Ya Tseen Is In Charge of the Narrative

Nicholas Galanin and Otis Calvin III talk their new album with Sub Pop labelmate Ishmael Butler (Shabazz Palaces).

Ya Tseen is the project of Alaskan multi-disciplinary artist Nicholas Galanin, in collaboration with bandmates Otis Calvin III and Zak D. Wass; Ishmael Butler is the leader of Shabazz Palaces and formerly a member of the legendary hip hop trio Digable Planets. To celebrate the release of Ya Tseen’s first album for Sub Pop  — Indian Yard, out this Friday — the labelmates hopped on a Zoom call to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Ishmael Butler: The record, to me, really has a distinct sound of growth — not up or down, but just into a very complete, realized version of all of the other stuff that I’ve heard. That was a joy. So I’m curious to know what went into the record — how did you record all of that, what was the deal?

Nicholas Galanin: It’s nice to hear that. [It took] three years from when some of the songs initially started. Some sessions up in the studio in Alaska — that’s where a lot of really good things were happening. The studio [had these] the analog instruments — for me, that process of using these analog instruments, and experimenting in this land of different places that I don’t think were accessible in previous processes…  

Otis Calvin III: The first Indian Agent record ended up being so much bigger than I think we imagined, as far as the songs went, and it was so dope and such a great process. [When] we envisioned making another record, we wanted to really make something that was able to reach absolutely everybody, as well as just expand on the sound. And for me personally, I feel like Nicky’s always been futuristic and filthy in his own way of making music — every single time I go up to Alaska, this cat’s got, like, six, seven new pieces of crazy gear. If you listen to all of his music, he’s always been on his own wild stuff, and I’ve been on my same tip. So that’s really what drove me to always want to go to Alaska to work with him. Without any reason other than just wanting to make amazing music in his own way, that’s just always been what he was doing, and I don’t really know too many cats like that. That environment he has up there in Sitka is like one hundred percent magic. The first record, that process was crazy, so we knew it was going to be fresh.

It was crazy how we laid down these ideas, these foundations, rather quickly, and got really experimental. Since we all live so separated, we really laid a lot of foundations, and then Nicky — just being the grand, world traveler, magician, madman — has so many amazing connections in the world, musically, artistically, that he has the ability to put them together [and] transform those foundations beyond what I could have even thought of. I got the real O.G. files, and it’s amazing what it turned into. But I’m not surprised, because Nicky’s already been on that path from the jump. 

Nicholas: I was thinking back to the process of some of that. When we do get together in the space, whether it be for a week or long weekend or something like that — at the time, the studio was at my house, so it was just a rotation from sitting down in the lab, and then maybe moving downstairs and grilling up some smoked salmon eggs or whatever, back and forth. We just had this dance. Sometimes we’re there together, sometimes we weren’t there together. And we’d give each other the space when we needed it. You really get a lot of ideas out that way. It just has to happen again. We’re waiting for a time to get together.

Otis: Yeah, Nicky’s wild, man. It’s funny, because it was like that on the first record, too. He goes on these crazy runs, and then I get up there and the first two or three days, I’m like, “Yeah, man, let’s do it!” But then after that, I’m just like, “Man, nah, I’m good, you go ahead.” Nicky will go off and run for three or four hours, and I’ll run up to the lab and just cook up whatever. And then Nicky comes back and he’ll listen.

But this cat’s crazy — were you working on the canoe or the totem pole at the time?

Nicholas: I think the totem pole. 

Otis: You were actually doing both, straight up. Because at one point he was doing the totem pole, and that went up, and then he was working on the canoe. So this cat will go off on a Wu-Tang run and then go work on a canoe. And my legs can’t take it, so I’m just at the crib, like, working, sipping on this dude’s home brew — because he makes a home brew. Just, yeah, the creative environment is great. It’s made me a better musician, straight up. 

Ishmael: All this equipment and the turning over of ideas — that’s an approach that’s almost marginalized in the production world. You guys adhering to that and being interested in that and practicing that — how does it feel to put a project like that out in this new atmosphere? And what is the purpose of it? Because, Nicky, I know you always have a reason for the things that you’re doing. Not that you don’t go off instinct or stuff like that, but I always admired you for having a bigger picture and a concept that accompany the social and artistic and racial aspects of it. 

Nicholas: This record is a journey from start to finish, I feel like. I feel that even the shift away from the previous title, Indian Agent — which was a heavy term to carry and to pass through — we wanted to use that opportunity of music and gathering to not only contradict that rule of what the Indian Agent was — they were doing the opposite of what we do and what our music does — but we just wanted to have that possibility of educating about the history that many people choose not to see or to notice. That history shapes us still now.

To me, there’s a humanizing aspect to some of these songs on the record that are really important, and that humanizing aspect is when you’re sharing music on a potentially larger platform, there can be a responsibility to voice what was being shared in that space. Coming from communities that have been dehumanized so continually, to create and share some music that has and holds that amongst ourselves is really important.

One song like this on the record would be “At Tugáni,” which is [the name of] my youngest, and that song to me is his creation story. It’s where he comes from and how he got here. I think sonically and lyrically, it kind of captures some of that. As the record progresses, we go through all these other conversations. They don’t define us, but we hold them. Heavier songs tend to get sonically darker… 

Ishmael: Conversations about what? 

