Music

Edmonton’s nêhiyawak is the sound of cultures intersecting

Indigenous indie rock act gets set to introduce itself with dreamy, dizzying three-song EP.

“My name is Marek Tyler, my mom is Linda Young from Onion Lake, Saskatchewan, my father is Rod Tyler from Regina, Saskatchewan. I’m Cree-Scottish. I grew up in Saskatchewan, moved out to Alberta in the ’90s and my wife and I just recently returned.”

This is how Mr. Tyler chooses to begin our conversation.

It is, he says, something his mother taught him — that it is not only respectful to introduce yourself, but is the way in which any engagement between two people, between two worlds, can truly begin.

He’s doing so also in order to introduce his Edmonton — or amiskwacîwâskahikan indie rock act nêhiyawak, which is translated to “the Cree people; not just one, but a group of people.”

A fitting name, of course, because the trio are made up of three Indigenous musicians — drummer Tyler, his cousin guitarist-songwriter Kris Harper and bassist Matthew Cardinal.

And now the band is getting set to introduce itself to those outside of the #yeg music scene, with the release of a new, self-titled three-song EP, which they’ll unveil Friday in Calgary with a show at the Nite Owl as part of the venue’s Spring Fling event.

The sampling is a dreamy, almost dizzying work of open-skies indie pop that Tyler describes as meeting at the “intersection between culture and indie rock” — one that speaks of the Indigenous experience but in a way that speaks of their own musical experiences which include many projects, many different bands.

For Tyler those are many and varied, with him admitting that nêhiyawak represents the first time he’s been in a group playing his own music, doing something that he had control over.

“As a drummer, it’s like your friend with the truck,” he says with a laugh. “I’m the guy who gets called to help out.”

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Edmonton indie rock trio nêhiyawak are as much about being true and respectful of the process as they are the music itself.

Well, again, that includes myriad different projects, most notably working in Kathryn Calder’s band, when he was living in Victoria for the previous decade.

That relationship actually proved to be an important one when it came to his new band’s first recording, as Calder is married to noted producer Colin Stewart (Yukon Blonde, Dan Mangan, Calder and another band she’s part of, The New Pornographers), who would open his studio up to the three-piece and lend his hand in getting their introduction just right.

But before that happened, Tyler says, he and the other members had to go through their own creative process, which he admits is as important as the end result.

“I think we have a real big responsibility on the process. And for us the process is based in culture,” he says.

“So the three-song EP allowed us to build a process together as a band, and to make artistic decisions that were from a cultural place.”

He points to his own “cultural protocols,” which required him to sweat and meditate, ask himself some “pretty big questions about how and why do you want to do something.”

And for Harper, that meant figuring out how best he could approach “dealing with the Indigenous perspective, dealing with that intersection,” the other two members then adding their own contributions in a way that was “respectful” to that, respectful to the process and their culture.

“When this band started up I wanted to take those lessons learned, those cultural lessons, and apply them to the band,” Tyler says. “Because this is something quite unique and because we’re trying to do something that is distinctly our own, I think the process also has to be respectful and thought out, so that we have something in the end that we can trust.

“It’s a result of the how and why.”

Which takes us back to the recording of the three songs at Stewart’s studio (they’ve since returned to complete an entire album that should see the light of day later this year).

Tyler also wanted his own musical process to be one that was true to his culture, which saw him calling a friend in Victoria and asking if he could supply him with some instruments. One of those was a ceremonially log carved to like an orca whale and the other was a hand drum.

“He used the term ‘hand drum’ but the drum six feet by three feet, it was covered in moose hide, and it was the size of a door,” he says and laughs. “It was the biggest drum I’ve ever played.”

And it helped provide a heartbeat for the music, one that is at the same time both centuries old yet still also speaks to those days when he was growing up, attempting to learn the drumming for early U2 albums.

As, again, does the music itself, which can at once be heard as languid waves of pretty melodicism, but also, Tyler hopes, be consumed as something “a lot deeper than three guys banging out a song on stage.”

And while the process and the cultural intersections are obviously very important when it comes to the members of nêhiyawak when they’re making their music, the drummer is uncertain how necessary it is for the listener to be aware of what went into the end result.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he says. “I guess that’s my question to you: Do you find it important?”

Well, personally speaking, yes.

As good as the music is, there’s a little more reward in understanding where it comes from, who it comes from, how it was made, the ideas, the idea, the cultures that intersected to make it happen so wonderfully.

At the very least, it helps get the conversation started, is a pretty great introduction.

“I hope people want to hear about that,” Tyler says. “I hope they want to know about culture. I’m learning about my own culture and I hope people want to come along.”

nêhiyawak perform Friday night at the Nite Owl. They will also return to Calgary to perform at this year’s Calgary Folk Music Festival, which runs July 27 to 30 on Prince’s Island Park — for tickets click here.

Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at mike@theyyscene.ca. He likes beer. Buy him one.

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