Flying Lotus may be signed to the UK's Warped label, but the electronically inclined LA musician is definitely putting his hometown on the map. Last week, Radiohead's Thom Yorke sat in with him at Low End Theory, a downtown club that traffics in avant-rap, glitch, dubstep, and other forward-looking genres. A few weeks earlier, he was joined onstage by the similarly eclectic Erykah Badu, whose next album he's just now producing.
Born Steven Ellison and raised in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, Flying Lotus comes from a seriously talented musical family. He's the nephew of Alice Coltrane (who was the wife of John Coltrane and an innovative musician herself) as well as the cousin of jazz saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. At 27, he's already been chosen to remix Radiohead, gotten artists like Yorke to sing on his albums, scored everything from Adult Swim to avant-garde film, and been hailed as the vanguard of the West Coast's new wave of trip-hop, hip-hop and psychedelic pioneers.
Ellison was operating on zero sleep when we caught up with him late last week, but was still willing to talk about family ties, celebrity collaborators and the perils of record shopping.
Indy: So I understand Erykah Badu is among the artists who've sat in with you recently. How's that album you're doing with her coming?
Flying Lotus: It's dope, man. I feel like I'm taking it where I need to go, and she's taking it where she needs to go. Yeah, I think it's cool, you know? Our universes collide and we make a very beautiful thing happen hopefully.
Indy: She's a pretty deep person, and not just musically. Have you two gotten much of a chance to talk?
FL: Absolutely, yeah, it's a good match. We both vibe on some very serious stuff. You know, there's always connections beyond the music. It's like we come from similar places spiritually. Right out of the gate, we were like, "Oh yeah, we're from the same tribe, ain't we?"
Indy: The video you did for her earlier this year — and your own videos like "Zodiac Shit" and "Kill Your Co-Workers" — tend to alternate between visually sophisticated approaches and a kind of eight-bit computer style imagery. Do you try to work those kinds of juxtapositions into your music as well?
FL: Sometimes you'll do a song where you think, well, you can't produce a video that's super clean and high-tech if it sounds like this. And you know, it's kind of the opposite, too, where sometimes the music is inspired by imagery.
Indy: So when you're in L.A., how much of your life do you spend at Amoeba Records?
FL: [Laughs.] Not much anymore, man. I go in there and try to get all the things I need and be out and don't come back for a while. Because, you know, you go in there and you spend all your money and waste all your time looking around. So I go in there with an objective.
Indy: I was watching a YouTube clip of you the other night with Thom Yorke onstage. And you know, we're all pretty familiar with Thom Yorke's singing, but what can you tell us about his deejaying skills?
FL: Oh man, it's cool. It's cool to play alongside Thom because we have similar tastes in electronic music and beats and stuff. And you know, I'd never done that before. But he's good. Sometimes his mixes are on it, sometimes my mixes are on it, sometimes my mixes are shit, you know?
Indy: So will you be bringing him with you to Colorado?
FL: It's up to him, man. He's the one. I'm down for whatever. But if you can convince him to do some shit, I'm there.
Indy: He was also on your last album. Are there any more collaborations like that in the works?
FL: Not that I know of. They wanted me to remix the new Radiohead record, and I've been trying to mess with that a little bit. But I haven't gotten to it yet.
Indy: Tell us what that'll sound like when you're done with it?
FL: It's too early to say, man. I have no fucking clue. It's difficult to work with, because the pieces that they gave me, there's no real a cappella. It's like piano and voice at the same time.
Indy: So you can't separate them.
FL: No, I can't. So I have to come up with some shit that's a little similar to the record, I guess, to an extent.
Indy: I understand you played sax as a kid, which isn't all that surprising given your family lineage. At what point did you realize that your future was actually in electronics?
FL: I still don't know it, man. I don't know what the fuck I'm gonna do tomorrow, you know? I'd always been doing it since I was 14, but I really started taking it seriously when I was 20, right after film school.
Indy: Where did you go to film school?
FL: I went to Los Angeles Film School, and then the Academy of Art in San Francisco.
Indy: So no wonder you're doing this video stuff.
FL: Yeah, it's part of the education. [Laughs.] And it's part of the fun, you know, but it's just super expensive.
Indy: Imagine it back in the days before there was digital, where students needed $20,000 to do their final film projects.
FL: Shit, that wasn't nothin' in the music video world, back in the day. You wanna go back in the day? Motherfuckers had budgets back in the day. I ain't got that shit now.
Indy: Yeah, I think recording artists had budgets back then, too.
FL: That's what I'm saying, dude! I'm gonna get in a fuckin' time machine and get out of here.
Indy: When Cosmogramma came out last year, you said you were finally getting to the point where you could make the kind of records you wanted to make. I'm wondering, was that the result of better technology, better skills on your part, or just people letting go of their expectations about what you should be doing?
FL: All of that, you know, it's all of that. It's also like, yeah, just learning about myself and diving into my own ideas. And getting to know my mission. It's like all of that stuff comes through in the music eventually.
Indy: So what is that mission? I need a mission statement.
FL: A mission statement? You know, honestly the thing I've tried to do the most is to just be a vessel for this creativity. I have a habit of sometimes over-thinking things. But my true mission is to just be a receptor to the message, to whatever that thing is that comes through late at night or early in the morning. I just want to be present and interpret it and not put in my own ego. I just want it to be natural and honest and, you know, a reflection of all the things I've learned and all my curiosities and all that stuff.
Indy: That sounds like something John or Alice Coltrane would have said. Do you feel some sort of vibe, some sort of connection there?
FL: Well, I mean, those ideas were instilled in me as a child. My aunt was very present in my life, the majority of my life. And when I did Cosmo, man, I remember when I made that record I was listening to Alice Coltrane so much, and I was thinking to myself, you know, I want my records to do this. I don't care about like, all that crazy sub-bass shit. Like, that's cool, that's fun, but I don't want to be all about that. I want it to be something that the people will connect to and hold on to.