Propagandhi Interview - Todd Kowalski | ThePunkSite.com
Starlite Room - Edmonton, Alberta
Saturday, October 24th, 2009
Propagandhi are one of Canada's most prolific political punk bands around. With twenty-three years under their belts, five full length albums, two EPs and countless splits and compilation appearances, they have had a very impressive career. I sat down with bassist Todd Kowalski last weekend during the first night of their two night stand in Edmonton to talk about their career, touring and the political punk movement.
Bobby: Starting with the basics, you guys are on this short, ten day tour. Is it nice to be back out on the road again?
Todd: Yeah, definitely. Last night was good. We were still getting the hang of it but we’re ready to rock.
Bobby: For this tour you teamed up with Ticket Workshop as opposed to Ticketmaster. What made you decide to do that?
Todd: Well everyone knows Ticketmaster is a monopoly. They take so much money off people for each ticket. What’s actually enforcing it though is nowadays people just go and check on Ticketmaster to see what shows there are and if they don’t see the show on Ticketmaster, they don’t even think there is a show. So it hurts us in a way. Times have changed. People going to buy tickets at record stores and that… It’s kind of sad and stupid, but there’s nothing we can do about it.
Bobby: At least tonight’s show still sold out. So people are still going out of their way to buy tickets even if they’re not on Ticketmaster; which is definitely positive.
Todd: I think there are certain places where they are more Ticketmaster cities. It’s kind of a bummer, but oh well.
Bobby: Next week when you guys are in Calgary you guys are doing a Halloween show. Do you have anything special planned for the Halloween show?
Todd: We will by the time we get there but right now we’re still planning.
Bobby: On November 7th, you guys are doing a one off show with Sacrifice in Winnipeg. How did that all get set up?
Todd: We’ve been friends for a long time with Sacrifice; not due to our band but due to the fact that we’ve been fans since we were fifteen and we just kept contacting them and encouraging them to make more records. Just professing how much we like them and over the years we became friends with them. Now that they’re back and they’re going to play, our friend Cory is bringing them to Winnipeg and to make sure it all happens, we’re going to play too.
Bobby: After this tour you guys are doing the He’s From Barcelona Tour 2009 in the UK with Protest The Hero and Strike Anywhere, are you excited for that tour?
Todd: Yeah, yeah. It should be good. Go over there, play our shows and come home.
Bobby: For your tour schedule you guys do it differently than most bands. You normally do ten days here, two weeks there as opposed to some bands that go out and tour for two months straight. Why do you decide to do the shorter tours?
Todd: We want to make sure that we have fun every time we go out and play. Also we have stuff we do in Winnipeg that we like. We don’t want to be people who are wasting our lives away on the road. We want to have fun and get the most out of our existence I suppose.
Bobby: Yeah, you have more to do than just tour all the time.
Todd: Exactly. I think it shows for the people. If they know that you’re on your eighth day. If you go to see Iron Maiden and it’s like their two hundredth show, they can’t possibly be having fun.
Bobby: It’s much more scripted when they have two hundred shows in a row as opposed to more spontaneous with the shorter tour.
Todd: Yeah, exactly.
Bobby: When you guys were touring in support of Potemkim City Limits, you guys did go to some places that were quite off the beaten path like South Africa, Chile, Costa Rica, Panama City and so on. Do you have plans to hit places like that in support of the new album?
Todd: We hope so. We might go to China, we’re not sure yet. We’ve been wanting to go to Mexico, China, South Africa and Eastern Europe – like Croatia and those places.
Bobby: I know Strike Anywhere did a Eastern European tour a few years ago so they could probably give you some advice for how to get out to Croatia and stuff like that.
Todd: And they just did Russia actually too. Last year I think.
Bobby: Now you guys, throughout the years, you guys have gained a certain amount of punk rock cred and you are now cited as influences. Do you ever find it weird when you are listening to a record or a song and you hear a reference to you guys? I’m thinking specifically NOFX’ Marxist Brothers. Is it weird hearing a song and “hey, they’re talking about us!”?
