Q&A: FLYING LOTUS By Digby & Alex Volume

24 October 2012
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With a musical history deeply rooted in jazz, hip hop and electronica, Flying Lotus, real name Steven Ellison, is widely considered to be one of the most forward thinking producers in electronic music today. His exposure to deeper sounds came from his musical family – his great aunt was jazz pianist Alice Coltrane, and her husband was saxophonist John Coltrane. Influenced by classic Warp artists such as Autechre, Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, his love of the weird and wonderful can be seen in the acts he signs to his hugely respected Brainfeeder label. Flylo’s second and third albums, ‘Los Angeles’ and ‘Cosmogramma’ were met with critical acclaim and on his latest LP, ‘Until The Quiet’ , he has created a fusion of electronica and jazz that he describes as a “collage of mystical states, dreams, sleep and lullabies”. While some tunes may be dreamy, his live performances are electrifying, the defining moment coming at Coachella 2010 when he mesmerised the crowd with a live MPC performance.

What was it like growing up in LA?

My upbringing involved hanging out in arcades, go-karting and listening to Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre. 

Which arcade games were big back then?

Mortal Combat 2 was my favourite. I think that took most of my money as a kid. I also remember walking from school to the bowling alley and spending all my money playing Scorpian. And the Asian kids would whip my ass! You’d have to put your quarter up on the machine if you wanted to play next.

Standard! And we believe there was a girl in your school who went on to be quite a well known porn star? 

[Laughs] Oh, this is gonna be one of those interviews! She was actually a real chilled girl, innocent, nice, quiet and pretty. Then after one winter break, she kept wearing big sweaters. I think it was to cover up the plastic surgery. She became Lacey Duvalle.

The porn industry in that area is quite big, and you studied film...

It’s funny, because a lot of people around me have dabbled in that industry.

Like Snoop?

Closer than that. I’ve known people who have edited porn for a month, just to make a quick buck out of the industry. There was a time when I thought, if this music thing doesn’t work out maybe I could make beats for pornos. 

Lots of people make a big deal of the fact your aunt and uncle were Alice and John Coltrane. Do you think you would have got into jazz if they weren’t family?

I would have, but they exposed me to different music from a young age. I heard jazz as a kid, as opposed to in college. I’d still listen to Dre, like all the other kids, but at the same time I’d be listening to Coltrane. I was lucky. 

Did you try to get your peers to listen to jazz, or did you keep it secret?

I’d play it to some friends, not others. I was recently thinking about being a kid where I grew up. As a black kid, you weren’t ‘allowed’ to skateboard back then. It wasn’t considered cool. I loved Skate TV – there was some great music on there, but it was something I’d have to do with my white friends. Things have changed quite a bit, though. 

Do you think teenagers listen to your music?

In the States, for sure. Though it was funny when I went to visit some family and my twelve-year-old cousin was there, He’s a hacker and was telling me how he makes viruses. Then he asked me if I knew what dubstep was, put some on and looked at me as if to say, “Yeah, I bet you’ve never heard anything like this before!” I played along: “Wow! What is this stuff?” [laughs]

When did you go from listening to Dre to the more experimental stuff?

I really got into MF Doom in college. I’d almost given up on hip hop at that stage and was listening to Aphex Twin, Autechre, the early Warp stuff. Doom turned me on to Madlib. I was living in San Francisco at the time, smoking a lot of weed, and I’d walk around the city with headphones on listening to his records. I was at film school, but I thought, “Fuck this shit, I’m going to go get some samples and make some beats!”

And that’s when you started making music?

I had been skipping class to make beats and I’d learned how to make music on machines like the MPC and the Korg Trident. But lots of people I knew were leading me onto software-based production. I remember being kind of an outcast in the hip hop producers’ world because I was using a computer; they were telling me I couldn’t get the same swing to the beat and all that. But I stuck with the computers because it just felt really natural for me to  produce that way.

Then you started work at legendary LA hip hop label Stones Throw...

Yes, I think they really took to me  because I was so enthusiastic and happy to be there. If the garbage needed taking out I was super happy to do it. Madlib would drop by, and I’d get a first listen to his tracks. 

And J Dilla?

I got there when J Dilla’s ‘Donuts’ was being finalised. Everyone knew I was Dilla’s biggest fan. Then one day I was asked to go to his house and drop a cheque off. But before I went I was pulled to one side and told that it was a sensitive situation – he wasn’t in a good way. I got there and he was in real bad shape. It was two weeks before he passed away. I knew he didn’t want anyone to see him in that condition, but he invited me in and was really cool. He had the biggest bag of weed I’d ever seen and he was still making beats. It was inspiring to see that even in that condition he was still passionate about his work and still super nice. To this very day it moves me.

Your new album is the closest you’ve done to an Alice Coltrane sound. It’s organic and ethereal. Is this what we can expect more of in the future?

No, this is the last record that I’ll make like this.

The next thing will be......a gabba record?

Ha! Maybe! The point is, I’ll continue to change. I embraced musicians on this album but going forward I may focus more on songwriting. 

‘Cosmogramma’ was influenced by the passing away of your mother. Are all your tunes directly influenced by your feelings and your state of mind at the time you make them? 

For me, music is much like keeping a diary. It’s easy to stop producing when something like that happens. But even if I have a block, I still work through it. I learned that from Thom Yorke. In the end, with ‘Cosmogramma’, I manifested something that was special to me from a really dark time. It helped me get through it. I didn’t make it for anyone else. 

Flying Lotus’ new album ‘Until The Quiet’ is out November 1 on Warp Records




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