“I’m cooped up in the house because it’s minus 28 out there today,” Northern Haze frontman James Ungalaq tells Billboard from his home in Igloolik, Nunavut — near Santa Claus, he says, to give us southerners perspective. The local legend from the Inuktitut-language folk and metal infused rock band drops his first new studio album in 33 years this Friday (Nov. 23).
Siqinnaarut comes out on Aakuluk Music, the first record label in the territory, started in 2015 by rising roots-rock throat singing and Inuktitut vocals group The Jerry Cans, who hooked Northern Haze up with their producer, Toronto’s Michael Phillip Wojewoda, noted for his work with Barenaked Ladies and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Childhood friends who learned how to play music on toy instruments, Northern Haze had not cut a full studio album since its self-titled debut in 1985, through CBC Northern Service, the parent label of the government’s Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It is said to be the first Indigenous-language rock album recorded in North America and led to some choice gigs, such as Folk on the Rocks in Yellowknife and the 1986 Expo in Vancouver.
The band did continue to perform in Northern communities, including their hometown, and became veritable north stars, but in 2007 bassist Elijah Kunnuk died from cancer and a week later frontman and main songwriter Kolitalik Inukshuk was murdered. While the loss was devastating, Ungalaq decided to step into the lead role and continue their legacy.
A few years later Jason Flower of Vancouver, BC’s Supreme Echo Records discovered the band and trekked there to film a short documentary, producing some new songs, and releasing a compilation of their recordings from 1985 to 2010 called Sinnaktuq.
In 2017, Aakuluk reached out to the band and reissued that album digitally in late May. By the new year, Northern Haze — now comprised of Ungalaq, guitarist Naisana Qamaniq, drummer John Inooya; Ungalaq’s son, bassist Derek Aqqiaruq and nephew, keyboardist Allan Kangok — was signed to the label and made Siqinnaarut in Iqaluit with Wojewoda, who flew all his gear there, in the dead of winter.
Congratulations on a new studio album after three decades.
Yes. So happy, finally got one out with my friends and my son. And Allan and John, of course.
Explain to us where you live, Igloolik.
Yes, Igloolik is above the Arctic Circle. It’s in the Canadian north, just 500 yards from Santa Claus. It’s a small town with like 2000 people. Been growing a little bit, but not very much. Most of the families live in town. It’s not really any hardcore industry.
What was it like in the ’80s when you started as a band? How did you get your instruments and how did you record that first album?
Oh boy. We had just started the band and there was a music festival in Iqaluit, which is the capital, about 500 miles southeast of us, and there was a contest and the winner would go do a recording with CBC and we took up the challenge, but we came second to our disappointment. We lost the contest. But anyhow, we were talented; we were impressive. And we had some friends from CBC, who called us back and asked us if we could do a $20,000 album. Of course, we took the offer and we recorded it in Ottawa. That’s how it happened.
Did you get any kind of backlash from Elders because you were taking contemporary western music, heavy metal, and combining it with your language?
Absolutely. That’s one of the biggest obstacles that we faced. I know it doesn’t happen very often, but one of the more extreme negative comments we got was “Don’t mix it.” That was the biggest message we got back in the ’80s when we were just coming out. But I don’t think we should be suppressed. I think we should express our art and material that we have now. There’s nothing wrong with that. It also helps us integrate, not separate, building bridges with many other different cultures in this small corner of Canada.
Northern Haze has been performing occasionally all these decades. What prevented you from going full force and touring across the country or talking to record companies in Toronto? Did they not care about a metal band from up north that sang in their native Inuit language?
I think we took our Inuit culture and language to the limit. We’ve even exceeded our expectations with our language and culture. We’re so limited. Our language goes so far and language changes, but that’s okay. I think we did what we wanted to do, which was perform in our own language and portray our own culture. For Inuktitut language, Inuktitut-speaking music was almost non-existent back then. I don’t think we ever limited ourselves.
Sometimes French and Spanish language popular artists sometimes also record English-language albums as well. Did you ever consider doing that to reach a broader audience?
We’ve talked about it. Money was always tight. We had to replace our instruments. We bought all that stuff on our own.
How did the opportunity come about to record for Aakuluk Music?
Everything was just so perfect at the time. I always wanted to record with Naisana, our oldest [member] with the band. He’s been playing with the band on and off and we wanted to do an album together because Naisana couldn’t do the first album. So we’ve been wanting to do that over the years. And finally, we had a chance opportunity with Aakuluk Music, just amazing guys, [and] with Michael, a producer from Toronto. All these guys just came together and we lost two prominent members in 2007. [Now] it was the right time. That drive was there, the emotional drive was there, and everything just fitted so well together.
