Propagandhi’s ‘Less Talk, More Rock’ at 25 – A Retrospective
photos by Mark Miller
Propagandhi are now considered the wise elders of the punk rock scene, and they’ve introduced generation after generation of young people to progressive politics. Over the course of seven albums, they’ve introduced an international audience to considering undertaking a vegan lifestyle, getting involved in community action, and the band has rarely strayed from their anti-establishment values. Instead of hiding their message under washes of reverb or unintelligible polemics over blast-beats, the band has always committed themselves to making sure their engagement with a progressive future is heard first and foremost over an alluring yet aggressive raging of complicated guitar interplay and a rhythm section as original and precise as it is chaotic. Propagandhi has had a sweeping effect on the mechanism of change within the punk scene over their 30-plus year career. They’ve always educated their audience and the world at-large, and perhaps the band’s boldest record, Less Talk, More Rock, turns 25 this year.
1,885 miles away from their home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, three pale and skinny men in their early twenties find themselves amidst the punk rock proving ground in Berkeley, California located at 924 Gilman Street. For many, it is a holy place—a spot for young (and old) punks to see the newest local bands and witness out-of-towners for the first time. Though Berkeley has a liberal reputation, these three outsiders receive a bit of a shock when they arrive. The mostly white male audience waiting for this band from Canada to get going, combatively chide the three-piece as they set up, demanding “entertainment.”
When Propagandhi takes the stage, they are confused as to what has brought such a crowd to witness them. The entire purpose of their performance is to educate, communicate, and engage. However, they see something in the Gilman crowd that obscures understanding of Propagandhi’s message. They resign themselves to the fact that this audience is not going to get it. And therefore, the confrontation on behalf of the band usurps any desire to “get over.”
Guitarist and vocalist Chris Hannah baits the crowd, at one point stepping into the audience with a microphone before being forced back onstage by the DIY security. Promising to play songs the crowd will neither like nor recognize, the band recklessly tear through ten songs, over half of which have yet to appear on an album. John K. Samson, Propagandhi’s bassist and future leader of The Weakerthans, remarks quite presciently for the time that the ratio of women to men in the room is wildly skewed, and that until punk rock presents “a policy of inclusion, it will remain an ineffective little boys’ club.”
Chris Hannah, speaking to me from his home in Winnipeg, doesn’t recall much about this show. “I can barely remember. I was probably so excited to play Gilman—this legendary place, a haven for the punk rock scene I was interested in. Progressively minded, do-it-yourself. Whatever happened, I was trying to provoke, regardless. Back in that era, I was looking for any kind of conflict I could find—I walked out into the crowd to escalate the situation…and Gilman became concerned for our safety and the safety of the people in the building because of my behavior.”
“I’m getting flashbacks as we played there a few times,” drummer Jord Samolesky says, his shock of grey hair glowing in windowlight behind him as we chat via Zoom. Jord occasionally smirks as he recounts the early days. “The last time we played Gilman, across the street had been so developed it was like an entirely different place. That first time there was pushing and pulling and Chris down in the crowd. We are there a few years into the MTV factor and the influence of the mainstream on punk culture…a lot of just people into macho, white male, mosh pits. Silly ‘participation.’ It was not the kind of environment we’d grown up calling ‘DIY.’”
This is a band that isn’t looking to sell out their merchandise and pander to the crowd—this is a band that believes that the message is crucial to the songwriting, more important than selling merchandise, and the driving force that has landed them at Gilman—36 hours and across the border from home. Propagandhi exist to present their politics to a scene that desperately needs to hear it.
Early versions of these Gilman songs will become future classics after the release of Less Talk, More Rock—a watershed moment for not only the trio, but the scene at large. But that night at Gilman still bothers Chris, who talks about having such an attitude with some regret, but also relatable honesty. “I was trying to antagonize people…it wasn’t some ‘hey, I have this idea about society, do you want to hear about it?’ It was more ‘fuck you, fuck your society, fuck your beliefs, whatever they are.’ Even though I say that it came from a good place—I felt right about the values, but I was probably grappling with lifelong issues of contempt for humanity. I was too old to be behaving that way. It’s the behavior of a 13-year-old. But that’s where I was.”
To understand the fury of these twenty-somethings in 1995-1996, you must first understand the genesis. Propagandhi was never the type of band who would seek out spots on Warped Tour or attempt to pander to an audience that didn’t share their core beliefs. Perhaps that is why they’ve remained one of the most important punk rock bands throughout their career. Often looked up to as a “band’s band” for their lack of compromise, willingness to challenge their contemporaries, and for their ferocious discography. Each of Propagandhi’s records is reflective of its time, and the mindset of its creators when produced. Less Talk, More Rock, Chris and Jord agree, is the first time they were able to put their theory into action.
