Chris Hannah, lead vocalist and songwriter in the Canadian hardcore punk band Propagandhi, grew up outside of Winnipeg with a near certainty about two things: The right wing was right, and Iron Maiden reigned supreme.
Today, he still speaks fondly of his childhood fascination with heavy metal, but he has distanced himself as far as possible from the politics of his youth, fronting a band known for its leftist crusades against Western imperialism, capitalism, homophobia, and environmental recklessness. "My parents weren't jingoistic; they were just people living in the military," Hannah says in a phone interview from Winnipeg. Growing up in a small Royal Canadian Air Force town, he did what children do when they are only exposed to one worldview: Buy in, wholeheartedly.
In one of the early Propagandhi songs, the scorching 1996 skate-punk anthem "I Was A Pre-Teen McCarthyist," Hannah sings of being "born head first and brought up ankle deep," writing an essay in school about the global threat of communism, and spending his spring break one year on a military base in the Carolinas. "And maybe you're a lot like me / Identified for 14 years without a choice / Terrified the morning you woke up to realize / When you jump ship, you can either swim for shore or drown," he sang. "Don't let the fuckers drag you down."
If the song sounds like an "It Gets Better" ad spot for closeted liberals, that's probably about right. It was music, after all, that broke Hannah of his earliest beliefs. He remembers traveling with childhood friend Jord Samolesky (now the drummer in Propagandhi) into Winnipeg once in the early '80s to check out the record shops. They were hunting music by the likes of Slayer, Celtic Frost, and Metallica, but instead they stumbled on an absurdly abrasive punk band called Millions of Dead Cops. The name alone was a middle finger to the authority he'd been taught to respect. And then there were the song titles: "Violent Rednecks," "John Wayne Was a Nazi," "Corporate Deathburger."
"The MDC record turned my world upside down," Hannah says. "I looked at it, saw the song titles and the lyrics, and said, 'This is fuckin' crazy, man. These people — these are communist freaks.'" In the cataclysm of power chords and shouted vocals, he heard for the first time pacifist pleas, rants against organized religion, and expressions of unrestrained rage against something called the police state. And slowly, as he listened to the record and considered the radically different worldview that it represented, he realized the commie punks were right.
Some time after the conversion, Hannah and Samolesky found a bassist and started churning out snotty, joyous skate punk with all the subtlety of a hockey fight. "We just wanted to play at the local bar and provoke the skinheads," Hannah says — and it worked. "They fucking wanted to kill us. That definitely hasn't changed."
Their music caught the ear of NOFX frontman Fat Mike, who signed the band to Fat Wreck Chords and helped them launch a career that would include its own share of in-your-face song titles. A sampling: "Bullshit Politicians," "Ego Fum Papa (I Am the Pope)," "Haile Sellassie, Up Your Ass," "Stick the Fucking Flag Up Your Goddam Ass, You Sonofabitch."
As the band morphed into a tightly wound, highly technical hardcore punk act — 2005's Potemkin City Limits is a bona fide genre classic, with nods to Hannah's metal roots — they also found other ways of speaking out. When they won a songwriting award, they vowed to donate the $5,000 proceeds to the Haiti Action Network and an organization helping refugees in Winnipeg. This spring, when a parliamentary bill threatened to gut environmental regulations in Canada, the band dusted off an old song, "Free John Hinckley," and offered it as a free download on Bandcamp alongside a link explaining the current political debacle.
Hannah is the first to admit that he's not the perfect activist. In "Note to Self," the first track on this year's Propagandhi album Failed States, he calls himself out: "How does it make you feel to know you just stood by and watched it?" Over the phone, he explains the lyric: "In a way, it's about my own tendency to not be as engaged or responsible as I should be and to sort of passively defer to the prevailing order by just passing the time, like we all do, finding things that entertain us in our lives, even though we're on the cusp of possible fucking global immolation. It's insanity that I'm sitting there watching professional hockey instead of being out on the streets organizing."
And he knows that railing against the prevailing order is still easier to do in Canada (and in the U.S.) than in most other parts of the world. The song "Rattan Cane," also on Failed States, is dedicated to "the 'emos' in Iraq and the 'punks' in Aceh Indonesia."
Wherever he goes on tour, Hannah seeks out the punk underground. It's still there, he says, even if it sometimes sounds more like metal or hip-hop.
"I've seen it all over the world," Hannah says. "Every city has this scene that exists below the radar, where the shows kind of have the vibe that shows used to have back when I started going to punk shows in the '80s. They're not sanctioned, there's no security guards, there's no barriers, they're kind of ragtag, and they're wild, and it's very visceral and high-energy, and I still think there's compelling, exciting music and politics involved in those scenes."