It is easy to understand why it took A Tribe Called Red two years to put together their upcoming third album We Are The Halluci Nation (to be released Sept. 16). The Ottawa-based trio of producer/DJs has earned international acclaim (and a JUNO Award) for their inventive blend of EDM and elements of First Nations music, and they’ve now taken things up another notch.
The group assembled a large and formidable cast of collaborators for the project, then wrote and recorded the tracks in locales around the globe. Group member Tim Hill (a.k.a. 2oolman) tells us that creative collaboration with outside musicians, vocalists and lyricists was the key to the project.
“We wanted to have a conceptual record. That was always the plan, and it began with us working with [Toronto singer/songwriter] Lido Pimienta,” says Hill. “Our first song was ‘The Light,’ and we did that about two years ago. It helped set the tone for the record, and that’s when we decided to turn it into a collaborative project. We sat and wrote things together with Lido and her band in the studio for two days.”
“We’ll always be an indigenous band and we’re happy with that. But we just wanted to grow and mature.” – Tim Hill (a.k.a. 2oolman) of A Tribe Called Red
Direct personal contact helped fuel many of the jointly-written compositions here, Hill explains. “Much of this project was about working together in the studio,” he says, “whereas a lot of the music on the earlier albums was created through sampling of a cappellas and tracks. Having the artists right there in the studio with us rather than having files sent to us, has been awesome.”
The list of collaborators on We Are The Halluci Nation is an impressive and stylistically diverse one. It includes Pimienta, Shad, Tanya Tagaq, Black Bear, Yasiin Bey (a.k.a. hip-hop icon Mos Def) and Narcy, Saul Williams, John Trudell, award-winning Canadian Indigenous author Joseph Boyden, and OKA.
One track that did involve online file-swapping was “Sila,” featuring fellow indigenous musical explorer Tanya Tagaq. “We had always wanted to work with her and she’d been a fan of our work,” recalls Hill. “We sent her beats and she recorded over them. When we got the files back we tried to work with those beats but it wasn’t quite fitting with the sound of the record. We went back to the drawing board and re-worked it. We made it a little darker, and we wanted the song to sound as if we were going back and forth with her. I think we accomplished that, and it’s one of our favourite songs on the record.”
A creative catalyst for the album was noted Native American poet, activist, and musician John Trudell. “We played a show in Santa Fe and John said some beautiful things about us before we got on stage,” says Hill. “That was crazy to us, we were huge fans of his. He suggested we should do something together. What he didn’t know was that we have a wish list of people we’d most like to work with, and he was on it! Here was a real life super-hero of ours wanting to work with us.”
Trudell went into a San Francisco studio to record a poem for use by the group. “He then e-mailed us and said ‘I threw in another poem for you,’” says Hill. “It was ‘We Are The Halluci Nation.’ When we heard it, we looked at each other and went, ‘This is the one.’ That poem helped make the ideas for this record a lot bigger.”
A Tribe Called Red later visited the ailing Trudell, but he passed away last December as the group toured Australia. “It was amazing that our hero could drop so much knowledge and wisdom on us,” praises Hill. “We’re happy we’re able to share his vision with the rest of the world.”
Hill describes the resulting album title as reflecting the record’s concept. “It’s basically about like-minded people that want change, and they band together as a nation, without any cultural affiliations. We want to take it back to human beings as one.”
Befitting that vision is the fact that the album was created on many different continents. “We did the first parts of ‘R.E.D.’ [the collaboration with Bey and Narcy] in a hotel room in France, we worked on songs in a fishing cottage in northern Norway, and did work in L.A., Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, San Francisco, NYC, and Australia,” recalls Hill.
“When we were in these other places, it wasn’t that we had an obligation to get the record done. It was just that we wanted to do the music because there was so much around us that was inspiring. When these inspirations hit, we pulled out the gear and started working. I’m hoping people will get a sense that this is world-shaped.”
The group’s extensive international travels have had a real impact, he observes. “We’ll always be an indigenous band and we’re happy with that,” says Hill. “But we just wanted to grow and mature. That has honestly come from touring and meeting all of these people from all over the world, and having our eyes opened to other indigenous peoples we’ve had a chance to be with.”