In a pre-show face-to-face, L.A. beatmaker Flying Lotus talks about his new live show, misconceptions about drugs and playing well with others.
by Joshua P. Ferguson
Originally published for Time Out Chicago | 10.18.12
Bouncing down the stairs from Metro’s main stage, Steve Ellison is just the sort of laidback personality you’d expect from a left-field Cali beatmaker. Recording as Flying Lotus, Ellison is the psychedelics-loving producer at the center of an international music scene that traces its roots back to revered hip-hop studio whiz J Dilla and combines elements of bass, boom-bap, jazz, downtempo and glitch. Though many have tried to label the music of this underground movement, the closest descriptor remains "beats," and that’s exactly what FlyLo specializes in. After the sound check for his recent performance here in Chicago, Ellison, 29, and I took a walk through Wrigleyville in search of falafel and to talk about his art, his new live show and his youthful spirit.
I hear you have a new live show for your Until the Quiet Comes album tour. It feels cool to come with a purpose, to come with something different.
Did you feel like you had to step up your stage show in the face of the EDM madness that took over the States this summer? Honestly it has nothing to do with anybody else’s show. It really, ultimately, is something that I’ve always seen in my music. I’ve always seen this bigger show that never happened. The show, I had a concept for the show two years ago. Two years ago, and we didn’t have no money!
Do you work with someone who does visuals for you? Two of my buddies, Strange Loop and Time Warp—two guys who are my homies. It’s not like I had to hire people out. It was really cool to do it all in-house. All these people know my shit and my sensibilities, my aesthetics.
Until the Quiet Comes is finally out. Are you the type who gets tense about how an album will be received, or are you like, ah, it’s out? You don’t really know until it’s out how people are going to feel about it. And I think they like it. I feel like I did what I set out to do, to try and make something honest and reflective of where I’ve been. You can’t take that from me, you know?
Do you concern yourself with reviews or do you try to block all that out? I think I’m in the middle of it. I don’t want to be the kind of artist who’s, like, completely up my own ass. If someone can call me on some shit, then I’ll be like, “You know what, that’s fucking right.” If I’m fucking up and someone calls me on that I want to feel it, just because I care. I feel like I put so much time into it.
I thought this latest LP showed more of a jazz sensibility, but I saw in an interview that you felt that way about your last record, Cosmogramma. Truth be told, I think jazz is a mind-set. It’s not necessarily, like, this guy picked up a horn and did this or whatever. It’s like, we recorded this shit in one room, with one microphone, and we just used whatever we had.
I feel like each component had more room to shine; maybe that’s where I’m getting that from. [On Cosmogramma], I was trying to fit everything in. I always told people it’s supposed to sound like you got shot out of a cannon, and it takes you 30 minutes to hit the ground.
Until the Quiet Comes strips that back. Consciously, too. I think part of that maximalist mentality, it was, I'm not saying it was a bad thing but that was not the way forward a second time. I would be shooting myself in the foot.
Does that correlate to the title? I wanted to set people up to this idea, before they even heard it, that the quiet was a key word in the whole thing. I hate to say it, but a part of pulling it back is some kind of growing up. I’ve learned how to build my dynamics better by not putting everything on the table at once, slowly starting to reveal elements. You get where you want to, and give a little and give a little. I think that’s fun to play with and it keeps people engaged.
Everybody likes to reference your relatives, the Coltranes. How keenly do you feel that as an influence on your art? It was always there, but I feel like I’m still understanding that stuff. You don’t ever really get it unless you live it like that, unless you play like they did in that time. I feel like I’m still getting it every single year, every time I come back into it. I go through phases where I’m not into jazz as much and then I’ll get heavy, heavy, heavy into it. I feel like I’m understanding more and more what it takes to get there.
Do you think of your music as jazz? It’s more so the mind-set. It’s not what I do with the sound, but I feel that I keep the spirit alive. Pretty much everything but doing heroin, I feel like I’m doing everything but that. But that was a big part of it, so maybe I’m not doing shit.
You do dabble in psychedelics, so you are open to that kind of mental exploration. I really only do it once or twice, three times at most, a year. I’m the type of person, I don’t have to do it a lot. Being from California, I think it’s something that Californians embrace a lot more, like, "trip out, man." Whatever it is, acid, mushrooms, DMT, one psychedelic experience a year.
Some of that inward-journey stuff pops up on the new record. More than anything with the record, dreams being a big part of it, I wanted it to feel like a child’s perspective, like you’re a kid again hearing things for the first time. I wanted to play on things that had innocence in them melodically. For me, being 10 years old and seeing Jurassic Park for the first time blew my mind. I want music to feel like that. People don’t feel that much anymore these days, whatever that is.
YouTube and whatnot changes the discovery process. Sure, people don’t appreciate it in the same respect, but on the flip end of that, they’re exposed to a lot more music at a younger age, which will shape a person and their youth very quickly. I met a kid the other day at the Apple Store. He’s 13 and makes dope beats and plays guitar. I was like, dude, show me some shit.
Is that childlike quality something you’re always trying to maintain? When I make music from that place, it makes me the happiest as a person. When I can make music and don’t have to think about anyone else’s ideas or voice—when I’m making something that only I can make, it feels good. It’s nice when you can find a sound that only you can make. No one else can make Cosmogramma, no one else can make Until the Quiet Comes. It’s so fun because you’re creating a whole world that only you can.
Maintaining that spirit keeps you from becoming that stodgy old man, too. I run into that thinking all the time. You just have to know when those voices are bullshit. That’s something that I learned from artists like Thom Yorke. Guys who’ve been in the game for so long, I love asking them how they keep their head okay after being in the game for 20 years. How do you do it, still being excited about music? I genuinely feel as long as I’m being creative, doing my thing, and challenging myself, those weird hater voices don’t come out.
In this instrumental hip-hop world, there’s also the collaboration component. Do you ever want to go that route, say Erykah Badu produced by Flying Lotus? For some reason there’s this thing where people are like, he don’t like collaborating with people, like I don’t play well with others. I’d love to produce an Erykah record, I’d love to. I’m up for it if it makes sense. Sometimes things sound better on a blog post than they really are.
You mean, like, it looks better on paper? I did a collaboration with Childish Gambino and Ab-Soul. If it came out, I imagine people would be like, "aw, shit!" But truth be told, it was just everybody hanging out at my house with mics on. Muthafuckas just got high, were watching cartoons and were like, let’s record some shit.
Given your hip-hop background, what do you think of the divide between the Top 40 stuff and the underground scene you’re a part of? Ultimately, I’m just glad to be here. I try not to think about that stuff. I feel like I can do anything I want. Whatever I’ve done, I’ve earned my place to do whatever I want. There ain’t no rules.