as well, so I’m not always the one blabbing and not listening to what other people have to say lyrically and musically.

SR: Do you consider yourselves a band first or activists first, or do they go hand in hand?
TK: I think they go hand in hand. We have a good situation where we can actually support things we believe in and have our say and some people will listen. There is a lot of people saying and doing a lot of great things, but they aren’t allowed to break through to people. We are very, very lucky. It would be a hard world to live in if I had no outlet to get my opinion out. It is great to play music, I love it.

SR: For people just starting to play music, what advice can you offer?
TK: The advice I would give is to just worry about the songs and what is truly in your heart. Whether that is political music, instrumental or love songs, just go for it! Don’t worry about the media and magazines too much. Just play for yourself. People will recognize this. Music first- posing, bullet belts and stupidity second.

SR: When did you first pick up a guitar or bass or drums?
TK: I started playing guitar in grade five. I sucked for years and years. I always played just by ear. Now I’m learning theory and stuff. I like both ways of playing. I started playing bass when I joined Propagandhi. Haha.

SR: There is a beautiful mixture of punk and thrash on Potemkin City Limits.
Aside from some of the more obvious influences (Venom, DRI, Slayer) what are some other musical influences you pull from? What is the lyric-writing process like?
TK: I pull a lot of influences from African music-Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, etc. I like all honest music. There is a great, great, great Canadian singer named Garnet Rogers who I love. I love the death-metal band Immolation and the Brazillian band Krisiun as well. A Canadian Rapper named K’Naan is also among the great finds lately. He’s got amazing lyrics. There’s a lot of rad sh*t out there, almost all of it not found on any major radio station or T.V. show.

SR: Which way do we go from here?
TK: I think we have to wake up before we get eaten by the world we live in. We are either at the point of doom or the turning point. The world is crumbling before my eyes. As I travel around I can see that we’re in a worse environmental state than we were even five years ago. We can only send out our own ideological transmissions to each other and do our best to live our lives in a way which is sustainable, just and reasonable. We have to live as though we are not disconnected from all other beings and our environment. If our amnesia doesn’t go away, we will be beaten back to earth by our “Mother.” Ha.

SR: Is there collusion between world power and the international news media to keep information at a drizzle? Are there alternatives to corporate media and journalism available? Are they viable sources?

TK: Yes. I think there is a lot of sources-a hell of a lot more viable than the major media outlets. Fox News advertises their news hour with a “sexy” anchorwoman with the voiceover saying, “Wouldn’t you like to tune into this every night at 10:30?”

That says to me that this is the most bogus news station in the world. I like to check out news from all types of sources: Znet news media from the regions that the news is happening in, Al Jazeera, CNN, local papers. It’s good to check out what all sides are up to. There is definitely a lot out there for honest journalists and other types of people trying to tell the real story. I find books are the best way to get a deeper understanding of something.

SR: Did Chris [Hannah] record any vocals on Potemkin City Limits? (In usual irreverent fashion, the singer/guitarist changed his name on the release and all the subsequent PR that accompanied the release.)
TK: Chris sang about eight songs. Glen Lambert is his, believe it or not, less weird alter-ego. Even if he was shape-shifted into a different form, the smell of toilet paper and vitamins would definitely give him away.

id rather be flag burnginSR: The Propagandhi/I Spy split 10″I’d Rather Be Flag Burning is probably one of my most rare and cherished records. It’s even cooler now that you are in Propagandhi since you were in I Spy. (Yeah, this one is a classic. If you’ve got it on vinyl you’re super fuckin’ lucky. I’ve got my eye out for it every time I go blast through some cash at the local wax mart.)
TK: Haha! I’m glad you like that record. It was a cool period of time. I would never want to go back and relive it but it had its charm. Embarrassing charm, anyway.

SR: When are you going to put out another Propagandhi record? Will it be in five, seven or 10 years?
TK: I have no idea. When the tune-age flows, I too will flow with it. I’d like to do it faster. I have ideas starting to formulate in my tarnished nugget right now. I shall let my fingers dance along the strings until I find salvation. Ha.

(The band is currently working on the followup to Potemkin City Limits, check their site for more news and a bunch of awesome agit-prop style rants)

Thanks to Todd and Vanessa from Fat for setting this up and jumping through major hoops to accommodate us.

Searching for a Form of Clarity:

Or Music Journalists Aren’t Your Friends and Don’t Forget That – Ever!

