Quazarz and Beyond: Shabazz Palaces interview

shabazz

Originally published for The Skinny July 2017 issue.

Ishmael Butler tells us about the Palaceer of Shabazz Palaces’ encounter with the sentient being Quazarz and how it came to influence the duo’s two new albums

Few artists have gone as far to create an entirely separate universe around their music as Shabazz Palaces, and their latest project is no exception.

Told through the perspective of Quazarz, a musical ambassador sent from another planet to ‘The United States of Amurderca’, the duo take us on a journey over the course of their two new albums where we learn about his experiences on Earth and his observations of our planet. “It was like being in a movie, where you’re immersed in the character and you’re doing it so much that you lose yourself until you get back to yourself,” explains Ishmael Butler, one half of the duo.

Butler developed the idea during the recording of what was to become Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and was so inspired that he decided to release another album, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star, alongside it. “I was trying to think of a perspective to come from with the music and the lyrics,” he says. “That’s why I came up with Quazarz as this alternate personality so that I could be an observer and present my discomfort with things.”

This is not a two-part album, however. Both explore separate themes and ideas, with the only constant being that they are both told from the perspective of Quazarz. “It’s just like the new approach, the Quazarz approach, so these are two different albums but with that approach in mind,” says Butler.

Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines focuses on our obsession with modern technology, specifically personal devices and social media. Butler takes a very negative view on this side of technology and sees it as incredibly damaging to society.

“I feel like it’s a very dangerous path that we’ve taken and a choice that we’ve taken as human beings to rely so heavily on these devices and let them permeate our world and give them to our children,” he says. “These are products that are meant to prey on idle-minded people that just need something simple and titillating to do and spend a whole bunch of unnecessary time on so it’s kind of like a dumbed down newness of technology.”

Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star, on the other hand, is more observational and explores a wider critique of modern society. “Being in the States, with the political climate, I started feeling more alienated so it was kind of like being a person who lives in a place but doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s home or that they’re a part of it,” he says. “I’m not out here talking about things specifically but the overall feeling that is evoked when thinking about it and living in it is definitely in the albums and soaked in it pretty deep.”

But Quazarz doesn’t just address politics. Observing the music scene, Quazarz notes being immersed in the “ethers of the Migosphere here on Drake world.” This isn’t Butler’s way of addressing the current state of hip-hop though, rather it’s him observing the current state of commercial music on Earth as a whole.

“Migos is sort of the oxygen in the atmosphere, at least here in the States, so I was basically saying that we were offering our musical contribution to this current place,” says Butler. “And it’s Drake’s world, so it was just a play on words and a sci-fi approach to the current musical landscape.”

The futuristic, sci-fi influences in Shabazz Palaces’ music have always been a notable attribute, but with the Quazarz saga Butler has taken that influence to a whole new level. Alongside the double album, the duo will also be releasing an accompanying illustrated book by Joshua Ray Stephens, which visualises the Quazarz story.

Stephens contacted Butler via email to suggest they work on something together and once Butler saw Stephens’ work, he knew he wanted to collaborate with him in some way. “I looked at his stuff and I was like ‘damn, this shit is dope,’” he tells us. “He was originally going to do a cover for the album but then the ideas started growing and growing and we finally arrived with this illustrated book, which came out pretty smashing.”

And it doesn’t stop there, with potential Gorillaz-esque live visuals also on the cards. “We plan to do a tour where we incorporate the music with the book and the illustrations and go to special places and do special events,” says Butler.

In fact, like Gorillaz, Shabazz Palaces is as much its own world. Butler reinvented himself from Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler to Palaceer Lazaro and joined forces with Zimbabwean multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire to form Shabazz Palaces in 2009. This was almost fifteen years after disbanding from jazz/hip-hop trio Digable Planets, whose 1992 single Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat) won them a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.

