Willie Thrasher is an Inuit singer/songwriter featured on the essential new compilation—and ideal last-minute gift for the music-lover on your xmas list—Native North America, which I reviewed here. (I also interviewed curator Kevin Howes for Maclean’s here.) His is a common story: raised in the wild, sent to a residential school where he was forbidden to speak or sing in his native tongue, immersed in Western culture, and started to reclaim his heritage in his 20s—which, in Thrasher’s case, he did with rock’n’roll. He does, after all, have the perfect name for such a calling. He recorded one album in 1980, but he still performs today: he’s a licensed busker in Nanaimo, B.C. As he says below, “the wolves are still howling.”
I used only a bit of this interview in the short piece I wrote for the print edition of Maclean’s. What follows is an edited transcript of my favourite interview of the past 12 months.
On the phone from his home in Nanaimo, B.C.
November 10, 2014
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Aklavik. My dad was a captain of a whale boat, a schooner. We never stayed in town, my parents wanted to stay out in the wilderness. I would go out and all I would hear would be wolves. I would chase ptarmigans. I loved wildlife. I saw black bear, caribou, moose. It was so, so beautiful. Until I was about five, my spirit was with the wilderness. When I turned five, my dad took the boat to Aklavik to the Immaculate Conception Missionary School. I went there holding my mom’s hands. She took me right to the school where I saw a big, big nun. She yelled out, “Hi Mrs. Thrasher! Is this your son, William?” And they hugged each other. “We’ll take care of him!” As soon as my mom went outside, the nun turned really slowly to me, grabbed my hand, took me right to the boys’ side, cut my hair right off, and then every time I spoke my language I got slapped in the face or had soap put in my mouth. I was told never to speak Inuktitut. Never to sing or dance. That’s when my spirit was taken away forever. I never forgot the day that happened.
Did you see your parents again?
I was allowed to go home two months in the summer. I stayed there from 1953 to 1958, then from there I went to in Grollier Hall in Inuvik, which was a huge residential school built by the government and run by the Roman Catholic Church. One day I went to the gym because I was tired of everybody and there was a set of drums there. Then I started doing this three, four times a week, and I started becoming really good. Then one day the Hard Day’s Night movie came on.
At the school?
They were showing it at the theatre. Ringo was my favourite at the time. I concentrated on how Ringo was playing, and that was the turning point in my life. There were a couple of guitar players around, and we became the first Inuit rock’n’roll band in history, the Cordells. We started playing in different communities. Who knew that a bunch of Inuit who used to hunt caribou and live off the land could play rock’n’roll? It was so cool.
How did the amps and guitars get up there? Forgive my ignorance, but what was electricity like?
Amplifiers were sent from Edmonton, Calgary. Electricity was like it is today. It was a big school, about 2,000 students. It was pretty civilized: fridge, stoves, TVs, everything. When the Cordells started playing, we were one of the hottest bands in the Northwest Territories.
How would you get to gigs?
We used to fly from community to community. We’d play dances and make $100, which was a lot then.
How much was the plane, though? You couldn’t have been making much profit.
Oh, $15. But sometimes the pilot, Freddy Carmichael, would just give it to us for a certain percentage. Or people who ran the dance would pay for it. This went on for a while. Our band was really good. We’d practice on weekends and people would listen to us.
What songs were you playing?
Rolling Stones, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” “Hard Day’s Night.” “Pipeline.” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.” The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” [he sings it]. “19th Nervous Breakdown.” “As Tears Go By.” “House of the Rising Sun.” And that song by the Kinks, you know, [sings riff] “All Day and All of the Night.” “Gloria.” We were really good.
When did you start writing your own songs?
One night we were playing a New Year’s dance and this old man came walking right up to us and sat down and said, “Why don’t you guys write Inuit folk music about your culture? About your ways?” He started telling us how the missionaries took our ways away. We weren’t allowed to think, talk, hunt, dance or anything. This old man who came that night—we never seen him again after. He told us who we were. That night I couldn’t sleep. From that moment on, I was determined to be a songwriter. I only had Grade 6 at the time, so I wasn’t that good of a writer. But people loved it. What touched me the most was that it brought back my spirit: who I was. I remembered stories my mom and dad and grandfather taught me, and I thought, “I want to write music that way.”
When were you first approached about this project?
