By Colin Stutz; Photo by Chris Godley on November 6, 2012
The Sunday mornings were always funky.
As a young teenager, Steven Ellison and his family traded weekend worship in their Baptist church for an ashram run by his aunt. Hindi bhajans replaced hymns and the sermons switched from the Gospels to a nondenominational homily: God is not omnipotent, but a power to be found inside of you. His aunt, Alice Coltrane—jazz musician and wife to the late John Coltrane—played the organ over the congregation’s otherworldly percussion and wild chanting. With magnificence and captivating intensity, his aunt led the show. God is within you, she would preach. It’s you. You’re God.
“That concept, I guess, is pretty heavy for people,” says Ellison, thinking back today from his home in the northeast Los Angeles hills, a few dozen miles east of the ashram. “But the ideas [there] that came across, they were just more grounded…the message was a little bit easier to grasp. It was nothing to do with being damned or lost, just how we can better ourselves.”
With a grin, he adds, “And the music was really good over there, too.”
Professionally, Ellison goes by the title Flying Lotus, a name he pulled years ago from a lucid dream, the same way he realizes much of his creative inspiration—with the 28-year-old experimental beat king’s subconscious spilling over into reality.
At home Ellison sits with his face to a screen, plotting out beats on a desktop studio setup. Lounging back in a comfortable, black plastic office chair, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, he is surrounded by a clutter of synthesizers, speakers, samplers and other recording gear. Headphones, an inhaler, plastic jars of pot, a two-foot yellow bong, DVDs and an Xbox controller are also within reach. On his walls hang paintings, nunchucks and Tibetan tingsha meditation cymbals. Behind him, a drum kit sits in front of a wall of built-in shelves displaying framed photos and the cover artwork of past Flying Lotus albums, customized Nike shoes, Dragon Ball Z and Godzilla figures, bongo drums and a kazoo. Eclectic, eccentric and a bit of a mess, it is in this room that Ellison works and new universes abound.
On the level of experimental musicianship and artistic execution, few rival Ellison today. And it’s most likely those who do are his friends or fans as well. A figurehead of the Los Angeles beat scene, which has its satellites in Montreal, Glasgow and ever-beyond, Ellison is helping to lead a growing group of producers and followers toward a new breed of boundless hip-hop. Since his 2006 debut album, 1983, Ellison has steadily built a following, his career shrouded by a vague mystique and seeming effortlessness. His masterful dedication to his art is all that is left to outsider perception. And with a new, mostly instrumental, long-playing album every two years since, plus a handful of EPs peppered about, Ellison’s music has developed to become definitively heady through traveling melodies and subtly off-kilter rhythms with a fluidly jazz-like freeness.
Uniformly, Flying Lotus’ albums are a complete idea, finished and thought out, suggesting a master’s work—intentional and deliberate in each way.
“Yeah, I’m one of those guys,” Ellison says, knowingly, of the full-length format, as opposed to something like more frequent single releases. “I think if I have the opportunity to get your attention for X amount of time, then I would try to make a story. They’re like little soundtracks. It’s so fun to weave these moments together and make this thing that showcases your story and where you’ve been.”
Working almost solely with a palette of sound, outside of the literal constructs of words, Ellison says, appeals to him as a more guttural manner of expression. The compositions start simply—with a feeling and an effort to honestly convey that time, place and emotion—and allow the creativity to lead him from there.
“If you’re in a shitty mood, you start off on some dark business,” he says, for example, “and whatever music, whatever things you stumble upon in your process, you just think of it like a journal entry and just roll with whatever makes the most sense at the moment.”
A film student for a brief stint in college, Ellison displays a clear appreciation of cinema that continues still with towering shelves of DVDs and upcoming collaborations with ballsy directors such as David Lewandowski and Mr. Oizo. Flying Lotus music is created with an eye on the cinematographic and an understanding of the visual elements Ellison’s tones conjure. With each song, a scene plays out, he says, taking on a unique meaning beyond itself.
“Even if it’s somebody else’s music, it’s part of my life,” he says. “I have stories for other people’s music. Crazy times, when you’re listening to whatever song and it’s the song you’re breaking up to in the background. And it’s not even relative or has anything to do with breaking up, but it’s the song that’s playing while you have an awkward silence. I wonder what my music does for people. I wonder what their stories are.”
There’s a paternal sense to his voice as he says this. These belabored creations that he conjured from his own being—his own godliness—and metamorphosed into invisible audio waves that, as he says, exist as “little soundtracks” to peoples’ lives. And from there anything can happen.
“‘Someone played a cover of your song at our wedding,’” he says, imitating a story he’s been told before. “What? That’s awesome.”
Or, he continues, laughing, “‘Yeah, I did LSD and DMT at the same time as I was listening to your album. It was crazy, man! It was, like, going to this crazy meta-verse where there’s Hungarian unicorns…’
“That’s what’s fun about instrumental music as well,” Ellison continues, “there’s no defined story. It’s kind of up to the listener to decide what it means to them.”
He’s reluctant to explain his own story behind his new album, Until the Quiet Comes, a whimsical follow-up to 2010’s intensely layered space odyssey, Cosmogramma, which critics then widely applauded as Flying Lotus’ defining release.
