How quitting A Tribe Called Red pushed Ian Campeau to connect more deeply to his Anishinaabe culture
After trading the music business for social activism, his biggest priorities are finding meaning and humility
I Fell Out of Love is a series of frank conversations with artists untangling the messy relationships between art, passion, work and money. Do you need to love what you create? Does seeing art as work make things easier or harder? What follows is a conversation about making art: the philosophies, the realities — and the drive to keep doing it.
In 2017, Ian Campeau — also known as DJ NDN — left A Tribe Called Red. Campeau was a founding member of the group, who released their self-titled debut in 2012 and shook the Canadian music scene with an exciting blend of electronic and powwow music. Routinely long- and short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, they released their last conceptual record, We Are the Halluci Nation, in 2016, showcasing Indigenous performers like Tanya Tagaq and Maxida Märak. A Tribe Called Red embody the idea that Indigenous music didn't need look or be a certain way; representation is crucial to their ethos.
But despite the group's success and impact on the industry, Campeau had begun to tire from the relentlessness of touring and struggle with what it all actually meant to him. So he left the group to pursue social activism full-time — work centered on Indigenous issues, cannabis, mental health, race and gender, among other things. Soon, Campeau was speaking to and working directly with organizations, promoting messaging of representation and equality. He continues these efforts today and is also very deep into re-learning about his Anishinaabe culture, including taking language classes.
Campeau's relationship with art, and its ties to work and money, is complicated by these new cultural teachings. Here, the advocate talks about the importance of creativity and how art can appear anywhere — but adds his intention is to approach all things in a humble manner and, importantly, with meaning. The latter is particularly crucial to Campeau in how he thinks about not simply music but any of his work going forward.
Sarah MacDonald: When did you decide you wanted to make music? Was it something you felt a calling to do?
Ian Campeau: I guess it was as a teen, because I got my first drum kit, I believe, for my 13th birthday. Once we got the drum kit it was basically on. [We played] every day after school. I was also playing basketball, but I quit because it was cutting into my jamming time with my bros [laughs]. Little punk skaters listening to NOFX and Propagandhi...
SM: Those are the people I hung out with in high school, too — guys who would be like, "I jam after school."
IC: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. It was just what we did after school for two or three years — very creative. I met a lot of great people that I still kind of know during those days. One of them actually became a very famous drummer in one of the most famous bands in the world: Jeremy Gara from Arcade Fire was kind of in the same sort of group. We'd play the same coffeehouses and stuff. He was in a band called Racing Strip with two girls from my school.
SM: What did you enjoy about the ideation, creation and execution of art?
IC: I guess where it started was [with music's] political sort of affiliation. We wanted to say something, like Propagandhi almost. There was some political motive behind it. But it was also about drinking and skateboarding, so it was...yeah. You know, it was very much the Fat Wreck Chords, Epitaph, early '90s-type thing...As a political tool, I still think it's incredibly important, even if you're just conveying an emotion or a viewpoint that's not necessarily seen. Like I said, I grew up listening to music about partying and drinking, and going to house parties specifically. And then, all of a sudden, I hear Alessia Cara's song "Here," and it's the same party but from a completely different perspective. We were at the same events but our experiences were worlds apart. Like, she did not want to be at that party at all [laughs]. Art transcends class, race and patriarchy. I think a lot of these things get broken down [in music] and then get into spaces where they aren't normally allowed. For me, it's a way to vent emotions and talk about what I'm doing, but it's also creating a connection to a lot of people. I think people need to know that whatever emotion you're putting out there is really important. You're creating something that's really collective — that other people will experience, too. It's therapeutic. There are a lot of things to creativity that are extremely positive and important.
SM: Do you remember the first time you felt that your art became work with A Tribe Called Red — something routine or not as creatively fulfilling?
IC: When we got deadlines [laughs]. All of a sudden we started getting deadlines, and they were like, "You should probably have the record out by this time." Like, what do you mean? "You should get these songs by this time." Well, we never really did it like that before. It was a different pressure. It was around the Nation II Nation album when we started getting these deadlines. And then with the next album, we were like, "Maybe we should have this done by this time, and then this thing by this time — this studio time." It wasn't, "Hey we've got some time off — let's go hang out and work on some music."
SM: Did you feel like you had to do things at certain times because of the public perception of you and fans investing in your work?