Initially, Butler refused any interviews and there was a great deal of speculation as to the true identity of Palaceer Lazaro. “I don’t really go for the whole ‘I want my credit and I need people to know that it’s me.’ I like the ambiguity and the mystery to what’s behind artistic stuff,” says Butler. “I was hoping to put the focus back on the music really. Plus, it’s just another way to be creative and add another layer to the product.”

Palaceer Lazaro is to Butler what Sasha Fierce is to Beyoncé: it’s a way of presenting Butler’s weirder, quirkier, more progressive musical side under a new persona. “If you come into each thing with the same perspective and the same outlook, you are probably going to be running on a treadmill, making stale stuff,” he says. “It helps to get into that frame of mind too: change everything around, rename stuff and come from a different perspective.”

Both prominent members in the Seattle music scene, Maraire and Butler each have their own projects outside of Shabazz Palaces. Maraire is one half of Afro-hip hop duo Chimurenga Renaissance and Butler is part of production duo Knife Knights with Erik Blood, who has worked on every Shabazz Palaces album with them. “I listen to him implicitly,” says Butler. “I trust him and I believe him, but I know what I like and what I want to try to do and he helps me to get there really.”

The duo collaborated with Blood once again on the Quazarz project, with Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star recorded over two weeks at the Protect and Exalt Labs: A Black Space he and Butler share in Seattle. Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines, however, was developed and recorded over a longer period of time, which allowed Butler to travel to Southern California to work with Quincy Jones’ grandson Sunny Levine.

Butler though is hyper-critical and a perfectionist of the highest order; so much so, that he finds it almost unbearable to listen to his music once it’s completed. “I don’t really listen to my music because it’s just not relaxing and comfortable,” says Butler. “I’m just listening to what I’m perceiving as flaws or mistakes mostly, so it’s not that enjoyable of an experience.”

When it comes to his music and the messages he puts out provoking change, particularly with such a heavily political project, Butler is reluctant to overthink things. He does, however, seem to see the Quazarz project as more of a catalyst for change rather than as his own personal attempt to create change.

“When you do something and it’s your emotion and your instinct and you release it, it’s almost like a chemical reaction and it’s unknown how it’s going to do anything or change anything,” he says. “I don’t kick back and be like ‘I’m about to change the world with this one’ or something, but I know that we dedicated a lot of time, energy and passion to it so somebody will probably hear it and have some feelings about it and maybe it will do something for them.”

Butler may want to play down the impact Quazarz could have out in the real world, but in Shabazz Palaces’ world, Quazarz’ landing has set off more than just a few ripples.

Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machine and Quazarz: Born Under a Gangster Star are released on 14 Jul via Sub Pop.

Being Human: Turtle interview

jon cooper

Originally published for The Skinny July 2017 issue.

Scottish producer Turtle tells us about embracing the symbolism of his namesake and finding the light on new album Human

When artists talk about music as therapy, it can often feel a bit clichéd, but for Jon Cooper, aka Turtle, the process of making his new album Human has taken him on a spiritual journey even he didn’t expect.

“I’m getting attuned as a Reiki practitioner so I’m researching frequencies,” says Cooper. “I really want to try and integrate that into some kind of musical healing, not just to heal myself but to heal other people and imprint some love into the sound.”

Human came into existence during a time when Cooper was attempting to confront a dark period in his life. From the opening track Time, the album feels like a rebirth; a washing away of any negativity and a step forward into a new chapter of Cooper’s life. “I was just really trying to find my place in the world and struggling with self-identity so I was using the music as a kind of healing method for myself, which ultimately let the light in,” he says. “It was a cathartic experience, just struggling with personal issues that anybody can relate to.”

But getting to this stage hasn’t been easy. Cooper has been working on the album for nearly two years and it’s gone through various incarnations along the way. A lot of this seems to stem from Cooper’s meticulous attention to detail and his desire to get everything sounding exactly the way he wants. “I’ve had to retrain myself to leave an idea as it is because once you start processing it and using plug-ins, you almost start to sound like 90% of the people out there who are using the same software,” he says.

