Five Questions With… WHOOP-Szo's Adam Sturgeon
The socially-conscious indigenous rock band has a new album, Warrior Down. Here, the band's leader discusses the making of the record, the inspirational impact of a family tragedy, the group's evolution, and the wisdom of a free van tow option.
By Jason Schneider
On its new LP Warrior Down, out now on You’ve Changed Records, WHOOP-Szo presents a vast and barren landscape associated with the harsh truth of Canadian history, a post-colonial firestorm harbouring moments of doom and heavy introspection while remaining true to their psychedelic aesthetic.
Based in Guelph, Ontario, WHOOP-Szo is a force of nature, sprung from a mixed-blooded experience of Canadian history with deep Anishinaabek roots. Thunderous and harmonious all at once, a WHOOP-Szo show envelops audiences in an emotional storm that dances between anger and hope. The music tackles colonial injustice loudly, but can also turn on a dime to themes of wisdom and empowerment with acoustic melodies finding space within crushing layers of politics and sound.
Warrior Down harnesses the group's power into a concise, focused 35 minutes, calling out both specific instances of injustice in Canadian history—such as the murder of bandleader Adam Sturgeon’s cousin by a Saskatchewan RCMP officer on the song Gerry, or recalling Sturgeon’s grandfather’s experience at a residential school on Cut Your Hair.
On stage and off, WHOOP-Szo engages communities with a powerful message that invites people to feel and to heal. We spoke with Adam Sturgeon following the conclusion of the band’s run of dates marking the release of Warrior Down.
What was the process like making Warrior Down?
It was written over several years in various isolated locations—an old church in a small Inuit village, and in a cabin on a lake in Northern Ontario. Each song flowed out of experiences faced by family, by a nation and the turmoil those realities bring. Sometimes the songs came quick and heady, and others unfolded slowly and surely.
What song on the record are you most proud of and why?
Gerry is a song that we try to make people aware of. I wouldn’t be playing music in all likelihood if it weren’t for my cousin Gerry and I took his murder very hard. This song is used to heal, and so it holds a special power in my life, and it feels as though it lends others a great sense of empathy… and rage. Nonetheless, I use it as a release of all that pain and a way to honour my cousin, who did not deserve to die.
How has the band evolved since you first got together?
We started almost a decade ago as an experiment. We had no goals other than to explore new musical territory for ourselves and never expected anyone to listen. Over time, we’ve morphed into a touring machine. We have reveled in the production of live music and have become well known for this. It’s funny because a lot of our early material did not translate into a live experience. We’ve been a solid core of the same individuals for over five years now and are proud of our accomplishments together, but still have a lot of goals—new places to see, new songs in our heads, tires to wear out in our van.
What’s been the biggest change in your life over the past year?
Some of us are parents now, so we don’t go on tour for six and seven weeks at a time anymore. We’ve had to focus our efforts to be the best parents we can be, but also to continue to take the time for our passions in music. Change has affected each of us differently in this process, but it has helped us understand what is at stake and reconnect with all the things we love about each other and the music we make.
What’s your best touring story?
We have broken down on the side of many highways many times, and have several interesting stories to tell. We’ve had to get good coverage for our vehicle, and each year we rifle through our free tow options. One recent time we hit a pothole in rush hour in Montreal and destroyed the rim on our van. We proceeded to get a tow from Montreal to Toronto, which is over 500km. Incidentally, it cost us less to tow our vehicle than it would have to drive that distance. Later we joked how we should finish the tour getting pulled to each venue.