The History of Gunpowder: Vancouver’s New Freak Out Ensemble

There’s a new act in town that is bringing a whole lot of flavour to the city of Vancouver. The History of Gunpowder is fronted by Yukon-born Alex Morison and they’ll be playing The Fox Cabaret this Thursday to celebrate the release of a new album. We sat down with Alex to talk about the band’s history, the new album, and what the future holds for the eclectic five-piece.

Alex Morison has been around. Moving from Whitehorse to Calgary at the age of 10, he’s since lived in Ontario, BC’s interior, and even South America. He was living in Vancouver around the age of 20 when he first chose the name for his musical venture. When asked how he decided on The History of Gunpowder it seems it came down to conjuring an image.

“It matters more about the aesthetics than the specific meaning for the artist because, as the old saying goes, once it’s out of your hands it’s everyone else’s property.”

He started the band in Vancouver but found further development in Montreal. He says he’s had around 28 members involved throughout the band’s history, with a different set of musicians in either city.

Montreal’s music scene is what encouraged him to make the move. As Morison puts it, there’s more of a ladder to climb with Montreal venues, providing more opportunity to gain an audience. Whereas in Vancouver the live scene is a bit more tough to navigate for an upcoming band; many available venues forced to charge high booking costs to make rent.

The six songs on the new release, The Epileptic Vol. 1, were recorded in Montreal with the Montreal line-up. Morison, while not a professional on all the instruments displayed on the album, wrote all the music. A massive production, Morison (a producer and engineer) wanted nothing to do with mixing the heavily layered songs.

Instead, mixing engineer Chris “Hollywood” Holmes took on the duty. The Prince George-native is described by Morison as a “mad man” and spent years in LA working on sessions with artists like Katy Perry, Korn, and Ricky Martin before moving to Vancouver. His experience is evident on the album and Morison is feeling very good with the result.

“By the time it comes out I’m usually done with it and I don’t want to hear it anymore, but I really like how these songs turned out.”

Rightfully so, as the album is something quite special. With baroque characteristics, the music incorporates jazz, blues, funk, soul, and some good old rock n’ roll. The songs are huge and it’s no wonder this was a daunting album to mix with everything going on. By the time you’ve finished with a song it feels like you’ve reached the end of a play, or at least an act that, by its end, you remember is just one piece of the grand production.

Check out the video for “Greased Up in the Port” for a taste of just how spunky this band can get.

As for the album title, it seemed a rather suitable choice as Morison himself is epileptic. As he explains, the word comes from the Latin “possessed” because upon origination they thought anyone who was seizing was possessed by the devil.

“It’s very easy to romanticize or fictionalize into a second personality or any metaphoric possession.”

Morison is aiming to create a character that goes through these volumes, named The Epileptic.

“It’s more autobiographical than anything I’ve done.”

Morison says the album was written over a year before a tough period in his life; the heavy content foreshadowing what was to come, seeming to know what was on the way well before Morison himself. The tough period involved the end of a relationship with not only a woman, but the city he had called home for the past five years: he decided it was time to leave Montreal.

“Leaving Montreal is like going on a detox,” he says with a knowing smile. “It’s just too damn fun and I’m too good at having fun.”

He returned to Vancouver around a year ago for a job working with First Nations communities and these days he seems to wear a few hats. One of those involves work with the Museum of Anthropology. He was commissioned to compose a response to works of art from a group of contemporary women artists from Aboriginal Australia, which brought to fruition a new project of his called The RumSalt Orchestra. Morison assembled a mini orchestra and plans to have an album released under the name in a few months.

Another, more “danceable” project Morison has in the works has him under the name Papa Gunpowder. He describes the music as somewhat like History of Gunpowder, but more of a “festival” version. He has plans for an instrumental album to be released next year.

Also, with already 11 more songs ready to go for his current band, Morison says to expect two more volumes of The Epileptic in the not-so-distant future. It’s safe to say the man has his hands full.

As for the present, you can catch the band in person for the release show of The Epileptic Vol. 1 this Thursday at The Fox Cabaret. Morison and the band are going all out for this one and will have a few special additions.

“We have a three-person film crew there; we’ve got two engineers; we’re going to record it and film it.”

The five-piece band will also be joined on stage by three Vancouver performers who will be singing backups: Chelsea Johnson and Lolo Whyte from Old Soul Rebel and blues singer Emily Molloy; Morison has high praise for each of them.

Fellow Vancouver rockers Chase The Bear will be opening the show at 8.

The huge productions of the studio tracks are re-worked for the live shows and based on what’s been said of the band’s shows in Montreal, you can expect a performance to match their chaotic pirate blues sound.

“I have some of the best musicians that I could possibly ask for,” Morison says of his bandmates. “The same community that I left five years ago is still here.”

Vancouver can always use more soulful rock n’ roll, and for a band that pushes the limits like The History of Gunpowder, well, we’re glad to have you back.