The sound of a different drummer from Tsawwassen
The Tsawwassen First Nation was a tough place to be a teen in the 1980s. There was nothing to do, nowhere to hang out, and Andrew Bak’s family wasn’t well-to-do. So when Bak’s clarinet – one of his few sources of entertainment over the years – was stolen after a high school Christmas concert, he knew it was gone for good. At band class the next day, Bak told his teacher he couldn’t afford the $350 to replace the instrument. He asked to drop the course and take something else instead, but was met with a terse: “No, and if you can’t find another instrument you’re going to get an F.”
In an act of desperation, Bak stole (“actually borrowed…I did end up giving them back eventually”) a pair of drumsticks from an Air Cadet marching band. Little did he know at the time it would lead him on the path to playing music professionally, or that his progressive metal band Antiquus would be touring the world, opening for bands as renowned as Blind Guardian.
Sitting in his office in the Tsawwassen First Nation, where he currently works as territory management officer, Bak now chuckles at the memory. “I went to class and sat in the back with the drummers and the teacher said, ‘so you’re a drummer now.’. I replied, ‘Yeah. I guess I am.’”
While he is now on hiatus with Antiquus, Bak is still more-than-busy working on albums with two other bands, My Own Chaos and a Black Sabbath tribute called Sister Sabbath (the woman vocalist dresses like a nun “honestly, it’s just to get people’s attention”), as well as working fulltime with Tsawwassen during a hectic post-treaty period.
“I don’t sleep. I just don’t sleep,” he said, adding that he has two children and recently decided to go back to school to study business.
“Now just seems like a good time to start building skills in other areas. Now that TFN has business interests as a nation, we need business skills.”
Bak’s appearance also reflects a true mix of heavy metal and businessman, clad in a crisp black dress shirt with salt-and-pepper hair past his shoulders. He has pens that are shaped like drumsticks. And, fittingly, the jobs he’s held as territory management officer, treaty negotiator and former council member were all things that, like his music career, came into place serendipitously.
He started at the nation in the late 1990s when the cultural department needed someone experienced to handle the technical end of recording and mixing Hun’qum’i’num language CDs. Bak, who had studied and worked in music tech, stepped in and never looked back.
He now cites former chief Kim Baird as a major influencer, and encourager, in his career. He even once declined a nomination for chief in order to support her.
“My job here was going to be a temporary thing between tours,” he said. “But I joined fulltime in 1999. I’ve been very fortunate.”
Since treaty negotiations ended, Bak has worked with leadership to “breathe life” into the agreement, working on community development (work recently began on the nation’s mega-malls) and areas of governance that need attention.
“This community has very high expectations of its civil servants and elected leaders,” he said. “It’s such a radical change from the way things used to be. It’s terrifying to many people, some of the stuff we’re rolling out now. But it’s all very necessary stuff being rolled out to help the community. It is a better place to live now than it was before.”
And while he is constantly juggling work and music, Bak says the two rarely mix.
“I have pretty deliberately not done music material that is based in Coast Salish storytelling or traditions,” he said. “Metal as a genre is full of all sorts of themes exploring concepts like death and violence and that’s just not in keeping with Coast Salish spirituality.
“I’m not a very spiritual person but respect that it means a lot to other people. The other part of that, too, is that I just haven’t found the right story.”
Bak added that he loves certain aboriginal music, but treads carefully. He mentions specifically a prayer song gifted by Tsleil-Waututh elder Leonard George and his family that “melodically is very, very strong. I’d really love to give that a metal treatment.
“I hear it in my head and its great. But culturally is it the right thing to do? I haven’t found the right way to breach the protocol.”
Adding that he thinks he’s getting to the end of his musical shelf life, Bak said he hopes he has enough energy “to still work on both sides of the street” for a while longer.
But as he prepares to start recording a new album with My Own Chaos, looks forward to an MBA from Simon Fraser University and talks animatedly about his wife and children – occasionally being interrupted by his office phone ringing – it is clear that he has all but mastered juggling.
Looking back at all the things that have led him to where he is, Bak shrugs.
“I guess the last 15 years have been kind of a hiccup in my tour schedule.”