Growing Up Propagandhi

Reprinted from our 2013 archives by popular demand

“This world ain’t nothing more than what you make of it.”
~ Propagandhi  “Without Love”

I was 16 in 1993. This, alone, is not significant, at all. Many people were 16 in 1993. But if you were 16, living in a small town, and trying to make sense of a confusing teenage life through the lens of music—heavy metal and punk rock, in particular—being 16 in 1993 becomes a bit more significant. So does being Canadian. Because that’s the year Winnipeg punkers Propagandhi released their first album.

How to Clean Everything sounded, musically, a lot like the dominant pop-punk bands at the time. Lagwagon and NOFX, most notably. It was an emerging scene that combined frantic energy, punk attitude, and sappy melodies in a way that hit the spot just right. In the case of Propagandhi, what set them apart was an absurdly radical political approach that blew my 16-year-old-mind open. Sure, I took some things and ran with them too far (why didn’t I stand for our national anthem at a school assembly that one time? Because I listened to Propagandhi; no other real reason), and much of what they were singing flew over my head. But they swore a lot, and talked about Canada, and were pissed off. It changed my life.

I can’t overstate how many times I’ve listened to that first album. It’s the album of theirs I listen to the least now, sounding as it does a bit dated and a bit immature, but it’s still half awesome. It was a long three years until my new favourite band released album number two, Less Talk More Rock, and I was 19 and just starting to realize it was time to make some big decisions about life. The album helped me keep a focus: through its absolutely over-the-top lyrical and aesthetic approach (there was no way there was “less talk” on this album), I felt like I had something to fight for. Again, no idea what it was, but it was an anchor and it was needed.

The band didn’t release their next album, Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes, until 2001. I had moved out of my parents’ house, into the neighbouring big city, and everything about life by this point was different. I had shed much of my skin, as youth must, and was trying to make a go of things on my own. It was scary and awesome and fun and hearing this album after so long was like welcoming an old friend into my life. The band had gone through a major lineup change—bassist John K. Samson had deflected and formed The Weakerthans; in his place was Todd Kowalski, who brought a much crazier, hardcore edge to the band—so it was a new take on an old sound. It was perfect. It gave me energy.

Another long wait: Potemkin City Limits dropped in 2005, and it took the band’s sound to extremely new dimensions. Longer songs, a huge emphasis on musicianship and a more poetic approach to the lyrics, it was the sound of a band growing up. Which worked for me: I was 28 years old. I was struggling to turn crappy jobs into careers, was trying to figure out where I want to be in the world. I wanted to grow up too.

By the time Supporting Caste came along in 2009, I was 32 years old and spending lots of time staying up for hours in the middle of the night trying to bounce my new baby girl to sleep. It was an extremely trying, tiring, and stressful time, filled with ups and downs that teenage me could never even have imagined. I’d fill the loneliness of the 3 a.m. pacing around the house with the sounds of Propagandhi on my iPod, just like the sounds of the first album would keep me company (on my walkman, natch) on the bus when I was a teenager. There was one song—an homage to Canadian metal band Sacrifice, of all things—that spoke to me greatly at that point in my life, especially the following words:

“When the music died
two ends of time had been neatly tied
Descending lights had scorched the plains
Returning kings back to reclaim
lost disciples that remained
to tend the flames.”

For all their political wordplay and over-the-top declarations, the band had lyrically been trying out some new things, such as writing open love letters to music (like above, or on Potemkin’s “Rock For Sustainable Capitalism,” in which they call out Fat Mike of NOFX, who released Propagandhi’s first four albums:

“Anyone remember when we used to believe
that music was a sacred place
and not some fucking bank machine?…
Well, I think when all is said and done
just ‘cause we were young
don’t mean we were wrong.”

or dealing with the loss of a loved one, as on Caste’s “Without Love”:

“I was the first to finally fade
from my grandfathers’ memories
Well, how long until the day
my memories of him finally fade away
dissolving into grey?”

These were little reminders that the guys in Propagandhi, although they seem like they might be hiding behind an impenetrable wall of politics that allows for no emotion, are, well, guys. They’re getting older, too. They’re struggling with how to deal with loving things like music or hockey with a passion that almost hurts in a culture that doesn’t value adults loving those things that much; they’re seeing people they love get old and die; they’re finding their place in the world, too.

It’s funny: as I get older and shed some of my more reactionary punk-rock declarations (I’ll stand for the anthem now, for example), I at first would actually feel weird, guilty, think, “What would Propagandhi think?” It’s the danger of being a music geek, and it comes with the world of punk rock, where everyone’s daily habits and choices can be scrutinized. But that was a growing pain. I no longer worry what Propagandhi would think about my decisions. I’m just glad they’re still with me.

As of 2021, I’m in my mid-forties. I’ve had this music with me for longer than I’ve had my children, my wife, my job. I loved Propagandhi before I developed a love for beer or spicy food. They’ve been one of the longest constants in my life, which is pretty crazy for a silly little punk band from Winnipeg that swears a lot.

Those of us who came of age with their music continue to have it as a roadmap. Sometimes months upon months can pass where I don’t revisit their tunes, then I come back and it hits me like a ton of bricks: this is a very, very important band of our time. But even if they’re not, it don’t matter: this is a very, very important band to me.

Playlist track listing:
1. “Anti-Manifesto”
2. “Apparently, I’m a ‘P.C. Fascist’ (Because I Care About Both Human and Non-Human Animals)”
3. “Mate Ka Moris Ukun Rasik An”
4. “Todays Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes”
5. “Purina Hall of Fame”
6. “A Speculative Fiction”
7. “Fixed Frequencies”
8. “Fedallah’s Hearse”
9. “Bringer of Greater Things”
10. “Iteration”
11. “Night Letters”
12. “Dear Coach’s Corner”
13. “Rattan Cane”
14. “Nigredo”
15. “Adventures in Zoochosis”