The pioneering LA producer has crafted his most sprawling, glorious work
Steven Ellison sits in a high-backed chair in the back room of Bethnal Green’s Recession photography studio. He leans forward, speaking in his particularly low, measured intensity on the subject of an unnamed rap personality. “I think that guy, he’s just too motivated by money, man. I just … I don’t like it.”
Ellison suddenly leaps backwards as Blair, the studio’s unfeasibly adorable resident kitten, bounds from the floor and digs a claw into his right arm. It’s the first time in about 15 minutes he’s broken eye contact. It’s also the first time he’s showed the slightest waver, and that’s courtesy of Blair, all three months and twelve inches of her (about a third of which is taken up entirely by eyes).
FlyLo’s reputation as an affable and gregarious character precedes him, and he’s nothing other than amiable during his time with Crack. Yet we find his iconic beam and disarming frankness isn’t handed out freely, but has to be earned. Having softened entirely over the course of our conversation, we can then barely contain him as he bounds around the studio for the benefit of the camera. As with so much of his creative output, an untouchable level of talent is filtered though an exterior of pure, youthful exuberance.
Ellison’s musical existence is one which seems to multiply in significance with each respective step. Over three (soon to be four) album releases, the establishment of Brainfeeder, which began as a record label but went on to become a sound and a musical aesthetic unto itself, and a personality which shines through at every juncture of his creative being, FlyLo has constructed an unmistakeable legend to rival that of his renowned family lineage.
Since the early 00s, Lotus has forged an entirely new branch within the broad definition of electronic music. It’s a sound in some ways related to hip-hop, IDM, jazz and more, where percussion rolls and clatters in loose, unplaceable grooves among divine synth and bass-drenched landscapes free from structure or constraint. His inventiveness, technical ingenuity and continued relevance has made him without doubt one of the most important producers, if not musicians, of his generation. It has led to him being mentioned alongside some of history’s greats (see Mary Ann Hobbs’s much-cited Hendrix comparison), and sees his influence felt far beyond an immediate glut of geographically-related producers (Daedalus, Nosaj Thing, Baths), but to the heart of contemporary electronic music and hip-hop. Yet as Crack sits opposite this deeply inspirational and prominent figure, we have to frequently remind ourselves that he is just 28 years of age. The authority with which he speaks is not necessarily one based on years, but of experience gained by his own actions.
Most astonishing is Ellison’s development from album to album. While his EPs, particularly 2010’s superb post-album creative burst Pattern+Grid World, have proved to be highly significant pieces, it is his grasp of the full-length which has truly established his reputation. It might be argued that he redefined the possibilities of expressing electronic music through the format. Fully realised single entities rather than collections of tracks; that is what Flying Lotus makes unlike anyone else. And it’s this fact which makes news of his upcoming release such an universally thrilling prospect.
In truth, 2006 debut 1983 was defined by promise. Sparkles of brilliance, the standard label of ‘potential’, but far from the finished article. But in 2008 he produced the seminal Los Angeles; a statement so astonishing, so perfect, so utterly defining that many artists would have been led down one of two paths. Either to stick; to accept that they had invented so extraordinary a blueprint that they would be crazy to diverge, and to live off it for the remainder of their careers. Or to twist; to accept that the record could not be improved upon, to take a tangent and start afresh elsewhere, the route taken so boldly and unforgettably by FlyLo’s beloved Radiohead, where OK Computer and Kid A look at each other from two entire separate, though perhaps equally high, pedestals.
Ellison did neither. He sat back, drank in a myriad of personal developments, and expanded. So entwined is everything about Ellison the person and Flying Lotus the musical venture that the listener can be said to be growing up, learning and developing alongside him. Inspired by the loss of his aunt, the jazz pioneer and hugely significant personal influence Alice Coltraine, 2010’s Cosmogramma saw him musing on so much of her contribution to his life, embracing freeform jazz to a greater extent, as well as her stratospheric ambitions and his own travails into the astral realm. As with all of his work, Cosmogramma came thick with ideas, but this seemed to up the intensity even further, setting its sights beyond the constraints of this world.