Jord Samolesky talks at length with great fondness about meeting Chris in a Grade 10 class in 1986 and discovering bands like Millions of Dead Cops and the Dead Kennedys together. Jord remarks, “We were subjected to the same kind of cultural trappings and social limitations of any isolated kids. The aesthetic of doing things on your own was what we embraced the most—punk hadn’t exploded yet, but we were inspired to learn our instruments and write some songs…and before we knew it, it was 1991.”
Despite having no aspirations beyond playing shows in Winnipeg, Propagandhi managed to get on the bill opening for NOFX, back before they’d become one of the most infamous punk rock bands of all time. Fat Mike, liking what he heard on Propagandhi’s demo tape, offered to fly the band to California for a couple days to record their first album. Propagandhi released How to Clean Everything to positive reviews in 1993 on Fat Wreck Chords. It was the third record to be released on the label which is now a taste-making powerhouse but was then still very much in its infancy. What Fat Mike did was deliver a polished product—unlike many of the other independent labels of the time, that though releasing seminal albums, seemed to have little concern for sonics, content, or presentation. Fat's albums were polished enough to be palatable for a wider audience.
Just two months before the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994, Green Day-former Gilman Street darlings-released Dookie on major label Reprise. Just like they mined the fallout of the grunge explosion, greedy A&R reps from corporate labels rushed around to find the next big punk band. Though some scene giants did defect to majors, Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph Records had established themselves enough to start seeing increases in their own sales. The two indies ensured that their releases could be found in more conventional outlets—not just at the merch table of local shows.
Instead of a mass exodus of talent, Fat and Epitaph grew their ranks, and some of their bands were able to live off music for the first time without any commercial compromise. In 1994 alone, Epitaph would release NOFX's Punk in Drublic, Rancid's Let’s Go, and The Offspring's Smash—still the best-selling independent record of all-time.
Propagandhi benefitted from this explosion, but still stuck to their core beliefs—even though with every show, they saw fewer likeminded comrades and more people just attending because they were a "Fat band." Instead of rushing a followup, Propagandhi released a split with Regina band I-Spy, featuring Todd Kowalski who would later become Propagandhi’s permanent bassist. The title of the split? I’d Rather Be Flag-Burning. Its label? The tiny Recess Records, run by Todd Congelliere of F.Y.P and later Toys That Kill, based out of his apartment. Both I-Spy and Propagandhi handled the CDs while Recess Records released the vinyl—each band packaging their CDs and folding their sleeves as they drove West through Canada, playing small all ages venues in remote locales that were starved for new music...and new ideas.
Chris, Jord, and John told Fat Mike they had another record in them at the end of 1995 and traveled down to Motor Studios to work with Ryan Greene. After a few days and only four songs, the band decided to go home. These four songs appear on the compilation album Where Quantity is Job #1. Though the fidelity is sound and the performances are adequate, they are merely a glimpse at the change of pace Propagandhi would be undertaking on their sophomore effort. Fat Mike and Ryan Greene were more bemused than disappointed as the band trekked back to Winnipeg to work the songs under more comfortable conditions.
“I heard other bands just finished their songs in the studio, and I thought I’d just be hyper-motivated to finish these,” Chris says. “Then the clock is ticking. Eventually I told Jord and John we need to just cut and try this again.” Jord recalls the difficulty they were having writing in the studio as well, even though they’d booked more time than they ever had before to make the record. Through this incident, Chris Hannah learns a valuable lesson. “Being at home on my own and taking my time…that’s when I learned it’s just how I work. I don’t jam, I don’t come in and come up with lyrics on the spot. It’s never going to happen.”
Five months after their failed session, Propagandhi went back to California and recorded the album. They also planned the extensive layout, having learned their lesson after their first album. On HTCE, the label bugged the band for months for cover art—Hannah submitted black-and-white art he thought was comparable to the Venom records he grew up loving. Instead, Fat Mike chose the cover art himself—baby blue with yellow lettering and cartoon cleaning devices. The band had waited too long. This time, on Less Talk, More Rock, the band would go all in.
When I asked if Fat Wreck objected to any of the decisions the band made on the record, Chris notes that the only sticking point was not having a UPC code on the sleeve.
“At the time, it was seen as a certain level of commitment to commerce—they were emblematic of commercial aspirations.” Though Mike objected, he respected the band’s wishes. Almost immediately, the band noticed that their sales compared to How to Clean Everything dropped by almost half. “And I still don’t know if that’s because you couldn’t get it in a conventional store in the Midwest without the code, or because it said ‘Gay-Positive’ on the cover, or a combo of both those things. Thinking from my own perspective growing up in a rural part of North America, there’s no way I’d have left a record store with an album that said ‘Gay-Positive’ on the cover in the early eighties.”
