Change is the only constant in the world of Flying Lotus. He admits as much in a ghostly monologue that opens his sixth studio album Flamagra. "The world changed and so did you," someone whispers. "You're different now." The musical backing quickly morphs from spectral ambience to humid funk. It's a gesture, in miniature, of the sort of stylistic hopscotch he's become known for over the last decade and a half. He can stop on a dime and change directions, creating music—and a career—that can be dizzy and disorienting.
The producer born Steven Ellison seems to prefer it that way. Sitting on the roof of VICE's Williamsburg office on a sunny May afternoon, he explains that he's designed his art such that he never treads on the same ground twice. "For every record I almost respond to the last one," he says, futzing with a couple of pins—one for his label Brainfeeder, another sporting the face of Freddy Krueger—affixed to the lapel of a crisp leather jacket. "I wanted to do something chill. Then now that I did something chill, I wanted to do something crazy."
That philosophy proves true when you look back at his five albums—moving from the stoned, surreal beatwork of his earliest work to intense prog inflections of more recent material. No two are the same—which always makes the prospect of new music from him an exciting proposition. You never know quite what you're going to get.
Flamagra itself arrives amid a particularly chaotic time in Ellison's life. It's been five years since the release of his last record, the contortionist-jazz, dark-comedy You're Dead!, which is part of why that monologue opens this new record. A lot has happened in the interim period, both on a geopolitical scale and in more personal ways. He directed his first feature film—a mind-bending body horror called Kuso, for which he also did the soundtrack—and produced Drunk, the latest psych-funk record from his good friend and frequent collaborator Thundercat. The stress of doing both projects at the same time almost "broke" him. The world has started to feel ever more apocalyptic—he watched a fire tear through the hills near his house in L.A. in a way that felt like something out of a disaster movie. His good friend Mac Miller died in September of last year.
It's been an overwhelming period, and the record reflects that. There are no direct comparisons elsewhere in Flying Lotus' catalog, but it's run through with anxious energy and attention to detail that informed both You're Dead! and his 2010 masterwork Cosmogramma. He bounds valiantly between cosmic jazz riffs like "Remind U?" to delirious funk and bruising rap tracks. Throughout, he's aided by famous friends from across the musical spectrum, including Solange, Toro y Moi, Tierra Whack, and Anderson .Paak.
It's jittery and unsettling, in the way you might expect from a record that takes its title and subject matter from fire. In advance of the record's release this Friday, May 24, on Warp, Ellison took some time to look back on his career and weigh his feelings about all of the strange sounds he's produced.
Flying Lotus: I don't think it's a bad record, I just think I could do better. It was the sound of me figuring stuff out and learning. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm not mad at any of my work. That's why I don't have a lot of stuff out. I'm really picky about what stuff comes out. So I think 1983 is cool. But there's other stuff about that album that bothered me. The label situation that that was in was really shitty.
NOISEY: How so?
I still haven't gotten paid for that album, to this day.
Is that why it isn't on Spotify?
I took it off of there. The label [Plug Research] was selling this record for years and I never made any money off of it. I've never seen a penny from it dude. They can't afford to pay me what they owe me. That's the sad part.
[When reached for comment, Plug Research's Allen Avanessian claimed that he did pay Ellison digital royalties around the record's release, but admitted that over the years the record made "way more [money] than I could afford to pay him in one sum." He maintains that he has "never intended to not pay Steve his royalties, and will do whatever it takes to pay him back some way or another."]
Were there just not contracts drawn up?
No, there was a contract. It's just unfortunate how that all went down. Hopefully I'll put it out in a different place and re-release it soon. But as far as the music goes, I'm pretty ok with the music.
It came out in the height of what people were talking about as the beat scene in LA. You used to talk about that period with such excitement, about playing tracks at shows the same day you made them. Do you miss the spontaneity of that time at all?
I don't see [now] as any less spontaneous. But there was an enthusiasm because we'd finally found each other. That was a big thing for us. The producer role attracts introverts. Making music on your computer is so appealing to someone who just sits in their room all day. So, we found all these other people who'd just been sitting in their room all day who loved similar records. It was like "Aw man, where have y'all been my whole life." There was a general enthusiasm about the community aspect early on.