My other half was looking at email and she saw Kevin Howes trying to get in touch with me somehow. So this was meant to happen. Kevin was working on this for years. All of us [musicians] from the past had no idea. We thought these albums were long gone and forgotten. But Kevin Howes put a fire in 23 performers to bring them all back to life again. Everyone is getting so excited.
Kevin Howes sent me one about a month ago, of [the 1980 album] Spirit Child. It brought a lot of memories. I had long, long hair and was living in Ottawa at the time, and Montreal. I had a call from CBC; they said, “Willie, are you interested in doing an album?” I was honoured to represent the Inuit and the Northwest Territories.
I knew the CBC recorded a lot of indigenous artists at the time—as well as all sorts of musicians from across the country—but did you have to apply for something? Did they pick you out of the blue?
I was the first Inuit to travel across Canada maybe 23 times in 12 years, or something like that. I’d go from Montreal to Vancouver, playing in community after community, then I’d go up to Whitehorse, then from there to Alaska, then back to Vancouver then Calgary then Winnipeg then Toronto and then 39 states. I think it’s because my dad was a traveller; he travelled for 21 years, eh? Once I started travelling I couldn’t stop: couldn’t stop singing, couldn’t stop learning. I met Pete Seeger in New York. I played with Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Sainte-Marie at colleges. I had a feeling at that time it would be my life. Even to this day, I’m still playing. I just came back from the waterfront, where I was playing.
How much travelling do you do now?
Sometimes Vancouver, sometimes around Vancouver Island. But I expect things will pick up again after this record comes out. I’d like to play across Canada the States and overseas. We’re not sure what’s going to happen, but we’re getting ready for anything.
So you spend the 1970s travelling and you end up in Ottawa and you make this record. What happens between then and now? Do you continue to perform and write?
For me, music will be with me forever. There is so much to learn. When Kevin Howes brought all that back, it gave me encouragement to carry on. Then I started hearing from Willy Mitchell and other performers I hadn’t heard from in a long time. We write emails to each other. I see that they’re still rocking, still performing.
You probably hadn’t seen some of them since the Sweet Grass Festival in Val d’Or, Que., in 1980.
Exactly. And some passed away. Willie Dunn passed away a couple of weeks after he was interviewed for this project. Morley Loon passed away.
You and Morley Loon had a band together in the 1980s, called Red Cedar.
Yes, in Vancouver. I was mostly a person who loved to get people dancing and singing and bringing them together. But Red Cedar had a different idea. They were more into protesting and cutting people down. It was a band doing heavy protest songs. I wanted to make music that helped people understand that we should all be working together. I told Red Cedar, “If you guys do one more song like that, I’ll walk out.” They did; I walked out and never went back. I was on my own after that.
Do you think the time period captured on this compilation was a particularly special period?
This is a very historical thing that never happened before in Canadian history. This was when rock’n’roll, all these young rockers, were nailing everybody with beautiful songs and hippies were dancing all over the place. We were there. We sang those songs. We tried to promote our own songs. We weren’t financed or pushed like the others were. The only people who seemed to buy it at the time were the Aboriginal people. But we kept going. The albums faded away.
Do you see a similar spirit in younger Aboriginal artists today? Even if that spirit manifests itself in music that sounds very different from what you were doing?
Well, I never thought I’d see Indian and Inuit kids doing rap. It’s good. I see music getting better and promoted better than it ever was in my life. It’s changed dramatically. Once someone gets well known, they’ll be on APTN, CBC, on radio stations. Back then, it was really hard. It was very difficult to travel, to pay our own way, to make our own albums, to find an agent. Now it’s opened up a lot more; there is a lot of light on Aboriginal folk, rock and rap music, all because how we in the past opened the doors. There are thousands of Native people who heard about us and want to know about us. Young Native musicians try to follow our footsteps. Sometimes I hear someone singing my song, and they say, “Oh, you’re the one who wrote it, eh? Can you play it for me?”
It touches my heart very much. It brings back so much loneliness and happiness, memories of where I was at the time, being wild, all the drummers and dancers and singers I saw when I was young, at powwows and Native festivals. Who is Willie Thrasher today? Willie Thrasher is an Inuit songwriter who doesn’t sing for himself, he sings for all people, try to make them dance, try to make them understand where we came from. That was my journey. It still is my journey, and I have a long ways to go yet. And if it wasn’t for Kevin Howes and Light in the Attic [Records], the fire wouldn’t have started. Now the wolves are howling.