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Escape Velocity

Queens Of The Stoned Age: THEESatisfaction Interviewed
Stevie Chick , March 29th, 2012 07:29

Seattle-based "Empresses of Time" THEESatisfaction have just followed up a string of remarkable self-released records with their debut for Sub Pop. The duo tell Stevie Chick about bonding over music and embracing their weirdness

They say a picture's worth a thousand words. I'm unclear on how that exchange rate adjusts for moving pictures accompanied by sound, but do us both a favour and watch this Youtube.

Okay? Finished? By my estimations, roughly 87% of you should now have fallen hard for THEESatisfaction, and the other 13% are in the process of fighting their baser impulses and succumbing to THEESatisfaction fandom. RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.

"We sound weird / In fact we are not from here / We come from there /
From outer spaces / Deep spaces / Those places"
THEESatisfaction, 'We Sound Weird'

Let's begin with the facts. THEESatisfaction number Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White who, according to their Bandcamp page, are "Empresses of Time" hailing from the "pre-Egyptian Dynasty". Nothing I've heard by these self-confessed 'queens of the stoned-age' challenges these assertions, though when I recently spoke to the pair via crackly transatlantic phone-line (their telepathic abilities were on the fritz that evening), they spun me a fable about first meeting while studying at college in Seattle in late 2005. Clearly, these Empresses are worried their magical powers will frighten and confuse the populace and so have concocted this more Earthbound and mortal backstory in response. It's a noble impulse, so let's run with it.

"We went to different schools," says Cat. "I was studying vocal jazz, Stas was studying English. But we'd go to all the same parties, we had mutual friends."

"When we first met, we became friends based off of what we were listening to," says Stas. "Jazz, old school hip-hop, neo soul – we were listening to a lot of Bilal, Jill Scott, things like that. Our friends weren't really on that, you know? They were listening to Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz, and Lil Wayne, and 50 Cent. Which was cool! But we were trying to find some deeper-sounding music at the time. We connected on music first, and then developed a romance [laughs], and then we just started doing music after we'd been dating for a couple of years."

The pair were kindreds from the start. Both loved writing and both loved music, growing up with parents who supported and encouraged their creative inclinations, in musical housesholds, "in the sense that there was always good music around," says Cat, "a lot of music that gets you moving, and that became a part of us. Both my parents are writers, and I've always liked to write, and hum songs, and sing. Finally when someone was, like, 'That doesn't sound bad, Cat', I started really going with it."

Stas, meanwhile, was "doing spoken word poetry and trying to figure out a way to make beats. I have no training in any musical instrument, so I'd beat on a table or, if I found a drumset, I'd beat on that. Then I discovered computers when I was at college."

"We just like to jam out, to get funky," laughs Cat. "When we first met, we'd just be singing to each other, like, 'Do you know this song?' And we'd sing it to the other one. I don't know. It's just fun. We've always sung!"

Armed with rudimentary sampling, sequencing and recording gear, the duo began work on a series of self-produced, self-released EPs, made available through their Bandcamp page. That's Weird began the sequence in November 2008, followed by a slew of releases with titles like Why We Celebrate Colonialism, Sandra Bollocks' Black Baby and their holiday EP Christmas On The Moon. Over DIY beats repurposing Stevie Wonder and Anita Baker hooks and Malcolm X speeches into hypnotic downtempo soundtracks, Cat and Stas sang, rapped and rhapsodised their lives and perspectives, in songs that were by turns fiery, hilarious, philosophical, vulnerable, erotic, subterranean and seductive.

"When we started out, we'd been around a lot of really bad energy," says Cat. "Like racism, a whole lot of racism. Growing up, learning about life. At the time we were just looking for a way to heal, to dance through our pain, kind of. The music was just for us."

And now?

"Now, it's more…" She pauses. "It's still healing."

"I'd say so," nods Stas. "But people enjoy hearing it, so I guess they're healing as well."

"We incorporate all the stuff that's going on in our lives into our music," Cat adds. "I mean, we're not sad all the time [Laughs].We crack jokes, and we party, we cry… There's different aspects to it."

"All the haters can kiss my ass"
THEESatisfaction, 'That'd Be Rude'

Stas says that there's a lot of hip-hop in Seattle at the moment. "As of right now, there's way too much," she laughs. "Not in a bad way… It's all different, too. It's a diverse scene, culturally, sexually…" "But when we first started out and jumped into the scene, there weren't really any women there," says Cat. "So we were like the first ones. And people saw two girls up onstage, rapping and singing, and were like, 'What the hell's going on?'"

