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.