Losing two members, such a tragedy and so significant, when you’ve been friends and worked together for so long. What kept you going?
I don’t know. I just realized after losing two members how life is so precious and how life it changes so fast and I’m coming to the realization that I’m not going to live forever and I got to do a recording and put it on record so people can enjoy it long, long after we’re gone. The drive was there; the emotion was there; our hearts were there and it just happened.
And you brought in your son and your nephew into the band.
Yes. We were not very close when he was growing up and we were just getting close and it just welded together when we started playing music together and losing our two members, it was a perfect for him to come in and we asked him if we could play with him. He agreed and it just fitted so well with us.
You didn’t mellow over three decades. Still playing metal. At the bottom of the Northern Haze bio it says RIUL [recommended if you like] The Misfits, Blue Oyster Cult and Black Sabbath. Do you agree with those influences and what drew you to them?
I’m pretty modest and those guys are up there; they’re rock gods. Sometimes, in our dreams, I’m sure we wished we were them. Of course they inspired us. They made us have our own dreams too. I wouldn’t put myself up there with those beautiful people, like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and all those wonderful guys, but they inspired us. They have beautiful music and we wanted to do the same.
I’ve heard you are rock gods in Nunavut. People travel the territory to see your rare shows and your songs have become classics.
Thank you very much. They’re very kind to us and they couldn’t put a better word out for us. They’re our friends.
Are you still writing about similar topics of importance to you?
I think we’ve changed so much. Back in the ’80s, we were just trying to identify our problems, where these problems come from. In the short years, we’ve gotten so many apologies from the Federal Government. Everything went so fast with the reconciliation and [the late] Gord Downie [of The Tragically Hip, who started The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund to aid reconciliation] and everything went so fast and still growing and still changing so fast for us. It’s going in a pace where it just makes our head spin in trying to get concepts together. I think we’ll have a good spin out of this one because we’re not losing content; we have a lot to work with. Music is going to be a big part of it, for sure.
The inaugural Nunavut Music Week was last year and Aakuluk Music is the first label in that region. It’s very expensive to travel there. What do you need from us, the general public or from the industry, to help young musicians as well as veterans like yourself?
Oh boy. Listen to some cool music from the North, from the industry, from the Native People, listen to more of those and that’ll help.
Phillip Wojewoda traveled with recording gear to Iqaluit and set up inside Qanukiaq Studios, a TV production company. Logistically, why decide not to come to Toronto to record at one of those many state-of-the-art studios?
Iqaluit is far away from my home too. It’s about halfway with Michael coming from because that’s where we met and that’s where we recorded the music. I may be a little closer to it than Michael was, but we met halfway. Working with a professional who knows their stuff was just amazing. It was just incredible and magic for us, who come from up North, where they are no producers at all. To come down and meet Michael in Iqaluit and work with him was just magic. If we were shaman from Igloolik, he would have a lot of rewards (laughs).
Were you familiar with his work with Barenaked Ladies and Buffy Sainte-Marie? Of course he did the Jerry Cans.
We just started working with the industry just recently and Andrew [Morrison, The Jerry Cans frontman] and the young guns from Aakuluk Music, they were just incredible and there were so informed and connected with the industry. I mean, they put the first music festival, a conference, in Iqaluit and they’ve been working so hard since. It had been a wonderful time and I don’t think we would have done it without those guys who are in the industry right now and work really hard.
And you got a chance to perform on the Juno Awards this year in Vancouver with the Jerry Cans.
Yeah. It was just so lucky to be there. I’m so fortunate to have friends with The Jerry Cans who brought me to the Junos, the top place that everyone wants to go to, and I was so happy. It was like my last hoorah.
Well, it’s not your last hoorah. You’ve got this album coming out in few days. You’ve got a great label behind you. When do we get to see you live?
I’m just trying to get healthy right now. I don’t know. I get a knee replacement in March in Ottawa this spring. I’m just trying to get healthy, right now; I’m almost immobile. I’m just crippled from my knee and my back. With how things are going, after March, if I’m healthy and if I’m not too dependent, I’m still young. Well, I’m old. I’m 54 years old, 16 grandchildren, and I like to spend more time at home with my grandchildren and go out fishing with him. I wish I could rock on like Mick Jagger, and those big guys who never grow old and just keep rocking, but they’re made from steel [laughs].