Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

Interview: Flying Lotus

June 14, 2010


Flying Lotus (Steve Ellison) comes across as gregarious and buoyant as his beats; lithe and animated on stage, the L.A. hip-hop head would be infectious even if you couldn’t hear a thing. It’s no surprise his music and personality have made him fixed point in a constantly expanding global network of creative producers, in some cases linked through the Low End Theory night and his own Brainfeeder label. He tackles more celestial connections on his new album Cosmogramma, completed in the wake of his mother’s death. Adding layers of emotional and musical complexity– including string arrangements, harp and saxophone from his cousin Ravi Coltrane– the record shows Ellison making a cathartic and creative leap, his own unique contribution to his family’s spiritual discography.

On the phone from his apartment in Echo Park, Flying Lotus spoke with Pitchfork about the genesis of Cosmogramma, being an extra in American Beauty, and Sundays with Aunt Alice.

Pitchfork: With everything you’ve been doing in the last few years, when did you find the time to record Cosmogramma? When was it made and where did you do it?

Flying Lotus: I did all of it in my apartment in Los Angeles. I started right after the Los Angeles album came out, but I didn’t really have a direction for it at the time. It kind of took shape over a year and a half.

Pitchfork: There’s a lot of live instrumentation on the album from working with the bassist Thundercat and arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. Was this something you always wanted to do, to go down this path and incorporate these instruments?

FL: Absolutely. That was the goal from the get-go, to have this hybrid of sounds. It’s just been a matter of finding the right people. I try to have sessions with folks and it never really gels. I feel like I finally found the right way to communicate, too. I think I’m better than I was when I first started.

Pitchfork: Was there a moment when you figured out what that sound was?

FL: October. Not this past October, but last year. I did that “Computer Face” song. There was a different energy in the studio and there was a whole burst of tracks around it. I felt different creating it. This energy shaped everything else. It was weird, because shortly after that my mom passed away and it was really crazy in my life. The album was a reflection of that, crazy good and bad.

Pitchfork: That’s a lot to process. Lyrics like “I need to know you’re out there” [from “…And the World Laughs With You”] seem like part of your way of coping and taking it all in.

FL: I’m so thankful that I had music to turn to in the dark times and be able to understand myself through it. I’ve been talking about it so much with the press; it just hit me really hard. Regardless of where we go from here, I’ll never be able to do that record again. It was so specific. Everything was so specific in my life. I’m sure that’s how it’s going to be here on out. It’s different all the time.

Pitchfork: This must be particularly weird, when you have to talk to the press and relive something that happened a year and a half ago.

FL: Making the record was the whole grieving process. It’s a closed chapter of my life. I feel different now. It’s good. I can look back and reflect on it. It’s not what I’m going through anymore. It was a moment of my life. I did capture it. That’s the greatest feeling, man. I know that I did something that was honest, whether people like it or not.

Pitchfork: Talking about music as a mode of healing and focusing your thoughts, did the work of your great aunt Alice point you in a lot of the right directions?

FL: Definitely man, so much. At the time I was making the music, there was a point where I felt like it lost a lot of the necessary emotion I wanted to come across. I had been hearing so much soulless stuff come out, a lot of this electronic stuff, it was like an overload of that shit. I started listening to my aunt’s stuff again. I was like, fuck man, this is what I want people to feel, not the other stuff, the technical stuff. This is what’s real, this moment. Hearing a lot of that stuff, this record she did, Lord of Lords… man.

I obviously have phases with my family’s music. Going through Trane for a little bit recently helped me understand it more. Same with my aunt’s stuff; it really resonated with me last year, how important it was. I took it personally. I can honestly understand why she made the music she made after John Coltrane died. I can see why she’d be inspired to make those sounds. Those specific sounds with those specific instruments totally made sense to me. I feel like she was grieving through the music, understanding his passing. I know it must have shaken her entire universe. I know what she went through. I get it. I’m not the kind of person to shy away from my family connection, we’re all really close. I wanted to feel part of that thing.

Pitchfork: I remember when I interviewed you before, you said your mom had really encouraged you to make music. You were doing film, and she kind of kept reminding you about music.

FL: I always wish I could ask her about this or tell her this. Now that I’m growing up, I understand a lot of things more, why she was the way she was. I wish she could have heard this record, but it wouldn’t have been the same if she could hear it. I wouldn’t have made this record. All things happen for a reason, I really hope that this thing can move somebody.

Pitchfork: You worked with Ravi on this album. How is your relationship with him and have you always been tight?

FL: He’s like my big brother. I always looked up to him. He just did it. He makes incredible music, he’s a Grammy-nominated cat, has a great family, beautiful kids and a beautiful home. He’s just a great, inspiring guy, straight up. At the same time, I’ve always been nervous about collaborating with him. I never felt like I had anything to contribute. I’m glad this happened.

Pitchfork: What are some of the other specific jazz references that informed this album?

FL: A lot of stuff, especially the George Duke catalog. Thundercat put me on to George Duke. He’s a big fan of the album Feel. There was definitely some Sun Ra influence with Arkestry. I try to record like that Sun Ra record where everything was done with one mic in the same room, trying to keep that aesthetic alive with one take straight up, no overdubs.

Pitchfork: Back to the idea of the moment.

FL: It’s important.

Pitchfork: How do you see L.A. itself changing, with Low End Theory growing and the label expanding? How has the scene changed?

FL: A lot of people are heading out this way to L.A., a whole bunch of people coming over. They’re doing their things, because L.A. has such a big platform for the sound. It’s great. I just hope people continue to push it forward, and continue the conversation.

Pitchfork: Has it changed for better or for worse in some ways?

