Kamasi Washington Uses Exquisite Tension To Tackle Internal Struggle On Heaven And Earth
Heaven. Earth. One we know. The other we don’t. One we experience. The other is only believed in. But to many, one is just as real as the other. That is the crux of Kamasi Washington’s latest album, and Washington knows a lot about believing something into existence.
It’s as discouraging as it is difficult to imagine that someone as supremely talented as Washington was once convinced that he would have to play other people’s music to make a living. He backed a veritable who’s who of artists before releasing his seminal debut, The Epic, in 2015. Just four years prior, he only began to think a solo career was possible after friend and longtime bandmate Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner dropped The Golden Age Of The Apocalypse in 2011. But since his early days at the presciently named World Stage in Leimert Park, Los Angeles, and even The Shack (his parents’ garage) in Inglewood, he knew he had a formidable sound.
The Epic would prove his instincts true as a colossal force of a record. It would call the members of his core band back home from all over the world, touring with other artists. As incredible as the majestic, sweeping suites on The Epic are, the band was not as completely in-sync as they could have been. His subsequent EP, last year’s Harmony Of Difference, was made for a specific purpose. It didn’t necessarily limit what the project became, but it had to fit in a literal confined space for the Whitney Biennial. Washington still managed to pack a gorgeous counterpoint clinic into six tracks, bending the same melody until it was almost unrecognizable while wrapping inventively controlled improvisational elements around it. Scarily, neither of Washington’s previous offerings offer the perfect conditions of a band in lockstep and infinite space to display it.
Heaven And Earth is precisely what the other albums couldn’t be. It was made in 2016, a year in which the band played almost 200 shows together, when they were more like a system of organs. With nothing to restrict it, that cohesiveness has resulted in a marvelous work. The constant push and pull of lush strings, agile sax, bubbling percussion, and a seemingly unending array of morphing arrangements mirrors the battle between inward beliefs and what we choose to become outward expression. That sublime tension within the dichotomy of eight tracks of Heaven and eight tracks of Earth makes for a resoundingly engaging and richly complex excursion in sound.
We caught up with Kamasi Washington to discuss the album, how he can say so much without a single lyric, and how a kid from Inglewood deals with being considered a leader in the “West Coast Jazz Revival.”
STEREOGUM: The first time I saw you was at The World Stage in Leimert Park. I was over there for Project Blowed and happened to stop in while you were playing and I ended up staying until the end.
KAMASI WASHINGTON: Oh man, that was way back in the day [Laughs]. Cool, man. Cool.
STEREOGUM: I remember a time where you were making a living playing other people’s music, and I remember you saying that Thundercat putting out his debut, The Golden Age Of The Apocalypse, inspired you to start doing your own thing. So coming from the early days of The World Stage and not even thinking doing your own thing was possible to now, how have things changed?
WASHINGTON: It was one of those things where we had a sound, and we really believed in it. We believed it was something that, if we could get it out in the world, would have an impact in a meaningful way and do something. So when Thundercat came out and he had the impact that he had, it was like, “Oh, wow, we can do this.” The perspective was that we had something precious. It’s like the difference between thinking you have something and knowing you have something. That’s the major difference. That’s what’s changed.
I toured a lot before my own album came out, but there’s a difference when you’re doing your own music and you can connect with people on a different level. You really start to see how we’re all in the same struggle. You have these borders and different things, different languages, different cultures. We really are kind of unified in what’s going on with life. That aspect of it, my perception of how connected the world is, has definitely changed. I think we folded that into the sound we had and it has gone to a place we didn’t even know we were capable of.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of that unity you feel, that was one of the big themes of Harmony Of Difference, and you used counterpoint to mirror that in the music. This time around, are your method and your message that closely tied together again, or did you try to do something different?
WASHINGTON: Harmony Of Difference, I wrote that piece for a very particular reason. This album is a little different. It’s more of a collection of ideas that happened over a lifetime — some of the stuff I’ve created recently, some of the stuff I’ve created in the past. So it’s not as direct as Harmony Of Difference was. There are more thoughts on this album. Harmony Of Difference was really zoomed in on one thing. This album is more of a collection of thoughts that are coming from a few different places.
STEREOGUM: Going into The Epic, you were able to just work without any eyes on you. Now that you know how your work has been received, with the praise you’ve gotten, does that add any pressure for Heaven And Earth?
