The Quiet Revolution of Flying Lotus
Published Sep 24, 2012"First time I met him, it was like Jay meets Silent Bob," exclaims bass warrior Thundercat about his musical partner in crime and fellow spiritual traveller, Steven Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus. Spend ten seconds with this Cat and it's clear who fulfills which role.
Lotus isn't so much silent as very deliberate with his phrasing, whether in conversation or in musical expression. It's the particular way he lays out his thoughts and feelings that has earned him a reputation as one of the greatest contemporary auteurs of electronic composition. "I feel that when I have something to say I know where to go," Ellison says.
There's a lot at stake with his new disc, which follows his epic vision Cosmogramma. That album earned him comparisons to Jimi Hendrix in some quarters: experimental, virtuosic, but accessible too. FlyLo developed a unique language for electronic music that touched on many contemporary creative impulses like cinematic rock, hip-hop, global rhythms, and, a key touchstone for him, jazz. His music is always personal meditation played out in public. Maybe that's why it's called Until The Quiet Comes.
This 28-year-old sounds wise beyond his years, thanks to the wonderfully odd circumstances of having grown up with Alice Coltrane (widow of John), as his great aunt. He has inherited the contemplative spirituality and musicality of the Coltrane name and speaks constantly of pushing things forward and encouraging deep dialogues among friends and listeners. This might sound like stoner talk from anyone else, but while Lotus is friendly with herbal habits, "he's the hardest working person I've ever met," says Thundercat.
Lotus grew up in the San Fernando Valley, not far from where the banal suburban landscapes of American Beauty were filmed. He told Pitchfork that as a child he would attend Alice's lectures-cum-cosmic jam sessions at her ashram. Two years ago, in conversation with Exclaim!, he acknowledged his great aunt's influence. "More than anything it's the sound of a seeker. An emotional sound. Someone who's trying to make sense of this experience through music." Spending a great deal of time with Alice and sons Ravi (now a celebrated saxophonist) and Oran only reinforced his love for forward-thinking music. Oran gave him his first instrument, a Roland MC 505.
As Ellison gravitated to L.A. proper, his interests were equally divided between music and film. This is about the time that Ninja Tune artist Daedelus met him, "sometime in the early '00s, before his music was for certain ― film could have easily been his expression instead, that is after all what he went to school for.
"Steve wasn't young or uncertain, nor cocky either," Daedelus continues. "Around the same time that J Dilla had moved to Los Angeles, there was a reinvention of beat-making in the city, from an MC lead tradition of the '90s to an emphasis on the beats themselves, with Madlib, Daddy Kev, and others experimenting far away from needing raps on tracks. Steve struck me as someone with a unique voice amidst others trying hard to find theirs."
Lotus's first success came from doing bumpers for Adult Swim-produced cartoons. The sound of these tracks and his 2006 debut album 1983 suggested Lotus as a possible inheritor of the soundworld of the recently deceased Dilla. Lotus's darkly funky beats were a perfect yet unruly fusion of feel and precision. Clean production and floating synth melodies sprung from a mind that had obviously absorbed much from video games' sonic vocabulary. Hip-hop was easily identifiable as his milieu but his abstract sound designs looked both to his aunt's lush constructions on the Impulse label as well as electronic artists like Aphex Twin. He wasn't alone. Also in 2006, the Low End Theory club started up in the Lincoln Heights section of L.A. and provided an outlet for a generation of like-minded producers.
He signed to Warp Records the following year, and in 2008 dropped Los Angeles, dedicated to the city that defines him. "Los Angeles is a special place to me for obvious reasons, but for the majority of my life, I hated living here. It's hard not to be inspired by your surroundings, I only realized that by leaving," he said at the time in a press release. But Los Angeles the album was something else, bursting at the seams with brief but supremely confident ideas, a pantheon of moods from sunny relaxation to menacing and distorted undulations. It was clearly a more audacious record than 1983, as he slipped the shackles of genre affiliations. Warp's international visibility vaulted into him a whole different league. At the same time, the leadoff track of the album "Brainfeeder" became the name of his new label featuring Low End Theory pals Samiyam, Teebs and the Gaslamp Killer.
Shortly after the release of the album, his mother died suddenly. Coming hard on the heels of the death of his great aunt Alice, he dug deep and worked on Cosmogramma for a couple of years, collaborating extensively with live instrumentalists, notably Thundercat, harpist Rebecca Raff, his cousin Ravi and string arranger Miguel Atwood- Ferguson. The album was a game changer personally and professionally.
He and Thundercat became particularly close during the making of the record. "Cosmogramma, that was like it stapled me and him together" says Thundercat. "Experiencing turning points in each other's lives. I'm proud to say he's one of the closest friends I've ever had in my entire life."
Their bond deepened with work on Lotus's subsequent Pattern And Grid World EP and beyond. The two cooked up dozens of seemingly unrelated ideas over many months. Then, out of the blue, Lotus presented a running order for what would become Thundercat's debut album The Golden Age Of the Apocalypse. "I didn't realize I even had an album before Lotus said 'Look at this.' He put together an album I couldn't even comprehend. He's like a painter, a master painter."
These sessions also led to Until The Quiet Comes. At a certain point Lotus knew some of their ideas wouldn't make it onto Thundercat's album. "I got back to them and started making left turns and doing different things. I was just trying to think of what to do that I hadn't already done and take a more minimal approach and try to tell a different story with the music.
"There was a little bit of pressure, people saying 'How you gonna top Cosmogramma?' I'll top it without trying to top it," he continues. It wasn't commercial pressure. "My label doesn't do that at all. They tell me what they think but don't tell me what I have to do. I make music the same way I always have been. The one thing that's different is the approach changes from how I get from point A to point B."
Quiet sounds more like futuristic bossa nova jazz than his hip-hop roots, though the boom bap factor is more pronounced than Cosmogramma. There are some A-list collaborators (Erykah Badu, Thom Yorke) but none of them show off. "Everybody came to it at the right time. Thom takes his time but he came through at the last minute. And Badu was great to work with; that's something that happened after making Thundercat's album. She heard him, she really enjoyed it and she asked me about producing.
"The funny thing [about Cosmogramma] is how much recognition it got me in the mainstream. It was surprising that people like Rihanna and Kanye know about me. That's strange. Usher… you're not supposed to know who I am! It's kind of crazy. I never saw that part of it coming. I just wanted the music to go places."
His blast-off from the L.A, scene onto mainstream radar has brought tensions. He gives a glimpse of his own inner struggle when talking about the inevitable haters and hangers-on. "I feel [the jealousy]. I feel it among some of my friends. I know that feeling towards other people and I forgot that some people might feel that way toward me. I know who's really down, and who's trying to get a co-sign. I'm not stupid. It's a tricky thing but you gotta be thankful that people give a shit. But I got to protect my name and protect what's important to me. It becomes a lot harder as you progress in your career."
He's no longer simply the brightest light of a generation of Los Angeles producers; he represents something greater. "Flying Lotus is accessible to the mind that's dissonant," theorizes Thundercat. "He can be one of those connection points, a nerve centre. I can remember a specific conversation with one of my close friend [jazz drummer] Thomas Pridgen who was like 'The thing about electronic music is…,' but over the course of a tour we were on said 'This is crazy! I can see how this makes sense now.' I was like 'That's Lotus's role.'"
It's not that the ultimate validation of musical relevance derives from the blessing of jazz musicians. But for Lotus, "that's really crazy. It's amazing to be held up in that world. I've always had so much respect for jazz musicians. They hear something familiar; the searching, the seeking sound. They hear me trying to understand my life through music. Maybe that's what it is."
"Watching him become a bigger artist and seeing him catapult into all kinds of different things, it's amazing," Thundercat offers. "But knowing Lotus, I feel it's similar to how I think about a lot of things. [Success] just kind of came to him. He's feeling out wherever he's at and what comes with it."
Daedalus agrees. "I don't think he has changed much, perhaps more mastery over the creation and process, but I still hear that vision, I still hear a depth of meaning in his songs. I think he has been put in a tough position of evolving in the public eye. I cannot speak for others, but for myself I have found him a co-conspirator and friend (when touring permits either of us a moment) more than anything else. I cannot speak to express properly the good feeling to have encountered Steve at some far-flung festival after a few months and just knowing all is good because of a simple dap or smile."
Ultimately his motivations of rigorous self-examination, righteous feeling and creative exchange remain paramount. "I really just hope that people enjoy the album," says Lotus. "I spent so much time working on the most minor, miniscule details on it and I hope they come across. I think the most I can ask is that it inspires people to create other stuff. For me it's just important to keep the conversation going. Someone could say 'I heard this record and made this shit,' and I'll say 'Wow, you made that?' then I'll go make some shit. That way I know the well will never run dry. As long as I stay inspired and there's a lot of this cool shit happening, I'm in there."