To try and encapsulate the world of Flying Lotus is a nigh on impossible task. Just to make the situation that little bit more obscure, our conversation takes place on a sober Friday evening before a show with a little known and little spoken of outfit called Atoms For Peace.
“Yeah, the shows have been interesting. Before this tour, I was doing my own headline gigs so it’s really funny to be one of the little people again. A few pockets of people know, and you can spot ‘em”.
Of course, being one of the new front-runners on the electronic cycle, as it were, would bring your name to the eye of quite a few people, regardless of any stature that follows it. Not that Flying Lotus could ever be deemed ‘little people’ now, despite his evident modesty. Cosmogramma, Ellisons’ third long-player under the Flying Lotus moniker, will doubtless augment his ever growing reputation into a new realm altogether. But the process of making the album itself was tempered by a variety of events that led to an influence not only on his musical life, but his personal one as well.
“I started working on it right after the last one, when I had that down time but things were still very inspiring. It took a while to take shape, trying to figure out exactly what it needed to say in the end. There was a lot of good stuff going on, a lot of terrible shit going on during the making of it. And when it comes to influence, it took time to figure that out, like what the theme was gonna be and getting into the headspace of that. I kind of had to cut everything else out and just really focus on this particular space and the entirety of my life”.
While it may seem like a vague statement, there has been a sequence of events that have influenced Cosmogramma. That terrible stuff mentioned would encompass the death of his mother during the making of this album, leading him to this entirely new personal and sonic path.
“The album for me is an ascension story. To me it’s like a transformation. I mean, finishing it and seeing it released is like closing this chapter of my life. I can’t wait for this album to come out because it will be the mark of a new day for me. I’m more interested in working on film stuff, whether it’s directing or making music for a film. I’d really like to get into that space, and maybe the next record could be a soundtrack hopefully. In a perfect world, David Lynch would do a video for something from my record, but I’m easy to find when it comes to that stuff”.
An album of such stratospheric leanings has to come with a certain level of hedonisitic activity, of course, despite the tragedy that preceded the whole thing. On hearing Cosmogramma, it could almost take the 60’s era connotation of psychedelic music into its essential meaning once more, albeit through a completely different lens. Not being one to shy away from the abstract in its purest form, Ellison, prior to the album’s initial emergence, had divulged some Aldous Huxley like treatise on his use of dimethyltriptimine, or DMT; a potent psychedelic extracted from plants, used ritualistically in Shamanic processes and known for its ability to exert other-worldly images and hallucinations. His dissection was a perfect example of the conflict inside him being in some way exorcised, and a new lightness taking form.
“I’d heard about this stuff in college, around the first time that I had started experimenting with mushrooms, and that was a crazy experience in itself. But this stuff (DMT) that makes you experience other dimensions, and life after death and all that stuff, I just thought ‘I dunno if I’m ready for that one yet’. But I’d keep hearing about it in little pockets, some of my friends would talk about it, and I’d already been having all of these crazy lucid dreams and out of body experiences, and my friends said this stuff was connected to that. So my interest just peaked. Then my mom passed away and a lot of things were put into perspective after that, so just trying to understand life again and trying to understand why we’re here and in turn understand what death is. It’s inspiring in a way, but not in a way that most people think. It inspires you to ask questions about life, and that then inspires the music. But I don’t see it having a changing effect on the music; it’s more about ‘Where are we going next?’ or ‘Where can we take people?’ with music”.
Such philosophical thoughts may seem farfetched to the uneducated masses, even potentially frightening. But it’s this surfacing into a new personal space and an insatiable love of the unknown that helps to drive this new Flying Lotus mindset, and in essence, his new album in its flowing entirety. And although the excitement may seem muted on his end (a long tour in a rising American summer may have that effect), it’s doubtless that the release of Cosmogramma will send the already high level of reverence passed Ellison’s way to a new level. It’s filled with such other worldly soundscapes and compositions that the idea of the electronics he creates being a mutated form of jazz aesthetic, akin to the scene that bore his aunt, Alice Coltrane, is not out of the question.
“I feel that. I don’t think I’ve heard another record like Cosmogramma before. I feel like it is jazz; there are moments that were written just off the top, completely spontaneous. No backspacing, no re-records, no overdubs. And that’s the jazz spirit.