And now, two years later, almost like clockwork, we’ve come to Ellison’s latest, grandest musical statement to date, Until The Quiet Comes. A sprawling and constantly shifting journey, its character moves in waves from the aggressive to the meditative, the evocatively sensual to the signature shuffling post-hip-hop. The skywards-grasping jazz which so characterised his previous record is unmistakably present, yet perhaps the most prevalent feature of Until The Quiet Comes is its grandiose beauty. Thanks in part to a series of vocal contributions from past collaborators Laura Darlington, Niki Randa and the illustrious Thom Yorke, as well as the goddess-like Erykah Badu, it is Flying Lotus’s most elegant collection of sounds to date.
As someone who is constantly being creative, making music, beats and mixes, how do you recognize that point at which it’s time to work on an album?
It takes me a little while to get there. It takes me a good minute to decide what I wanna do and what I wanna say, to learn things, live life, hate myself, all that. It takes about two years to go through that cycle.
Is there a conscious moment of ‘right, this feels like I’m moving onto a new step’?
It all just kinda shows itself. I never have to think too hard, but after a year or two I start to think, ‘ok, what happening, what we got here’. Just, y’know, check in. I don’t really think that there’s any way to know for sure.
Early copies of the album were presented as one continuous track. If you could have gotten away with it, would have liked to make that the case on the actual release?
[laughs] Yeah. But I’m aware of how people listen to music. It’d be cool if you could have it as one track to listen to once through, and then you could break it up. I presented Cosmogramma like that at first too, but I feel this album is more continuous than the last one.
There are also certain moments of real punctuation within this flow. When you’re working on more aggressive or more openly meditative tracks, are you bearing in mind the reaction of the listener?
I’d love to say that I don’t think about the audience at all, but truth be told I probably do. But more than anything, I make this stuff so I can enjoy it first. I’m glad that people care and I feel very blessed to be in the position I’m in, but at the same time I know that people don’t want me to do what they want me to do, they want me to do what I want to do. They might not say it, but I think that ultimately they want me to push the things that I believe in.
One thing that’s always been a feature of your work is the sense of place, of a vocabulary of sound based on geography. Is that the case with this record?
Absolutely. I always worry about it, I worry if I’m just too California when I make my music. But that’s reflective of where I’m at and where my life is. There are a lot of moments that feel like the sunshine on the album, real heavy. But there are others that feel like the cold, because I’ve experienced it by coming here! I think because I’ve been able to travel and come here and tour a lot and see these places and go to these crazy festivals, it’s opened me up to doing broader stuff with my music.
A lot of people force a change in that way by moving somewhere else to make music and see what happens. Have you ever been tempted to move to Tokyo or wherever for a few months and see what music you’d make?
Absolutely, I’ve been tempted by that notion, New York being one ofthe places that I’d like to go.
And how would a Flying Lotus record made in New York sound?
I don’t know – it’d be the same as making a record here though, I think. Well, maybe not. If I went to Plastic People every night and just listened to that superbass music, who knows.
How do you find partying here?
I love it. The passion for club-going is so deep here, it’s so strong. The kids here get exposed to that lifestyle a lot younger than we do in the States. 15, people start going out here?
Plus in certain circles the drug culture is so strong from a young age, how do you think that affects it?
I think it just helps further music to resonate on a different level with people. Bringing up Burial as an example, I wonder how such an introverted guy is able to make that character … y’know, what are the makings of Burial? I think of him being this young guy at raves with a hoodie on in the corner, just drinking in drum and bass.
Your persona is so deeply imbedded in your music; can you see any way of getting away from that now?
No, but I don’t think I’d want to either. Especially with making albums, I try to make it as personal as possible, I try to get to the heart of what I want to say. And if I have two years away from making records, then I have two years of telling you what I’ve been up to, and two years of telling you how I’ve been dealing with life.
Moving onto your label, how do you know when you’ve found a Brainfeeder artist? What do you look for?
I think I just hear the sound of someone seeking within themselves through this music thing. I think I can hear when someone is really trying to understand what life’s about or understand themselves, or asking questions in their work. That really peaks my interest for some reason. I’m really drawn to the sound of the seeker.
How do you find new artists?
I try to keep my ear to the ground, even though I know when I need to cut shit out. I try to stay in the know with what’s happening with current shit, for reasons to inspire and just to have an opinion.
When it comes to running a label, where have you looked for inspiration? Has being on Warp shown you the way in some ways?
Absolutely, they’ve been a great example and a great support too. If there’s a reason to connect the dots they don’t mind doing that, helping and advising.
