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Remembering Things

20 Years Ago, Propagandhi Antagonized the Punk Scene with ‘Less Talk, More Rock’

The seminal album actively challenged their macho fans to think differently, whether they liked it or not.

Ron Knox

When legendary Canadian punk band Propagandhi released their sophomore album, Less Talk More Rock, 20 years ago, life for the band changed dramatically. Half of their early skater-bro audience vanished, turned off by the band’s increasingly openness about its political views. Bigots and outright Nazis turned up at their shows, hoping to start a fight with the band. The album was antagonistic, particularly to Propagandhi fans who had little interest in being challenged, musically or politically, beyond their comfort zone of vaguely angry punk that was cool to mosh to.

It was all part of the band’s plan.

“That was probably one of our most conscious decisions we ever made,” founding member Chris Hannah told me when we spoke last year. Once the band realized people would listen to their music, they shed the goofy skate-rock pretense that came along with their debut LP, How To Clean Everything, and got down to the business Propagandhi has been in ever since: pushing the discourse surrounding punk music beyond its standard parameters.

Hannah called Less Talk a typical, hyper-serious political record that people make in their early twenties. He’s right, and that’s fine. Punk bands have been making precisely this kind record for generations, and oftentimes they become the records that help reframe punk’s social and political conversation. Starting with Less Talk, the band embedded itself in a progressive punk lineage of bands pushing against the traditional—and sometimes oddly conservativeboundaries of the genre’s political sensibilities. Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys started American punk’s broader political conversation. Downtown Boys and G.L.O.S.S. continue it today.

But at perhaps the height of punk’s popularity as a genrethe same year Rancid’s ...And Out Come The Wolves earned gold record certificationPropagandhi released an album defending gay rights and veganism, questioning heteronormative standards, and sampling a Noam Chomsky lecture about Mayans in Chiapas, Mexico. The subject matter of Less Talk was novel even in the punk world, and perhaps unlike other political punk bands, the distribution of Fat Wreck Chords and the general popularity of punk at the time ensured the band’s access. It was 1996, and skate shops and otherwise mundane record stores around the country stocked an album, the front of which said, in bold letters: gay-positive, pro-feminist. “They didn’t have to order it from [punk mail order] Blacklist in San Francisco to find out about it,” Hannah says now. “It was accessible. It found people like us, living in small-town Manitoba.” It was a meaningful thing.

For young people interested in the political education punk could provide, Less Talk meant even more.

The opening lines of Propagandhi’s first record, How To Clean Everything, made clear that the band intended to challenge its listenersas if Hannah and his bandmates had calculated the kind of audience they would attract while touring with NOFX and releasing albums on Fat Wreck Chords. “Dance and laugh and play, ignore the message we convey,” Hannah sings in the records opening verse. “A rebellion cut to fit, I refuse to be the soundtrack to it.” Of course, Propagandhi in those days were far more concerned with the scene in front of them: the knuckleheads and punk bros of Winnipeg, who would show up to the shows looking for a fight.

Three years later, when Less Talk came out, Hannah and drummer Jord Samolesky had indeed aimed their disdain at their newfound audience. Their crowds typically teemed with jocks and bros who had little interest in Propagandhi’s politics, and Hannah had little interest in making them feel welcome. "Everybody was just into snowboarding and eating fried chicken in an SUV," says Hannah. "We had a sense that if we just did this… like, How to Clean was provocative to the scene, but we can fucking antagonize the scene like we've never antagonized a crowd before,” Hannah told Canadian culture magazine Exclaim, which in 2012 published definitive history of the band. “That wasn't the goal, but we can do two things at once."

That unspoken primary goal Hannah referred toaddressing what he saw as the scene’s unmentioned social maladiesremains at the core of Less Talk. For those not pushed away by the band’s message, the record created this set of ethical guidelines “The record succeeded for people who were already alienated by society,” Hannah says.

On food and music blog Rice and Bread, music editor Jason Schreurs and Greg Pratt, who also wrote the excellent Exclaim story, tried to unpack how they felt about Less Talk, and struggled. Pratt wrote that the album was “deeply entrenched into my being.” The album insert itselfthis poster-sized grouping of lyrics, essays, and progressive resourceswas overwhelming when he first saw it.

Schreurs agreed. “It was like being exposed to Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky for the first time if you were studying political science,” Schreurs wrote. “And, of course, we were studying punk records, so it’s kind of a different world. I don’t pretend to be a political science major; I’m a guy who learned that stuff through music. So getting this album really opened me up to things.”