Hmm. Yes I remember it well. Not quite as well as I should and being a writer I probably should have documented every nuance and snippet of conversation while I was in the ‘moment.’ Alas, I’m not much of a journalist when it comes to that sort of thing. I’m more interested in having a good time and writing usually takes a back seat to my rabble rousing but since this is a story that was mostly experienced three sheets to the wind, I’ll preface it by taking some liberties in the facts. South By Southwest Music Festival is always a trial in patience and a test of ones alcohol endurance. The past two years I’ve been I’ve ended up hanging out with folks that don’t have badges, therefor my show going is limited by their ability to get into a venue, which usually means I miss the good shows at Stubbs (06′ Beastie Boys) or La Zona Rosa (06′ Drive By Truckers) or even Emo’s for (06′ Minus the Bear).

I’m a gregarious asshole and fiercely loyal to my friends, or at least I’d like to appear to have their best interests and happiness in mind and try to lend my brand of drunken revelry as the situation dictates. While 2006 was spent sharing a hotel room with The North Atlantic (J. Richards, who is almost 7′ tall, sleeps in the fetal position and takes up almost the entire bed, leaving me to half sleep on a parcel of mattress like some indentured farmer) and Under The Drone (their stand in bass player snores so loud, even pass-out drunk I couldn’t get to sleep and end up staying awake for roughly 48 hours. As a result of which during the a set by The Sword two days later I nod off on a chair at the back of the room. Luckily I’m there with my friend Ben who walks me across the Congress St bridge back to our room and I make my flight – yay! Crisis averted).

I did manage to break away from the non-badge holding crew, who had spent most of the time at the Red Eyed Fly watching Dixie Witch or Black Lamb and make my way to Lucero at Red 7. While I was there a man approached me at the bar. After I had placed my order for a tallboy of PBR he says, “Can I buy your drink for you?” Drunk and skeptical I look at him funny, turn around to look for Vanessa or Jamie (Badge holding crew/Lucero fans) for some guidance, but he quickly reassures me that his intention is purely marketable, stating, “I’m the regional rep for PBR, just want to thank you for your loyalty.”

“Uh huh. Thanks!” I say, adding,”It’s cheap and I can drink an assload of it.” Then make my way through the crowd to the front as Lucero busts into “Bikeriders” and my arms flail all marionette-like in excitement as my mouth tries to remember the lyrics and my brain warns me that this is the last tall boy I’m gonna drink.

These little one offs are common in Austin during this time. Chance meetings with people. One notable was at the patio of the Red Eyed Fly, watching Dixie Witch, riff through their songs, amplified by a sweet Mojave, I drunkenly turn to the guy standing next to me and bum a cigarette, as he lights it I realize its Elijah Wood (who apparently was there scouting for his own label) “thanks dude.” I mumble, with a twinkle in my eye, thinking, “Fucking Frodo loves stoner rock, he’s even cooler than I thought.” Though for a character of LOTR one might expect some fascination with drug culture and all its sub categories (statement is not to suggest or imply that Mr. Wood condones drugs or the use of them).

That leads me to SXSW 2007. On a much more business oriented, diplomatic approach, with my new boss, coworker and CEO in town I had to keep my booze intake waaayyy down. Meaning that it was bloody’s in the morning and only beer thereafter or I’d be a wreck by 5pm. I’m a good host and I had been to Austin the year before: I could handle it, I knew the score. Savagery by night, civility by day. Though the night before all those work folks got there I was rousing with the Lennon Bus Boys at the Purevolume lounge, drinking free booze (which is the best, btw) and trying to convince them to join me at the Emo’s Annex parking lot thingy where Hydrahead was having a showcase (Jesu, Pelican, Oxbow, Stephen Brodsky), I got in and Fester got stopped at the door, which sucked cause there wasn’t that many people there. Course this year, SXSW was undertaken with the pretense that we were going to actually conduct some sort of business and meet with industry people to discuss the problems and opportunities – blah blah blah – facing the industry I really had to put on the officious air, while toning down knowing that my best friend had flown from DC and the Drone crew was waiting elsewhere.

