Catching Fire: With ‘Flamagra,’ Producer Flying Lotus Ignites a Movement

Flying Lotus was born into music’s avant-garde. As the grandnephew of the legendary Alice Coltrane, FlyLo – real name Steven Ellison – spent his childhood around musicians who, simply put, made weird music for a living. Fast forward thirty-some years later, and the producer/DJ/electronic artist is gearing up for the May 24 release of his sixth full-length studio album, Flamagra, a 27-track LP that clocks in at 67 minutes and features the likes of Anderson .Paak, George Clinton, Thundercat, Little Dragon, Toro Y Moi, and more.

When I walk into FlyLo’s hotel room during his press tour in New York City, Chick Corea’s The Mad Hatter is playing from his mobile studio set-up: a Macbook, a JBL speaker and a mini AKAI keyboard. While getting acquainted, he let me know that he had planned to head to a weekly jam at Nublu in Alphabet City the previous night but got caught up making music. It’s apparent that he rarely, completely escapes his work. Even during a trip designed to promote a new album, he’s already busy making other tracks.

Steven Ellison, also known as Flying Lotus, will release the album Flamagra on May 24 on Warp Records.

This type of creative process yields plenty of fruit. When I inquire about unreleased material, he shows me by scrolling through hundreds of unheard tracks on his laptop. Until recently, one of these songs was “More”, featuring Anderson .Paak, someone who has since won a Grammy and booked a headlining gig at Madison Square Garden. Recorded four years ago, the track was shelved on a hard drive until the Los Angeles producer unearthed it for his new record.

After a little small-talk, the recorder came on and we discussed the new album, the collaborative process, the bountiful Los Angeles jazz scene, Aphex Twin and more. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Steve, your new album coming out in a few weeks. Tell me a little bit about the concept for this one, and how it differs from your previous album, You’re Dead.

The album cover for ‘Flamagra’

Yeah, this album is called Flamagra. I’ve been inspired mostly by fire imagery and themes. For some reason, it just kind of caught me. I’m always into elemental concepts. I’m usually into concepts that are a bit more cosmic, but for some reason, I felt like this one needed [something] more earthly. There’s some urgency to talk about now, you know? It’s also to try to bring out some art that felt inspiring, and hopefully, people can hear it and hear that I’m having fun. I get excited that people might hear my stuff and make some art while listening to it. That’s totally my favorite thing to hear: “I heard this and then I made that,” or “I was drawing this while I was listening…

I often wonder if you’re aware that you’re at the forefront of a certain type of electronic music-making.

Yeah (laughs). But at the same time, I’m like super humble, because I’m learning so much all the time. I would never boast of anything I can do. I’ve always considered myself a student. I guess I’m just curious, you know? I want to try to say as much stuff as possible.

You’re also right in line with a lot of contemporary jazz musicians jazz. I imagine when you step into the studio with Kamasi Washington or Thundercat, you’re definitely open to learning some stuff from them.

Absolutely! I’m always like, “Ah man, I can’t do the stuff they do.” But then they look at me like, “Wait – how do you do that?” [And I realize] okay, I guess that’s the thing that I do that trips people out. It’s been interesting for that.

How has the rise of that L.A. jazz scene helped take your music from something that exists at [former Los Angeles club night] Low End Theory to the modern contemporary jazz scene?

I think that everything that’s happened [in L.A.] was such an organic thing. Being around Thundercat, and working with him, he showed me that I’m capable of working with other musicians, because he was like the first kind of hardcore musician [that I worked with] … him and Miguel Atwood Ferguson. After working with them, it was like, okay, how can I figure out my place in this conversation, how can I work with this role.

Were you insecure about that at first?

I’m insecure about everything (laughs).

You said something about wanting to bring an improvised element to your process. On your new record, how much of it is improvised and how much of it is composed? Is there a common method for creating these tracks?

So, I can make the draft of a song in a few minutes – like 20 minutes –  but it’s the details that I keep coming back to. I work out little changes in all little nuances of stuff [in post-production]. That’s the stuff that takes time, but as far as the process: I’m playing everything in and then the musicians are playing on top of it and it’s usually improvised. Then we do multiple takes and try to figure out how to stitch takes together, but it all comes from the improvised spirit. I guess by the end of it, it’s some amalgamation of improvised versus arranged.

So you’ll take whoever you’re hanging out with and be like, “Why don’t we try jamming on this one?”

Well, yeah, something like that. What ends up happening is I go away and I don’t see people for like a few weeks and I keep my face in my computer for, like, three weeks and then…

But you’re still in L.A.?

Oh yeah. I’m at home working, just chipping away by myself and then I have all these sketches. And then I usually have Miguel [Atwood Ferguson] come over we’ll do a bunch of string stuff, just four hours recording strings on all the various things, trying different things, moving things around.

And Thundercat’s the same. He’ll get off tour and then I’ll have, like, six tracks that I want him to play on, and we’ll knock them out real quick. Then, sometimes, we’ll just write together, you know? It always changes. But sure, my preferred method is usually just working alone for a while and then having these little pieces to pull from.

