Somewhere in between doom, psychedelia and indie rock, WHOOP-Szo are crafting a sort of social and emotional protest music. Tip-toeing into the sublime, the group creates songs that are enveloping and immersive. WHOOP-Szo are unabashedly outspoken, and unwaveringly kind.
“Canada, genocide, identity theft, suicidal ideation, drinking, hopelessness, mental health and well-being, spirituality, love, hope, truth and healing,” responds guitarist and vocalist Adam Sturgeon, when I inquire what their latest album, Citizen’s Ban(ne)d Radio, had been influenced by.
The band released the album this November, in a brief respite from the almost non-stop touring they’ve been doing for the past two years, with slots at festivals like Sled Island, Lawnya Vawnya, Shifty Bits Circus, Pop Montreal and many more. In that time they also holed up for an artist residency at the FLOURISH Festival in Fredericton, and teamed up with east coast sludge pop maker and delicious grub slinger and food truck owner Jon McKiel for a split EP as part of the Greville Tapes Music Club series. Somehow, they also found time to record a truly moving, challenging album.
“Between being on the road and making up for lost time while at home, with friends, family and of course work, there really wasn’t a ton of time to work this album out in succession” says Sturgeon.
“So slowly, over the course of the last two years, we’ve been able to chip away with a demo here or there. As we record ourselves, with the help of close friends, it’s not all that difficult to do this, but it did take a couple of years and has some sporadic charm to it.”
“We wanted to express the idea that this record represents an aspect of being on the go, on the road, and the nostalgia of yearning for home,” says Sturgeon.
“We’re very lucky to travel around, see new places, faces and meet new friends. This is special, but is not without its sacrifices. We have great support from the people we are close to at home and over time have found that on the road as well. It’s written in the record,” he says.
“There’s also still a lot of my indigenous influence written into the subtleties of many of the tracks and represents a challenge I experience out on the road” says Sturgeon, who is Ojibwe, and is up front and blunt about the myriad issues plaguing indigenous people in Canada.
“More and more though, I am being connected and feel connected to others like me that see the world through the indigenous lens, or are at least starting to decolonize their views.”
Much of the social and political stance the band has cultivated over the past couple of years stems from a period of time where Sturgeon and bandmate Kirsten Palm were living and working in Salluit, Quebec. A remote indigenous community, the duo were there running a program that taught young people silkscreening techniques, and encouraged them to express themselves through art. The experience was a major turning point for the band, and it heavily informed their 2014 double album Qallunaat and Odemin.
“Working with Inuit artists was an exceptional and life changing experience that helped us solidify the ideas we would like to present with WHOOP-Szo. Themes of colonization and language, marginalization, racism, systemic barriers in Canadian society and the practices of apartheid that exist here,” says Sturgeon. “As an indigenous male with a passing privilege I have been able to create a voice for myself, but if the voice is not for the people most affected by these issues then I have failed.”
WHOOP-Szo’s refusal to stay quiet, and their drive to amplify the voices of the underrepresented, is more important than ever in the post-Trump world, where conservatism is on the rise, and the dangers of being an outspoken minority are very real, and very palpable.
When asked if he thinks that the idea of touring the U.S. for a band who were as outspoken as WHOOP-Szo was going to become more dangerous under a Trump administration, and just the general rise of right-wing attitudes, Sturgeon gives a simple, curt and chilling, “yes.” However, it does very little to dissuade WHOOP-Szo’s ambitions to push emotional and societal boundaries, and to put the spotlight on important issues that often get pushed to the margins.
“We were never surprised by the results of the latest elections… this includes the recent Canadian election. I’ve always been a bit scared and worried, and I’ve also been strong and stood up in a way that makes sense for me. Music has only helped in a positive way,” he says.
“There are nights where I silence myself and there are times I’m at odds with my very own bandmates, but we’ve committed to each other in our love of music and our passion to be good people. We’ve overcome a lot as a band and will continue to look to each other to find the support we need along the way. I still have my drum and I still have the sweat lodge and I still have the medicines with me.”
Like most of their work, WHOOP-Szo’s latest album is a lot to take in; it can be challenging, and even overwhelming at times, but in a way that’s extremely breathtaking, and wonderfully cathartic.
You can really hear the influence of their near-constant state of travel the past few years on the album, not just in the songwriting, but in the inclusion of friends like Zachary Gray, who co-produced a track with the band, or Fredericton’s “Micro-Dose Choir” – a gaggle of Fredericton friends that the band got to sing on the album. WHOOP-Szo are a band that never attempts to hide their influences, instead choosing to celebrate them as loudly and ecstatically as possible.
Case-in-point is their inclusion of a cover of the Elevator song, “The Animals,” on the album.
“I think Rick White is the most earnest and humble artist of our time,” explains Sturgeon.
“Sometimes you hear bands in the indie scene say that they don’t think they sound like anyone or can’t name a true influence. This is obviously bullshit, especially if you have a drummer and a bassist and are playing some guitars. We’d rather honour our influences by shouting their names from the rooftop and by representing them as best we can.”
Indeed, one of the most endearing things about the band is that they let people and events make a real imprint on them. It might be the whole constantly being on the road thing, and cherishing experiences because touring is tough on the soul, but WHOOP-Szo have a way of just really connecting, and somehow making a conversation or a meeting or a show that much more meaningful and honest.
This rare talent is even more palpably obvious when I ask Sturgeon about what it was like collaborating with Jon McKiel during the Greville Tapes sessions, and playing with him on the resulting tour.
“We of course knew who Jon McKiel was, but the first time we met him was at dinner with his wife and children the day before we began writing and recording,” he says.
“We learned a lot about the hard work of having a family while trying to be an artist. We admired Jon’s dedication to his family and respected how this was a priority. In a special way, we think this is why his music means so much to people that know him.”
In these trying times, even attitudes of kindness, empathy and sensitivity can be a form of protest, and WHOOP-Szo’s songs, overall attitude and presence have always seemed like a form of emotional protest music. They’re an unwavering light of positivity in the shadows of an uncertain future.
“I think we are protest music. We’re huge fans of folk music in general, and feel that our words appeal to a social discourse that many people feel,” says Sturgeon.
“I think music is a vehicle for the thought of social change; that it brings people together, that it can inform the environment it contributes to,” he continues. “If music was revolutionary then the world would have changed many years ago, but the artist has a duty and gift to inform the people I think.”
Having just finished a string of dates in support of the new album, WHOOP-Szo won’t be staying put for long. They’re headed out on tour with Julie Doiron and the Wrong Guys for a bit, in addition to some festival stops at Stereophonic, Shivering Songs, Lupercalia and Wavelength.
They’ll also do some dates championing a local music documentary called Et-Tu Dude which Sturgeon says features a “plethora of underground artists” from the various London, Ontario music scenes.