These days, Steven Ellison, better known by his stage name Flying Lotus, is experiencing the inevitable downside of releasing a groundbreaking and critically acclaimed record: heightened expectations. The beatsmith and electronic musician has developed a reputation for mind-bending electronica since his 2006 debut, 1983. With the release of 2010’s much-lauded Cosmogramma, as well as his frequent high-profile collaborations, remixes, and contributions to Adult Swim’s bumper music, Ellison managed to connect with headphone junkies, clubbers, indie rockers, and stoners alike. In conversation, he now sounds like a man who knows he’s built himself something to lose.
When Ellison spoke with Tiny Mix Tapes shortly before the release of his new album, Until the Quiet Comes, he sounded worried about how this new material would be received by fans. Ultimately, however, he seemed focused on continuing the process that got him here in the first place — firing up his computer, banging out a beat, chopping up some samples, and producing music he hopes will make a few heads bounce.
I understand Cosmogramma happened at a pretty heavy moment for you personally; you had recently lost your mother. When that record came out, it served as a watershed release for you, and your profile really exploded afterward. How did you approach the follow-up, Until the Quiet Comes?
It’s weird because there’s not a lot of people I can tell this to, but when I was in the middle of making Cosmogramma, I knew that there was something about the timing of it and the whole story behind it. [I knew] it’d be OK… [the album would ] go over well. I had a feeling in my heart.
I also had a feeling after it came out that was like, “You know what, the way everything went down with that shit, there’s no way that people are gonna be on the same level [for the next record].” I was thinking to myself, “Everyone is gonna fuckin’ hate the next album, regardless of what I do.” Because [on the last album] there was the hysteria, the wait, the timing, the scene, the movement, everything… it was perfect, it was all so perfect. It had nothing to do with music.
I just felt like, “Damn, dude, no matter what I do they’re probably gonna fucking hate it.” That was a hard thing for me to go into it with. It drove me crazy for a little while. But at the same time I thought it was wise to assume that people would hate it if I tried to draw from the same well again. So I tried to go in with something a little different and tried to make it hop to the left a little bit. It feels close, I guess, because of the people who play on it. But I tried to go into it with a different mindset.
Everything up to this point has felt very rational, like it’s all part of some sort of grand design that I’m not totally aware of.
One of the things which struck me after listening to Until the Quiet Comes was the stark contrast between your club-flavored songs and the more mellow stuff. I think these are some of the most abstract beats we’ve ever heard from you. What led you to this?
Just listening to different stuff and being inspired by different shit. I try not to repeat myself. I’ve been listening to Gentle Giant and Can a lot.
So is Until the Quiet Comes your prog-rock record?
In a way it feels like that. There was definitely that kind of abrupt sound. I’ve been listening to some other shit that’s pretty… unusual.
I saw your set at the Forecastle Festival a few months ago. Your set there seemed harder-hitting and more club-oriented than some of the more laid-back stuff on your records. Do you punch up your existing material to make it more engaging live, or is there stuff that exists only for your live shows?
There are things I do live that I don’t release. I try to separate the two experiences without it being completely jarring. The live side is more of a party, which it should be. I like the other side to be for when you’re at home and more introspective. But when I go out I don’t fuckin’ wish I had a pair of headphones and a corner to sit in, I want to move around. So I wanna play that shit [live], and then when [fans] drive home they can listen to [2008 Flying Lotus album] Los Angeles.
I remember there was one breakdown during your live set where nearly all the beats dropped out and you played this really squelchy synth line with a really infectious groove. It stuck in my head so much that I went through a lot of your older material trying to find it but I never could. Do you feel like there’s value to having tunes in your live set that people can’t just listen to whenever they want?
Absolutely, that’s why I don’t do a lot of mixes. I think it’s all part of the experience. There’s stuff that no one will ever have because you have to hear it at the show. There are moments that I never put it the mixes because you have to hear them at the show. There are live remixes that I’ve done that’ll never come out.
You know, for me, it’s really fun. It’s fun to have something that no one else has. And I have lots of tracks that no one will ever hear. I can go to a party and play some new shit me and Thundercat [bassist Stephen Bruner] were working on like a day before for about a hundred people.