As your creating the album, do you have a pretty good idea of like which tracks specific musicians are going to play on? Take Thundercat for an example.

Yeah, it’s pretty obvious to me. I’ll hear something and … like sometimes you don’t want a live bass on certain sounds. There are certain things where it’s better if it’s a synth bass. [Sometime’s] it’d be killing if it was both. So we figure out how we do that.

When was the first time you realized that music is something that could maybe take over your life? Because you obviously have it in your blood.

I think that was a huge thing, you know? It’s not something to play down because I think I was a witness to these examples of success. So, you know, I had examples of that and I’m sure that played into my confidence for sure, you know, seeing it work for people.

But it was funny, though. When I started doing my shit, and [people were] looking at me like, “You’re weird.” (laughs)

How did you approach working with some of the bigger featured artists like Anderson .Paak on this album?

That [Anderson .Paak] track…Yeah, that track we wrote four or five years ago, so it was a different time for him.

Oh wow. Did he record it that long ago too?

Yeah, it just took a long time for it to come out.

That’s funny, because when I heard it, it was like Anderson .Paak was rapping like he has something to prove!

He has a great voice and I love what he’s doing. He can sit in with anybody, like the Dr. Dres [of the world], but also be on Ellen.

Anderson. Paak (Photo: Courtesy the artist)

Do you listen to the newer rap stuff?

Sometimes, yeah. I go through phases of being into it and then I duck out and listen to like Chick [Corea] or whatever.

What’s the most inspiring new music you listen to?

Tierra Whack. She’s killer. She was just downstairs – so random – we hadn’t seen each other in a little bit.

For years now, your live show has been kind of a hallmark of technology-meets-music. Anything in store for the inevitable tour following the album release?

Actually, I think it’ll be my first run when I start incorporating keys into my shows. I’ll be playing synthesizer, and I think we’re gonna just push the 3D stuff even further.

What makes you want to play keys live?

That’s how you get better. You can’t get better unless you actually throw yourself out there like that. I’m really, you know, I’m really pursuing the keys; I’m really going for it.

Do you ever think about putting together a band to try and play this music?

Yeah, we might do some stuff like that in the future. But it’s like, at this point, it would be so weird for that bass player who wasn’t Thundercat, right?

Absolutely

And that’s with every part of it. Everybody in my little crew has blown up and is doing their own thing.

It was so much more feasible 10 years ago.

Exactly.

It must be so rewarding to see so many of the people that you’ve been working with for years now have really flourishing careers.

Absolutely! Yeah, that makes me really happy. Thundercat’s riding around in some crazy Batmobile-looking Audi now and stuff.

Yeah, and your label Brainfeeder can take over a stage at a festival and it’s not just thought of as “FlyLo and friends.”

Yeah, man, that’s been the thing. I really want it to get to a place where it exists on its own without me having to be there all the time.

What’s the label look like right now? How many people do you have working on it?

I mean it’s pretty much the same crew. I have the same person I started the label with who runs the label with me, and we have a couple extra hands working now. My manager works with the label…a lot of people kind of help out with it because I couldn’t do it on my own. That would be insane.

Right, right. Any new releases you’re hyped on?

Salami Rose Joe Lewis, you know about her?

I don’t.

I think you might fuck with her, man. Yo, she’s dope. She’s got like her own trippy, psych swag…let me see if I got some [to play for you].

Do you ever try to outdo yourself in terms of far-out musicality? When you made “Takashi,” were you trying to push the boundaries? Every time I hear it I think, “This guy has gone nuts,” but I can’t help but think that you were probably hoping to get that reaction…

Yeah, of course! I’m like, “Okay, let’s just go even further.’ You know? Just a little bit more, but I don’t try to do that too much. It’s more just like having fun, trying to surprise myself.

Do you ever have features in mind but they don’t pan out?

Ah man, I was so close to getting Donald [Glover] on this album. But he’s fuckin’ Simba [in the Lion King remake] now, so…(laughs) those days are over.

I’m sure he’ll come around.

We’ll see. The last time we hung in the studio he had just finished shooting season one of Atlanta. He had album, the one with “Redbone” on it. He came over to play that shit to me and Thundercat, and we were like, “Fuck, that shit sounds real good!”

It’s incredible to that you can essentially just reboot a Bootsy Collins song and launch a new career [sect] from it. Did he headline Coachella this year?

Yeah…

Did you go to Coachella?

Nah…can’t do it no more.

I figured you would have maybe gone to see Aphex Twin.

I’ve seen him before but…

Where’d you catch him?

I saw him at Day For Night Festival in Texas. Now that was awesome, man! I don’t know if you can top that, because the elements were even in play, you know? It was like crazy torrential rain and, like, the visuals are like almost falling! It was so epic.

All photos courtesy the artist. For more info on Flying Lotus, visit the artist’s website. For more info on Brainfeeder, click here.

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