Names are complicated things, as Jesse James Gon can tell you. In musical circles, he’s best known as Diga, or (mistakenly) as Digawolf, the name of his Juno-nominated and Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards-winning band. Back in his home community, people still call him by his childhood Tlicho nickname.
“In Behchoko, my father used to go hunting and trapping, and when muskrat seasons were in full-swing, he would come back with a lot of muskrats for the family. The muskrat tail used to be a delicacy. For whatever reason, my father started to give me the name in Tlicho: muskrat tail. In Tlicho, it’s Dzoetse.” (dzo is muskrat, while etse means tail.)
So, on the new Digawolf album – coming out on Nov. 1 – Jesse is calling himself Dzoetse to front the band, which also includes TJ Buggins on bass guitar and Dave Dowe on drums. The album’s name, The Great Northern Man, is a nod to James’ hunting-and-trapping father.
Oh, and he and several of his relatives are working on changing their last name back to its original form, from before the time his grandfather’s nickname Gon was first recorded as his surname.
“When everybody had to be registered, they had to spell the last name,” Jesse says. His family’s original name, which he won’t yet reveal because of how it connects his family to others, was too difficult for white officials, so his grandfather was registered as Jeremy Gon.
“When you go back to your last name and start doing research, you start to realize you’re part of a bigger picture,” he says
Growing up, Jesse spoke Tlicho until he was nine years old, when he was sent to Alberta for school.
While Jesse was in Alberta, his older brother, David Gon, came down to visit him, having just finished a new album. At the time, Jesse says, “I didn’t want to be a musician. I had five older brothers who were musicians,” he says. “I wanted to paint… but he showed me the album, and I said, ‘Wow.’”
His brother taught him to play four chords on a used guitar, and left his album behind when he went away.
“I ended up coming back six months later and I knew all of his chords and lyrics,” Jesse says. “But I still keep that paint-brush in the back of my head.”
Jesse returned to Behchoko in his teens when his father became ill, soon joining a group that eventually became Northern Band. Northern Band opened for Kashtin at Folk on the Rocks in 1992, though none of the members had even heard of the festival before submitting their application. Eventually, the band Digawolf came into being.
Again, another complication with names: “It started off as the name Diga, but it went to Digawolf – that happened because of southern shows – people would always ask me, ‘What does Diga mean?’ and I kept on saying, ‘Wolf,’” he says. “So, I decided to put the two together so people would know what Diga means – it means wolf – but they still ask. So that plan didn’t work.” Eventually, after playing under the band name Diga, he says people started to assume that was just his name. And he went with it.
Over the years, his formula for making music hasn’t changed.
“I’m originally an artist. What happens to me when it comes to music is I start to paint with audio,” he says.
“I try to visualize what the landscape looks like, what the horizon would look like through sounds, through music.”
On the latest record, he was more hands-on than ever: producing, recording and mastering the album himself, with help from Dowe on engineering. The result is not your classic rock and roll, Jesse says, though he counts Chuck Berry as his main influence, along with Malcolm Young of AC/DC.
“Rather than having a four-four straight, to throw something off-time – I specifically concentrated on certain instruments, like the bass, to be off-time – it gives it a whole different vibe,” he says. “It’s quite interesting. I really like it and I love experimenting with off-time.”
For the next album, Jesse says the three members of Digawolf will co-write every song, having built the necessary amount of trust in each other.
While talking of future plans for his music, Jesse admits his career path isn’t an easy one.
“There’s no money in it,” he says. “Trying to make it as a musician in the North is really hard… but I later on realized, it doesn’t really matter where you are – anywhere, if you want make it in music, it’s really hard.”
What is your earliest memory of Yellowknife?
The airplane. Seeing the airplane off of the highway at the airport.
What is your favourite thing about Yellowknife?
The Old Town – the Woodyard. It’s a colourful vibe, lots of friends, nice fires.
What is your least favourite thing about Yellowknife?
People without houses living on the street. People aren’t homeless, they’re houseless. They are home – this is their land. They just don’t have houses.
How do you get through the winters?
I play my guitar – my Gibson 335 Sunburst.
How do you spend the summers?
I play my other guitar – my black Gibson with a missing pickup.
What sort of opportunities have you found in Yellowknife that you don’t find other places?
Having a sense of community. Once you make friends in Yellowknife they tend to be friends for life, no matter if they move out of the community to another place.
Are you a Yellowknife lifer?
Yah. I think I’m probably going to die here. I’m hoping it’s the last thing I do.