Now I will get to the point. The point about being a music journalist and all its trappings. Attempting to do something like what we’re doing with and what I attempted to do with themusicedge but was thwarted by shortsighted corporate ineptitude is at most times an opportunistic venture. Just like a shark’s feeding habits or a thief’s intuition. But the main point in this piece is about not trying to be friends with people in bands that are subjects of an interview and just trying to get the story and all that shit. You know – that shit that real journalist learn in journalist school and publicity people train their clients ‘these people aren’t your friends, whatever you say is on the record, no matter if they say its off the record” – kind of ethics. While both statements are pretty harsh they are quite true and are pretty much par for the course when it comes to the general journalism practicioners. As a side note, I’m not the most prolific ‘blogger’ not because I’ve got a lack of material, but because sometimes, which is most times, its good to have someone look at your stuff before it gets released into the wild. However, one good thing that comes from this medium is the ability to give another perspective. A first hand account. The gonzo side of things for those of us that get paid to write and can’t write about puking in the graffiti covered stall of some shit hole bar in a Tulsa strip club, or taking hits from a hash pipe and blowing it into the window of a K9 unit while the officer is busy securing the scene of a drunk driving accident amidst a thousand drunken pedestrians.

Right. Just as Fucked Up writes weird pseudo-hard core, I digress a bit. I meet up with Vanessa (AM!’s publicist and longtime friend/colleague of mine) for the Shirts for a Cure showcase where I am to do an interview with Tom Gabel of Against Me! Its 2pm and I’ve already had four Lonestars and to be quite honest, I am a bit intimidated (read: buzzed) at the thought of interviewing him in person (fanboy syndrome), being the telephone coward I am when it comes to interviewing bands I actually care about. In hindsight I probably should have done the interview right then and there. After a brief introduction, I explain that I’d prefer to do the interview at a later date. I don’t pull any punches with Vanessa, since I’ve known her and worked with her now going on ten years since my time at the college paper. She’s cool. That short 4 days in Austin I watch Against Me! a total of five times. Some shows I’m at the stage and some shows I’m way far away (Mountain Dew free show in the Park with Mastodon and Riverboat Gamblers, Eric* and I pass out during the Gamblers set and are awoken by Gamblers singer Mike Weibe who, with wireless mic in hand has come down to the grass and dances with all the kids. I instantly like the RBG more just for that fact). Eric*(best friend from DC) and I go for a gyro and are standing up eating and watching the last few RGB songs when we are tackled by Justin and Ben of Under the Drone. Not just tackled but violently tackled by two uber drunks. Gyro’s fly everywhere. Its quite humorous; sob/laughing a bit, I feel like Chunk in Goonies when his food is taken away. I’m stoked that we’ll be seeing AM! for the third time that week. They come on next, wind blowing, people screaming, making for a very dramatic effect. The band runs through the gamut of great tunes like “Miami” and “Cliche Guevara” and play some new ones like “Americans Abroad” and “White People for Peace” and I begin to realize that this band is my age and they grew up on Fugazi and Black Flag and The Replacements and maybe their replacing The Replacements but thats just the booze talking and the sweat and fists of strangers swirling around me singing at the top of their lungs to “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong.” I think how it feels to listen to music and how great it is to be part of this thing – whatever the fuck it is – taking place in the little pockets of world.

So…finally, I end up doing the interview with Tom for (Link). I did it on the phone, after almost two months of missed times I caught him at home prior to their tour with Mastodon, Cursive and Planes Mistaken for Stars. The best lineup and tour package I’ve seen in the past five years (even though I didn’t make it when they played San Diego). He seemed somewhat guarded during the interview, even though I had drunkenly bored him to death with my musings on punk rock and selling out at the No Idea party in Austin. [Where Chuck Reagan played a solo set right before The Draft and I was convinced they would do a Hot Water Music song, and I drunk texted one of my old estranged friends but never got a reply. Of course they didn’t. AM!’s James told me he knew they wouldn’t although Warren and I kept saying how cool it would be if they did.] Though gregarious I may be I realized there is sometimes a line between interviewer and interviewee and I suppose I’m okay with that. Tom was quick to assert his disapproval of illegal downloading and like an idiot I mention that the new Neurosis is amazing.

“I didn’t think that was out yet.” He exclaims.
“Yeah, I got an advance copy from one of my sound engineer buddies.” I explain, then realize what a total asshole I must sound like after he just told me what he thinks of downloading.

All in all it was a good interview. I was hungover when I talked to him and I’m always a bit sensitive after a bout with the cohol and I took some of his comments the wrong way but when I went back to transcribe the interview I realized how articulate and thoughtful he was. So there ya go! Here are some pictures from the best show in Austin I’ve ever witnessed from one of my favorite bands.

Digital Nightmare pt. 4

Its okay, its all right, Jesus loves you! Allah loves you! Microsoft, Google and Yahoo love you too. This brave new world is the super PC place for all consumers to worship and sigh their obedience to the horizon of endless product…