WASHINGTON: It’s more like opportunity for me. It’s almost like you’ve been practicing in the gym, working out, and you’ve been on the bench. So now you finally get in the game, and you’re not afraid to take that shot. I feel like right now I’m in a place where I get to express myself and share that expression with the world. The music is something that comes to you, and what comes to you, comes to you. I’m not so concerned in the sense of pressure because I feel like I’m at my best to make it be what it’s supposed to be. I feel more excitement than pressure. Time-wise, I have less time than I used to have. So now when I want to do something I have to really schedule it and make it happen. Before, I could loosely get something done. Now I have to be more deliberate. In the end though, it feels more like opportunity than pressure.
STEREOGUM: You played with form in a few different ways on your last couple offerings. The Epic was vast, grand, sweeping. Harmony Of Difference was more compact. Heaven And Earth feels like a marriage of the two. There are some tracks that you extend out and others are very concise with a big impact. How did it end up being the length it is as a final product?
WASHINGTON: The music dictates that for itself. At the time of The Epic, as a core band, we were all spending so much time apart making music for other people that by the time we got together — even though we grew up together and there’s a special connection we have — it was like a rare privilege to come together. We used say it was like when the planets align that we would be in the same room together at the same time. When you listen to The Epic you really hear us reaching for each other. The music reflects that.
I started Heaven And Earth before Harmony Of Difference, but it just took me a while to finish it. Both of these records, we’ve been playing together. We’ve been touring together almost every day. We’re like this [interlocks fingers], instead of reaching for each other. So the music turned out to be much more compact because it’s more immediate. As soon as I think something, everybody’s there. So the music and where we were as a band dictated how long the album is. The song is either as long or as short as it needs to be, and that’s it really. One of the things I did learn from The Epic was that we don’t have to feel so much pressure to conform to set formats. A song doesn’t have to be three minutes and 30 seconds.
STEREOGUM: Since you just talked about stepping outside of the three-and-a-half-minute formula: You also played on Kendrick’s last couple albums, so was working in a genre where songs are closer to that formula constricting?
WASHINGTON: No, it’s not constricting. It’s just, “What are you trying to go for?” I’m usually trying to go for spontaneity and freedom in the moment. So if you want to have that, it takes a little time for that to happen. When I was working on Kendrick’s records, he was dealing more with lyrics, an idea, and a story. I wouldn’t call it limiting. It’s just different. In that case, it’s more about creating something in that space. For [my albums], it’s like creating something with no space.
When I was working on To Pimp A Butterfly and DAMN., I’m really making music for Kendrick. It’s a different mindset than when I’m making music for me. I’m trying to get into his head and figure out what he wants because it’s his vision. That’s what I expect from people when they’re playing on my records. I expect you to buy into my vision and help me create. That’s the same thing I’m doing for anyone when I’m working on their music. I kind of take myself out of the driver seat, and ask “What do you need from me to make your vision? Oh, OK, this is what you need? Cool, let me give that to you.” We each have something, and it’s like I need that thing that you have to complete this vision that I’ve got.
STEREOGUM: Did you take anything from working with Kendrick and apply it to your process?
WASHINGTON: We have a lot of similar approaches already. We both trust the artists that we work with and give them freedom of space to be who they are and do what they do. I definitely admire Kendrick’s fearlessness. When he makes his art it’s like he’s not concerned at all. At least it seems that way, maybe it’s different internally, but it seems like he’s going to make what he wants to make. His music is different than mine, so his process is different. In that sense, there aren’t that many parallels. I was definitely inspired to see someone on his level be that fearless. It’s a long fall down from way up there, and to be that fearless, that’s inspiring. It made me feel I can’t be scared then.
STEREOGUM: So it was similar to contributing to one of your bandmate’s albums?
WASHINGTON: Yeah. So now we’re working on [vocalist] Patrice Quinn’s album and that’s the process. It’s like, “What are you trying to say, Patrice? What are you trying to create?”
STEREOGUM: How did “Fists Of Fury” come about? It just seems like that wouldn’t be something you could pull in, but it works really well as an opener and first single. Are you a big Bruce Lee fan? Did you grow up watching his movies?
WASHINGTON: Yeah. I grew up watching that movie. I did that little arrangement of it, and I’d been waiting for a time that I could let it loose. When I started to figure out what the sound of the album was going to be about, it was like “Oh yeah, that’s perfect for this.” It was actually one of the songs that helped me reveal what the album was going to be about, to be honest. It was a just a song I wanted to do.
