Talking to Ishmael Butler, listening to Shabazz Palaces; to do these things is to deal with the abstract. "It's a feeling," Butler once riffed as Palaceer Lazaro on the outfit's debut, and the three words have resonated with the intensity of a lighthouse in the fog, a last bastion of old world philosophies providing guidance in the ever-shifting ideologies of a new world order.

On Black Up, this seemed a simple matter of discourse: heavy with philosophy, imagining a world "alight with trueness," where actions are words and how we choose to define them. In a hip-hop scene commanded by what you have and how you came to own it, Butler treats ideas as his greatest currency, accentuated as they are by an atmosphere soaked in a history of jazz, industrial music, and as Butler would assure you, the pretty girl making eyes at you from her seat in the bus stop.

Three years later, and much has changed. Hip-hop has only developed more cache as a cultural movement, but which size has become its greatest struggle in maintaining conversation: on form, on presentation, on self. The world outside has become more connected only to find itself with more room to segregate. The mold from which Black Up emerged remains an outlier of progressive hip-hop, despite its historical precedents (including Butler's Digable Planets) and now its own greater influence. Lese Majesty would appear to be then a bigger, more fantastical call to arms against these ties that bind. But despite the timing and its title, Butler isn't calling for a revolt, but rather, a reassessment: of what it means to interact with your art, who it exists for, and just what authorities need to be questioned in the process; not just of the government, but of the Self. Butler's aims might just be bigger than hip-hop."

It has been three years since Black Up; what have you been up to in the meantime?

Touring and recording.

When did you start working on this album?

All the way through. I mean, you're always doing music, doing sketches, just doing little demos here and there. But, in earnest "got down to it," after we got off tour and the studio we were building got finished about six or seven months ago, so we went in immediately and recorded Lese Majesty.

How did the reception to Black Up impact this creative process leading up to the album?

Well, we went on tour a lot because it was a well-received record. I mean, just in terms of trying to figure out what to do, or how it sound and everything, we're not in a situation where our label's like, "Yo, these are what the expectations that we have, and you need to make a song like this which have to be a little different than this," it's not like that situation. At Sub Pop, you do what you creatively see fit, and then everybody works to try and make that have the biggest, broadest exposure that it can. So, we don't go into the studio thinking, "Ah man, we gotta sell this much, or improve on this aspect of things," so you know, not really much in answer to your question. I was just trying to flesh out why a little bit, but the answer is "not much."

It definitely sounds like it; like you guys were definitely trying to chart new territory within yourselves. That's something you've spoken to a lot in other interviews, that it's more about finding your own self-expression regardless of these outside influences.

I mean, that's one artist, you know what I'm saying. I mean, some artists... I don't know, the word's just gotten kicked around so much that a lot of people use the term as a kind of catch word in order to get people to notice what they're really doing as commerce. You know what I'm saying? Or some other ulterior motive, like perhaps they want fame, or they want money, or they want to get back at somebody from high school or some influence, or, I'm not really sure, but like, art is to me an exploration of instinct and observation. And some people are very destined, fine at that, and can kind of determine all the ingredients and what the outcome should be; and then some people just go off their instinct, make something, and then the outcome is whatever happens subsequent to their finishing that work. That's kind of the category we fall in. I mean, we want to be big and famous and all the other things that people kind of make music and make art to do, but at the same time we're not driven by levels of that. It's always like, "Look, you do what you do, your best, and what happens because of it, you go there and you make the most of that." It's satisfying in that way and doesn't keep a lot of expectation or pressure on you.

What's surprising most about the album is how it manages to sound just like a Shabazz Palaces album without sounding much like Black Up at all. Before anything directly contemporary that I've heard, I hear progressive rock from the '70s and the works of score composers like Alain Goraguer who worked on the film Fantastic Planet. Can you name some influences that played out for Lese Majesty, and if they extend past musicians to maybe other artists or philosophers?

Yeah, I mean, my bros and my sisters are the ones that really influence me, like visual artists, THEEsatisfactions, Tendai [Maraire]. You know, just like, influences are never direct for me. I never hear a song and be like, "Oh I'm influenced by that song, I'm about to go make it." It's always like, you got off the bus and you saw some pretty girl, and then you were like standing by and saw some people homeless, and you started to think about their situation, and then you went to a library and saw an old magazine from the '70s and then you went home and made-- you know what I mean, like, those are the type of abstract influences that I think are more poignantly direct in terms of relating to what the sound of Shabazz shit is like, rather than, we went in there and tried to sound like Miles or try to sound like this or that, 'cause I don't really have that kind of mind where I can reference things like that. When I hear something, I absorb the feelings from it, but never really the details and the specifics. I don't have that kind of talent and acumen like some people have, so it's always really indirect in terms of influences with me.

