Propagandhi from Winnipeg, Canada are to many people, myself included, one of the most important bands to ever create music. Their four albums, from 1993’s How to Clean Everything to 2006’s Potemkin City Limits, harness some of the most interesting and exciting music released by any punk band, with the most perfect lyrics completing the picture.
The band have spent their near twenty year existence championing anarchist and vegan causes with essays in inlay cards, and videos on their CDs. Potemkin City Limits moved the band even further than 2001’s Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes in terms of musical dexterity and lyrical mastery.
I caught up with Jord Samolesky, the band’s drummer and co-founder, at their Tunbridge Wells show, in Kent, on their recent tour of the UK. We chatted about how time flies, what the individual members had been up to whilst the band had been preparing the new album, Haiti solidarity work Jord has been doing and various issues of Canadian popular culture.
LH: When I was speaking to you three years ago you were talking about how you were starting work on the album. How come it took so long?
Jord: It seems our recording plans don’t always work out how we intend. Doing home studios is so much easier these days but it does open Pandora’s box because you can never really put a final date on it. We kept going on and on and on. There were some complications with the guy who started recording us; he’s the live sound guy for No Means No, and he kept going off with them on tour and then scheduling became a nightmare.
We tend to take our time with most things anyway. Time goes fast, and we’ve never been a band to stick to any deadlines anyway.
LH: What have you guys been doing outside of the band in the interim then?
J: We did a tour last year, but ended up going on a hiatus for a couple of months this year. I was working part time at a group home in Winnipeg and spending a lot of time on an activist project. I’m pretty involved with a local chapter of this group, Canada Haiti Action Network. We do solidarity work with Haitian groups based in Haiti, bringing speakers and film makers to do informational tours across Canada, to help expose Canada’s role in what’s going on down in Haiti with the United States and France.
It’s a pretty interesting project, it’s really, really well organised. It’s in all the major capitals of Canada, so it’s a very, very developed network of activists. It’s a good experience because there are people from all different walks of life. It’s probably the best organised activist project I’ve ever been involved with so it’s exciting to watch it move forward.
LH: The rare creature. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in something well organised.
J: It’s still subject to the same frustrations. Keeping people’s interests in something that’s pretty low on the media radar and considering most activists have their fingers in a lot of different pies. For example, when the Afghanistan issue starts picking up a lot of people start helping out with that and the Haiti issue gets dropped a bit, and Palestine stuff as well. It’s normally the same cast of characters involved in a lot of these things. When one of these things gets busy the others seem to drop by the wayside.
LH: Is there a big group of people involved in that sort of stuff in Winnipeg or is it fairly isolated?
J: I think for the size of the city it has a pretty solid activist base. That being said, relative to everything else, it’s very, very small. You’re wanting these things to popularise and get thousands and thousands of people involved rather than a few dozen. Hopefully this sort of work will get more people involved in a deeper level, rather than just being passive consumers of activist culture.
LH: Do you ever feel there’s a tension between your part in the punk scene and activists scene and the fact they don’t often meet?
J: It’s an ongoing thing, trying to integrate both of them at the same time and doing our best getting things happening. I think with this tour, with all the stuff that’s happening in Winnipeg, we didn’t really do a great job in getting in touch with people to come out to the shows here and do activist tables and that sort of stuff that we normally integrate into our shows in North America quite successfully.
I’m so busy with so many different things going right now that’s the challenge for me, keeping myself organised. I spread myself so thin sometimes that I need to give myself a break here and there; spending time in my garden!
LH: Do you feel a pressure of being ‘Propagandhi’? You guys are slightly on your own in terms of size and outspokenness. A lot of people hold you up in very high esteem. Do you ever feel the weight of other people’s expectations?
J: Over time we’ve considered that slightly less and less. We used to feel that we had to say things between songs and all that sort of stuff. It got to the point where you’re standing up at the mic, and you’re exhausted trying to play songs. You don’t want to just stumble across your words or anything. Usually we have a literature table with us and we more or less started deferring things that we used to spend a lot of time on stage talking about to. Having those elements present at the show and that would suffice to let people know where we’re coming from.