IC: Yeah, that and just having management, you know? We had a team of management, agents and representation. We needed to put out an album to get a tour together. I remember [this one time] specifically when we hadn't named any of our songs yet. After a gig, we sat down in the lounge, ordered food and our management was like, "We're not leaving until you name these songs." We had to sit there and name the songs [laughs].
SM: Do you think you have to love what you do creatively?
IC: Do you have to love something? No, I really don't think you have to love something to put it out, to be creative. Because I know there are songs that I put out that I don't love — I think they are good but, you know, they aren't the "jam" on the album. There are songs I appreciate more than others. And there is art that I've seen that I hate and, because I hate it, it moves me and I appreciate it. For example, the spider outside of the National Art Gallery in Ottawa — it terrifies me. I hate that thing. But I love it because it terrifies me. It creates this emotion in me. Same with horror movies.
SM: What drives you to create? You said earlier that politics is a big part of music in your mind, having a message and saying something. Is this what drives you in general?
IC: See, what I find is that no matter what you do, you should be doing it with meaning — because if you do it with meaning and purpose and attention, that's where happiness comes from. Happiness isn't something that can't be pursued; happiness ensues from doing meaningful things. If you're doing meaningful work, you're going to be happy. When you get caught in monotonous work that doesn't mean anything, people get really depressed — and it's hard. It's not what we're supposed to be doing.
SM: In an interview with CBC Radio, you mentioned that John Trudell once told you that "you should never be proud of the things you do," but "be proud of what everybody else does and do things so that people are proud of you." I know John meant a lot to you. What did you take from this sentiment?
IC: When I got that teaching, we were about to go to Australia for the first time. I'm still digesting it and figuring it out. Yo, Sarah, since I left tour, I've been learning and reclaiming a lot of culture, and it's been super heavy. I literally feel like I woke up from the Matrix and received my invite to Hogwarts at the same time...[But] that teaching from John Trudell was [essentially] about being humble. You know, as a human being, as Anishinaabe, we're taught to always be humble, always be humble. You can't have pride and humility in the same vessel — they are competing emotions. They can't exist in the same being. So you can't be proud and humble at the same time. You're supposed to be proud of what people around you do and try to do things so that those people are proud of you.
I recently learned why we're supposed to remain humble [as Anishinaabe], and it's that we have a different understanding of the hierarchy on this planet — of where human beings stand in the hierarchy of beings. The first and most superior beings belong to what is called the physical realm, and it consists of beings that exist by themselves and don't need help to exist. Specifically, celestial beings: the sun, the moon, the Earth, the stars — all those beings that just exist. A day is its own being. The West is its own being. The wind is its own being. After that come the plant beings, the plant realm. The plants only need the physical realm to exist. They only need the Earth, sun and water — that's it. After the plants come the animals, and the animals only need plants and the physical realm. And after animals is us.
Since I left tour, I've been learning and reclaiming a lot of culture, and it's been super heavy. I literally feel like I woke up from the Matrix and received my invite to Hogwarts at the same time.- Ian Campeau
We need plants, animals and the physical realm — but none of them need us in any way, shape or form. When we need anything from any of these beings, we're supposed to approach them with the same respect that you'd approach somebody you need something from. They don't need anything from you, so you come with gifts. We always brought tobacco. You had to be extremely humble. And if they said no, you wouldn't take it. If you go to a plant and explain to this plant why you needed it, you'd give it tobacco, you'd try to take the medicine. If there was any resistance, you left it. It didn't give consent. It wasn't ready to give you that medicine yet. So you go to the next one. They are superior to us.
Even deeper than that is sexual assault: that's a colonial concept. That was brought here. Because we respected plant beings for giving medicine, [and] sex was handed down as the most important medicine to us. It made us happy and it gave us life. It was the most important medicine we had. If we asked plants for consent for medicine, we obviously asked other human beings, right? It's such a foundation-shattering understanding of where we are and what way we're supposed to be living. It's been really heavy.
SM: How do such teachings affect your work now, with your focus on doing things with purpose and meaning in mind?
IC: Now I'm just trying to get this information out there. I'm doing a lot of speaking engagements. I found it more meaningful to get these messages out [than continue with touring]. I was really depressed and lonely while touring — and most of my time was spent touring. I feel I make more of an impression in discussing wealth redistribution to bank CEOs, which I have been given the opportunity to do — that this is more meaningful work than to be happy onstage for an hour.
