The Climb Continues for Status/Non-Status

Status/Non-Status interview with Northern Transmissions. Read Leslie Ken Chu's interview Adam Sturgeon from Status/Non-Status
Status/Non-Status photo by Matthew Wiewel

“My whole life has been on the road. My entire life. I’ve been travelling in buses and cars since I was a little kid.”

Along with being a touring musician for over a decade, Adam Sturgeon of Status/Non-Status has lived previous lives as a music tech and a hockey player. This vantage point—from behind the blurry window of a moving vehicle—has fomented the existential worries and revelations at which he arrives on Surely Travel, the London, Ontario rock quintet’s first full-length since changing their name from WHOOP-Szo in 2021.

Surely Travel finds Sturgeon wrestling with the complicated moral existence of being a musician. The album roars to life with “Blown Tire,” a jostling track that feels like it could spin out and veer off the road at any second. As guitars blare and radiant keys shine, Sturgeon asks, “Living in Canada, what do you do? / Singing in the music scene when you’re just as guilty too.” “That’s a question I have to ask myself, and it’s also a question I pose to everybody,” he says, holding himself equally accountable.

As “Blown Tire” trudges ahead, Sturgeon sings, “This construction and destruction’s got a hold on you.” The line is more than a metaphorical statement about all the highs and lows of travelling or a shout-out to bygone Port Greville art rock duo Construction & Destruction. “That band was our dark horse band. If I ever got famous, that would have been the band I would have taken on tour with me. But also,” Sturgeon explains, “I thought ‘the construction and destruction’ was a truth that travelling on the road, there’s really no better way to see how the world unfolds.” Despite all the traffic jams and devastation that makes travel possible, “I did want to put beauty into the expanse of the country and the things you see and learn and along the way.”

Throughout Sturgeon’s travels, he observed a universal energy in the passing scenery of animals and landscapes. Tapping into this shared language inspired him to express his art as clearly as possible. From this new ambition sprung Surely Travel, a vast departure from the crushing distortion-drenched psychedelia that earned WHOOP-Szo’s Warrior Down a spot on the 2020 Polaris Music Prize longlist. With all the members “playing the same heavy thing, it certainly got noisy” but a little murky, Sturgeon says about the band’s previous releases. “In this one, I just wanted to get rid of all the heaviness and make it lighter.”

In the spirit of the immediacy and vitality Sturgeon felt in the life around him, Status/Non-Status recorded Surely Travel live at Deadpan Studios in Sudbury. He and his bandmates—the instrument-swapping crew of Kirsten Kurvink Palm, Andrew Lennox, Steven Lourenço, and Eric Lourenço—favoured single takes that weren’t always perfectly in tune or included flubbed lyrics. “There’s something magical about the delivery,” Sturgeon says with reverence.

Indeed, Surely Travel twinkles despite its rough edges, emulating Sturgeon’s experience of travelling across Canada. “It’s so beautiful, and the drive is so nice,” he says about a place like Saint John, “but then sometimes we only stop at the gas station. I wanted that feeling of beauty and serenity juxtaposed with the questions of why we do things or how they function or what the reality of them are, especially as a Canadian musician, just how challenging it is to tour and travel and live as a live musician in this country.”

As much as gazing out at the world from a van has opened Sturgeon’s eyes, he knows he doesn’t see everything clearly, especially when he has to contend with inclement conditions—when the windshield defroster doesn’t work and the wipers don’t remove all the ice. “Through that frosted pane of glass that separates you from the experience of reality, maybe I wasn’t seeing [the world] the way it actually is. We get to go to smaller towns when they’re having their biggest events of the year, and we see the vibrancy of it all, but we don’t actually see what happens on Sunday morning or when everyone goes back to work on Monday, and they have to pick up the pieces and hold on for those next moments of beauty. So I was beginning to feel like it was unfair, that maybe inside myself there was some guilt or shame around getting to experience the best of everything.”

Self-reflection marks a notable change in Sturgeon’s music, which up until now had focused on his family’s history as members of the Anishinaabe First Nations, including intergenerational trauma wrought by Canada’s colonial system. “I always speak to how Indigenous artists have an over-representation of cultural responsibility in their practice, and it’s not fair. And not every artist is a leader; we don’t speak for our individual communities. Our existence is enough.”

Along with Sturgeon’s conscious effort to balance the scale, “The truth of Surely Travel is that I ran out of things to say because I was touring all the time,” he confesses. But his Indigeneity is still nestled in the details. “For people that know about my self or my culture, they will see or hear it. They will see through those lines.”

Take for example the light-refracting “Mashkiki Sunset,” a lulling ode to one of the Seven Grandfather Teachings, love. The totality of these tenets—which also include wisdom, respect, bravery, honesty, humility, and truth—is essential for surviving touring. “I do try to live by the Grandfather Teachings as much as possible. Sometimes, when you have a sore neck, and you’re late for soundcheck, and the backline’s broken, it’s harder to be respectful. But to always have those teachings in my heart is a way through.”

Visually, Sturgeon takes a bolder approach to representing his culture. A lone strawberry adorns the cover of Surely Travel. Known to the Anishinaabe as the “heart berry,” it’s an important food and medicinal ingredient, as well as a symbol of the connection between mind, body, and spirit—fitting given the importance of self-care on the road.

The strawberry is also a reminder to maintain heartfelt relationships. Even if those relationships don’t sustain, “In my community, when you put the strawberry out there, people understand the spirit behind those intentions.” In Surely Travel’s context, the strawberry stands for “the loss of love and friendships and letting people that you care about down and still allowing your love to guide your steps forward and maybe leave those doors open. It is a broken heart, but it’s also together as one piece.”

No matter how Sturgeon chooses to express himself, his music is about healing. “I always wanted to use my art as a way to work on my well-being and imperfections and try to let it guide me to being the best person I can be. It also got really hard. So I think this album speaks to that, and it’s not accepting of it but [rather] saying the spirit is the climb. It’s not the view of the mountain. The view is idealistic, but the climb is putting your hand in it, roughing it up, the scrapes and bruises along the way. As you grow with your spirituality, and the more you understand it, the more nuance there is to those teachings.”

For Sturgeon, learning to step back has been fundamental to his healing. “We don’t always get it right,” he says, acknowledging that it’s impossible to understand every nuance of every social or political issue. “I try more now than ever to just speak for myself and my family. I’m a dad, so when I was writing this record, I began to understand that that was the scope of what was possible for me rather than speaking to everyone that has been enfranchised because of the Indian Act.”

Adam Sturgeon’s path to well-being has been ridged with highs and lows, challenges and triumphs. Every piece of wisdom, every loving connection along the way, provides a new foothold or rock to hold onto. Whether or not he’ll ever reach the idealistic summit for a clear view of life is impossible to say. But for the foreseeable future, the climb continues; he will surely travel, so far from home.

Purchase Surely Travel by Status/Non Status HERE


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