When Less Talk, More Rock was released on April 23, 1996, it came with a cover photo ripped from a flyer for the 1984 Calgary Stampede. The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to a criticism of some of the band’s shows where the explanation of what a song was about ran longer than the song itself. And to open the jewel case, you are greeted on the CD face by a neatly circled “A” and the band’s core ideals: “pro-feminist/animal-friendly/anti-fascist/gay-positive.”
The CD/LP insert contained long, well-written essays about veganism, capitalism, and other such leftist preoccupations for the group. On the flip side of that, along with the lyrics, were lists of resources where one could go to and further research progressive ideas. Propagandhi had just placed both the roadmap and the key in the listener’s hands, should they be brave (or curious) enough to explore.
The album itself retains the intensity of the band’s debut but slows the tempos and pushes the vocals out front. On the verbosely titled opener “Apparently, I'm a 'P.C. Fascist' (Because I Care About Both Human and Non-Human Animals),” Chris delivers a searing indictment of his “so-called productive friends” who still consume animal products while spouting other liberal ideas. As the song ends, the theme of the album is revealed—“I’ll call you on your shit/please call me on mine.”
In the title track, Chris Hannah challenges all the homophobic fans of the band by bluntly mentioning his own sexual experimentation and daring those who might object to such behavior to sing along. “Cuz if you dance to this, then you drink to me and my sexuality. With your hands down my pants by transitive property.”
Later, Chris notes his own privilege and how it is his (and the listener’s) duty to “whine and kick and scream/until everyone has everything they need.” John K. Samson’s contributions are melodic, personal songs with profound lyrics that sometimes rub against the more out-front and aggressive tendencies of Chris’s songs—though they still share a sonic space, just not a lyrical one.
I relay to Chris that every song on the album has an “I” and “you.” Was this a challenge to the listener? “It was as much a challenge to the listener as it was me challenging myself, and what I believed,” he replies. The content of each subsequent song grows more intense as the band digs in their heels, creating catchy choruses out of objections to capitalism and refusals to conform to strictly male and female gender roles.
“I didn’t think we were doing anything that much different than the first record as we were making it but I remember Fat Mike commenting on the vocals, saying ‘you’re trying to sing.’ I didn’t really understand at the time but I guess I was just being gun-shy since I hated what happened on the first record so much…I was being encouraged to sneer and sing in this nasally way. On Less Talk I was avoiding that but I didn’t know what to do so I was just kind of talking in key.”
When asked how he feels 25 years on from the album, Chris remembers, “It was an interesting moment and it’s relevant—though in terms of ideas, it’s been lapped by society, but there’s stuff in there that’s interesting.” Jord shares a similar sentiment, saying, “It was half of my lifetime ago, but just looking back at the idea that we were putting our theory into action with the songs and the liner notes and other media—in lieu of corporate sponsors or instrument sponsors, we found a sponsor in AK Press, who brought a book table to almost every one of our U.S. shows.” “I have a soft spot for the record and I think it was important for us,” Chris admits. “It’s only How to Clean… that is an albatross for me. And nothing’s going to change that.”
After Less Talk, More Rock was put out at the end of April 1996, a schism developed—or perhaps it’d been there all along and was just now being noticed. Not only was there a minor backlash from fans who expected more of the same songs at the same pace they’d come to expect from Propagandhi’s first album, but the band itself was dealing with divergent interests among their lean ranks.
“I always wanted more out of John,” Chris says. “At the time, even Jord was still doing school…and John’s journey in the world was not necessarily 100% written in stone that he was going to continue with our band. I guess I just wanted somebody the whole time that was as interested in the endeavor as I was. John and Jord were both more passive…Jord was really into it, but I just wanted more out of John. When the album came out, at some point I just realized we’d be better off with someone a little more on our wavelength and he’d be better off having people on his wavelength. I loved when John would come in with a little acoustic thing and we’d work on it, and I loved having John’s songs on the record, but I didn’t see much of a future for it. I was thinking, ‘is the novelty wearing off? Should he fully investigate that while we fully investigate this?’”
“I was finishing a four-year degree in Sociology around that time,” Jord says. “I was getting ready to send out applications for to get my Master’s…and then I just never sent them.”
In the exquisite Exclaim! profile from 2012 which exhaustively covers the entire history of Propagandhi up to that point, Chris notes: “I was so excited to [read in that article] John mentioning that moment where we were trying to play [Venom’s] ‘Stand Up and Be Counted,’ and say he was having trouble with it. I thought then, ‘he’s not having trouble with it because it’s too hard, he’s having trouble because he’s not into it.’ Can I in good conscience be in a band with someone who doesn’t see this as important? And I was just so glad he identified the same moment…so, thanks Venom.”
I mention to Jord that I saw John Samson playing the two songs he penned for Less Talk, More Rock at a show in 2012. “Did he do the upbeat versions?” Jord asks with a tinge of excit. I confirm with a nod, and Jord’s smile broadens.
