Talk to Bear Witness and 2oolman and you quickly find out they have a lot going on.
The duo, who make up the eclectic electronic music outfit from Ottawa A Tribe Called Red, have just finished up a residency at the National Music Centre (NMC) in Calgary, where they were playing with the gear that the centre has including Randy Bachman’s pre-amp and learning how to use TONTO, an analog synthesizer once employed by the likes of Stevie Wonder. Oh … and where they were developing a new album.
But they’ve also been working in First Nations communities, touring and giving a TED Talk about their thinking on music-making and community building that is assembled together under the concept of the Halluci Nation. Oh yeah, and they are planning an innovative string of concerts that will feature other Indigenous artists including the 2018 Polaris Prize winner and classically trained tenor Jeremy Dutcher, the violinist respectfulchild and Edmonton’s DJ Creeasian.
Any thought of slowing down seems not part of the Tribe’s plan.
“We don’t like to make things easy for ourselves,” said Bear Witness (aka Ehren Thomas) over a cell phone standing on another piece of music history at the NMC, the Rolling Stones’ travelling recording studio.
The event Thursday evening is, he said, “a different kind of concert. It’s an idea that we have been working on to extend the way we perform in Tribe.”
It’s not a revue or a travelling road show. “Tim and I are more like the backing band for all these artists.
“When we perform normally, we are on stage behind everybody. It’s the way we set ourselves up. We wanted to make a space for these other artists and support these other artists.
The NAC show “is another chance to bring out this idea, to further develop it and add some other amazing musicians to the mix.”
The duo have taken a number of songs from previous albums, deconstructed them and given them a new life suitable for that they call “a sit-down crowd” in a “soft” theatre venue. The goal is to make more atmospheric and nuanced music.
The show remains a DJ set at its core but “not everything being mixed is happening on a turntable,” Bear Witness said. “I feel I am a DJ in the middle of this performance.” The other artists are moving in and out of the mix during the set.
The 200lman says “This is the continuing evolution of what Tribe wants to do … performing wise, producing, we want to grow.”
The duo expect this will become a feature in their repertoire for those audiences that may not want to dance all night.
The broader idea of music-making and community building is what 200lman said was a way to express a concept of “what it is to be human. Basically this is a reminder of how to be a human being and how treat others as a human being. It is something that has existed for a long time. And this is trying to get back to those principles.
“It is open to interpretation, but a lot of it is being a good person and treating others well with respect.”
These days, Bear Witness says, we are “in a time when Indigenous artists are getting attention outside of our community. Look at the winners of the Polaris Prize like Jeremy Dutcher, Tanya Tagaq and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
“We still have to represent our community in a positive way and talk about things we feel are important for our communities but, at the same time, we are not hitting the same glass ceiling that bands before us hit.
“Halluci Nation, I guess could be seen as a reaction to that (past), but it is not a knee-jerk reaction. We also want to acknowledge that our fan base has grown massively outside the Indigenous community.
“It is our way of saying ‘You can be a part of this. It’s an indigenous movement but if you believe in what we are saying you can be part of it too. And it’s not cultural appropriation. It is an invitation for all of us to experience these things together.”
The duo love working in their community as well. Bringing their show to reserves in Canada, they say, is a dream come true. They want to share their experiences in the music business.
There are responsibilities that come along with the success, 200lman said.
“There are other responsibilities that we have had to accept that we weren’t necessarily out to do but we have to acknowledge these things. We have to acknowledge that we have a fan base that is under 10 and one that is over 60,” he added.
“We have to care and have respect for all of those people who are supporting us,” Bear Witness said. “There is a lot of responsibility that is a byproduct of all that. We have made that a priority in our group to take on those responsibilities even though, as you said, there is no time left for ourselves. I’m on the road with Tim more than anybody else on this planet.
“We get along amazingly well. That makes it possible to do all this work.”
Bear Witness learned about the road along time ago.
His mother is Monique Mojica, a respected actor and a founding member of Native Earth Productions, and his grandmother, Gloria Miguel, and great aunt, Muriel Miguel, are legendary figures in Indigenous theatre in North America.
“I am a theatre baby. I learned so much from those women. I always say I have been bred to be where I am today. My family goes back four generations in the performing arts.
“I tried to run from it but it stuck with me. I learned how to live on the road. How to survive what we do. I feel it every night. That’s why it doesn’t matter how sick and tired I am when it comes to the curtain call, my energy is up and running.”
He said he pursued other careers including video art, but performing is just in his blood.
“I tried to keep myself off the stage but it didn’t work out.”
He still is a practicing video artist. He’s even done a recent commission for the Ottawa Art Gallery, but most of his video work now is for A Tribe Called Red.
That’s probably more than enough
NAC Presents A Tribe Called Red
With Jeremy Dutcher, Creeasian and respecfulchild
Where: Babs Asper Theatre
When: Nov. 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca