Photo by Vash Noir

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Ross Olson is exploring the Grey Theory.

Less than five minutes into our Zoom conversation, Chester Watson brings up an intricate-sounding term in psychology that I had never heard before: induced autosuggestion. The niche phrase comes from one of Watson’s favorite books, Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today by William Seabrook, the American travel writer and occultist whose work helped popularize the concept of zombies in the West.

Seabrook’s theory, presented in the context of witchcraft and black magic, refers to the debilitating psychological effects behind verbal judgment and its subsequent repetition. For instance, if outsiders never miss a chance to call you awkward for stumbling over a table that one time, the characterization bakes itself into your psyche and is treated as fact, presenting itself as a crippling anxiety.

On his latest LP for POW Recordings, fish don’t climb trees, Watson distills the essence of Seabrook’s deductions to deliver some of the most self-assured raps of his career. Over the course of 11 mostly self-produced tracks, Watson raps with his usual meditative ease, all while embracing the human imperfections we often view as fatal. “I don’t want to be seen as a rapper on record,” Watson says. “I want to be seen as a human, I want to be seen as a person. Because it’s just like bro, at the end of the day, I’m gonna go through shit. And I’m just kind of spitting what I’m going through.”

On Fish, the only voice that cuts through is Watson’s own. He channels his ancestors when he sits down to write, who in turn help guide his pen and steer his artistic instincts. In the physical sense, Watson turns to his father, an accomplished keyboard player who’s toured with funk bands and produced with Three 6 Mafia. The older Watson even helped clear a sample for his son on the title track and contributed to the overall engineering of the record.

Following A Japanese Horror Film and 1997, Watson’s imaginative world-building is once again a core strength. Instead of haunted forests or turbulent clouds however, Fish captures the depths of the ocean through surreal mermaid visuals, drowned out vocal chops, and keys that blink in the distance like a lighthouse tower. Coincidentally, the album arrives not long after the missing submersible was confirmed to have imploded following its vanity excursion to the Titanic, and several of the beats sound like they could have been ringing in the fabled ship’s ghostly ruins. “Spirits” conjures images of an underwater séance, where Watson summons apparitions through a chilling keyboard loop and subdued percussion. Watson breaks from his natural humility on “Tourniquet,” where exotic spliffs threaten the room’s air quality.

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Watson’s career arc has loosely resembled that of Earl Sweatshirt, one of his early inspirations and now contemporaries in the indie rap landscape. Both achieved internet notoriety before they were old enough to drink, and in response sought the privacy and solitude of isolation. The video for “Phantom” turned 10 this year, and still stands as a dazzling entry into an underground scene he would consistently push forward in the years since. Expectations did little to weigh down Watson, whose thematic tones shift with each release, but never at the expense of the musical craftsmanship.

I caught up with Chester to talk about his new album, working on music with his father, reflecting on “Phantom” 10 years later, his potential foray into acting, and more.

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