The album wields such power because it is so starkly honest. On the album’s title track, Hannah describes a same-sex experience he had when he was just nine years old, and then another when he was in his twenties. It was an open challenge to the thickheaded fans in the crowd: If you're going to mosh to this song, you're moshing to a song about a same-sex experience. "If you dance to this, then you drink to me and my sexuality. With your hands down my pants by transitive property," the song concludes.

“Your macho shit can’t phase me now,” Hannah snarls on the song, and while such sentiment may have indeed repelled much of the band’s SoCal pop punk following, it was like a magnet for those who never felt particularly macho and who bristled at the scene for harboring exactly those elements.

Some parts of the hardcore scene have always been welcoming to tough guysjocks in reality or at heart who go to the shows, bust a few heads, and go home. But for those who didn’t align themselves with that part of the scene, Propagandhi, and the Descendents, and Fifteen, and Bikini Kill, and others wrote the book on what it meant to be a punk. For them, Less Talk was the opening chapter.

More than anything, Less Talk exists as a fork in the road for Propagandhi. It signalled a change in the band’s trajectory, from an overly earnest pop punk trio to the genre’s most consistently heavy and progressive crossover band. The songs on Less Talk captured the sound of a future version of the band, one with a second guitarist and infinite riffs, free to belt out the churning speed-thrash Hannah and drummer Jord Samolesky had perhaps always envisioned.

For the casual Fat Wreck Chords fan, the album probably sounded like a sophomore flopa band experimenting with a new direction in spite of its prior success. But now, two decades later, it’s clear the album was Propagandhi’s first confident stride as a band after their popular but internally disappointing debut. Songs on Less Talk are faster, heavier, punctuated with narrative storytelling and bursts of genuine thrash. “Rido De San Atlanta, Manitoba,” a 40-second shotgun blast of a song that immediately follows John K. Samson’s emo-pop anthem, “Anchorless,” is a clear sonic prequel to songs the band would write after former I Spy singer and guitarist Todd Kowalski joined the band: Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes’ “Fuck The Border” and “Superbowl Patriot XXXVI” from the deeply underrated Potemkin City Limits.

That’s not to suggest Less Talk sounded like future Propagandhi records. That’s not the case; the band has grown and progressed and changed in innumerable ways since then, and on a spectrum, Less Talk sounds far more like How To Clean Everything than it does the band’s most recent release, 2012’s Failed States. Rather, the songs and sounds on Less Talk were a snapshot into the musical future of everyone in the band. “It was an interesting fork in the road,” Hannah says, “where you can see the potential of both bands and where they are both served on their own.”

Just as Less Talk was the beginning of the Propagandhi that exists today, it was also the beginning of another, far more popular band: Samson’s indie-rock darlings The Weakerthans. Samson left Propagandhi during the Less Talk tour, and some hard feelings lingered for years after. But Samson’s contributions to the album, “Anchorless” and the melancholy “Gifts,” altered the record’s emotional makeup, adding shades of warmth and heart to an otherwise starkly political album.

In the 2012 Exclaim story, Samson said his two songs on Less Talk helped shaped him as a songwriter, and indeed Samson and The Weakerthans re-recorded “Anchorless” for the band’s debut album, Fallow, and the song stuck with the band long after Samson’s time in Propagandhi faded into history. “[T]hose two songs were the first songs where I actually felt like I was making steps towards being the kind of writer I wanted to be,” Samson said.

For a new generation of punk kids in 1996, no other band exposed young listeners to the educational possibilities of punk like Propagandhi. It was the first band to provide them with those primary sources of informationto impart actual, physical literature by people like Zinn, Chomsky, and others that they may have never come across otherwise.

But to reduce the band’s influence to a handful of books or lefty authors betrays what really matters about Propagandhi, and about Less Talk More Rock, specifically. To young people, often the most accessible emotion is anger; lord knows the world provides us with infinite injustices and indignities at which to direct it. More difficult at that age is to cultivate real compassionnot just for those things and people close to you and familiar, but for those who experience life in an entirely different way than you. That’s Less Talk’s real gift: Encoded in Hannah’s punk snarls is a message of true love for things and people and ideas we as punk listenersmany of us white and male and privilegedmight not have taken the time to understand otherwise.

So we listen. We put the record on the turntable and lift the arm into action. The needle digs into the grooves of the vinyl, and the record wobbles on the table, and Hannah’s voice projects and penetrates, equipped with this idea that we’re hereanimals, people, different genders, sexual preferences, these dumb constructsand we’re all together, the same more or less, and actually there are much larger forces out there in the world we should be worried about. And suddenly, the world opens up before you.

Ron Knox is on Twitter - @ronmknox