Nicholas: Conversations about how we move around the land right now with our community, conversations about how we’re going to be leading that tomorrow and into the future. Like with Qacung’s Yupik language on “Back In That Time” — that track is almost heavier than heavy metal, sonically, the way it moves. And he’s speaking Yupik, so our indiginous languages are being utilized in these spaces, which is important.

Otis: Which, if I can say something about that: I was thinking of that one specifically, because one thing I love about Nicky and what he always says, is that we get to be in charge of what our narrative is, and how we rock in our art, and people don’t get to tell us how we’re supposed to be — what is native art, what isn’t native art, this and that. That song is so heavy. It’s fire. The way he’s rocking on that track in his language — when I hear it I get so motivated. Like if I played football, I’d want to run out to the field on that one. I love that it’s carrying that message through another medium.

This record, we really were able to, I think, reach a larger audience with the sound. It encompasses a lot of sounds, but it’s all together, and we’re able to say things in a way that people are going to be able to understand. It’s beautiful, man.

Ishmael: Yeah, it’s a very broad record, too, in terms of the different styles and palettes. There are songs that cross a lot of different genres. It really shows your love of music, and all different kinds of music and different kinds of sounds and approaches.

You’re very sensitive to the social aspects of the world, you know what I mean? You absorb a lot of the things that are going on around you, and music for you is almost like breathing — you’re always making music, always releasing music, always making songs, and at the same time feeling a lot of what’s going on in the world. So would you just talk about what music really is for you, and having all these different creative outlets? Because I feel like without it, you would have a lot tougher time making sense of the world… 

Otis: Man, that’s real for me. I see the power in it. I see how powerful it is, and I see how it affects everything on such large scale — the importance of it, [how] it’s not this frivolous thing, to the spiritual aspects of it, the depth of it. I see it. I feel it. It’s not to be played with, you know what I mean? Since I’m gifted with it, and it is one of the few things that gives me peace, I try to respect it. I try to learn about it, I try to study it. I’m not trying to use it to get something from people.

And at the same time, when I do use it, I’m trying to use it to affect people in the most positive way that I can — in a realistic way, I mean, like no phony way like, Oh, this is what’s hot right now so I gotta make this. That’s why we’re still doing music like this, because Nicky’s the same way. And straight up and down, Zak-y D.’s the same way — this cat is a real deal hardbody, guitar mafioso, bro. He doesn’t need any practice. I’m always blown away. I’m very fortunate to have connected with cats who are on that level.

It’s keeping me going, and helping me through this battle, because it’s a balance struggle. My intention is to improve and be able to maintain in a more positive way, and without the music it would definitely be more of a struggle. Fortunately, I’ve respected the game enough to learn enough — I think by doing that… I’m not magnetizing these negative things that have happened to my peers in this industry, so I think that I must be doing something right. I mean, you’re 51 scoops, man, and still fresh-to-death influencing the whole game on a daily basis! So I got inspiration around me, and, I think, answers sometimes to my questions. Although I be trippin’, man. I be struggling from time to time. This music is not a joke or a game.

Ishmael: It is a struggle. Everybody gets through the struggles in their own way. It’s good that we do have music. And Nicky, you’re like a frontiersmen, as well, the way you’re heading out into the art world. You must encounter a lot of things that people may not even recognize as being foul behavior or antiquated thoughts. Having to deal with all of that, does that stuff make it into the music at all?

Nicholas: Yeah, definitely. It all makes it into the music. It doesn’t show up literally, but it’s energy you can understand or let go through you. I don’t ever feel like when I sit down to write music or anything — power up the spaceship — I’m not there with a plan. But there’s times when I sit down in that space and I can reflect back on things or how I felt. Or look forward, even, sometimes. That’s where the songs start to shape. And that comes from process in the world.

Ishmael: What videos are you doing songs for?

Nicholas: Raven Chacon is a native experimental musician and visual artist friend of mine — he’s working on one for “Back In That Time.” And then “Synthetic Gods” [featuring Shabazz Palaces] — that’s gonna be bonkers. 

Otis: Thank you for the interview and for the questions. It’s always nice to see you, I-S-H, god dang!

Ishmael: I love y’all!

(Photo Credit: left, Christian Petersen; right, Patrick O’Brien-Smith)

Nicholas Galanin is one of the most vital voices in contemporary art. Born in Sheet’ka (Sitka, Alaska), Galanin is Tlingit and Unangax̂; he creates from his perspective as an Indigenous man. His work calls for an accounting of the damages done to land and life by unfettered capitalism while envisioning and advocating alternate possibilities. 

His debut as Ya Tseen (“be alive,” and a reference to his Tlingit name Yeil Ya Tseen) is Indian Yard, his first album for Sub Pop. Rich with emotional range and sharp awareness, Indian Yard explores love, desire, frustration, pain, revolution, and connection through the magnetic expressions of an Indigenous mind. 

This is not, by any means, Galanin’s first album. He has released a steady stream of records under a panoply of aliases, including Silver Jackson and Indian Agent. He has worked with the likes of Meshell Ndegeocello, Tanya Tagaq, and Samantha Crain. And for the better part of a decade, he’s also been part of the revolutionarily borderless art collective Black Constellation alongside Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction.

(Photo Credit: Merritt Johnson)