As Brainfeeder continues to grow alongside your own career, do you envisage having to make any sacrifices regarding the label?
What sacrifices do you have in mind?
Perhaps handing over more control, or putting out a record you don’t truly believe in.
See, I did that, I think. I’ve been there. But now I feel like I have to stay involved for the reputation’s sake. Before I was like, ‘look man, I believe in these people, they can put out whatever they want’. And I still believe that.
So it was more a case of having too much trust?
Yeah, I trust. But y’know, I don’t wanna not do that either. When itcomes to putting these records together, I’ll say “hey, I love it – apart from this, this and this” or “it’s not ready yet”. I’ll say that. Whether or not they roll with it is up to them. They don’t have to go with me. If someone can give me a valid reason why they need to keep something that I don’t like then hey, it’s a dialogue. I’m not gonna say that my ear’s perfect. Sometimes I have to hear something a few times before I warm up to it. That’s why I have another friend of mine who’s involved with the label, he’s less of a hater than I am! Sometimes he needs me to be like “fuck that!” and sometimes I need him to say “wait!” [laughs] It’s a cool relationship that we have, a great balance.
Another way you’ve interacted with up and coming artists is in your work with RBMA. You graduated from Melbourne in 2006, right?
[laughs] It’s not really like graduating though. There’s no studying or tests or anything, it’s not like a real school to graduate from. My experience was amazing. They flew me over to Australia, they put me up, they fed me a lot of food and alcohol [laughs]. It was a really amazing opportunity for me to network with a lot of people, and I established relationships that I’ve continued to this day.
And is that why you went back to work with them as a lecturer?
Yeah, and I continue to do stuff with them because I know how valuable my experience there was.
You’ve become such a figure of authority, yet you’re still only 28. Do you feel like you missed a lot of soul-searching and finding your way in the world by discovering your calling so early?
I don’t know man, I feel like there might be a point where I go through that again. It’s too soon to say.
But you’d never move away from music?
Nah, even if it’s for fun, I’ll always do it in some capacity. But my passion might change. Like my buddy Mr. Oizo, his passion has changed. He’s more into making films and music is for fun now. Anything’s possible really, but at the moment I’m having a lot of fun making music.
You’ve expanded into making music videos recently though, is that something you’d like to do more of?
I hate making music videos. I hate it! I’ve only done three but I’mnot making any more. It just seems when I’ve done it the stars were aligned for it to happen and I thought ‘fuck it, let’s do it’. But I really don’t like it at all.
Is it that because you don’t feel as in control, or do you not enjoy the process?
I actually don’t believe in music videos as much any more. I like it when people make videos for me, but I don’t like to do things that are based on gimmicks and it’s so disposable now. It’s a format that’s dying because there aren’t as many resources available for people to get them done well. For me personally I would much rather do a narrative short film or feature.
There already seemed to be a distinctive style established in the three you’ve done, with an honest portrayal of the artist performing. The video for Jeremiah Jae’s Money really benefits from that simple portrayal of the guy singing the song.
I was so self-conscious about that. I felt like because of all the stuff that I do, people expect me to make some crazy flashy video. But I just thought it would be cool to make this really honest portrait of Jeremiah, because that’s how I see him. But I felt weird about it, it’s so simple I thought people wouldn’t take me seriously. I wanted to put a different name to it, but the fucked up part about it is that a lot of people wouldn’t have posted it or watched it that way.
It must have been cool working with Erykah Badu on the video for Gone Baby Don’t Be Long, as well as on the record?
Yeah, well we originally talked about me producing her entire album. We worked on some stuff, but we weren’t getting much done. So I said ‘right, I’m keeping this track’.
And as for the other collaborations on the record, you had Laura Darlington and Niki Randa from your previous records returning, what was the thinking behind those?
Laura is my lucky charm. I think I’ll always put her on my records at some point. And all the other people, they’re my friends, everybody’s so close so it’s like, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I could search for all these amazing collaborators with big names, but there’s no need.
There is Thom Yorke
But more than anything that’s just love, know what I mean? We get on really well, we have a good rapport and so it happens. It’s not like we have to call each other’s managers and get all these people in to make it happen. We just send each other e-mails and that’s what it is. I prefer to work that way. The whole like, have my manager call their manager to do this and this and try and find a day to do some contrived shit, I don’t like that.
