“Musicians work too hard to be dismissed so readily, so let’s break that up and do something that surprises the people in the audience as well as the people on the stage.”Alex James Morison (The History of Gunpowder)
I really believe that music is perhaps one of the most dynamic and diverse art forms. Thanks to an almost unlimited variety of instruments and modern technology, the combinations of sounds, melodies, and harmonies is limitless. And when many talented musicians come together, some of the most profound and beautiful music is created. Such is the music by The History of Gunpowder.
I recently got the chance to ask Alex James Morison, the frontman for The History of Gunpowder, a few questions about his experiences, inspiration, and how music has always been an integral part of his life. Also, if you enjoy the interview, then be sure to check out my review of Stained Glass, Rye and Wax in this week’s issue of The Voice.
What (who) does your act consist of?
Alex: The album has 17 players on it, beautiful players from India, Vancouver and Montreal. The list is probably too long to go into, but our live act in Montreal is a six piece line up with myself, Alex James Morison on guitar and vocals, Quinn Dennehy on drums, Micheal Johanscik on Tenor, Henri Rabalais on keys, Aleksi Campagne on violin and Stephane Krimms on bass. But this is all going to change in the future as our live show evolves. Some new players are coming into the mix.
How did you and your band meet?
Alex: I put this band together when I moved to Montreal. Quinn flew over from Whitehorse to play with us, I’ve known Mike for about ten years, and the rest I’ve met through the Montreal scene. But in the past The History has had maybe 25 members. So the members all depend on what kind of instrumentation is necessary to produce the songs.
Where are you and your band from?
Alex: I’m from Whitehorse. The live band is all Canadian at this point, but on the records there have been players from all around the world.
Thinking back to early childhood, what was your first experience with music?
What type of music did you hear the most growing up? Is it different from what you listen to now?
Alex: Perhaps the most memorable and relevant experience I had when I was young growing up in Whitehorse was my mother’s francophone folk group that came over to the house and played old Quebecois tunes. They would drink mulled wine and go through classics; acoustic, accordion, spoons, bass and a whole lot of singing went on. They were called something hilarious like ‘la poutine acoustique’. My mother loved a lot of folk music and jazz. My father more orchestral stuff. But those old folk melodies and simple 1-4-5 harmony always stuck with me, even if you want some absurdity with the song, you can complicate things on top of that simple harmonic structure with substitutions or dissonance and keep that foundation that has served so many artists over the years. I wasn’t introduced to some of my favourite artists until adolescence I think, so much of the inspiration people will hear on the new album can’t be traced back to childhood. Or at least it would be a useless activity to try.
What was the first song that you ever sang?
Alex: Many years the sounds coming out of my mouth wouldn’t be considered singing. I have years and years of recordings that are just god awful teenage nonsense, finding the sweet spot. The first song that I sang WELL… would have to be one of my own tunes, I started scribbling stuff down pretty young. But just for the sake of the question, the cover I first sang well was probably Nobody’s Fault but Mine, Blind Willie Johson. When 15 or 16 hit, he was all I could listen to.
What made you first realize you wanted to pursue a career in music?
Alex: I think this is a difficult question because many people just fall into it. Either because of their ego – many of which run rampant through out the industry – or because they love it so much they lost opportunities to do anything else. Or, rather, they spent so much time believing that learning how to play guitar THIS way or being able to write a song like THAT, etc. was the most important thing in the world, and that was probably what started the embers for me. Mind you there is just as much self-interest in that trajectory as that concerned with self-image. But it’s perhaps more defensible. I also have been raised by musicians, those I listened to really shaped me; I was so affected by and obsessed with certain musicians that, for me, music was one of the main motivators for my entire life. I internalized what I heard very easily. So in that way, it was essential to my mental state or to my productivity. I would like to help others as some of my favourite artists have helped me, though sometimes it seems an unreasonable venture because of the impossibility of quantifying that process; how do any of us musicians actually know we are doing any good? Can’t really, but that’s how it is.
How did you become involved in the type of music you play/sing now?