"When I was working with Thundercat, it was always very fluid. We never spent too much time talking. But it was a pleasure working with him because he’s inspired by all the things that I’m inspired by – he doesn’t like smoke, or drink and he’s just a pretty sober guy. But he’s just so ahead and he gets it and, I hope, it’s been a mutually inspiring situation”.
Of course ‘mutually inspiring’ could be a phrase applied to the array of collaborations that have already emerged with FlyLo’s name adorned. For example: his work with Burial, who he describes nonchalantly as “an interesting cat”.
“He only hits me up when it’s grey in L.A. I don’t know how he knows, but he just always hits me when it’s dark and grey. I really love that cat, he’s a very sweet guy, and I wish we could get to work more, but you can’t get him down in one place. I remember this time last year I heard a draft of what his album was supposed to be, and it was almost done, but I don’t think the mystery has anything to do with it. He’s not doing that on purpose, he’s just a very conflicted artist and hard on himself. He’s a different kind of artist.”
And of course, the reason why Steven is in Chicago in the first place is a tour with that small group known as Atoms For Peace, fronted by another Cosmogramma collaborator, Thom Yorke.
“That came about near the end of producing the record. He got in touch with me and we sent some files back and forth, but it really caught me by surprise. He’s one of my musical heroes, so for him to include me in his musical universe is very special. But he’s told me I can stop thanking him now”.
An errant laugh breaks what could have become an over earnest point on just how influential the people he works with, let alone Ellison himself, are. But even with that sort of prior musicological statement in mind, it’s difficult to envisage just how his music has been lumped in with pigeonholes of the modern electronic music game. Whether names like ‘dubstep’ or ‘hip-hop’ are thrown his way by the myriad of disciples, none of them quite do the entity that is Flying Lotus justice. And such facile statements prick the ear of the man himself.
“The dub step stuff just doesn’t inspire me, I don’t listen to a lot of it. I listen to my homies who make it, but that’s about it. It’s been interesting to hear all those things, and just to witness how fast things are moving with the music and how things are progressing. But a lot of stuff that has been tailored to the club systems just doesn’t interest me right now. I mean, right now I’ve been listening to Oddland, this new French band. Listening to the new Erykah Badu record, Jaga Jazzist; stuff like that inspires me. Where you can’t really place the genre and there’s no preconceived idea of what the music is supposed to be and just takes you on a ride. And it’s about longevity and making something that can actually move somebody”.
This level of passion imbibes the music, whether it’s an extrinsic influence or otherwise. It’s the sort of passion that resides in how, as an adolescent working out of the hip-hop friendly L.A. scene, there’s a childish nonchalance to the level of inspiration created. It was a feeling shared amongst a group of men who would later be headed by Ellison as the Brainfeeder collective. A name shared and forged by artists like The Gaslamp Killer (who Ellison also worked with on the recent Gonjasufi album), Daedelus and Samiyam and one that is engrained in an ability to act futuristically retroactive.
“That was all kind of born within a stones throw of the generation that came before us in L.A. We would all meet up at these parties, or we’d go to a night where you could hear all of this underground hip-hop and it’d just be all of us hanging out. Me, Robin G, Cooper, Take, Daedelus - we’d just be sitting outside of these clubs playing the tracks that we’d made on some dude’s boombox, and that’s how the scene, our scene, started. We’d just be out front kickin’ it, playing our new beat tapes. We’d hunt out the Dilla shows; he was like a mentor and the scene kind of blossomed from the work that he and those guys put in. But it wasn’t about instrumental stuff back then, we started that shit, but it was just such an inspiring time man.”
And with that glimpse into the world that preceded that which he will now surely enter, it’s refreshing to be reminded that that sort of almost naïve passion has not been diminished by anything. And while Flying Lotus’ path may be hitting some sort of fork in the road with Cosmogramma, there’s no doubting that its maker will, in some mutated way, remain the same.
“I hope that people enjoy it, because I know that what I did was honest. Whether people like it or not, this is the most honest thing I’ve done and the hardest I have ever worked on anything in my creative life. I just hope that people can hear my honesty in it.”