The main collaborator on the record is, of course, Thundercat. In your opinion, how highly among the great bass players can he be considered?
I don’t know any better bass players than him. I think it’s great that the three key people that he plays bass for are so reflective of his personality. He’s got the Suicidal Tendencies side to his personality, I mean when he’s played one of those shows he’s so insane. And he has the Badu side, and he has his George Duke sidewhen he goes away and plays jazz gigs. It’s really amazing to see all his different sides and the way that’s reflected in his playing, and they’re all really him and really honest. I think he’s part of Flying Lotus now, I think he’s part of the band almost. It’s getting to that point now where we’re almost a duo.
It’s great that he’s been coming out on tour with you, and he’ll be joining you on your evening at Brixton Academy. How much are you looking forward to that?
I’m really excited man, it’s gonna be good one. It’s such a legendary venue and I think to dive in will be so fun. I’m playing two sets, probably one with the band and one regular. But it’s a long way away man, I need to get through today first!
Another collaboration you’ve worked on recently was Between Friends with Earl Sweatshirt. How was working with him?
It was just like working with my homie, y’know. It’s weird, those kids are so crazy that we were talking about working together for some time and there was always other people and crew and I wanted to make sure that when we worked together it was just him and me. No distractions or playing silly, we had to really dial in the work. I went out to Hollywood and picked him up and brought him to my studio and we just hung out for hours, just listened to music and vibed out.
This seems to be as exciting a time in hip-hop as for many years, with young guys coming through and making genuinely innovative stuff.
Man, it feels so good again. That’s why it feels so good to bea producer lately. That’s probably why I haven’t been digging into the film thing so much, because it just feels like there’s so much potential in music right now, I don’t wanna miss it. It’s so ripe again.
[Clams Casino filters in from the studio next door]
What do you make of the Clams stuff?
I love it, that’s my boy. He’s the nicest kid, I love him, and when I hear the music it’s like, ‘oh yeah, he’s bad-ass too!’
And who is Captain Murphy?
He’s just a dude from LA.
There was talk that it might be you, might be Tyler …
[laughs] I think that’s so funny. I’ve read some of that stuff, and it’s so ridiculous. You meet a lot of kids and I try to advise people, even if they don’t get signed or whatever. He’s just one of those kids at Low End Theory (the influential weekly LA club night often synonymous with FlyLo and the LA beat scene), like Burial in a way. He just doesn’t wanna make a big deal or nothing, he’s not trippin’.
It’s interesting that given your affiliation with hip-hop, you don’t work more often with MCs.
I just fell out of love with it a long time ago. When it was all about Jay Zs and Kanyes, that arena rap shit, I’m not fucking with it. But when all these new kids started coming up, it really lit the fire for me again. That’s how I got into it, I thought I was gonna be producing rap records. And it’s cool, cause all these new kids now, they know me [smiles].
Your songs often have very striking idiosyncratic names, while you go for more sweeping, iconic album names. Why do you place such importance in titling?
It’s funny that you say that, cause I feel like the titles come off the top, [clicks fingers] like that. They roll off, they’re all part of whatever mood I was in that day, it’s all part of whatever vibe I was after. It’s like a journal entry almost. It may seem silly to other people, but I know what they mean. I know what Between Friends means, I know what Sweetspace means, I know what Golden Diva means.
And the current album title, Until The Quiet Comes, is that a reference to death and mortality?
With Cosmogramma being an album rooted in loss, is it a theme you can’t get away from?
I feel like that title alludes to a lot of things that revolve around the next place, the next phase, whether it’s the meditative space, or the dream states, or death, it’s all part of that – ‘the quiet’. You can take it how you will, but I don’t feel like the same sentiment is present in this album as the last one, there’s a different story for sure. I feel like I’ve been dealing with loss and stuff in a different way recently.
There’s a big difference between dealing with loss and realizing your own mortality.
Yeah there is. But I think it’s more reflective of how fragile my mindstate was over the last year and a half. I went through a hell of a depression making the album and not just because of what I had done previously, but because sometimes it’s hard to remind myself why I’m doing what I’m doing … all the things that artists go through! The normal shit. That’s what I’ve come to realise, that it’s all part of the process.
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Until The Quiet Comes is released on October 1st on Warp Records
Words: Geraint Davies
Photos: Ben Price