THEESatisfaction knew they didn't fit in, and they internalized this displacement, made a virtue of it. Their first EP includes what might be their anthem, 'Wee Sound Weird', a very Boho slice of lo-fi blissfulness that, over several looped bars of Bernard Wright's 'Spinnin', traces their idiosyncratic rhyme schemes and offbeat timings back to extra-terrestrial origins. But it's a science fiction that serves as a metaphor for a more everyday alienation, one ameliorated by their creative efforts.

"We've embraced our weirdness," says Stas. "Growing up, we were both queer black women. It was kind of difficult to, like, go through High School having all those attributes Being weird, being called 'weirdoes' and 'queerdoes' and all kinds of things… It's something we embrace."

"Basically, that is who we are," agrees Cat. "And it will have to be dealt with by the world! [laughs]. At the same time, there have been a lot of women in hip-hop, who just aren't highlighted. And there's a lot of women in hip-hop who aren't 'out'. It's a personal choice, whether you decide to tell people about your sexual orientation, and you don't have to offer that. I appreciate all the woman musicians and woman rappers and singers and everyone who have come before us. And there have always been queer black women doing music. There's always been queer black people doing music, always, always, and there always will be. It's just a matter of if they think you need to know who they're sleeping with."

"Without music I would be dead / so I use it and I spread revolution," raps Stas on 'Wee Sound Weird', as Cat croons with conviction, like the Sun Ra Arkestra's June Tyson, "I come from a land called outer space / it's such a distant, different place… We're moving at a different pace / there's so much wonder / I don't think you'll understand." That different place they're coming from, the different pace they set, is all part of the reason their music is so unique, so essential: warm, human, smudged thumbprints around the edges letting you know this is art, not product.

"The project is like our baby, our oldest child," Cat says. "So we're, like, 'Alright, this might be strange or funky or whatever, but this is how we felt at the time.' That's the kind of funk we're in: a positive funk, but a funk nonetheless."

"THEESatisfaction don't give a fuck about a fascist."
THEESatisfaction, 'Earthseed'

It's a funk that was felt by Ishmael Butler, aka Palaceer Lazaro of fellow Seattle dream warriors Shabazz Palaces, aka (to the older among us, at least) Butterfly of eminent Brooklyn jazz-hoppers Digable Planets, who invited THEESatisfaction to guest on Shabazz Palaces' subterranean and brilliant debut album, Black Up. "He's from Seattle," says Stas. "We all grew up in Seattle, and our families know each other, but we never really got introduced to each other until a couple of years ago. We instantly connected."

THEESatisfaction are now labelmates with Shabazz Palaces, having signed to local underground rock imprint Sub Pop last year. "They have a great ear," says Cat. "They're always on point, you trust their name. They're not into, like, making everything all poppy and mainstream; they really appreciate the music for what it is." Transitioning from their DIY roots to a major independent like Sub Pop has meant some adjustments to their typically unfussy working arrangements. "The biggest deal is having other people hear the record before we put it out, and having to wait to release it," says Cat of their just-released debut album, awE naturalE. "Usually it's just Stas and I, and we're like, 'You like that?' 'Yeah, I like that. Put it up on Bandcamp'," she laughs.

"We've definitely had to wait a while longer to release the album," nods Stas. "But actually making the record took no time at all. We've been dreaming about making this album all of our lives, we were just waiting on the opportunity and resources to do it the way we wanted. We were definitely ready for it."

"Now, everything's amplified in such a big way," adds Cat. "It's exciting to have Sub Pop on our team, and have really good management and booking agents, all these magical, majestic things we didn't have before. It's like having a flying unicorn, or something!"

On awE naturalE the lo-fi fug of their earlier EPs has cleared, but all their idiosyncrasies remain in place: their loping, offbeat loops, their intertwining voices switching between singing and rapping with an ease that blurs the divisions, finishing each other's lines, further realising each other's ideas, two halves of a perfectly imperfect whole. There's not a wasted second, the duo gliding from ruminations on tangled identity-politics, to haunted heart-broken meditations, to polysyllabic battle rhymes, to sensual celebrations of the-body-erotic, over the deepest, most satisfying half-hour 2012 has served up yet, set to a consistently inspired soundscape of looped murmurs, mantric drum-machine riddles, stomping sequencer music and brooding, addictive patchworks of intemperate jazz and hedonic funk. A work worthy of Empresses from the Pre-Egyptian Dynasty, perhaps, but it's that down-to-earth human quality that is their true magic, that makes THEESatisfaction so special, so beguiling. You can keep your flying unicorns, mate.