Todd: I think those NOFX songs are so laughably embarrassing for themselves. Like we enjoyed it, yeah of course, but they think they’re making fun of Chris but they’re making fun of Glen Lambert – that character that Chris kind of made up as a joke in the first place. So it seems like they missed the joke and kind of made a double ass of themselves by making that song.
The first time that someone made a song about Propagandhi or Chris or whatever was this band from Winnipeg. They made a song called “Hey Chris Hanna, Does Ska Really Suck?” Now that I enjoyed; I remembered I watched the show and I thought it was funny.
Bobby: I want to talk a bit about the Glen Lambert years a bit since you brought it up. What made Chris come up with the pseudonym for the album? Why did he decide to just suddenly go by Glen Lambert for that album?
Todd: He just wrote it in the liner notes, there wasn’t much thought. Like it seemed like a big plan, but he just changed the name in the liner notes and people noticed. I don’t know.
Bobby: Were you surprised with how easily and how quickly people believed it? Even going so far as saying “this guy is trying so hard to sound like Chris.” Were you surprised at the reaction to it?
Todd: Yeah, there was that and other people saying that he doesn’t sing as good as Chris. It makes no sense. There was even a picture of Chris in the album. Not that you need to know what he looks like; but you’d think your ear would be able to tell it’s Chris.
Bobby: I want to go back and talk about your cred a bit. I was reading an interview you did with Exclaim magazine where you said “a kid in Gambia wanted a sticker for his donkey cart while he was working to build a well." Is it surreal thinking about the global reach that Propagandhi has had?
Todd: Yeah, for sure. People ask for us in Malaysia, China, South Africa, everywhere; it’s kind of cool. We don’t want to impose ourselves on different places. I’m hesitant to be one of a sea of Western bands that want to go and bring punk to all the places. That’s one hesitation we have but I don’t know, we try to learn about other places. Musicians from different parts of the world and other people’s cultures in Canada too. We try not to be a one way street.
Bobby: You guys are a very political band; you have been since you started. Back in 2003/2004, political punk did become sort of the in thing. Everyone was trying to do it, with Rock Against Bush, Punk Voter, and all the major labels were signing these political punk bands. Was it weird seeing all these bands getting credit for the political punk movement, something you had been doing for almost twenty years at that point?
Todd: It didn’t seem like that to me; it seemed like more that they were embarrassing themselves because they didn’t take the time to learn. Kind of jump into a lake without learning what’s it’s all about. To me you have spend day after day reading and trying to learn and follow the news, otherwise you come out with the opinion “Anybody but Bush!” And it’s just embarrassing. I thought the whole thing was embarrassing. I thought the credit or whatever they were trying to get for being political was so lame and misguided that it seemed so bad.
Bobby: But do you think that it was at least good that it got people starting to talk politics again as opposed to just the love songs or whatever? To get people to at least to start thinking about it?
Todd: You see, I almost found it a little worse because they were just sending out the party line that the two parties in the States want you to think. Yeah, you have your two choices between these parties and that’s what those Rock Against Bush were really saying. That was their message, whether Fat Mike admits it or not, they’re message was “Vote for…” I can’t even remember his name.
Bobby: John Kerry.
Todd: Yeah, John Kerry. It’s just wrong. They failed. If for some reason some kid started taking note for whatever reason, it’s to the kid’s credit – not those fools.
Bobby: Tom Gabel from Against Me! once said that when you call yourself a political punk band you usually end up aligning yourself with certain people or companies that have agendas who end up using you to further that agenda. Have you ever run into that problem? That people are trying to just use you and your stance to further their own agenda?
Todd: Yeah, we usually just don’t. Every choice comes back to the band eventually. Like you can say no to anything. Sometimes even we’ll get stuck doing something where we don’t… It’s more like the shows are in a weird order and we have to wake up and drive further than we want, you know what I mean? But it’s because of the fact that we ignored an e-mail earlier or they showed us the dates and we didn’t go back and say “hey, we don’t want to do this.” So everything’s sort of in your court. So the mistakes that are done in Propagandhi’s name is because we overlooked it because there’s only so many e-mails you can answer. But if it keeps happening over and over, you can’t blame it on the management; you can’t blame it on a corporation using you. If you don’t want to be used, don’t do it.
