At the beginning, it’s hard to shake the feeling that things might not go smoothly when Marek Tyler picks up the phone in Edmonton. Opening questions about how he’s doing and whether he’s enjoying his Alberta hometown after an extended period on the West Coast are given friendly but not exactly expansive one-word answers.
It turns out that the drummer for nêhiyawak is politely waiting for a chance to reset the conversation. And when he does, the floodgates open, with Tyler proving to be as thoughtful, philosophical, and outgoing an interview subject as one could possibly hope for. Over 45 minutes he’ll talk about everything from the palpable spiritual energy of Tofino to wondering if he was done with music after the grind of spending his 20s on the indie-rock circuit, where he played with acts ranging from Victoria’s MeatDraw to alt-pop chanteuse Kathryn Calder.
First, though, he starts by gently suggesting that, all too often, people don’t take the time to truly learn about each other.
“Before we get going here, my mom always says, ‘When you meet someone, tell them who you are and were you’re from,’ ” Tyler says. “My name is Marek Tyler. I’m Cree-Scottish-Irish—nehiyaw-Scottish-Irish, from Saskatchewan, born in Manitoba, but living in Vancouver, and Victoria specifically, for 12 years. My wife and I moved back to Edmonton, where we had met 20 years ago, and I live, work, and play here on the amiskwaciy—which is our nehiyaw word for Edmonton. My mom is Linda Young from Onion Lake First Nation. My father is Rod Tyler from Regina, Saskatchewan.”
The importance of knowing his family’s background was instilled in him at a young age.
“Part of the process of getting to know each other is to throw a little culture in right at the beginning,” Tyler notes. “When I was a kid, my mom would make me go around and shake everyone’s hand when I came into a room and didn’t know people. It’s also a really good way for you and I to make a connection. Right away, we start looking for parallels—maybe where we’re living, or grew up, or spent some time. I like it in the family sense, but I also use it in the professional world. You make deeper connections and better relationships.”
This background is invaluable for getting a handle on what Tyler and his bandmates—singer-guitarist Kris Harper and bassist Matthew Cardinal (who are also of Plains Cree descent)—are out to accomplish with nêhiyawak (a Cree/nehiyaw word for “people”). The band uses the inarguably brilliant description “moccasingaze” to describe its sound, rightly suggesting an affinity for shimmering guitars, gauze-swaddled synths, and dream-pop vocals.
But the greatness of its debut album, nipiy—featuring cover art by Courteney Morin, a Treaty 6 artist living in Vancouver—is that Tyler and his bandmates have ambitions that go beyond revisiting a blueprint drawn up by the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Lush.
The 12-track release starts out with “kisiskâciwanisîpiy pêyak”, a gorgeously meditative soundscape perfect for midnight walks under star-dusted northern skies. From there, rules are made to be broken, whether in the deep-space-backpack-electronica diversion in the heavenly “copper” or in the way that “somnambulist” spikes its sleepy alt-blues with kaleidoscopic paisley pop.
“When we first started rehearsing these songs in a basement,” Tyler recalls, “Kris said, ‘These songs are young, and there are no rules.’ As a drummer, that was terribly exciting to hear. I brought out my drum machines, my samplers, I brought out some cultural drums. If it comes out on the record that there are no rules, that’s awesome. Kris provided a lot of leadership in those early rehearsals—making sure that we were available for any direction the work went in. Also Colin Stewart [Kathryn Calder, Black Mountain], who produced the album, really pushed us to try and capture moments and to be as creative as possible.”
And a big part of that creativity was a result of the members of nêhiyawak not only being keenly aware of who they are and where they come from, but also wanting to share these things in their songs. It’s no accident that Tyler ended up incorporating traditional drums on psych-tinted tracks like “starlight” and “secret”.
“Carey Newman, who is a carver from the West Coast who lives in Vancouver, gifted us some drums,” Tyler says. “So we were able to bring those into the studio. Early on, we talked about the process of caring for and playing those drums, and that really informed the album. Playing them was really personal. I’d never played drums like that before, and I don’t think that Colin had recorded them, so it was all really new to us. And I loved that.”
Nêhiyawak believes that it’s just as important to respect the past as it is to move things forward. Without ever being heavy-handed or black-and-white, nipiy (a Cree/nehiyaw word for “water”) is a record that will make you think. “Perch” comes at the issue of addiction with lyrics like “I know a guy who can get anything/Anything at all just to dull the pain” and “The modern-day mystics agree it’s hard to look away from beyond the dirt.” And “open window”addresses one of the blackest periods in Canadian history with “There was a scoop that went on where people/Were forced to live another way of life/And I always wondered what had happened/To those mother tongues that were all kept inside.”
“Kris’s lyrics challenge you to learn more, and that’s a big reason why I committed to being in this band,” Tyler says. “I wanted to support his work, but I also wanted to learn. And this band has really taught me a lot about myself. I’m very proud of who I am, and I’m very proud of where I come from. Kris’s lyrics, and Matthew’s input as well, has demanded that I continue to learn and to make sure that I present the information that I learn in a good way, and to make sure that I present it thoughtfully, while being open and available and vulnerable. This work represents community—my mom, my sisters, which makes it more than just a band.”
Such moments can be seen as fuel for conversations within the context of movements like reconciliation, and Tyler is careful to note that every person’s experience is unique.
“My cultural teachings are informed by my family, and I can only speak about those teachings,” he writes in a postinterview text. “It’s important to make this clarification, because teachings are so unique and distinct from region to region and family to family.”
If one can extrapolate anything from all this, it’s that things often take on a deeper meaning for Tyler and his bandmates, including the venues where nêhiyawak plays. The significance of the trio heading to UBC’s Museum of Anthropology for its upcoming Vancouver show is not lost on Tyler. With its extensive and invaluable collection of objects and artifacts from originating communities, the MOA has a decidedly spiritual side, which the drummer is keenly aware of.
“There’s something immediate that you feel, if you’re open to it, in the land that you’re in,” Tyler suggests. “When I moved back to Edmonton, I went for a walk in the valley with my dogs, along the river. It was frozen over, and I remember there being an immediacy that said, ‘Marek, you’re home.’ It felt great. If we just take a moment and make ourselves available to the environment that we’re in, experiences become very special and personal. So I’m really excited that UBC and the Museum of Anthropology is the setting for this band’s show. We’re very open to playing nontraditional venues—there’s something to be said for not always having to play a club. So when this opportunity arose, it was a no-brainer.”
The same goes for signing on with nêhiyawak, which traces its roots back to a family get-together where Tyler reconnected with Harper, who, in addition to being his bandmate, is also his cousin. The drummer sees the trio on a mission to educate and open the minds of others, as well as their own.
“I love when I see someone’s character come out when they are playing—absolutely love it,” Tyler says. “That means they’ve made themselves vulnerable, and available to the rest of us. It means pulling the veil away for real, true expression. My favourite leaders are vulnerable—that means they’ve made themselves available to new concepts. This band challenges you to be open and vulnerable and out there—to, as Kris’s lyrics in ‘starlight’ say, ‘Wear your hair down.’ ”
The Museum of Anthropology at UBC hosts nêhiyawak on Thursday (December 5).