This was the last record you made without knowing that other people would hear it. Was there a freedom that came with that?
You know man, it's fucked up. When it comes to art in general now, we've become so aware of our influence. We know when people are listening, when people are watching. It's not healthy. We start creating with that in the background of our mind. I think it's ruined my mind. I made a point to try to not be as engaged in social media because I just need to keep my head.
Did those early records feel different?
Of course they felt different, I lived at my grandma's house. But there was that enthusiasm. There was a whole new world of opportunity and potential and a curiosity about the sound. We knew we were onto something that hadn't been explored much. When I think about it now, I feel way more inspired creatively than I have been in a long time, even when I first started making music. It's taken a long time to get there.
In a really old interview, you said that the name Flying Lotus came from lucid dreaming. Do you still lucid dream?
Not as much. I haven't been remembering my dreams as much lately. They are important. But I've been trying to smoke more pot before bed because they get too intense. Sometimes I need to not dream.
I was trying my best to figure out if I could make a statement with the sound. People were paying attention and I'd signed to Warp Records. I wanted to try to capture this moment, this movement, with that album.
You wanted to make a defining statement for "the beat scene."
I really did. At that point I felt the need to prove myself. Signing to Warp also pushed that on me a little bit. I felt like I had to come with it, super hard. European elitist producers were looking at me. I was signed to Aphex Twin's label. Those people were watching me now, I had to come correct.
Around then Aunt Alice [Coltrane] passed away, which was huge for me and my family. That was the catalyst for me to really evaluate what I wanted to do with my work. I was getting hit up by random people to do some poppier stuff. It was like, "what do I do now?" And then my aunt passed away and I really started diving back into some of [her] music. I wanted to be able to go to those places with my work. To deeper places. I was attracted to things that had longevity.
At that time the Ed Banger stuff was going really hard. I was like "Am I going to make a bunch of house stuff? Because I can." Or am I going to do the thing that's a little tougher to get into but means more to me. Maybe I could help someone or do something for someone else.
You've said the record was intended as a statement on the sound of the city at the time. Does Los Angeles sound different to you today?
Absolutely. There's still elements of it that are the same. The haziness of it would be the same. But I think of the city as being more uptempo now. It's got way more intent. It's serious now; it's not as lackadaisical.
Is that a change in you or a change in the city?
I can't call it. Maybe both.
That was fun for me because that was when I really got into the Fender Rhodes sound. With every album that I do, I try to feature a new instrument or sound. That one was the Fender Rhodes album. I've always loved that instrument. My grandma gave me hers. It sounds like dreams and memories. I love that about it. That's kind of what I was trying to do with Until the Quiet Comes. The album before it was a bit more abrasive and I wanted to make something you could put on for sleep and vibe to.
There's something almost new age-y about it. Do you connect with a lot of stuff like that?
I feel that. I don't really know what new age is anymore, but I listen to a lot of [ambient] stuff. When I was making that album I was really in that vibe—using way more space. I wasn't thinking so much about playing the songs at festivals. Especially then, I was like, "fuck it, I'm going to go super chill."
Especially after something as complicated as Cosmogramma that's a kind of egoless gesture. You're not showing off.
You're Dead! has that though. I feel like as the albums progress, maybe, there's a comfort level. The feeling of needing to prove myself is less and less.
I saw you live around this time and it was not the same experience at all. I distinctly remember you playing a "Hard in Da Paint" remix.
Even for myself, I don't want to go to a party and listen to [Until the Quiet Comes]. I'm sure I could create a space for it. But I'm very much the person up there on the stage too. I make that kind of stuff but it doesn't always end up on records. I make house and all kinds of crazy stuff sometimes, more up stuff.
So you've got bangers in the vault.
And I play 'em out, all the time. There's a whole record that you can only hear live, basically. I always think that other people just do that stuff better than me. Go ahead with the trap and the crazy wobble whatever, do all that, I love it, but it's a different thing.
So this, then, was meant to impress people?