We started Heaven And Earth in 2016. That was probably the heaviest touring year of my whole life. We probably did almost 200 shows in 2016. We went into the studio and I honestly didn’t know what the album was going to be. So I just kind of started picking songs that I liked. It was really the juxtaposition between “Fists Of Fury” and “Space Traveler’s Lullaby” that really helped me understand what it was going to be.
STEREOGUM: Now that it’s more clear, what are you trying to say with the album?
WASHINGTON: It’s kind of a two-fold message. The first one is that there are two sides of reality. It’s about recognizing these two sides of reality. It’s like the reality that I’m sitting in this chair. I’m talking to you because I can hear you and I can see you, and that’s why I’m here. But also, I’m here talking to you because I think I’m here talking to you. And I thought I was going to be in here talking to you. That’s why this is what it is.
In life, on a grander scheme, you have those two sides of reality — one inside, one outside. I think a lot of people feel like their inward experience is one that’s less valid than the outward one. It’s like your thoughts are your thoughts or whatever, but reality is reality. But in my opinion, I’ve always felt that what you think and what you believe is what is creating that reality. Once you understand that, “I have the power to make the world what I want it to be.” The album on some level is also about empowerment, coming to this realization that I am responsible for the world that I live in. I can make it what I want it to be. I don’t have to wait for someone to make it what I want to be.
STEREOGUM: So it’s sort of a call to action as well?
WASHINGTON: Yeah. The reality is that when you make a decision to wait for someone to make the world what you want it to be, it’s taking that power that you have over your own world and giving it to someone else. One of the biggest problems in this world is that everyone is waiting for someone else and relinquishing the power they have to someone else. In the end, it never happens that way. That someone else that you’ve been waiting for can make the world the place that you want it to be, but they never do it. And the reality is that they never were going to do it and it’ll never work that way.
The world will only become the world we want it to be collectively when the billions of us make it what it is. It’s not the presidents, the parliaments, the congresspeople, or the prime ministers, or the kings. It’s the individuals coming to that realization that the physical world that we look at as having power over us — that we really have power over it.
STEREOGUM: How does that call to action relate to you personally?
WASHINGTON: I have two sides to myself. I have one that’s very much into the physical world, reading the newspaper, looking at the news, concerned about what’s going on in the world. Then I have the other side of myself that’s not concerned. I realized in making this album that that side of myself is actually really dictating the other side of myself. “Fists Of Fury” to me is really about the internal nature of struggle and how we have power to overcome that struggle. It’s eternal. It never ends. It’s perpetual.
“Space Traveler’s Lullaby” represents that other side of myself that thinks about the endless potential that we have. Like looking out at the stars and seeing all the places we’re going to go and all the things we’re going to do. The reason why I see the world as having a never-ending struggle is that I imagine it having endless potential.
STEREOGUM: It’s funny that you say that because it seems like we have more tools than we’ve ever had before to let people know what’s going on with us internally, but it seems like we choose to reveal the most superficial things about ourselves.
WASHINGTON: Yeah, you’re right. You have more opportunity to share more things about yourself, but people probably feel more inhibited because of that. Like they’re just throwing something out there that doesn’t really register. Because it’s almost like your thoughts are exposed, whereas in the past you could express your thoughts in a letter and maybe two or three people would see it. Now everybody you know will see it.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a favorite track off the album?
WASHINGTON: It’s always hard to say that. Your songs are like your children. People look at you suspect if you say you have a favorite kid. They all have their ups and downs. They all have their own individual qualities that I like. It’s hard for me to make that distinction. All the other songs would be mad if I picked one [Laughs].
STEREOGUM: When people point to you as the leader of the West Coast jazz revival, is that a role that you’re willing to step into?
WASHINGTON: I look at it like it’s the reality we always knew. People didn’t know about the scene we had out here in LA. I look at it more like a resurgence than a discovery. It’s always been here cracking. The world just didn’t know about it. I’m definitely happy to be able to be part of a lineage that I really believe in. I look at it like that.
The idea of who the leader is — music is self-expression. Jazz in particular is a collective activity. Each person is expressing themselves to have it become something bigger. I appreciate being considered an important part of a lineage that I really believe in, and beyond that I don’t get too caught up in whatever title or praise someone gives out. I appreciate them engaging with my work, but I look at it like “People are going to say this, they’re going to say that.” Let them talk. I’m just going to keep the lineage going.
Heaven And Earth is out 6/22 on Young Turks