Music

How a new EP and name are helping Status/Non-Status interrogate the effects of colonization

The band formerly known as Whoop-Szo questions who holds status — and who doesn't.

The band formerly known as Whoop-Szo questions who holds status — and who doesn't

'It's been my whole life in many ways, but the reconnection process to culture, it's been 10 or 15 years as well.... And I've learned a lot about my family and our history and the true stories around that, why maybe we were disconnected.' — Adam Sturgeon (Savanah Sewell)

"The first song I wrote was called 'Boozhoo,' and I was just learning how to say the word hello [in Anishinaabemowin]," says Adam Sturgeon, lead singer of Status/Non-Status.

He smiles at the memory over a Zoom call from his home in London, Ont. Sturgeon, whose grandfather was of Potawatomi descent, is detailing the work he's doing to connect with his Anishinaabe community, including learning the language. His grandfather suffered through the horrors of the residential school system, later giving up his Indian status in order to be granted Canadian citizenship and join the military to support his family. It was a cultural and communal severing, and Sturgeon, a community worker as well as a musician, works at the reconnection daily.

The day before our interview, Sturgeon went for ice cream with his son, who immediately identified a bird in Anishinaabemowin and not English. "When he goes for a walk down to the river with his daycare, they're calling it the Thames River. And he's like, no, that's the Deshkan Ziibi," Sturgeon continues. "That's an important part of reconnecting for our family. This is our story, and there's nobody that can take that away from us."

The work Sturgeon is doing explains why you may not (yet) recognize the name Status/Non-Status. The band's former name was Whoop-Szo, which garnered a Polaris Prize long list nomination for 2019's Warrior Down, a full-length album that punched through genres of rock, psych and folk to unleash Sturgeon's family story to fans — a powerful album detailing the devastating effects the colonial system has had on both himself and those closest to him.

Two years after that release, Sturgeon wanted there to be a visible change in the band alongside a new EP release, called 1, 2, 3, 4, 500 Years.

"It's been my whole life in many ways, but the reconnection process to culture, it's been 10 or 15 years as well," he says. "And I've learned and grown a lot through that process. And I've learned a lot about my family and our history and the true stories around that, why maybe we were disconnected. So I thought that maybe it's a good time to help raise the level of awareness of what people understand."

The idea of status and non-status is maybe a little bit of a jab at the Indian Act, but also a way to create more awareness.- Adam Sturgeon

"I think that the idea of status and non-status is maybe a little bit of a jab at the Indian Act, but also a way to create more awareness," Sturgeon continues. "And then also to be very upfront, this is who I am. I'm obviously very passing white. I understand my privileges. I do the work in my community. And as an artist, I think I have a bit of responsibility, but a little bit more responsibility than non-Indigenous artists. There's a little bit more on us there."

Before he came to the London Indigenous community, Sturgeon, who is "non-status" according to the Canadian government, says he wasn't sure whether he was supposed to be an ally or whether he was supposed to assert his identity. "What I realized is that my last name carried a lot of weight and I was able to get connected to other people with that same name as me and start to learn those connections, learn about where our family name is connected to those communities," he explains. 

His writing on the band's new EP reflects another side to that work. Sturgeon and bandmates Kirsten Kurvink Palm, Joe Thorner, Andrew Lennox and Eric Lourenco (as well as featured musicians Jose de Jesus Ruiz Gonzalez and Jesus Canibales) recorded 1, 2, 3, 4, 500 Years in 2018, when they spent some time in Guadalajara. Sturgeon was struck by the similarities between London, Ont., and Guadalajara's colonial histories, where the former was named by colonizers after the British capital and the latter was named for the conquistador who came from the Spanish city of the same name. Sturgeon and his bandmates were connected to the city through a music exchange via the Grislar label. They spent two weeks in Guadalajara with friend, musician and tour guide Alvaro Marino, who helped them understand the city's colonial history. 

While the band is never worried about genre boxes, this EP is mainly a snapshot of the band's time in Mexico, and features a couple of sound collages plus a live show staple: "Genocidio." It's a short project that's been waiting to see daylight for two years, thanks to the pandemic. But because things in Canada still can't be open for live music right now, Sturgeon says he's grappling with the experience of releasing music that speaks to something so personal to him without having the outlet that performing brings.

I'm here to take care of myself and my family and try to get that connection as best I can.- Adam Sturgeon

"I'm just looking to keep moving forward," he explains. "You know? Maybe the album Warrior Down, I thought I was ready to put that out into the world and maybe it became a bit triggering. I feel like I am experiencing those same things again right now and so I'm navigating how that feels. But again, I feel responsible to do that. And so it was nice to put things to bed and start fresh, too."

