The History of Gunpowder has always had a flair for the dramatic and heavy when it comes to live performance and song inspiration.
Led by Alex James Morison, the Vancouver-based roots band’s shows are unpredictable, creative, and powerful, and now, they’re releasing a unique video album, Swallows, that reflects the haunting emotion behind their music, and displays just how impactful their performances can be. It is due out September 1st.
Tomorrow, July 14th, the band will be dropping their latest music video for their song “Untitled #751,” which will be part of the full video album.
The song was written for the families of the Indigenous children found in unmarked graves across Canada. Both the lyrics and the instrumentals are deeply moving and tragically beautiful, as the band pays homage to once forgotten lives. The video displays the group performing the song together during their week-long residency at a church-turned-studio in Cumberland, British Columbia, and the feeling is palpable behind each note sung and each chord played.
We had the chance to chat with Morison about the band’s efforts behind such a heavy subject and project, the live video album, their roots, release plans, and much more.
How and when did The History of Gunpowder come together, and what’s the story behind the band name?
The History of Gunpowder was formed in 2012, and has had over 38 members in it. It is basically my life long project.
I started it in 2012 in Vancouver before moving to Montreal when it started to pick up steam. We’re back in Vancouver now with an incredible group of musicians. It has gone through many iterations and the reason why there are so many different types of styles is because it is simply my outlet to try all the musical ideas that scare me. If the song isn’t somewhat intimidating, vulnerable or unlikely to succeed, then I don’t bring it to the band.
As for the name, I’m not sure how it came about. I seem to have stumbled on the words and they appeared aesthetically accurate to what I wanted to portray. That being said, since then the words have taken on new significance. We all have a history that we are trying to come to terms with. Traumas that need to be expressed, turning points in our lives. ‘The history of gunpowder’ in global history is one of cultural innovation from the Chinese inception of a heavy saltpeter mixture that was used for celebration, then innovated into military use by Gengis Kahn and furthered by Arabic invention. It eventually shaped the world in terms of military/geopolitical domination.
That being said, it started as colourful explosions in the sky that left audiences in awe. Perhaps there is a linkage there but, more than anything, it is a feeling.
I see you’re releasing a film September 1st called Swallows, that documents your time recording your album and spending time with the people in Cumberland, British Columbia. What inspired this idea to pursue a project like this, and what was the experience like?
During the pandemic, many of the people around me that relied on music for their income were hurting. The project came about from a desire to get funding for a really big project that could employ a community. That became a vessel for me to do something I had always wanted to do: an acoustic album based on some of the folk-ish music I write.
I have been blessed with continuous inspiration for songwriting, and I write around 10 acoustic-leaning songs to every 1 heavier, electric song. I had a vast library of songs I wanted to try out, I knew they would be best live-off-the-floor. Around the same time, Kathryn Peterson, a great composer and accordion player in Vancouver, invited me to be part of her residency at the Weird Church in Cumberland. So all the pieces were there. The week itself will remain one of the best of my life, and this sentiment has been echoed by those who participated in it.
We had an interesting schedule: we arrived at the church early in the morning with a task to envision, write, rehearse and record an instrumental tune every day with no prior notes or ideas. I have always wanted to do this with a band, I think it is an indicator for a tight and creative group. This process really opened us up to new sounds. During this time, the video crew would be shooting around Cumberland, so they also had improvised footage to accompany the instrumental arrangements: we basically improvised one short film a day with a soundtrack. We then had dinner.
After dinner, when the daylight had left, we could use our lighting rig and we recorded one of the songs that we had rehearsed beforehand. Those are the tracks you see on the album. So we have this secret catalogue of instrumental tracks from this recording session. Afterwards, we would celebrate another beautiful day with all sorts of activities. Some of these are documented in the film as well.
How do you hope the film and music resonates with viewers/listeners? What do you hope they come away with?
The film is a story about a group of people that love each other and can’t help but create together. I hope this comes through. The songs themselves are important to me. Each has its own meaning, but they are all heavy subjects, dear to my heart, and important to my human experience. Hopefully some of these subjects throw a different light on similar experiences they have had. The songs deal with loss, the importance of perspective and the eventuality that inspiration and joie-de-vivre will eclipse any feelings of helplessness that occur.
You’re dropping the performance video for your song, “Untitled #751,” on July 14th, and you’ve said that the song was written for the families of the Indigenous children found in unmarked graves across Canada. Do you find that writing a song with such deep, emotional meaning is more challenging, or do those emotions help bring out your creativity and authenticity?
Our brothers and sisters, uncles and aunties, and Elders in these communities have known about unmarked and mass graves for a long time. My community told me about a figure in the tens of thousands that have yet to be addressed. Once again, oral tradition has fallen on deaf ears.