Bobby: Ultimately it’s your choice to do what you want and to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
Todd: Like we have a manager because we can’t be on a road and play seventy shows in a year and book them all and do it. But we also tell him, here’s the type of shows we don’t want to play. We don’t want corporate shows, we don’t want to play festivals with corporate sponsors, and we want tickets to be sixteen bucks instead of twenty fives bucks. You know what I mean?
Bobby: Yeah. You don’t want Ticketmaster, you want something that doesn’t gauge your fans with service fees that aren’t remotely applicable.
Todd: Yeah, and they work within that and sometimes they make a mistake or the club tries to do something that nobody knows about. That’s happened to us a couple times where we find out the show’s twenty-one bucks. It back fires too because then there’s not as many people who want to come.
Bobby: I remember Fugazi always wanted their shows to be five bucks, so when they went up to a show and it was eight bucks they were like “well, we told you to put it for five bucks.” So they’d put signs up saying “We told them to make the show five bucks, we don’t know why they made them eight. Complain to the venue.” Stuff like that.
Todd: Also, just as a little aside about five or six bucks….
Bobby: Nowadays that’s not feasible.
Todd: Yeah. It doesn’t work. It kind of worked for them too because they could go off of record sales at a time when records were really selling. Ian MacKaye was living off of Minor Threat, you know what I mean? It’s not something everyone can do. If they want to do it all year round; if I went away and played seventy shows, you’d have to quit your job, you have to do this. By the time you’re thirty five, you can go home. It just wears you out I think.
Bobby: Throughout your career you guys have also always aligned yourself with different organizations. When Supporting Caste came out, you did a donation download program for the first two songs of the album asking people to donate to Partners in Health, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and peta2. How do you pick which organizations to work with?
Todd: We just look around and see what we like, just like if you were to do it. Go on your computer, talking to people you know, organizations you see around your city that you think are doing a good job.
Bobby: I rarely ask this question but my favourite song on Supporting Caste is Dear Coaches Corner and I just want to know what instance on Coaches Corner inspired that song?
Todd: That was written by Chris. He took his niece to a hockey game, a Women’s National World Championship or whatever that was in Winnipeg. There was the national anthem and there were soldiers, I guess, who were propelling down from the roof. So that mixed in with seeing Don Cherry at other sporting events – like every sporting event has that. If you watch any type of fighting or anything on TV, you’re going to see a whole bunch of army commercials. Like what does this little competition between two people have to do with real war? Or hockey, innocent competition turns into war mongering. Which is one reason why I actually don’t like sports; like I’ll play it or whatever and I’ll have fun, but watching it? I don’t need to see professionals. They’re good players but man, the whole system and scheme of it, it’s a bummer.
Bobby: Supporting Caste was originally going to be released on Fat in the US but then you decided to release it on G7 and Smallman Records. What made you decide to release it on G7 and Smallman?
Todd: We just thought it would work out better. We thought people would try harder at Smallman and they have. It’s gone way better. They’ve tried a hundred times harder. We just had that feeling and it was right.
Bobby: Back in February right before Supporting Caste came out, Chris did an interview – I think it was with PunkNews – and said that you might have a record out within two years.
Todd: We’re hoping. We’ve got twelve songs, pieces of twelve songs going already; like pretty far into them.
Bobby: Of course, two years is a lot sooner than your normal cycle which is normally like four or five years. Why the two year span this time?
Todd: I think he was just giving an optimistic guess. It will probably be two and a half or three. Although, I guess really, our record only came out in March so we’re only half a year away right now so that could be possible. I always think back to when we recorded the last one which is actually a year.
Bobby: Okay, I guess that’s about it. Thanks a lot. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to add?
Todd: Maybe just check out a book called A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah.