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Q&A: Black Belt Eagle Scout talks tours, powwows, grunge and 'Indians Never Die'

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Black Belt Eagle Scout

Katherine Paul, who performs as Black Belt Eagle Scout, will be in Missoula April 15 to play the Union Ballroom. 

Black Belt Eagle Scout, the solo project from Native American multi-instrumentalist Katherine Paul (who goes by KP), burst onto the indie music scene in 2018 with Saddle Records' re-release of their debut “Mother of My Children,” with grunge-influenced rock and lyrics that covered everything from queer relationships to Paul’s fellow Native Americans protesting in Standing Rock. The record was lauded by national music outlets like Pitchfork and the Fader and made it onto many year-end best-of lists.

Paul, who grew up in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Washington before moving to Portland, spoke with the Missoulian in advance of her show in Missoula on Monday, April 15, that will feature her core touring group of Grace Bugbee (bass) and Camas Logue (drums). This interview has been condensed and edited for space.

You’re in the middle of what looks like a longer tour, with Missoula kicking off another string of shows. How’s the tour going? What have you taken away from your big tour last year?

The first thing that comes to mind is to have really good car insurance. I didn’t set up the car insurance last time, I just told my drummer, “Can you help set up car insurance?” and we didn’t get the best kind. And we broke down and got in accidents. I think probably the stuff that I’ve learned the most is more about driving rather than playing shows. I’m pretty good at playing shows, I feel like I’ve got it. But the traveling, it’s opened up my eyes into a whole 'nother world of trying to be safe and trying to always know what to do if something bad happens.

Have the rest of your band been on tour before, or are you all figuring the logistics out together?

It’s a mix. My drummer has been on tour a little bit, but my bassist has been on tour a lot. It seems like when we were on the road last fall, we had all of the bad things happen. Which is just, our tire fell off of our van when we were driving to Boston one time and then we got in a collision and then we were driving along the highway and an industrial lawn mower was mowing the lawn and chucked a huge rock at our window and shattered it (laughs). It’s just these random, terrible things, where at the end of the tour we’re like, “Come at me, what else do you got?”

You’ll be well-prepared for driving through Montana and the Dakotas here in April where you can get rain or snow or sun at any moment.

We’ve got a brand-new, nice vehicle and really good insurance. We’ll be fine I think.

You said you were comfortable playing shows on tour. Was there a transition period to playing with a full band, given you recorded the album all by yourself?

I didn’t really start touring until last year, and before that I played locally in Portland. I would just play with my friends, basically. For a year or so I had maybe three different lineups. There were two shows in Portland and Seattle where I wanted to make it really special and I had three guitars in the band and it was this kind of supergroup. Every time we play though, it’s really nice to see what could be added to a song and see how they have evolved.

I feel like whenever I try another new person I just know what they’re going to play now. Here’s this line, here’s what you’re gonna do. Cause I’ve had to teach the songs so many times to people.

Has that made you think about recording with a band? Or are you still committed to keeping Black Belt Eagle Scout as a solo project?

I really like just doing all my own stuff in studio. It wouldn’t be Black Belt Eagle Scout if it wasn’t just me recording it. It would be something else, I feel like I’d have to change the name or something.

I record so that a live band can play with me. That’s why I have other people that play in the live band with me, I like when the drums come alive.

I could play by myself, I could be just a solo artist, but I enjoy playing with people when we play shows. It’s much more interesting, with an audience, when they see a band to hear the other parts of the songs.

You have a new single “Loss & Relax,” that you started writing while recording “Mother of My Children,” but saved it to release later. Do you feel that song is from a similar place, or is it looking in a new direction for what comes next from Black Belt Eagle Scout?

I feel it’s a little in between. When I recorded “Mother of My Children,” I was up in Anacortes, Washington, for a week and I was staying at my mom and dad’s house.

I started playing that riff one night after I’d finished recording for the day and I thought, “This is cool, I really like this.” I thought about trying to create it (in studio), but it seemed like, I need to think about it more, I need to keep playing it.

When I came back, I kept playing that riff and that song and it turned into my feelings about what it was like traveling home and recording where I’m from and where I was born and having that experience.

I recorded it in a different studio and I was able to add a lot of different elements. When you record in different studios, that studio can have a little bit of a home in your record, because with “Mother of My Children,” I used a bunch of vibraphones because that’s what the studio had.

But “Loss & Relax,” there’s an Omnichord and all these keyboards and that’s what the studio had.

With me being the person that’s recording and playing all of the stuff, whenever I go from place to place that tends to come into my grasp and be something that I can turn into whatever is in my mind for creativity.