Alex: Well, if this is an influence question; Tom Waits, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Mingus, A. A. Bondy, Nick Cave, Gordon Grdina, Astor Piazzolla, Blind Willie Johnson, Jonny Greenwood, Dr. John, Fela, Gil Scott-Heron, Paco de Lucia. That kind of thing. But the way that The History of Gunpowder’s sound came about is simple. I write without limiting myself to any instrumentation or technical restriction and try to make it a reality afterwards. I’m an audio engineer so technical obstacles are few in my process, and, at this point, I’m a pretty experienced composer so understanding how different instruments and arrangements will sound or come into fruition is not a problem. Recruiting musicians is usually not a problem since I write music that excites them, or at least I hope that’s the case.
For those who have never seen or heard your music before, how would you describe your music for the public audience?
Alex: Always tough. I would usually say just go listen, but I guess that’s a cop out here. Live it’s chaotic as hell, but hopefully not to a fault, it isn’t simply sloppy. If Tom Waits had all of his instruments going through distortion and he couldn’t control the feedback but still had those tight players, if that was paired with Jonny Greenwood’s compositional style and maybe a little bit of punk or heaviness á la Silver Mt. Zion thrown in there for good measure. Maybe something like that. Who the hell knows though.
Would you rather play live performances or be in the studio?
Alex: Both. They are complementary, not opposing. The live performances are so different from the studio albums with The History. We would need a thirty-piece orchestra for some of the studio arrangements if we were to do them live. The studio is special because it is basically a musician’s sanctuary, he goes there to find calm and craft something precise. Even if it doesn’t sound precise, everything is deliberate. Live is the storm after the calm, and if it isn’t you aren’t playing that shit right. Live is the necessary purge. You can sometimes get that from the studio, but never quite the same.
Have you ever entered any contests to enhance your musical career?
Alex: I have, they weren’t memorable.
Have you been involved in any benefit performances?
Alex: Yes. Played for Jam for Justice a few times, a charity group here in Montreal. Played with Homeshake for it, something like that.
What do you think your greatest accomplishment has been so far in your musical career?
Alex: Stained Glass, Rye and Wax for sure. The album is a beast.
If you had to categorize your music, what genre would it best fit?
Alex: No idea. Not to sound pretentious or difficult, it’s just that this stuff is pretty hard to categorize for anyone I think. If you come up with a good tagline let us know!
What are your songs about and what general themes do they talk about?
Alex: If you were to trace a line through my songs and look for consistencies a few themes would stand out; mental illness, mistreatment of your partner, guilt, doubt, hope, the bastards that ought to not be here, but probably most of all absurdity. It’s good to get lost in absurdity now and then.
Why do you choose to focus on these themes?
Alex: There isn’t really a choice in the matter. They come out involuntarily.
Are there any stories surrounding your songs that you’d care to share?
Alex: The stories are not appropriate for the general public.
What has been your strong influence to continue performing?
Alex: Besides the feeling I get from it – the peace of mind that accompanies creating a good performance and delivering the songs with power and conviction – maybe it’s something like healthy escapism. Performing and playing are two different things though, I cannot stop playing and writing, but ceasing performing on stage would be possible. It would take a lot and leave a hole in its absence, but it could be coerced from me by necessity or illness; writing, composing, singing and playing could not be, doesn’t matter what the hell happens.
Does anyone in particular influence you?
Alex: Yes. Tom Waits is always there for me almost to a fault. More influences are mentioned above. But it is always good to mention some current artists: Gordon Grdina, who plays with Dan Mangan’s blacksmith along with some of his other projects like Boxcutter, East Van Strings, and Haram, has always been a big inspiration to me. He plays unlike any guitar player I’ve ever heard and has built a life around performing with all the energy he has. A. A. Bondy in my eyes is one of the best song writers of our time, though he is not given nearly enough credit. Haven’t heard much from him in a few years though, I hope he is well. There are beautiful artists playing right now, people don’t always need to look back to find their artistic mentorship, they just need to sift through the nonsense that is so ubiquitous nowadays.
What are your immediate music career goals?
