It’s hard to imagine how Kamasi Wahsington was able to undertake a project that consists of 172-minutes of music over three discs and features a 32-piece orchestra, 20-person choir, and a 10-piece band. Aptly titled The Epic, Washington’s forthcoming Brainfeeder release explores a sprawling sonic landscape that takes listeners through a 17-track journey into a recurring dream that the saxophonist repeatedly had. “I swear it was like a movie, man,” recalls Washington. “I couldn’t wait to go to sleep for that whole week, every day.”

Audio Premiere: Kamasi Wahsington Drops "Miss Understanding" From His Forthcoming 'The Epic' LP
We recently sat down the Brainfeeder recording artist in Los Angeles to get his thoughts and help guide us through his behemoth recording. Scroll down to read Part I of our interview.

Revive: Thanks for being here today.

Kamasi Washington: Oh yeah, my pleasure, my pleasure.

R: You’ve been playing with the members of this band for many years. What’s it like playing with people you have such a deep connection with?

KW: It’s great! It feels like family. We grew up together, musically and in life. There’s a depth to our connection that I can’t really get with anyone else. Ronald Bruner and myself, we’ve been friends since we were like, 2, and everyone else we’ve all been friends since high school, at least. I knew Brandon Coleman before he played piano.

When we play together, it’s different than just musicians playing together, there’s such a long history. I can tell when Ronald’s having a bad day in general. It’s really cool, it’s awesome.

R: How did you conceive of this massive project? What inspired you?

KW: I started this record three years ago. I talked to Flying Lotus and he asked me to make a record for him and so I started making plans to record an album. So I started talking to my guys, who we all grew up together, we were playing a lot all over town – all of us work a lot with a lot of different people. At that point, I was touring a lot with Chaka Khan and Stanley Clarke. When we decided to start doing this record, as I was calling everybody and they were like, “Man, I need to do the same thing.” I started to notice that everyone had music to record. So what we did is we decided to take a whole month off in December. None of us took any gigs. We booked a studio out and we literally, every day, like (laughs), 10, 11 hours a day, and just recorded each others’ music.

Because we already have a real deep connection, we were getting through a lot of music. We looked up and I had like, I don’t know… 50 songs that I recorded, and we had like 190 songs in total. Like three terabytes worth of music. It was like a crazy, staggering thing. So after we recorded that music, we were pretty sick of each other from seeing each other 11 hours a day for 30 days in a row, so we all kind of went to our separate corners. I just started going through this music and all of it was so good. I actually was trying to reduce it to one CD. But I loved the 17 songs I ended up with and I couldn’t take anything else away, you know?

So I went to Lotus and was like, “Man, what do you think of us doing a triple disc?” because I didn’t think any of these songs could not make the record. They felt like a family, those 17 songs. Somehow they felt like they all needed each other, they all needed to be together. Even though it’s three discs, it felt like one thing to me. Every song has its purpose. Every song carries a certain weight. Every song carries a certain message– musically or socially or both.

The original plan for this music was that I was gonna bring the guys in the studio, let them record really free. A lot of the stuff on the album, it sounds like it’s through-composed. But when we play, we’re very free, we take the music here and there. We don’t really follow forms or any of that stuff; you could change the changes. The music is wide open and I wanted to keep that for the recording, but I wanted the recording to feel directed. So what I did was, after we recorded the music, I wrote string and choir arrangements around the stuff that we did. So you’ll hear some of the songs, about nine of the songs, have these string and choir arrangements that would leave you to believe that they’re through-composed but it’s actually really free music.

R: I was going to ask if you heard the large ensemble before you wrote the tunes, but you basically just answered that.

KW: Well, I knew I wanted that. When I got back, there was so much to pull from it was really fun. So, yeah, I wrote the string and choir arrangements after the fact.

R: Between the three discs, you cover a lot of ground and each one has its own vibe. How are they related? How does the title of each disc relate to the story?

KW: So, after I did the string and the choir, I was sitting with the music for a while and– it’s gonna sound crazy– but, I was just listening to the music and trying to figure out how to mix it and if I was gonna use all 17 songs. I was listening to it a lot. I was listening to it so much that it crept into my subconscious mind or something and I had this crazy dream. This crazy like, long, detailed dream.

R: All in one night?