Todd Kowalski, an accomplished visual artist in his own right, recalls being asked by Chris if he’d join Propagandhi while they were both eating vegan ice cream sandwiches. Considering what Chris had told me about wanting someone all-in on the band, Todd responds, “I wake up at like 8:30 or 9:00 and just start playing…even though I do different things, I’m still dedicated to playing music. I try not to think in terms of a career in either discipline, I just think about the songs and the art separately. I’m dedicated to the work and not the commerce…if I produce good work, it’ll take care of itself and take care of me.”
Fans note that, like Samson, Kowalski writes very differently than Hannah—often penning each album’s fastest or most explosive track. Chris notes the irony but says “even though Todd’s songs are vastly different than mine [much in the way John’s were], there’s more of a spirit connecting us.” Todd mentions the same bands getting him into punk rock as Jord and Chris did in their separate interviews, convincing me of their kinship. I asked Todd if the transition from playing with I-Spy was at all difficult for him, considering that I-Spy didn’t have the consistent backing of a growing independent label like Fat Wreck Chords behind them like Propagandhi did at the time.
“I didn’t really notice. It felt like I was just switching and didn’t realize the difference. Propagandhi then was still purposely playing these kinds of basement shows just like I-Spy was, so it just felt like now I’m onstage playing Propagandhi songs instead of I-Spy songs.”
“In the mid '90s we played all ages shows,” Jord adds. “I only remember playing a couple shows otherwise because there’d be a place where we couldn’t bend on that. A huge amount of our crowd was under 20, so the whole rule of that seemed against the DIY thing. That scene was full of people trying to keep all-ages venues open. Volunteers, doing it for the sake of keeping it special. It was a unique time. I remember one of the last times we stuck to a real kind of all-ages commitment…we discovered there was only one person that was underage. And the DIY joint—the club option that everyone wanted to go to anyways just sounded so much better, and people were just getting hammered in the parking lot and pissing off the owner of the DIY place. We thought maybe it’s time to throw in the towel on this, but that was many years later.”
In the years following Less Talk, More Rock’s release, the band would commit to a number of tours while Chris and Jord founded their own record label under co-op principles, G-7 Welcoming Committee, to distribute spoken word CDs, books, and releases by likeminded bands (including the first two Weakerthans albums). A diligent keeper of records, Jord remarks, “looking over my old day planners, it was just a decade of way too much shit going on. And we overextended ourselves so fucking far, working at this label all day and then squeezing in practices right after. But we were committed to both.”
As I talked with Chris about the impact Less Talk, More Rock had on me, I wanted to see how he felt as a father of two about the album, and his band’s place, in the frightening and chaotic world of 2021.
“I think it’s more urgent than it was in 1996,” Chris says. “And not just because of the kids, but because of the dangerous trajectory that hasn’t gotten better in many important ways. Things are far more complex than things were in my early twenties, and things seem more daunting. So, things are more urgent, but the prospect of the urgency being attended to are more daunting than they were. I took inspiration from Black Lives Matter…there are good things happening but at the same time the world-destroying things are happening at a faster pace.” He adds, “Rather than involving myself in explicitly activist kinds of things, I’ve worked in the past ten years to contribute to my immediate community and demonstrate the kinds of values that make for a better kind of neighborhood, which will spill over into a city. I don’t know if it’s a solution but it feels rewarding and as a community, we are imparting important values into this next generation that’s coming up.”
In many ways, Propagandhi continues shading the blueprint put forth so boldly on Less Talk, More Rock with each new release. In 2001, Propagandhi’s Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes would come with an enhanced CD and large LP booklet that brought things like COINTELPRO and East Timor genocide up for the first time to many fans. Propagandhi’s music, ideas, and dedication inspires the kind of grassroots action for changing one’s immediate surroundings to be more inclusive, accepting, and conscious of the perils ahead while warning the listener that if you ignore oppression or remain idle in progressive endeavors, the path to correcting wrongs will continue to be daunting until it becomes insurmountable.
It is an intense feeling to be introduced and then challenged by new ideas. One need look no further than the newspaper than to recognize there must come a change. But first, how and why it needs to change must be understood. The soil needs its seed. For me, punk rock, Propagandhi, and Less Talk, More Rock proposed a challenge: do you want to see a better world? Because even if you’re born head-first and brought up ankle deep…you can either swim for shore or drown.
Don’t let the fuckers drag you down.
Steven Vineis is an MFA Candidate in Fiction at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He recently received the prestigious AWP Intro Journals Award in Fiction, with his story “Pumpjack” appearing in the next issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review. Other publishing credits include Portals, The Talon, Between the Lines, and The GSU Review, among others. You can follow him on Instagram at @savineis or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.