How did that play into how you worked with the production and Tendai and bringing it together? Because you didn't have any credits on the last album, it kind of just spoke for itself; did it work for this album as well?

We know how it's made. But I don't just think-- I think when you get into dealing about how stuff is made and who did what and who thought of what and all that, it just takes away from, you know, what is supposed to be happening, which is kind of an unadulterated listening experience. I know that we as listeners have been trained to kind of expect and feign, or at least feel like we should be interested in these backstories. And sometimes they are interesting, but I think it just got so played out to where every band, and every group, and every album had anecdotes and backstories and little cool little things that happened about this song. It just got to be so watered down that it deemed-- it got insignificant to me, so, to me I was just like, let's just take all that out of it and just let 'em motherfuckers sit down, hear it, and think whatever they want to think. You know, get in the freedom and the confidence to arrive wherever they do after listening to it. I don't judge people that don't do it, but for us it's a choice that we can live with because we like it. Nowadays with all the podcasts, you might just listen to some Truthseekers Radio or somebody's playlist or something, and hear two or three cuts that you really are turned on by but I don't need to know who and what they are, I just listen to them and I'm good with that.

So people could probably pull their own meanings for what Lese Majesty could mean, as far as listening to the album and hearing the lyrics. Lese Majesty kind of points towards something political, but I don't think it's simply that simple, is it?

Nah. I read something where somebody was like, "Oh, they're about to go political," but to me it's like saying "revolution," and then, "Oh, these guys are about to start a revolution! They're about to--" No, not necessarily. The word can mean a lot of different things. So, to me, Lese Majesty means to attack the powers that be, to basically have treason against what is supposed to be the leading philosophy of stuff. For me, everything is musical, man. I don't really got a lot of political acumen, you know. If I'm talking stuff, if I'm talking shit, it's usually musically.

So you're speaking to like, the community, and the individual, and pop culture?

Yeah, pretty much. But like you said, you can take that word, you look it up, and then you listen to it, and whatever you come up with can be correct if you can corroborate it in your own mind, in your own philosophical way. Yeah, of course.

This might sound like a corny comparison, but the album sounds like to me a watercolor painting. Like how it should look, where one must really concentrate to understand how the colors and shapes come together. It is a very satisfying experience sonically. What I loved about Black Up was really listening to what you were saying and how it played out with the atmosphere. You have this really dense atmosphere now; it sounds warmer and fuller, which is not to say Black Up wasn't warm and full, but now you have all these songs that touch and play over into each other. I find myself on the tenth song and only thought I was on the fifth.

[laughs] Yeah. That's interesting about the watercolor though, because every time we make a record, we always call and say it was mixed in, like say, "power glow," or you know, "mixed elixir log," which is like the overlying, or overriding philosophical approach sonically. And so, this one, we call it "pluvial" because pluvial is like a word that means "water-soaked" or "rainy," which I started thinking about how a moist atmosphere, how that geologically plays into sound and sonics. It must add a gravity, you know what I'm saying? Like if you soaked something in water, it's a little bit heavier, it's a little bit deeper, a little bit warmer, you know what I mean? And how sound plays out when you're deep underwater, too. I like that, too. It's just like, almost a thin sound will have a bubbled sound to it if it's in water, so I like that, I like that water comparison. I like that. It's cool. It's a wet album for sure.

I'm interested in the philosophy that went into structuring the album. Is there anything you can relate it to?

It's like this. Instinct is where all the Shabazz Palaces records come from. So nothing is ever decided before the album, before the song is made. Not the title, not the suites, none of that. All of that happens after the music is made and then things are pronounced, or they come to the surface. After you listen to everything together, you'd be like, "Oh okay, well, you know, this song, this song and this song, they relate in a certain way." Then you start to come up with names for them, and titles, and where they fit into certain suites and stuff like that. So it's almost like picture developing. You know, you snap the flick, and then as you put it in the different liquids and fixers, you start to see what information comes up, and then you have a portrait. So that's kind of how the suites and song titles came up.

I have a background in film, and that's exactly how it is in the editing room. You take all this film, and you don't create a story until you are sitting there putting those images together.

Yeah, and very rarely does, you know, even if you've kind of mapped it out sequentially does it work that way when you get to cutting.

Absolutely. What's next for Shabazz Palaces?

Just start touring. Start touring soon, doing videos and working the record.


Lese Majesty is out now on Sub Pop. Read our review of it by heading here.