20 Years In, Propagandhi's Still Swinging

When Propagandhi announced a Dallas tour date, excitement gave way to puzzlement as people realized that the band, whose songs convey more than a mild distaste for religion, would be playing The Door, a venue most people associate with its teenage Christian rock nights.

Only, this week, don't expect that to be the case.

"It won't be when we get through with it," Propagandhi frontman Chris Hannah says with a devious chuckle over the phone from a tour stop.

With a new record and a new(ish) lead guitar player, it's nice to see that the veteran punk group, even after two decades of touring, has kept its edge. And, by the sound of things, that edge has only become finer with age. Asked whether the band would have booked the venue if they'd known its background ahead of time, Hannah takes a reasoned stance.

"There are plenty of places whose values don't dovetail with ours," he says. "You could spend all your time looking for these perfect venues that don't actually exist in real life."

For a singer whose back catalog includes titles like "Stick The Fucking Flag Up Your Goddam Ass, You Sonofabitch" and "Ska Sucks," this attitude comes off as especially nuanced.

"Well, you know, we were teenagers when we wrote those songs," says Hannah, who was recently voted Second-Worst Canadian of All Time in a survey by Canada's National History Society. (After encouraging people to vote for him, Hannah was narrowly edged out by former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, but came in well ahead of Celine Dion.)

But the band's latest effort, Supporting Caste, also displays a maturation in Hannah's songwriting, as well as a shift in the band's sound away from palm-mute heavy to just plain heavy. The song "Dear Coach's Corner" exemplifies both of these qualities. Hannah describes its inspiration: a trip with his niece to a women's hockey tournament. "All these army guys rappelled from the ceiling and my niece asked me 'Why do they have guns?'" The song is an open letter to the hosts of the CBC's popular hockey segment, and starts with an audio clip from the show: "Let's talk about good guys. Let's talk about the troops." Had the song been written back in the '90s, Hannah might have just savaged the hosts and been done with it. Instead, the song starts with a question: "I'm writing in order for someone to explain to my niece the distinction between these mandatory pre-game group rites of submission and the rallies at Nuremberg..." Then he addresses Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean personally, sensing a "spiritual connection" over hockey: "We might not be the same, but it's not like we're from different planets."

As for Hannah's attitude toward religion, well, Supporting Caste tackles this topic, too. In "Tertium Non Datur," which is Latin for "there is no third possibility," Hannah discusses his lack of faith in the binary of "good" and "evil," directing his ire at "black and white" value systems and the leaders who enforce them, exploiting the innocent-sounding "human impulse to explain." Compare this with another line he once wrote ("Fuck religion"), and you have to appreciate the tempered rhetoric on their new record.

The other big change on Supporting Caste is new guitarist David "Beaver" Guillas. He's been with the band for almost three years now, but this release was his first time in studio with the band. Asked about the Beaver's contributions, Hannah's response might best be summed up as "peace of mind."

"He makes playing live fun again," Hannah says. "It's not a chore anymore. Reproducing the songs sounds more authentic to the records."

When it comes to songwriting, the Beaver also opens up weird new possibilities, Hannah says: "He can play the keyboard, too. Maybe on our next record, we'll get him to play a giant church organ. Naked." But jokes aside, Hannah says, Guillas' playing has helped refine Propagandhi's sound all these years later. "We jammed and everybody couldn't believe we didn't have a lead guitar player before. It was generally out of ignorance and neglect that we didn't have one."

For now, things sound like they're looking up for Propagandhi. Hannah certainly sounds happy with the band's direction.

The true measure of success, however, will come if Hannah ever takes the title of Worst Canadian away from Pierre Trudeau.