Following the release of his last two EPs, 2014’s Who Knows and 2015’s Colours, Cooper found the project going down a path he hadn’t envisioned. “I got swept away a bit with the playing live thing,” he says. “It’s very difficult to play the stuff live when you’re just standing with a laptop and tweaking a few filters. It just didn’t feel right, so I called it a day with playing live.”

Initially, Cooper created Turtle as a stepping stone: a means of furthering his way into the sync world, with the final goal being to score music for film. This is something Cooper has been working towards for several years, writing music for various production libraries under his own name. However, with a change of direction in mind, he decided to go by the pseudonym Turtle, he says “so it was less about me and more about the music.

“Somebody gave me the name because I didn’t want to use my own name and I just went with it,” he explains. “Then I started researching the symbolism behind the turtle, what it represents in different cultures and traditions, and it kind of aligned itself with everything I was trying to say in the music.”

There is a distinct film-like quality to Cooper’s work as Turtle: it’s vast, vivid and incredibly emotive. Naturally, this is a result of Cooper’s interest in film, particularly independent, foreign and experimental cinema. “I always sway towards the cinematic. I love atmosphere and it needs to have atmosphere for it to be alive in my personal opinion,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to marry the two and bring the atmospheric, cinematic side into the electronic realm.”

Although based just outside of Glasgow in Clydebank, Cooper says he’s not particularly influenced by the Glasgow music scene, nor does he participate in it much. “I’ve never really followed scenes,” he says. “I can appreciate them wholeheartedly and I can get where they’re coming from but I just kind of did my own thing.”

Instead, he is more influenced by European and American music, which he feels is more in line with his own musical interests. “I’ve just always resonated with European stuff. I think because it’s so far away and it literally does feel foreign,” he says. “When I’m listening to stuff from Scotland, it just doesn’t resonate.”

Now that Cooper has finally found some peace in his life, he is in no rush to jump straight into another project. Rather, he is going to take some time to clear his head and focus on his newly discovered interest in Reiki: a Japanese healing art, which focuses on stress reduction and relaxation.

“It’s been nice to step back and focus on my Reiki stuff, get in that zone and focus on helping others, rather than just helping myself,” he says. “I feel with the album, I helped myself but I really want to help others as well in any way I can so, even though it’s not music-related, that’s really where my head’s at right now.”

In mythology, the turtle symbolises tranquillity, and through the making of Human, it seems Cooper has finally begun to embrace the qualities of his namesake.

Human is out on 30 Jun via Beatnik Creative.

Turtle – Human review

turtle

Originally published for The Skinny July 2017 issue.

★★★★

Album title: Human
Artist: Turtle
Label: Beatnik Creative
Release date: 30 Jun

When it comes to ambient music, the clue is in the name. It is intended to evoke emotion and atmosphere, and that is exactly what Scottish producer Turtle does on debut album Human.

Where his previous two EPs, 2014’s Who Knows and 2015’s Colourshad hints of cinematic tendencies, Human on the other hand is an epic. Following it through, it is easy to imagine it soundtracking a film, from its wistful opening to its dramatic middle and finally reaching its illuminating close.

Opening track Time is as expansive as it is minimal, reaching as far as it can go sonically without ever feeling too distant. This feeling continues throughout the rest of the album, which is layered with subtle yet vivid beats.

Lead single Blood Type, featuring fellow Scot and label mate Eliza Shaddad, almost dupes you into believing it’s a hip-hop track before Shaddad’s dreamy, Parisian-tinged vocal kicks in. Title track Human, featuring Mariam the Believer, is more Eastern-sounding, with its prayer call-esque intro leading into a repetitive, chanting chorus.

While there is obviously a great deal of influence from psychedelia in many of the album’s tracks, there are also more commercial tracks here, particularly on the latter half. Solar and Push would not sound out of place on the radio or in a club and Elephant is a full-blown minimal house banger.

Ending much like it begins, closing track Note to Memory is sparsely decorated with delicate piano chords and strings to take the album’s sonic journey full circle.

Listen to: Solar, Blood Type

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