When the 751 unmarked graves were found in Cowessess First Nation it hit me harder than expected. I had known about this, I had already processed some of the pain, had tried to protect myself but still, I was out of commission for a few days.
This song is still difficult to sing.
It also has another meaning, cataloguing an analogous story of loss that was experienced by someone very dear to me. Each seemingly unique human experience is reminiscent of another. None of us are singular which allows one piece of music to elaborate itself in each of us. As for the writing process, I am not sure if it is more challenging to write about such things but it is more necessary. When you write words on a page, bring it to a group of musicians and eventually hear it manifest itself through the air between us, it becomes more understandable; the confusion of loss slowly takes a coherent form, and you are able to digest it.
What made you choose to release this specific song/performance as opposed to others from Swallows?
The rest of the songs from Swallows will also be released, but this one was especially important because of the impact that event had on me. At first I was afraid to put it out, which signaled to me that it was important to do so. I try to keep certain information from my past, my ancestry or loved ones out of public view, but for this it seemed like an honest reaction to a difficult moment.
How does “Untitled #751” thematically or musically fit into the overall project of Swallows?
Musically, it kind of hides itself in folk harmony and instrumentation, except the alto clarinet of course. In the middle of the song there is an instrumental interlude that throws all of that away; it takes on strange time signatures and harmony that probably comes from my time playing jazz. It comes off as a prog-section but with acoustic instruments.
Not sure if there is a single conducive musical or thematic through-line to the whole project but the tonality fits. The BG singers on this song really shine: Leo D.E Johnson, Lola Whyte and Della Kit. They are incredible and hit these harmonies perfectly – live-off-the-floor mind you – so it is pretty damned incredible when a band can sound this good in one take; what you hear is what you get with us. The piano arrangement for the mid-section is also quite strange with chords that a piano normally wouldn’t play, much to the dismay of Cole Tinney – our keys player. Luckily, he is a monster and is used to taking on strange requests.
What does success as a band/songwriter mean to you?
The answer to this has changed over time. At first – when the ego is still strong, let’s say the first decade of writing – it is important to seem unique, singular. The ego begs for it. This has left me, thankfully.
Afterwards, let’s say at the 15-year mark, you want to enjoy the process of songwriting. Or rather, you start to yearn for it as it is in your bones and part of your daily movements. It has become the framework through which you process the world around you and inside of you. This is correct in my view; this is a satisfactory goal and conceptualization of writing. But now ~20 years into songwriting, another goal has taken priority: that of building a community around songs.
The History of Gunpowder is a chosen family, there is a lot of love within this group, there has never been a fight and the support between us is incredible; it has allowed me to live the life I have. This community is built around these songs I write. So, that is probably the most significant result of writing a song in my eyes. It is an amazing feeling when someone comes to you after a show and tells you that one of your songs has helped them through a tough time, I have had instances where they have even gone as far as mentioning a song ‘saved’ them in a dark space. This is a great feeling, somewhat validating of your vulnerability and craftsmanship, but this feeling is somewhat abstracted and a writer cannot claim ownership of such a deep reaction to their song.
I usually bring a song [to the band] finished in my mind, but willing to let go of 30% of it; I want the group to finish the song. Having the fingerprints of everyone in the group on the music is important to me, because in my mind the group is essential to anything that I do. Their playing styles inspire my writing and hopefully my writing will inspire them to explore new parts of themselves as players.
I frequently see folks around me in the industry worry about likes on social media or numbers and it confuses me as to why they are doing what they are. As L. Cohen said: “Luck has so much to do with success and failure in music,” (paraphrased, something of that nature). So, I think as creative folks we need to be careful of the machinations that tug at our egos and gamify our productions. But once the hidden processes like writing, producing or arranging start to brighten your life, I think that validation-seeking leaves somewhat.
This may seem holier-than-thou, and I don’t mean to say I don’t still exhibit some exhibitionist qualities, but I think this is a common progression that songwriters go through in their life.
Where does The History of Gunpowder hope to go from here?
Onwards and upwards. We are starting to really pickup steam. We are headlining festivals in Canada with a brand spankin’ new live set especially arranged for festivals, two headlining European tours under our belt with a growing demand for more coming in, and are releasing the ‘Swallows’ film on September 1st at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver.
We have two studio albums we are working on, multiple video projects, we have new management and booking partnerships in the pipeline, but most importantly, we have some creative endeavors that are the right type of scary. We will follow these things that are at our feet and fully expect there to be more on the way: we have never sounded better and have never been a tighter group. I think with the right songs and management, we can be at the top of the heap.