“I’d rather people figure out their own idea,” Ellison says. “When people hear it, I’d rather them tell me what it’s about. I don’t want to put my influence out on it like that because I think it takes some of the fun away.” But without too much prodding Ellison concedes and begins to explain a story he likens to Little Nemo in Slumberland, the century-old comic strip that was later adopted for an animated film about a boy who travels through a dream world on a dirigible bed.
“It’s about innocence in this kind of dream-like world,” he says, “having a very young, open perspective to beautiful things and dark things all at the same time. Just seeing things for the first time—but mystical things. That’s what I feel it’s like. For all the good moments, there are strange moments and dark moments, but ultimately it should be considered a positive journey.
“I really wanted to have a story dynamic,” he continues. “Like a film would. Like the ‘hero’s journey’ kind of thing. I’m really into that and I tried to set that kind of stage for it. It’s 40 minutes but I feel like it’s got a beginning and middle and end, and a character arc and all that shit.”
Ultimately, Ellison says, on Until the Quiet Comes he felt a need to pull back his production from Cosmogramma’s severe intensity, a furious focus that was surely affected by his mother’s passing in 2008 and his aunt’s death a year and a half before that. Instead, he concentrated on dynamic intricacies and long, sweeping melody lines, tying songs together with threads of harmonious space and texture. Throughout, a consistent drum kit and other unifying sounds coalesce the whole so the album flows through like a single piece of work without distinct separation between tracks.
“I wanted it to be a longer journey, more dynamics and less super-intense all the time,” says Ellison. “I felt this crazy urgency and immediacy with [Cosmogramma]. Everything was like boom! Even jarring endings and stuff because that’s what my life was at the time, so I really wanted to get that across. But this time I feel like, having said that, I learned so much along the way and I learned about pulling back a little bit and having that big moment come through later on instead of right now. Having it build, more like an album, a real story.”
For Until the Quiet Comes, Ellison called in some big-name collaborators such as Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (who also guested on Cosmogramma) and avant-garde R & B artist Erykah Badu, as well as Ellison’s right-hand psychedelic bassist, Thundercat, and longtime FlyLo muses, singers Niki Randa and Laura Darlington, all of whom work into an intricate blend of natural and synthesized sounds, never upstaging the production. Learning to communicate with artists, Ellison says, takes some time. Everyone has a different vocabulary and you might be planets apart.
“You just kind of have your team in play,” he says. “I was content with working alone for so long until I started working with guys like Thundercat. So, the thing I found was: every artist is different. Everybody works at a different level and if you’re going to be a producer working with different artists, you have to be able to work as they need you to and not necessarily as you’re most comfortable. You have to be ready to step outside of your own thing, not so much musically but more like [having] to go to someone else’s studio. I’m not used to it. I like working where I work. But I’ll go to somebody’s studio and work with them. Erykah Badu is coming over at four in the morning. I go to bed pretty early, considering, but I’ll stay up ’til four o’clock and she comes over.”
Collaborating is something that’s been on Ellison’s mind a good deal recently. He’s been working some with LA rapper Schoolboy Q and is entertaining the prospect of more mainstream releases. But he’s got a lot on his mind in general right now, all focused towards creation. He’s been done with Until the Quiet Comes since January. His mental cogs are turning and he says the Los Angeles heat has got his brain boiling. The next Flying Lotus album might have more vocals, which he might sing himself since he’s also thinking he’ll try working alone again and “go back to super bedroom style.” He’s started messing around with vintage processing and sequencing as a more linear way of creating music that might go on that next album, too, or on Thundercat’s debut LP, which Ellison is producing as well. He’s also scoring the pilot of a new Adult Swim show called Cat Dick: Private Detective about a feline gumshoe addicted to catnip, which he likens to “Bad Lieutenant with real-life animals.” He is in discussions to score a feature film this winter as well. “I want to do it all,” he says.
And if or when the opportunity arises, he’ll work on a pop record—so long as he can do it his own way.
“Certain people know what I do,” he says. “Usher, Rihanna, Kanye—motherfuckers be knowing. But they don’t really fuck with me, though. They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. That’s awesome. You do what you do.’ I’m like, ‘But I also do what you do.’ I feel like being labeled an ‘electronic musician’ has kind of put me in a weird place with that. It’s kind of alienated the hip-hop people from fucking with me… We’ll see, we’ll see. Maybe my phone will ring.”
If it is going to happen, it feels very much like this is the time for Ellison’s career to start picking up some mainstream attention. It’s bound to be a somewhat treacherous maneuver, however, when you’re also leading a progressive vanguard of creative thoughtfulness and experimentation. But then again, maybe popular culture is once more ready for something that’s actually new. There’s proof in Ellison’s hometown beat scene and its weekly club night, Low End Theory, which he’s been playing since its beginnings in 2006 and has now expanded to host parties across the world. His record label, Brainfeeder, too, is expanding into hip-hop and he’s hoping to add a band to the roster in the next year. But, whatever happens, whoever calls, Ellison feels assured he will continue to create with that spiritual artistry he learned at the ashram on those mystical Sunday mornings.
“Music is always an event to me when there’s context, a story behind what I’m about to listen to,” he says, looking outside into the sunny Los Angeles afternoon. “What kind of story do you want to tell? Tell the other story? Why not.” F