The Conflict of Being Whoop Szo

We spoke to the Ojibwe musicians about keeping with their traditions while still doing things that bands normally do.

Aug 27 2014, 8:30pm

I began as a skeptic of Whoop Szo, deterred by descriptive phrases like ‘psychedelic art pop’ that made me want to barf up my gluten-free granola and buy a leather jacket. But it wasn’t long before the Ontario band had me reconsider. The collective has perfected their eclectic sounds, binding the paradox of indistinguishable familiarity with themes of Canadian history, language, and culture. Their 2009 debut EP, Where I Dream is Where I Live, introduced me to a fusion of dream pop and folk–not the kind that makes me want to burn down the closest Urban Outfitters–but rather an album with comforting airy vocals and introspective melodies.

Five years later, I can’t ignore the chilling peacefulness amidst familiar reverberations in their latest body of work. January 2014 saw the release of the double-album, Pt. 1 – Qallunat and Pt.2 – Odemin. In May, the band released its most recent LP, Niizhwaaswo. While all three contain remnants of recognizable playful airiness, they also convey a more nuanced, weathered sentiment on humanity. Minor chords, complex sounds, and clever lyrics demonstrate their growth and maturity.

Perhaps this maturity was nurtured through new surroundings in the northern Inuit village of Salluit, Quebec, where founding members Adam Sturgeon and Kristen Palm completed all three musical endeavors. The duo spent a year implementing a collaborative arts and silk screening project for local kids. With help from the Ontario Arts Council and Brighter Futures, the project aimed to explore themes of colonialism and marginalization through different mediums of art. These themes are also prevalent through the recordings, with each album and track title deeply imbued with cultural meaning. I recently spoke with Adam, founder of Out of Sound Records and Whoop-Szo front man, about his time in Salluit and the music he recorded there.

Noisey: How do you say Whoop-Szo?
Adam Sturgeon:
We get that a lot. It’s pronounced “wup-zo,” as far as we know.

What does it mean?
It’s from a book called “I heard the Owl Call My Name” by Margaret Craven, a really interesting Canadian author. It’s about a priest who was sent to the Pacific Northwest to live in an indigenous community. He had an appreciation of where his place might be in that community, so he just took his time and existed amongst the people, and then slowly became apart of it. He ended up dying in the story, but it’s just an interesting start to things. We didn’t have any set plans when we started the band or anything like that, we were just sort of exploring ourselves.

Did the story influence you to live in Salluit for two years?
Yeah, I mean, it’s perhaps more relatable for Kirsten because she’s not native. I don’t look native, but I am. So, my education, training, and cultural background is in working with indigenous communities, and that’s why I was there. She went as a schoolteacher. And she’s just someone I really connect to, as far as being a really good ally for those communities. With that being said, going to an Inuit community, I was a guest, because I’m Ojibwe. So that’s what the first part of our album is called, Qallunat. That usually means white person. We were there for pretty much an entire year. Kirsten was there longer than I was. We took our time setting up the program. So there are similarities, I would say.

But your recent works seem pretty sad to me.
Maybe there’s certainly an air of sadness, but I think that that’s just like, kind of a reflection of Canadian history. It’s sad. I mean, as far as making and playing music, we like to vibe out, connect. We get pretty heavy, quiet, psychedelic, and out there. I guess that’s dark, yeah. I don’t know if it’s any different, I’m not sure. I just think it’s all part of the experience. I can’t put anything I do artistically in a box, we just see where it takes us. I mean I guess we’re like a folk band and a metal band at the same time. Folk has darkness and so does metal (chuckles).

Was your writing process different in Salluit?
For sure. I mean, I think that the first album specifically is really fragmented. There was a lot of cabin fever. And going through the stress of living through situations where there’s no groceries, or no water, or no heat, and you have to go to other people’s houses for your showers. It’s like being on tour actually! But, it was beautiful. That’s it.

Tell me about the silk screening program.
The grant that we got through the OAC was called the Brighter Futures grant, to introduce entrepreneurial skills to young people. The kids had to apply for the job, interview for the job, and then go through the process of training and stuff like that. I silk screen and make art. And that’s like, what gives me my joy in life. That’s my passion. So I was there to share my passion with the kids. And also there’s a lot of issues with getting school equipment up there, like getting supplies. Often you have to order everything from the south, and it costs so much to ship it up there, so why not have the community make their own stuff–Do their own posters, do their team jerseys, stuff like that. So it just fit really well. But our decision was made many years ago, and it’s often felt like it was kind of beyond us. Like we didn’t have a choice. It’s just the way it was gonna be for us, is to do this type of stuff.

How does being an Ojibwe man influence your music?
Well, I mean, it’s definitely difficult. Like I often have to play in bars. That’s not really part of the ceremonious aspect of my culture, not the stereotypical. But I’m in a place where I’m able to share myself, have a voice, and I wanna continue to share the stories about, you know, the different song titles, and what those mean. And that’ll help me remember it, and keep growing with it, in a way that’s cyclical, or spherical, so that I don’t make the same mistakes over and over and over again in my life. You know, it just gives me a sense of guidance or direction, that’s how it shapes me. By no means does it mean that I’m gonna bring my drum and a sweat lodge to the bar, but that’s what I do in my personal life, you know, that’s what I do for me, and for the people that I’m close to. But with music, it’s to be shared, it’s to expose a certain light on a dark aspect of history. And to figure out how to move it forward in a good way. To make people aware maybe. You know, it’s a bit confusing, but I’m sort of just figuring it out.

Why don’t you like to play in bars?
The indie rock community, or all the other bands that I love and respect, generally I build those relationships with people on getting to know them, and sharing with them. And that’s a part of who I am in my culture. But a lot of times, you don’t share values with the band that you’re on a similar bill with. They’re disrespecting women in their songs, or after the show, or, you know, bars are trying to pay you in drink tickets, or the bouncers are really aggressive, and you have really sensitive people in your band that are trying to release something, and its scary for them. It’s scary to go onstage and share yourself, and a dark dingy bar is not a place of healing. But music is healing. And when society is in trouble, they tend to go to music to find a place of peace. So it’s not demoralizing, but it’s compromising to my integrity. Or it’s like throwing yourself in the fire a little bit. But that’s what I’m put here to do. To share it. You know, when I throw shows and stuff like that, I try to do it in safe spaces. I don’t feel like London, Ontario really has that. Guelph does. Guelph is a really great place in general. The whole, entire community is really connected. But you don’t have that in London. And so, we hardly throw shows in bars. And it’s not really to disrespect bars or anything, it’s just that my belief is that they’re not as welcoming and inviting. But, you know, that’s par for the course.

What’s your favourite city to play in?
Quebec City. Hands down. Quebec City understands culture and oppression. Not to say that they haven’t been guilty of their own means of that in their building of relationships and Canadian history. But they do know what prejudice looks like on a constant basis. So when we go there and talk and share with that community, we see a community of like-minded people who get together and organize. Maybe that’s just the community that we’ve been able to associate with there, but yeah, it’s quite beautiful. I mean, we’ve had really great experiences in Ottawa, too, it’s a really intellectual sort of a city. Those sort of places are where we like to be. Festivals, too, you know, they’re always, like, kinda vibing.