At the Toronto show on this past tour we had a range of groups from animal rights groups, to Haiti solidarity groups, to groups focusing on Palestinian issues. They’re all set up right by the front door so everybody has to see it as they’re going in and they manage to get a tremendous number of people being interested. We tend to not put so much pressure on ourselves to deliver speeches because we’re not effective at engaging on certain things. People are generally out to see the tunes. I think at times in the past we might have actually alienated some people away from just blabbing too much on stage and not playing enough. Now we pretty much keep that stuff to a few comments and pretty much rip through the set. I think that takes a bit of the mental pressure off us in that way.
LH: You mentioned that there’s a few dozen people being active participants in Winnipeg; we have a similar issue in London, or where you only have a few hundred showing up for a demo. Why do you think it’s the case, is it just the historical period we’re living through or has it always happened, and will always happen?
J: I think one common thing in Canada, and I’m sure it’s the case in a lot of Western countries, is a lot of them are students and so when summer months hit they either don’t live in the city, or they’re working or doing other things elsewhere. It seems there’s always a challenge of keeping things moving over the summer months. If you take a break getting it going again when September rolls around it’s a huge, huge undertaking in getting a similar level of momentum going. We just dealt with that issue in Winnipeg. It took us a couple of months to get things going.
There’s this group called the Friends of Grassy Narrows. It’s basically this reserve for indigenous people and they’ve been seriously fucked over for a long, long time. They’ve been relocated a number of times just to benefit international corporations. Now they’re getting seriously logged by a Japanese company and another one based in Quebec. That’s another group that has been pretty successful and they can be really hands on because this is only a three hour drive from Winnipeg. People go out there and take caravans of supplies and equipment; helping out on the blockades and stuff. They’ve fully blocked off highways and won’t allow these loggers to get in there.
You see a lot of solidarity actions in the city and a lot of students go on out there and camping out with the people. It’s pretty encouraging. There’s just a lot of different issues and they’re all so important. I think that’s a major thing. It’s hard because you need increasing memberships for these things, it can’t be the same people doing it all the time, and burn-out is a huge issue as well. People get fed up and become incapacitated by their own frustrations of things not progressing to how they want it to. People are really passionate about these issues, but when it’s the same thirty or forty people coming out to a film showing or fundraising event people get frustrated to the point where they become completely inactive.
LH: Why Haiti? I think we’ve had maybe one solidarity action here in the UK, is it specifically because of Canadian government involvement?
J: Canada ostensibly didn’t back the Bush war effort in Iraq, like France, even though there’s a lot of corporate involvement and a large amount of economic involvement. In terms of Haiti, when Canada didn’t go down there, what the Liberal government at the time decided to do was to support them on issues that were way under the radar. They knew they couldn’t go into Iraq because public opinion was so against it. They would have lost way too many votes. I don’t think it was any political conviction of the people in that party at all.
Haiti is something where they could get involved; there wouldn’t be a high death rate – there’s only been one Canadian killed in Haiti. They basically went down there and overthrew the elected government. It was a coup d’etat and I think that’s been proven. There was a secret commando force, the JTF2 that was involved in securing the airport for President Ariside’s forced departure. They took him across to Africa. The American marines were pretty in there and there was collusion between the Canadian state and the Americans in this international crime of getting rid of this guy who was voted in on a 13:1 ratio. Nobody fucking wanted the other pro-IMF, World Bank candidate. So they flew him off.
In that time they’ve basically gone through the standard chapter of Latin American or Caribbean history; they’ve put in the dictator with an ‘interim government’, which was primarily selected by the United Sates government and they just got them to sign all sorts of fucking agreements to continue basically raping the country’s resources.
Interestingly enough Haiti is pretty much the poorest country in the entire hemisphere. 99% of it’s original forests have been cut down. And that’s pretty much a lot of hardwood that’s furniture in France these days. I don’t know what the exact minimum wage was but under Ariside they pretty much doubled it and that got rolled back when this interim government was put it place. It just slashed the prices back down to people pretty much making a dollar a day or something like that.
