Since signing to Sub Pop in 2012 for the release of their official debut awE naturalE, expansion has been a recurring theme for R&B/hip-hop duo THEESatisfaction. Expansion, equally, in sound, vision and scope. In the three years since awE nautralE was released, the label-eschewing Seattle duo has extended their Black Weirdo collective to include new MCs, singers and producers (the terrific Black Weirdo Compilation was released last year). They’ve also toured China, Australia and Europe, and in the process, helped shine a spotlight on a burgeoning Seattle subculture.
Along with a larger group of musicians and artists called Black Constellation, Stas and Cat, the two women in their late 20s who make up THEESatisfaction, contributed to a major exhibition at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle titled Your Feast Has Ended, a sprawling mixed media celebration of black culture bent on reclamation from forces long-obsessed with defining it to suit their own motives.
The breadth of vision on THEESatisfaction’s follow-up EarthEE reaches far beyond the common minutiae of a break-up, to more urgent matters, notably the human race’s rapidly spiraling disconnect from nature and itself. Topics of race are a central focus too. In general, the album is better understood as a wake up call and call to action. Issues of sustainability, commodification and gentrification are addressed, as are roadblocks, internal and external, standing in the way of human connection.
In order to evoke such a distinct sound, expansion was necessary once again with regard to production and instrumentation, as well as experimentation in songwriting. After two years of recording, assisted by contributions from Shabazz Palaces, Meshell Ndegeocello and Porter Rays, EarthEE is set to be released next week. The album is a forceful follow-up marking a major advancement in style and substance, evidenced clearly on the vibrant, futuristic lead single “Recognition.” Near the end of this month, THEESatisfaction will head out on a brief headlining tour before opening up for Sleater-Kinney on an extensive spring tour, which concludes with three consecutive nights in Seattle. During our interview, I spoke to Stas and Cat about the conceptual inspiration for EarthEE, the lengthy collaborative process that ensued, and their ever-evolving ideas for future expansion. — Aaron Frank
The new album touches a lot of ecological themes and ideas involving humanity’s connection to nature. Going into the making of the album, was there anything specific you wanted to get across in that regard?
Cat: I think we just wanted to try and take a different approach to this record. There’s no samples on this project or anything like that, and Stas and I collaborated more on the production side of things. And then we brought in some other people, not a lot, but we just worked on collaborating with folks in different ways and trying to expand on how we wrote. So I guess we were just trying to continue growing when we were making this record.
That progression is definitely evident in the structure of these songs. They’re noticeably longer than most of the work you’ve released in the past, and the tone is a bit more subtle and nuanced. What was the biggest lesson you took away from this album with regard to process and structuring your songs?
Stas: I think we kind of learned to let the songs breathe and get warmed up and give the people the lyrics and just let it chill down. Most of our songs before this album were kind of a punk style, where we just came in quickly and got out, but now we’ve learned to build up the songs a little bit more and add more wrinkles and solos and things like that.
That was the first thing I noticed when I heard “Recognition,” which starts with that unsteady drum pattern that just sort of loops and breathes for awhile. The structure is relaxed and almost playful, like you’re indulging your experimental side a bit more.
Cat: Yeah, I mean, for that song we wanted to do more chants, and it just felt right with that beat. Tendai from Shabazz has amazing percussion going on in that, and then Erik comes in with this nice bass, and it’s kind of like a family affair, but we wanted it to be kind of like a universal chant. So while working on the tunes, I guess we were more open to accentuating what was going on in the beat.
And that kind of ties back in to what I got out of the album at least, which was this idea of trying to reconnect humanity to nature in a way. There’s a very smooth, organic flow to the album as a whole.
Stas: Definitely. I think with our first album we wanted to sound like we were more grounded and walking among the people of earth. But with this one we kind of wanted to step outside of it as like aliens or creatures looking down on earth and looking at earth in that way, not actually being among everyone but more like a voyeuristic view of what earth looks like or sounds like.
That’s an intriguing idea for an album, and if you take it a step further, that concept seems somewhat prevalent in science fiction. Earth and humanity as an alien experiment being controlled from a distant galaxy. Was there anything specific that inspired that idea?