You’ve had some notable collaborations with singers over the years, with the likes of Thom Yorke and Erykah Badu. But you’ve also worked with your share of rappers. Do you find there are differences in the process of working with singers versus working with rappers?
Definitely. With rappers, I don’t really like to get in [the middle of] their process; the things they want to talk about and what they want to say. I think there’s something in the way [singers] express their process… it’s important for me to get involved in the words and the harmonies and building off of it. When it comes to rap, it’s so personal. I don’t even want it. I don’t like to chop up certain parts of their shit… they want it a certain way, the flow is so important. You don’t want to fuck that up.
I like producing rap shit. This past year I’ve been working with a lot of rappers. I might put something out where it’s just me producing rap songs. Who knows… I may just fuckin’ give it away. It’s fun.
In “Fly First,” the Pitchfork.tv video documenting your performances at the Forecastle and Pitchfork festivals this year, I heard you mention how when you were first coming up, there seemed to be a general attitude that making music on computers was not cool — that if you didn’t have a hardware sampler like the Akai MPC you couldn’t be considered a serious beat-maker. Did you feel that attitude was something you had to fight against?
I did. I definitely felt like I had to be that cat that was like, “Nah, man, fuck that! I can do this and make it dope!”
It gave me, like, a mission. Just knowing that there were a lot of people who said I wasn’t pure fidelity or were like, “Nah… fuck computers, you can’t do that man. Shit has to be records and MPCs.” There was a whole thing about that.
I felt the pressure from that for a while. I had an MPC… I actually just got a new one. But I never really felt like that was the only way to do things, it was just the way people chose to do it. I was convinced I could do something derivative of what they’ve already done with the machines, but also add something to it. The unlimited tracks that computers give you, you can use those things to your advantage and say, “Well shit, I’m gonna do something like that, but let me try to add to it, too. Let me try to do some shit that you can’t.”
You’ve said before that you got more spiritual influence than musical influence from your aunt, Alice Coltrane. Is spirituality important to your music?
Absolutely. I really do try to put things forward that really mean something to me on a deeper level. I make a lot of music. A lot of it doesn’t come out. It’s because I really do care about what I give to people and what I put out musically. I take it really seriously. Sometimes I wish I didn’t take it so seriously, but I do. It’s only because there’s so much amazing stuff out there. I just want to make sure that the stuff I push forward ia quality, and honest, more than anything.
I really do try to put things forward that really mean something to me on a deeper level… I take it really seriously. Sometimes I wish I didn’t take it so seriously, but I do.
What has been the most surprising part of your rise in popularity over the last few years?
What was interesting about it is that it was never an overnight thing. It’s always been a progressive thing where it’s like, “Oh wow, they’re allowing me to do something really amazing now because I have this history,” or “Wow, these people actually recognize my work! How do these people… they’re not supposed to know about me!”
I think that in my head but it’s like, wow, if they listen to music and they’re into what’s happening, I’m just kinda here now. It trips me out all the time. I’m really honored to be part of the conversation of music at the moment. But it never feels unnatural. Everything up to this point has felt very rational, like it’s all part of some sort of grand design that I’m not totally aware of.
You’ve been making beats and releasing music for years now and have built up a track record of albums and EPs. If you could go back in time and speak to yourself as a younger man who’s just starting out making beats and music, what would you tell that person?
I would tell that person to… hold on for dear life to all the things that keep him happy and carefree in music. Because I think the further we get on, it becomes really difficult to not become jaded or bitter about things. I can understand a lot of times why people get burned out and they stop creating.
I mention Dr. Dre all the time because when I was coming up, he was my hero. I always wanted to be Dr. Dre when I was a kid. Everything about him was just… he was just awesome. I look at him now and… I haven’t lost any respect for him because I know he’s doing what he knows he has to do, which is to use his name for something else, like the headphone thing. [It’s] because the music he’s making isn’t really interesting… he’s gotten to a place with his shit where he can’t create anymore. That Detox shit, it’s like, who cares, man?! He worked this shit and built this shit up to be what it is to the point where no matter what happens everyone’s gonna diss it. And I know that he knows it… he’s not who he used to be anymore. He’s got a different focus.
I think about that… I think about my innocent self when I first started out. I would tell that person to just remember to draw on the goodness of the creative process because it becomes harder and harder, as we progress, to hold on to it.