FL: Well, I feel like a lot of kids, a lot of halfway kids, come out here, kids who started making beats six months ago, thinking they can get on stage because their drums are off. This kind of stuff annoys me. But we’re able to throw this Sonic Warfare party [for Kode9’s new book], which is crazy. We have a forum to do things that benefit bigger conversations.

Pitchfork: You’re known for looser drums and rhythms, and with the new album and the move towards more live instrumentation, it shows there’s so much more to it. That sense of rhythm is hard to master.

FL: It is. It’s organic. I just don’t quantize the stuff. You do what you feel and that’s what it is. You don’t try to out-feel yourself. Some of this shit is so straight on the beat, it’s hilarious. The Thom Yorke thing is so on the grid. I get kind of frustrated by people who talk about that all the time. I just want to step away from that.

Pitchfork: How did you guys end up working together on “…And the World Laughs With You”?

FL: I knew he was in L.A. for a while, so I thought I’d make an attempt to get in touch. Mary Anne Hobbs suggested that she could connect us. She got in touch, she hit me up later the same day, and it freaked me out. I did cartwheels for like 20 minutes. And then, he just told me to send over some tunes. I sent over a folder of things. Two days later, I had some vocals in my email and that was it. I got to arrange the song, freaked out the whole time I was doing it. I was really happy with it. When everyone heard I was doing the song, they were expecting a super big banger, but I wanted to do something more mellow. He also kept the same name I had for it, which really meant a lot to me. All of the song titles mean something, and that one does for sure.

Pitchfork: What does it mean exactly?

FL: I was making the tune with the frustration of no one being able to understand what the hell was going on. As long as things were cool, you had the whole world behind you. Fucking weird shit happens, you find yourself counting friends on your fingers.

Pitchfork: There’s a track on the album with what sounds like scatting. Is that you?

FL: Yeah. It was really hot in my apartment. The heat drives me insane, it makes me want to make music in my apartment. I was making that shit with no shirt on, dancing around. That was my shit.

Pitchfork: There was an interview a while ago between Beck and Tom Waits where they talked about L.A., its history and how it influenced them. You’ve been there your whole life. How does the city influence your music, and how did it influence you when you were a kid and a teenager?

FL: It’s funny because you don’t really think about it until you leave for a bit and get some perspective. It’s different. We have a different pace in L.A. I grew up in a place where no one was doing this sort of thing. I grew up in the Valley, more like a suburban ghetto. People were stuck in this kind of daze, nothing else matters outside of the Valley. It was like American Beauty, but kind of ghetto. They shot that movie down the street from my house. The little restaurant Lester worked at, the fast food restaurant, was a Carl’s Jr. I could have been an extra. I probably was. I was eating Carl’s Jr. all the time back in those days.

Pitchfork: You said Ravi was a big brother. What kind of influence was the family connection when you were growing up?

FL: It was always there. The jazz thing was always there. I didn’t really feel like that was my thing. I played saxophone for a while when I was a kid. I even played on one of John’s horns for most of my youth. It wasn’t my instrument. It was fun and I was decent at it, but I wasn’t learning the kind of things I wanted to play. I was really discouraged.

Pitchfork: You had to find your own voice.

FL: All these great people around were doing it. What am I going to say? I took to the synthesizer. My cousin had some synthesizers and I’d always make stuff on those things. He was worried that I’d overwrite his tracks so he got me one eventually. Then it was on.

Pitchfork: When you talk about this album, are there any particular songs that are very cathartic, that really resonate with you when you listen again?

FL: That song “Drips” near the end was one of the first ones that I made for the record. I really loved that one. The last song was a dedication to my mom. I remember going through the whole process, from the bass line to adding the strings to adding vocals. This final song closed a chapter in my life.

Pitchfork: What does the title of that last song, “Galaxy in Janaki”, mean?

FL: That’s the term my aunt gave my mother. It means mother as well.

Pitchfork: It sounds like you’ve been getting more into Alice’s teaching in terms of lectures and spirituality.

FL: That’s how I grew up. That was church on Sundays.

Pitchfork: What was that experience like on an average Sunday?

FL: I’m so glad you asked. A lot of people have no clue. I find it very fascinating now, in retrospect, now that it’s not going on anymore. There’s nowhere I can go to that’s like it. It’s based upon the teachings of Sri Sathya Sai Baba. It was basically meditation for however long, usually until about 2 p.m., and then my Aunt Alice would come and speak a discourse. That would be about 40 minutes. Then she would play on the organ, and everybody else would play music. The music coming out of there alone was worth it; my aunt just killing it on organ for four hours, and some crazy spiritual people in the crowd. It was worship, but funky and eastern as well. The ashram singers, they’d have little drums and shakers and stuff, people just getting down and singing. You really made me think about some shit.

There’s nothing like that. I filmed some of that, too. Hopefully I can show you guys what it’s like. It was pretty incredible. They still get together on Sundays and listen to some recordings my aunt made of old discourses. They still play music but my auntie wasn’t there on organs killing it. It was pretty influential, I can’t even realize.

Pitchfork: Did you ever take part, were you ever playing anything?

FL: I was pretty shy. I remember enjoying it. I wasn’t there every Sunday, but I would just be in there zoning. It was really incredible. You can feel this intense energy. This place where the ashram is, in Agora right outside the Valley, is so peaceful.

Pitchfork: One of the things that really struck me about her music is the bass notes, the elemental bass that was so vital. Do you see the connection between that and your music?

FL: I hope it comes across. Without being a dick about it, I really think if we’re going to send out vibrations, they should be positive. Try and uplift the people. Why put something out that’s going to make the situation worse? Add something that’s going to build on the conversation.

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