You’ve talked a lot about being inspired by Hole and other Northwest grunge music. I want to know — aside from introducing you to music — how did growing up as a jingle dress dancer, with a family drum group influence your music?

Growing up on a small Indian reservation and having a family that’s very musical, that’s just our way of life. That’s our lifestyle. At the very foundation, that’s where the heart of my music comes from. That’s where the soul of it comes from, because that’s what I grew up on. I grew up on going and listening, always, to songs that my grandfather taught our family, having those melodies in my brain.

I’ve noticed I don’t really write lyrics like some people do. They’ll write lyrics and try and rhyme them or fit them into the song.

I don’t do that, I’ll play guitar and then I’ll sing and something will come out of me. Mostly words, sometimes melodies. That’s what the song leads with, that’s the foundation of the song.

I was thinking about that, and that’s how the music of my people is like. My dad always tells me, “Sing from the heart, sing from the heart.” I think that is what is different about me versus other people, because of that teaching that my father and his father and all of our family, my grandmother, that we’ve instilled in our lives. To sing from the heart, not write lyrics or figure out chord structure. Just have something and do it with feeling.

Having that in my life has definitely shaped what my music sounds like. Sometimes I think the melodies that I sing sound somewhat like some powwow songs or some Coast Salish songs, but not totally. There’s definitely a similarity of melody there. This line is a melody sung over and over again, which is what certain powwow songs or family songs are, essentially.

But Nirvana and stuff like that, I didn’t discover that until middle school, high school. Because that’s when my family first got a computer. I had just sort of heard about Nirvana through word of mouth, because living in Washington, people start talking about our scene or you see it in the paper. So I knew about that sort of music, but didn’t really start getting into it until I had technology, I had this gateway to learning more.

Did your family do a lot of traveling to compete in powwows for dancing and drumming?

We traveled mainly in Washington and sometimes Oregon. In certain parts of Washington we would go on the powwow trail. I sort of did competitions when I was growing up, but I was also really shy. I wouldn’t really want to compete with other girls in jingle dress, I would more so just (dance) when everybody could dance.

All of the songs off “Mother of My Children” are really specific and from this very emotional time in your life when you wrote them. How is it playing those songs night after night? Have their meanings changed, or is it hard to play them so often?

Lately I’ve been trying to put myself in more of the perspective of where I was at when I was writing those songs, because sometimes it can be monotonous when you’re on the road over and over and over playing the same songs.

You’re going on tour, playing in front of these crowds of people who bought a ticket to see you play, they’re going to buy your merch, it can be this consumer thing. And I try to make it not that, but it can be hard sometimes.

Thinking about where I was at when I was writing the songs and recording them while I’m playing really helps me connect to the songs and it really helps me be able to enjoy playing the songs over and over again and be present with what I’m doing.

But it can be hard, especially when you’re touring when you’re traveling and you’re tired and you stink 'cause you haven’t showered.

You’ve talked a lot about the song “Indians Never Die,” which you accompany live by explaining its meaning (which covers the relationship between colonizers and Native peoples and how they treat the Earth). How do you feel that’s been received, after a few months of touring? Has it led to good conversations with promoters or audience members?

I haven’t really talked with any promoters, no one’s really talked to me about stuff, but definitely audience members come up to me. It’s funny, sometimes people get really shy and say, “Thank you for saying that,” and that’s all they can say. And it’s normally white people that come up and I wonder what they’re feeling, are you feeling guilty (laughs)?

The way that I think about is, I have this really great opportunity to say what’s on my mind and talk about what’s important to me. Especially if I write a song about something, I’m going to say something about it. I want to make it a little different than just going and seeing entertainment.

I want to be able to be real with people and let people know who I am and what I’m doing and where I’m from. That comes from my upbringing, of when you go somewhere — my grandfather and my father taught me — you introduce yourself, you tell them where you’re from and who your family is.

That’s carried on with that song because there’s still violence against Native people in this country. There’s still women going missing and being murdered, indigenous women, in this country. In another perspective, there’s people who just don’t know that Native people exist and they think we’re something from the past.

Since I’m on a stage and I have a microphone, I’m trying to show up for my people, I guess. This is who I am, this is who we are. I’m trying to break that barrier to create more space for other Native people to be on stages and to go on tours and create music and make records. Even just to create their art and make their voice heard. Which I think is a way of looking at decolonization and seeing how the world could be, in the future, more available for Native people.

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Arts and entertainment

arts reporter for the Missoulian.