It's funny, it was actually a conscious decision. Me and Thundercat were driving up the hill to my house. We were listening to Gentle Giant or some crazy prog rock. He looks over at me and he's like, "You know we can do that right?" Fuck! I guess we can, can't we? In the most serious way, he said we need to make some shit that just fucks everybody up. It's like, "you're just fuckin' dead. You're dead." That's how it went down.
That opens up a lot of possibilities.
It was fun. I was trying to stretch myself and the level of detail. How hard can I push myself? How deep can I get?
Death comes up in your records a lot. What makes that something worth focusing on in your art?
Fuck, a lot of close people died, man. My mom passed, that was huge. That was around Los Angeles. My aunt passed and she was like my other mom. You're Dead! happens [after losing frequent collaborator] Austin Peralta and other people. Now, Mac [Miller]. That stuff moves me man. It reminds me that I'm alive, that I have things that I want to say and things that I need to do. It reminds me to take care of my friends and my family. I've lost a lot more people than the average person, and it's caused me to have a different relationship with it.
Grief can be life-affirming, in a way.
People leave behind so much. When Mac passed away, he gave me a new energy. It's a shitty thing to have to go through to get on the other side of it. But I have to be grateful. It's a fucking tragedy, but I felt his presence heavy when I was working on the new one. It's definitely a motivator or an inspiration, whatever you want to call it.
I've always been curious, with that in mind, about the exclamation point in the title of You're Dead! It's almost playful.
I wanted it to be playful. That's why the art was kind of silly too. I didn't want it to be thought of as a super morbid concept. I wanted it to be like "You're dead, now what?" Not "you're dead, and it's over."
On this record, you had a lot bigger guests than you had before, was it fun to have that caliber of collaborator around. Or was it just reflective of the friends you made along the way?
All that stuff was real organic. All the collaborations were super organic. Working with Kendrick was an amazing time in my life. That was also really difficult too. I had to have a really hard conversation with him about that song ["Never Catch Me"]. He really wanted it for his album. How do you tell Kendrick no? He knows he can have anything he wants. It was heartbreaking to be like "I'm sorry, you can't have it Kendrick, it's mine. Listen to my album, I need this!" I'm glad it happened though. What happens if I gave it to Kendrick, for real? The chances of it actually coming out are unlikely. Would it have been on To Pimp a Butterfly? It wouldn't have worked on that.
There was no bad blood ultimately though?
It was weird for a second. But he got over it. It's all good in the end. He got a Grammy. But that was a special time for me. Kendrick is a true genius artist. I've worked with quite a few people, but he's the real deal.
Do you feel like you approach the world in similar ways?
Kendrick is in his own universe. I respect the shit out of that man. But no, I don't. We're very different people. I understand his work ethic and things about him for sure. You won't see him out, he's working. That's how I am. He knows what he wants. The thing that he doesn't get credit for is he's pretty much a producer too. He knows every sound he wants on his records. He knows when every drop is supposed to happen. He knows everything about his record. He's not one of those people who just raps and leaves. He's very involved with every sound effect. I wish people got to know that about him.
When my mom left, I went super inside. I started trying to make sense of what the fuck was going on. I was taking a lot of psychedelics around then. I was trying to explore, trying to be in tune with my spirit. Everything got super real and I had to take care of my sister and make sure my grandma was cool. It caused me to try my best to figure out: What is it for? Is there a purpose? Are we supposed to be here? Is this hell? Why are people religious? What is death? What is life?
Did the psychedelics help with that process?
Yeah. I think psychedelics are great. They're a reminder that there's more than whatever we're looking at right now. Even if it's something our brains produce, there's more. Try DMT and tell me you understand what that's all about. You don't get no answers, you just have hella questions after that. But I'm glad I tried all that stuff. It reminds you that you're a tiny speck in the cosmos. I didn't expect to talk about DMT today, but here we are.
Did working through all this stuff on Cosmogramma help you personally?
Cosmogramma just reminded me how grateful I am to have music as my outlet. I can use the music to ask the questions. Creating is my meditation. It's a way for me to process pain, then and now. Music is the best thing for it. What would I have done?