I just can’t fucking stand that shit. In a country the size of Canada, you can actually lobby, and get in touch with maybe even some sympathetic politicians to turn this into a debate. It appealed to me on a few different levels. It wasn’t getting any attention at all. I read a couple of books on Haitian history and became more and more interested in it overtime. Through doing this we managed to get in touch with Caribbeans and Haitians who are living in Winnipeg who are pretty passionately involved and think this work is critical. It’s a good group that I’m happy to be supporting.
LH: It seems like indigenous struggle seems to still be a big thing in Canada?
Jord: I think that’s a huge issue. It’s just going to get more intense in the future for sure. I think that’s a very large issue for Canada, more so than for the States because Canada didn’t annihilate the natives physically. They more or less tried to assimilate them by destroying their cultural institutions and forcing them into residential schools, where they were basically not allowed to speak their languages, and were forced into Catholicism and stuff like that.
I think the fall-out from that is very apparent in cities like Winnipeg where it’s just completely out in the open; you go into a poor neighbourhood and see what the ethnic component is and it blows your mind. We live in an inherently racist society and our country presided over what is literally genocide. There is a large number of indigenous people and their resistance is growing as their population grows relative to the white population. Native resistance is constantly swept under the rug by the media, but it’s consolidating too, which is also interesting. You have entirely different indigenous cultures growing in solidarity with one another. There’s stuff going on in Quebec where people travel across the country to show support and do road blockades.
LH: Do you ever feel under pressure by being on Fat Wreck and being perceived as being put into their pigeon hole?
Jord: We’ve been increasingly alienated from our punk rock contemporaries who do the Vans Warped Tour and all these fucking package things. Everybody basically falling over each other to gain endorsements. Take a look at the Warped Tour’s fucking sponsor list!
LH: And the fact they have the Army recruitment there.
Jord: I suppose it shows you how insidious and fucking low these business people are that they try to take over this form of music and co-opt it so that it’s just like a candy bar commercial. It’s fucking embarrassing.
I’d be surprised if we did a record with them again to tell you the truth. I think it’s basically gotten to that point. Especially with all the stuff that happened with that whole Punk Voter thing, and there was a whole lot of inside weird shit that went along with that. I don’t know. They’re really good to us in a lot of ways. We’ve been friends with a lot of people who have worked there over the years. But it’s just not something that we’re down with.
We’re way up in Winnipeg so we’re not really part of that scene. We’re seeing it from quite a distance. We didn’t really go on tour all that much in North America. Everytime we did it was increasingly depressing, and to see what’s being done to punk rock it’s just a fucking joke. We’re not happily going along with the whole thing. It’s something that we’re pretty strongly against – the business involvement in music. Why do these bands need these fucking sideshows for selling videogames to kids, that are otherwise becoming more and more alienated with corporate globilisation, and all the anti-free trade stuff and the WTO protests and how youth culture is such an important part of that. Then you have punk rock more or less re-legitimising capitalism for all these kids. It’s fucking horse shit!
LH: Do you hold with the idea that if we all stayed totally DIY then it would become big enough to support larger bands. That’s the usual justification, ‘Oh we couldn’t do this size of a tour without whoever.’ Do you think it’s possible to just do it ourselves?
Jord: It’s existed that way in the past. To tell you the truth it would give the music a nice shot in the arm. It would probably diversify things and you don’t have to have a corporate shit-stick hanging in front of your face that demands you sound exactly like NOFX. I think punk is fucking dead and gutted. A lot like the way hip-hop has.
But at the same time there’s simultaneously a DIY underground staying pretty hardcore true to its roots. I got so sick of listening to punk rock about six years ago that I just turned it all off. I can’t fucking stand it anymore. I know a lot of people are doing a lot of cool things it’s just not my time to be re-integrated into that scene. Plus my hearing’s going!
I think there’ll always be an alternative DIY culture. It will just be interesting to see what forms it will take in the future, to see what happens with the sound of things from the early 90s to now. I’m surprised that it went on for as long as it did and garnered that much support. I suppose it just shows the power of money to dictate the fucking interests of what kids like to wear and listen to.