An Interview with A Tribe Called Red

Alex J Eccleston

Now responsible for a whole new genre dubbed  pow wow step, Canadian group A Tribe Called Red are hailed for blending elements of bass and electronic music with the distinctive vocals and drumming of native aboriginal Canadian song. Alex J Eccleston met the trio in Berlin before their concert at Urban Spree earlier this month.

As I meet A Tribe Called Red, their great, exciting second record has come out the day before, the sun is shining and they’re happy and relaxed before playing their first show in Berlin. Before I even start recording, the topic of the ‘residential school’ system for aboriginal Canadians is brought up. I am told of children being deliberately taken away from their homes, their hair cut off and given new Christian names. Even their ancestral languages were strictly forbidden from being used, if the children were found speaking it they would often be beaten and there are even stories of teachers inserting pins into their tongues of their pupils.

After slightly embarrassedly confessing my total lack of knowledge of the topic I soon find out that most Canadians know about as much I do. Despite this, I’m amazed to learn that after being made compulsory by the government in 1920, the last school of its kind only closed down in 1996. I’m struck by how openly they are discussing such dark and negative parts of their culture and country’s past.

Do you somehow feel a responsibility to talk about these issues and does that come with a particular pressure?

Well of course we would all love to just make music. But that just isn’t a reality for an aboriginal artist. Everything that we do is political, whether we want it to be or not. The fact there we’re still here living and surviving is political! If we get up in the morning and live a normal life, even that is political because in the culture that we live in so much has been done to stop that from happening.  I think that also goes back to our own culture which is inherently holistic, in that you don’t split up the spiritual from the political or from everyday life. So although it is a responsibility it is just something that happens naturally. There are many other aboriginal people trying to do the same thing as us with comedy, political statements and of course other musicians. Basically we are all just trying to talk, start the conversation. Things have been messed up, and in some places are right now, but we need to discuss things and talk it out.

Where did the idea to form the group and mix genres like this originally come up?

When we first started we really just wanted to throw a party. There were already lots of important cultural parties happening in Ottowa, there was a Korean one, a Jamaican one, so we just wanted to try one for First Nations people and hoped we could get some people to show up. So we did the first one and it completely sold out to the point that we hardly knew anybody in the crowd! which was very unique as we had grown up in this community. It turned out that a lot of them were kids from rural communities who were in town for studying and they hadn’t really felt comfortable going out yet. There was no space where they could really be themselves. All the feedback we got was very positive and we kept on being told “you guys have to keep doing this!” So from there we kept doing the nights and started adding songs that we had mashed up adding pow wow music to genres like dubstep and then people really started going crazy! We all just took the idea and ran with it. It was a totally organic process and a great way for the sound to grow.

There has been a long tradition of an older form of music ‘going electric’ or adding a contemporary element, do you see yourself as part of that lineage?

Yes In a sense, but the main difference comes specifically when talking about the tribal music scene. In the past it was never the people actually from those communities who were in control of making the music and putting it out there. You see that happening all over the world, but I really think we are the first people doing it for themselves using the music of North America. Though saying that, I think there is the beginning of a world movement of some kind. It seems that aboriginal people everywhere are having the same kind of ideas about moving forward, balancing traditional knowledge whilst incorporating modern aspects. Whilst we started out just wanting to make music for our own communities, even just putting this music in a club environment you can really start to see the universality and power of a beat or a song.

What do you have planned next?

We have a very ambitious year planned with this album and all the touring. We also want to get a collaborative album out with emcees and musicians who are friends of ours. We have cellist friends and singers and are looking to collaborate as much as possible. In fact touring helps in some ways because when we are in their cities we can just set up a few mics and get some stuff recorded. The concept behind it would be something like how Mark Ronson works, in that we would set up the band and the singer, then arrange and produce it so it’s our album. It started off as wanting to have a platform for mainly First Nations artists in Ottowa and now we’re really decided to branch out further. We’re very excited about the future.

A Tribe Called Red’s second album Nation II Nation is out now, available for streaming courtesy of Noisey. Their self-titled first album is available for free from their website