"It's not a finger-point at any one thing," he continues. "It's just a mechanism, right? That the policies and procedures that affect us as a non-status person —  what do I have access to or not have access to? What do I need versus my belonging and identity, you know? All those things. So I'm here to take care of myself and my family and try to get that connection as best I can."

1,2,3,4, 500 Years is out now via You've Changed Records, and read on for Sturgeon's track-by-track guide to the EP.

'Find a Home'

"'Find a Home' is a song about loving yourself, I think. It's a traveling song, sort of — I think you can feel that. And so that was bringing me some sort of solace in that experience where you're in that doldrum of wonderment. But it was comfortable and it's kind of an older song that I was writing and reworking and yeah, just about accepting and loving yourself wherever you are on your journey.

"I think it's relatable for people, especially right now, so that's why this old song idea got new life, because these last few years have been really about searching. The things that we were doing in the past aren't really holding up. And we're looking for new lenses and new language around what we are. Being comfortable with yourself and knowing who you are and accepting yourself for all your good things and flaws — it's really the only step you can take, the first step. So I wanted to put forward that [I'm] comfortable with this, with myself."

'Genocidio'

"It's a fan favourite…. And so we've played that song for a long time as well and we just thought that that would be the right type of track to take to Guadalajara to share in that experience. Guadalajara is the place where slavery was abolished in the early 1800s and they have a colonial history as well. And so as part of our collaboration with other musicians, we wanted to do something engaged like that. 

"And to me, genocide or genocidio, it's really finding us in lots of different nuances in our world. When I walk out the front door of my house, there's a road. It's not a beautiful forest and hunting ground anymore, right? I have to put gas in my car to go do my job or even to do all the things that I love or to get my basic needs and necessities. So that song is kind of sarcastic in a way, it's just touching on all of those ways where, just when you think you've got a grip on doing something right, you've gone ahead and stepped on someone's toes or purchased the wrong thing, that's supporting something that you don't want to support. How do we navigate that? And the song ends with [the line], 'Can't contain when there's no means to an ending.' Well, what can you say about that?"

'Untitled travelogue'

"Those are a mixed sound collage. So these are a lot of the street sounds and street noises that we were hearing and field recordings and we kind of layered them up. There's these individuals, they're called organ aleros and they play on the streets. They're like pump organs. And they've kind of fallen out of favour because it turns out that these organs were gifts of the German army. And so younger people are aware of that. So they don't want to really support it. But then these people also need jobs. And this is how they pay themselves. So they're really happy to play for you or engage with you and stuff like that. So we layered a bunch up and chit chat. 

"I like those exploratories and just to engage some of that noise that comes with the territory. Everywhere we were going, there's so much street noise and new activity that we just don't normally experience in the same way, I guess."

'Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy'

"Both my dad and I were hockey players. Both of us played professionally. I'm really proud of my dad and all the things that he's accomplished in his life. I wouldn't say that he's had the easiest time. And both of us have experienced the ramifications of concussions. And as you age, it becomes more and more sensitive. So all of these songs are really personal, which was a big part of [my thinking] like, if I'm going somewhere, I should share myself most openly. 

"So it draws similar lines between hockey and the music industry, where we're like punishing our bodies, staying up late, travelling to the next town. And over the years, it's affected my ears and my head and I can get disoriented at times and it's not a lot of fun, but that's why that song is so weird and random. We have a tendency sometimes to write these fragmented songs and they don't make a lot of sense to me and somehow they get accomplished. But that was kind of the goal of that. And yeah, at the end, I'm kind of in this pit. There's these lyrics jumping around all over the place saying, 'What's the problem, man?' And it's also a sound collage at the end, the way your brain feels sometimes when you're feeling confused. So, yes, CTE is that sort of undiagnosable brain injury and a lot of research is being done for fighters and those who have experienced concussions or repeated blows and injuries. And it's something that we're really aware of in my family."

'500 Years'

"It's an audio representation of what we were looking at, first off, this divide in the road between the nice life and something that is looked down upon and that has been perpetuated throughout the history. So, you know, a lot of different things, cultural things, have happened in Guadalajara, and yet genocide is still so present in this really dichotomous way. So that's our guide Alvaro speaking, he's just saying 500 years of all this different type of work, independence and, you know, culture and art. And there's a lot of cool stuff going on in Guadalajara, but there's still a whole group of people that are looked down upon by society and it's not OK. And there aren't supports in place for those individuals. And it's the [fifth] largest city in Mexico, I believe. So, yeah. This huge class divide. Or whatever you want to call it."

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