KW: One night, and I had it like five times in a row. Every time I’d go to sleep I’d have the same dream. I’m actually going to write it out one of these days and do the something with it because it’s a really great story. But the songs were going along with this story. It was the story of these kids that had been training– you know I watch a lot of kung fu movies, a lot of anime. These kids were training in this mountain and all their whole lives they trained so that they could one day become the protector of this great city. It’s a long story…

They’re not really kids, they’re like young adults. But they’re young, and they’re training and training and in my head “Change of the Guard” was playing, and there’s this guy at the top of the mountain that sees them. It’s the current guardian of the city, this beautiful, golden city. They come out, and they challenge him, one by one, and the solos are happening… I swear it was like a movie man, I couldn’t wait to go to sleep for that whole week, every day.

So they’re challenging this guy and each one has their own ability. And the guy– they think he’s slow and old but he’s really faster than them. In the end, the last kid– he over takes the guy, but you can kind of tell that he’s letting him over take him. Just as he over takes him, I realized that the guy wasn’t really fighting the kids, he was himself daydreaming and he’s staring down at the dojo, that really does exist, and there’s little kids in there, and he’s looking like he’s waiting for them to one day come and challenge him.

It keeps going and they come back and look for him one day and he’s not there, and there was this whole thing in my mind. So the names of the records and the order of the different records– the whole thing came from that. I would wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes– ’cause you know sometimes it’s hard to remember your dreams– I would wake up and write down the song orders and it made sense with the story. It actually helped me remember the story. I actually wrote down a lot of it. I need to go look at it again. I’ve forgotten some of the stuff that happened. That really solidified that they all had to be together. The plan, it came from that part of the story where these kids have this plan to… to be great. I don’t know where it came from.

R: What caught my attention was how different, specifically, how different the first disc and the last disc are. The first disc is really high energy and the third disc is actually pretty mellow.

KW: Yeah, yeah. Well, in the story, at the point of the last disc, what happens is things work out.

R: It feels like a resolution.

KW: That’s exactly what it is. It was a resolution and it was… I mean a lot of things happened in it. It’s a long story. It would be a long story, actually. In the end of it, things work out in a way, but there’s a lot of loss in it. That’s why Malcom’s theme is in there towards the end.

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R: I was actually going to ask about that specifically. How does the story and your musical philosophy connect with your ideas on culture and society?

KW: Well, you know, I’m a big fan of Malcolm X. I’m a big fan of history in general, and it’s always been profound to me how history continues to repeat itself and loop. You read interviews with people from 50, 60 years ago and it sounds like they’re talking about what’s going on today. I was reading, I have a book with a bunch of his speeches, and I was reading them and I was like, ‘This sounds like he’s talking about what’s going on right now!’

R: He was ahead of his time.

KW: He was ahead of his time but he wasn’t, though! He was right in the middle of his time. It’s almost like there’s a certain stream of consciousness that goes throughout time, it almost like supersedes time. It’s relevant always. Even stuff that happened before what he was saying– it was relevant. I just thought that it was trippy. In that clip you hear him talking about, he’s basically explaining how Islam is a religion like all the other ones. When you go around the world and that song “The Message” comes after that, I feel like there’s a message that is being sent to us, to your consciousness. Different parts of it come to different parts of the world, but if you dig deep enough into any message, it has all the messages. I thought that was amazing.

I have a deep respect for people like Malcom X, and Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglas – people who dedicated their lives to the betterment of everyone. A lot of people don’t realize– to dedicate your life to anything is difficult. But to dedicate your life to something that’s not necessarily for you, that you won’t necessarily get to reap the benefits of, that’s really difficult. I grew up with a lot of the same thought processes that a lot of people have– where you take for granted the psychological freedom that African-Americans have. They weren’t always there. I reap the benefit of that every day, the fact that I’m not ashamed of who I am – my hair, my skin, all of that. That’s because this man decided to give his life to that. Before that, most people didn’t have those psychological freedoms but now everyone has it. We don’t always realize that. We think about our physical freedoms, like the freedom to vote, but the freedom we have over our mind… I really appreciate Malcolm X for doing that, for devoting his life to the freedom of our minds. I appreciate the fact that I have the freedom of my own mind.

In that story, the music obviously is what created the story, it happens in the story as well. The people are fighting this physical battle, but they realize it’s not a physical battle at all. That’s the same thing we have. The physical battles we have– we think they’re physical battles but they’re not. You can never win with physical acts. It’s only through the mind, only through our thoughts, only through our hearts and our spirits that we can make things better. Things that have gotten better have gotten better because of that. Now, physical things help. Your physical environment helps the health of your mind. But in the end, it is the health of your mind that changes the world. So that’s where that whole thing came from.

Stay tuned for Part II of our interview with Kamasi Washington

 

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