Alex: Well, depends on the implied scope of ‘immediate’. The NEXT thing that I am focusing on is the next album, which I am writing at the moment, as well as songs that will be included in the first volume of an ongoing collaboration project I am starting this summer. So far it is untitled, but it will feature some of the most wonderful vocalists in MTL. I have an EP written for after those two projects, that will get started soon hopefully. We have started to put together a larger piece line up – looks like it may be an octet – so starting the arranging on that is high up on my list. The larger goals, perhaps some would say pipe dream-esque, are a little too far off and absurd to talk about here, but they are big productions. The History of Gunpowder will also soon start shopping around for a good label in MTL, so we’ll see what comes of that. We have a few potential tours in the works as well come fall, so there is lots to look forward to with this band: everyone stay tuned for more!
What has been the biggest challenge for you or the group? Time. Time is always the biggest problem for me and for the group. We are all broke, money problems are not a concern because they are and have been a reality for most of us, especially the core group of players, for our whole lives. We just live with it, or maybe the right way to say it is we don’t complain about it. But more time on the songs seems like something that should be attainable and something that we all wish we had. It’s important to let songs gestate for a certain amount of time before they can be deemed ‘finished’ or ‘ready’ or whatever you want to say. So it would be nice to have the luxury of gestation and a prolonged experimental time for our different approaches and arrangements, because we are always trying to push the limits of our specific instrumentation and going through things like a songs dynamic momentum, or what is technologically possible, or how we should group instruments for which sections, etc. Those things are perfected only with time. That being said, absence of time is a side-effect of zero-cashdolla syndrome.
What type of fan base do you have?
Alex: We have a pretty good following in Montreal who like to come out and get freaky and drink with us. It’s good rum and whiskey music, you know. Now that we’re playing with some burlesque artists on stage with us, our shows get everyone good and strange.
Music tends to appeal to everyone, young and old. Do you have any advice for the youth of today?
Alex: Probably the thing I say the most to my bandmates and friends without sounding too preachy: don’t bitch, don’t be lazy, work harder and good music and good situations will come of it.
Do you have other interests or talents you would like to share with us?
Alex: Not really worth speaking about.
What do you do with your time away from music?
Alex: In the past I spent a considerable amount of energy trying to travel as much as possible. Touring hopefully will satisfy the itch in the future.
As an artist, is there anything special you hope to be able to accomplish?
Alex: Yes. Apart from being able to live off of music, there are a lot of creative goals on the horizon that are goliath-like and at present seem insurmountable. Lots of large piece instrumentation that requires sufficient funds or sufficient interest to recruit enough players to perform some of my compositions live. I don’t know if it’s worth speaking about here because it is a long way off for some of the crazier outfits I have planned. At the moment I am in the process of putting together a larger outfit, not to the extent of some of the bigger productions I have in mind for the far-off future, but I’m thinking 8 or 9 pieces. With this I’m hoping to get a good multimedia artist to work with and put on some incredible live shows. I really want to push what we can do live because it seems like the most difficult thing to do nowadays, especially in MTL that has such a good history of amazing live performances. But it seems like there is a lot of redundant acts in the city that are not pushing their own limits, they simply go up there and hit their guitars a few times and scream some nonsense and get off to have a pint. I’m working on some live shows that are more theatrical, more visual and more interdisciplinary. Collaboration has always been a love of mine and there is so much talent in this city to learn from and harness, I think something unique could come of it. The problem is, it’s a terrific amount of work to put a performance like that together: say, with timed visuals (projector), dance troupes, and music. But The History of Gunpowder has slowly been leaning towards that for a while to try to shock people out of monotony – or maybe a fairer thing to say would be to shock ourselves out of a general monotony – and realize you don’t have to do that tired shit that takes a week to put together. I mean if it works do it but more often than not people get in the venue, pay their 5 or 10 bucks, go to the bar, take a look at you and go out for a smoke. Musicians work too hard to be dismissed so readily, so let’s break that up and do something that surprises the people in the audience as well as the people on the stage. Stay tuned for that stuff, it’ll take some work but it’s coming. I also have my eye on a few labels that I think would be a good fit.
I would like to thank Alex for taking the time to be part of this interview and to share so much about himself and The History of Gunpowder. If you are interested in checking out Stained Glass, Rye and Wax, the EP can be found on the band’s bandcamp page.