SM: This leads me to my next question about art in a capitalist system. Do you believe art can survive in a system that's so deeply concerned with monetary return?
IC: Art has to. Another huge, huge thing I have learned about the destruction of the Indigenous way of life — empirically, all over the world — is that the game put on us is capitalism. I have this analogy. Our understanding of all of these things, our way of life was this one way. Indigenous people were out playing Uno and settlers showed up, and we were like, "Welcome! Let us show you Uno and the connectivity and how this works." And the settlers said, "Now you don't play Uno. Now you gotta play Monopoly." And we were like, "That doesn't really work with what's going on here. Let us show you." And they said, "Now you don't pass go, you don't collect $200 and you go straight to jail." And we were like, "What's $200 and what's jail?" And they were like, "If you want to know the rules, now you gotta go to Monopoly University." "Well, how do I get into Monopoly University?" "You need money." "Well, how do I get money?" "Well, you gotta get it from me because I'm the bank, so welcome to Monopoly." Right?
This game of comparing our resources to currency is not a game for us to win. We knew the true value of our resources. The true value of an apple is that if I eat it, I'll live until tomorrow. The true value of an apple isn't $1.25. This is exactly what happened in Africa, Australia, in South America, everywhere Indigenous people were eradicated because there was a commodification of our resources. They put a currency on our resources.
I feel like I make more of an impression is discussing wealth redistribution to bank CEOs, which I have been given the opportunity to do — that this is more meaningful work than to be happy onstage for an hour.- Ian Campeau
[I'm also learning], pre-contact, what songs meant. Songs were very personal, and one of the very few things not necessarily shared. A song had its own life; it was its own entity. And here's what I am learning in language: there are no gender pronouns. It's all me, you, they, them — all neutral. There is a "they," "them" plural, and a "they, them" singular, and it's all in how you conjugate it. There is a gendering, but it has to do with animate versus inanimate. It's not sexes; it's more like genre.
SM: I remember, a long time ago, you and I talked about how you loved living on a farm, and about getting what you need and not necessarily what you want. I'm thinking about how that might extend to your creative pursuits.
IC: With all this stuff I'm learning now, it's coming down to intent. You gotta realize your intent in anything that you do. With art, specifically: what do you want to do with your art? What do you want to do with this song? Do you want to change the world and make people think a different way? Do you want to make a ton of money? What is your intent?...Living on a farm has really helped me realize what intent means. What does it mean when I grow this ear of corn? My only intention in growing this corn is feeding my kids. When you buy an ear of corn, the intent that goes into that corn is to make money for that corn. They are going to invest in the soil, pesticides and other things to make money instead of looking out for your health, because [maintaining] your health isn't their intention — making money is their intention. We really have to assess why we are doing things, and living on the farm helps with that; it helps with where I put my creativity now. My creativity now is based around how can I help get these ideas out there. Right now, I'm putting up a book club on Instagram of Native authors. I'm trying to put up language posts and stuff, too. I'm trying to put ideas out there that are meaningful.
SM: It's been almost two years since you left A Tribe Called Red to pursue other work, which includes activism. Do you see activism and social justice work as forms of art?
IC: Yeah, definitely. To be active is to be creative. There's a serious culture war going on right now. Being creative and making media, just making content, seems to be the thing. I listen to this podcast that takes place in L.A. [that features] a lot of type-A industry people, and they bring up how kids today — just from YouTube and their cellphones — already know how to edit and how to do lighting. They are leaps and bounds ahead of people who have been in the industry for 30 years. Creativity, and art, I think, are everything. And they can be anything. People can argue that being a CEO is art...
SM: Could you imagine a CEO calling themselves an artist? I mean, Steve Jobs probably did.
IC: Exactly! See what I mean, though? That's a good blurring right now.
SM: Any of the so-called geniuses like Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, pick someone else from Silicon Valley — they would probably say what they do is art.
IC: For sure. And it just makes me gag.
SM: How do you see yourself using all of this knowledge you have gained — which I know you are still absorbing — into music making down the line?
IC: Making music was fun and all, but it wasn't as fun as playing music, you know what I mean? DJing a club, creating emotions and creating that vibe — getting people to do things specifically by playing certain music — that was fun. I can't wait to get back into that more. I've been doing some of that; it's been good. As far as creating music, I'd rather be in a mentor position than anything — like help kids come up because they are smarter than I am. They are going to blow my mind, and I want to be around to see it happen.
This interview has been edited and condensed.