“I imagined I was astral projecting, seeing things no one had seen before” - DiS meets Flying Lotus
Steve Ellison slumps forward in his hotel lobby chair, explaining some of the inspirations behind his latest otherworldly collection of songs. “There were certain ideas – holographic universes, metaphysical science, new age philosophy, astro dynamics, that kinda shit – that translated over into the music from some of the fiction I've been reading,” he says. The businessman opposite us stops thumbing his newspaper and looks over, the calm normality of his evening macchiato disappearing around him. “I imagined I was astral projecting, seeing things no one had seen before. That's what I wanted it sound like.”
If any of this sounds like something you might hear at a Scientology sermon, well, welcome to the feeling of being swept away by a Flying Lotus record. There's something dizzyingly persuasive about the Californian's music, last evidenced on his 2010 album Cosmogramma – a phantasmagoric fever dream of bleeps and beats that ghost in and out of New Orleans jazz and West Coast hip-hop. That album made a cult icon of Ellison. But the fame it slung his way he seems only loosely interested in. “Fame and money… that’s not real for me. I do okay just doing my thing. I don’t need all the extras.”
Ellison will tell you that not all that much has changed in his life in the two years since. “I went back to school for a while. I took piano classes. Been getting into weights a lot recently too.” No shit, I think to myself from underneath his shadow. His new album Until the Quiet Comes is as much of a behemoth as he is. It spills over with ideas and imagination, a universe-straddling epic that grinds keyboard melodies against throbbing nocturnal rhythms and spacey glitch-electronics. But beyond its sci-fi scale, it turns out, lays a more human story.
“I wanted to live a little after Cosmogramma. That was important – to take some time, live a little and find something new to say instead of pushing out the same stuff. So I took off for a while,” he tells me. “All of a sudden after that record I had people like Kanye [West] and M.I.A hitting me up, wanting me in the same room as them.” But the 29-year-old wasn't drawn by the bright lights and chiming cash register sounds of big name collaborations. “I'm not really interesting in playing on someone else's field, you know? It’s flattering if people want to take me there, but I don't want to have to fucking do some shit I don't want to do, that I'm not honest about.”
Instead he worked on only a select number of projects – a new Thundercat album with frequent collaborator Erykah Badu and an as-yet-unreleased collaboration with Beck (“it sounds like Can but fucked up,” he promises) – so he could “just kinda drift around.” It had been a frantic few years since the death of his mother in 2008 and for Ellison taking time out was a complete necessity. “I had to live a little. I needed that time to find something new to say instead of constantly pushing out stuff. There’s no progression there otherwise, if you have nothing new to say.”
Progression is a major part of the mechanic behind Flying Lotus, he insists. “When it came to making a new record I knew I wanted to pull back. I didn't want to maximise everything which was my attitude before. I just felt like holding back would make for a more interesting, more honest record. I also feel I had done that already. I wanted to make sure there was a significant difference in the thrust of what I was working on.” Despite the easiness and free-flowing feel of the record, it was at times tedious to put together, he admits. “I wanted to make sure it had this consistency. I wanted all the songs to be part of the same universe. I wanted the sections to add up and to bridge gaps. When you do things like that, you really go in and spend time making it hella blended, you know, that takes a while.”
Until the Quiet Comes arrives on a hip-hop scene he helped change forever. Cosmogramma was part of a shift – perhaps the biggest since DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing – towards a new power structure emerging in the rap world, where the producer behind the beats is no longer consigned to the shadows. “I feel like the whole world of rap is much more appealing to me because producers have a lot more respect now. I like that a lot of the time now on tracks it has the producer in the song name, like an ID tag written into the song name.” Conversation turns to Clams Casino, the young beatmaker behind the rise of Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky.
“I think that shit's real. I love that A$AP mixtape [last year’s LiveLoveA$AP] but if Clams ain't on the album, I ain't listening to it. I know ASAP has dropped some singles since but I'm waiting on an album. It's like you better call up Clams, because he owes a lot to that guy. You don't have to be an amazing rapper to make shit that tight sound cool, so...” he trails off. “Producers definitely have more currency and relevance at the moment in that world.”
I wonder aloud if the gap between producer and performer could still be closed further. After all, interviews with Ellison inevitably run into the same question before too long – what’s it like to work with Thom Yorke?
“Well, I don’t like to talk too much about him, but that’s as much because I don't think he'd appreciate that,” he says of the Radiohead man, whose Until The Quiet Comes’ 'Electric Candyman' is the latest in a long line of collaborations between the pair. “But he's a cool dude. I think at our core, there's a fundamental understanding of the things we like and what we don't like. It's never awkward or weird, just good vibes. I think we get along on a cosmic level because we were born on the same day.”
The conversation coasts along covering topics including his sense of humour (“I feel like I've tried to make sure my sense of humour comes across in my music in a subtle way – a silly keyboard melody or whatever… I hope people don't think I'm trying to make some weird operatic statement about something”) to Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk (“it’s like, come on, you’ve killed that vibe already man”) to mainstream music (“I think a lot of my stuff has pop sensibilities that I may not push to the forefront in my music. Sometimes when I’m working on a track and think, ha, this would be funny if Drake rapped on it”). But soon it twists into darker territory.
Last year during the recording of Until the Quiet Comes, the Californian began to suffer from depression. “It was about things outside of music but I began to feel like I didn’t love music as much as I did when I started,” he explains. For Ellison, who is the great-nephew of jazz pioneers Alice and John Coltrane and has surrounded himself with music his entire life, to be falling out of love with it was a disorientating feeling. “Most people say it’s their escape. I definitely know that. At a lot of really crucial times in my life, it’s been there for me, from the beginning.”
“That definitely fed into the album. It's all there. But I'm proud to have made something that reflects where I've been because that's honesty. It wasn't all trendy shit. I wasn't just making shit because I knew it would go over well on radio. It's me, right now. There's a track on there called 'Me Yesterday' and that's an example of me yesterday. Simple. That’s how I felt. They're like diary entries. They help you extract old memories, emotions.”
“This year it feels totally different. The well never runs dry as long as I stay inspired. So I make an effort to stay inspired. To take in things around me, to dwell on things I like, you know?” There’s another pause before he laughs, “fuck! This got deep all of a sudden.” Is he worried how long he can stay inspired? “Not really. Hopefully in ten years’ time I’ll still be playing shows and selling records. Hopefully there’ll be a roof over my head.” He smiles. “But anything could happen tomorrow. Let's get through today, huh?” And we do. Just about.
Until the Quiet Comes in out now on Warp Records.