Cat: Just keeping up with pop news and music news and stuff, reading a lot of articles. But we’ve been big fans of Octavia Butler and just other sci-fi epics. I’ve been watching Cosmos and Stark Trek a lot, and I think about the future and where we’re going and just drifting in space, taking that time to reflect on our experiences here on earth and what that means. Because when we first came out, and still to this day, we kind of consider ourselves outsiders and aliens.
People always try to figure out what genre to place us in or where to put us or whatever, but we’re ok with putting ourselves in places that we want to be and maneuvering in our own way. So I think it’s kind of a reflection and an evolution from all of the other projects to where we’ve come and where the world is and a reflection of that and where we plan on going from there.
One of my favorite songs on the album is “Blandland,” mostly because of the way it addresses commodification and certain ways in which individualism can be manipulated. What was the viewpoint you were trying to convey in that song?
Stas: That song is definitely just calling out people that really take music and art and really just bastardize it and exploit it and turn it into McDonalds and Disney. And I really try and stay away from shit like that because it’s really damaging. So yeah, it’s really just calling out artificality and fakeness and basically people who Columbus the experience.
Coming back to that idea of commodification, what do you feel is most damaging to music and art today? Does it come down to media and corporate interests, or is there something bigger?
Cat: I think it’s a lack of knowledge and education. I feel like we live in a society and a time where there’s a lot of information, but information isn’t always the same as knowledge. That’s not what is going to educate you. You might know things or have information, but knowing what Paris Hilton did or what Kim Kardashian’s ass is doing or if Justin Bieber has been airbrushed or not, that’s not actual knowledge that can help you in life. I feel like there’s an actual lack of knowledge being exchanged, and so in the music industry, there’s a lot of people replicating music that has already existed, that people don’t know about, because they’re not educated. But those folks know about it, so then they become pioneers for something they never created.
From an outsider’s perspective, it would seem that, with you and Shabazz and Porter taking off these last few years, there is a sudden groundswell of talent coming out of Seattle. Am I mistaken in that assumption? Or has Seattle always had a pretty healthy hip-hop scene?
Cat: I think it’s an overall thing. Like there’s deep-seeded secret music all throughout the country, and in Seattle there’s always been a community of musicians and innovators and creators that are pushing boundaries and changing the scene. So I think it’s just a natural thing that’s always been in Seattle in general, because you can’t forget Jimi Hendrix is from Seattle. Quincy Jones had a stint in Seattle. Ray Charles. There are people who are actually from Seattle and people who migrated there for a feeling and a vibration. There’s a lot of different musicians who have always been involved, so it’s an ongoing thing throughout many genres. Wouldn’t you say?
Stas: Yeah, Seattle has an interesting history when it comes to music. There’s a lot of excellent music that is overshadowed by music that is stolen or . . .
Stas: Yeah, sub-par (laughs). But I think that’s the beauty of it, and it’s kind of cool to have our own little subculture and our own little niche where we just fuck with each other.
It sounds like an easy place to meet like-minded people, even if you’re an outcast. Most of your collaborators you’ve met around town at clubs and shows, correct?
Cat: Yeah for sure. You just meet people you really vibe with and they understand you and understand things in the same way.
Stas: Yeah, like Tay, the guy who plays keyboard on our album, we’ve known him ever since we started the group. But this is our first time actually being able to collaborate with him on production, so it’s just amazing how relationships can grow, and you can learn with the people you’re working with, and when you’re all at your peak, it’s just wonderful.
Which Seattle artists should we be checking for next?
Cat: I was going to say Porter Ray.
Stas: Yeah, Porter Ray, who is on the song “EarthEE.” He just got signed to Sub Pop and he’s an amazing poet, lyricist and visionary. Who else? OCnotes. He’s super fresh.
Has the feel of your live shows changed since you signed to Sub Pop? Do you feel like you’re still able to take risks in bigger venues?
Stas: We’re definitely trying to figure out how we can expand our live show all the time. We’ve added a DJ now, so it’s going to be a lot easier to do more improvisation and more dance moves, definitely more dance moves, because we love to dance and boogie.
But we’re doing three different release shows, and they’re all going to be different setups. For the Seattle show, we’re going to have Shabazz up there, as well as Erik and Taylor who are on the album. And then for New York, we have another live band that’s going to be jamming with us. So this year we’re going to be adding bits and pieces to the live show and figuring out what works best.