The producer/sampler/deejay swoops through his music like a trapeze artist working without net or partners.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
During his third album, 2010’s Cosmogramma, Steve Ellison—aka Flying Lotus—opened his sequenced/sampled sound-scapes to the live free improvisation of his Coltrane family bloodline and a homemade diversity of electronic music’s genres with family tragedy at its heart. This personal music, bolstered by horns and strings, raw with the emotion of his recently deceased mother, intimate with bedroom recording mentality, coursing with the fluidity of unrestrained danceable rhythm, made Flying Lotus a brand unto himself. Flying Lotus doesn’t make hip-hop, techno, disco, or house. It isn’t free jazz. Though there are vocals by indie-lynchpins like Thom Yorke, they’re hardly recognizable within the confines of their usual rockist output.
It is Flying Lotus music, singularly and solely.
His latest album, Until the Quiet Comes (Warp), is no less emotive or operatically theatrical though it doesn’t hold (thankfully) the same fatalistic drama. And in its own somnolent fashion, it is a more frightening work than its predecessor.
“I don’t know if I’m looking to scare listeners,” says Ellison with a laugh, from his Los Angeles apartment. “What does scare me is that my music might not come across like I want it to.” Flying Lotus, first and foremost, wants people to get where he’s coming from. “It’s a weird thing, man. I find that I’ve been trapped in this underground world and that maybe if the mainstream had a chance to hear me, they’d like what I was doing. But maybe they’re just not ready, which is why they go to Kanye and shit like that. I have to say, though, that I feel like if they honestly got a crack at my music, they would love it.”
Ellison makes it clear he’s not entirely satisfied with where he is in the commercial marketplace, despite being overjoyed at who he is as an artist. You’ll never confuse him with Carly Rae Jepsen. But this is about communication, pure and simple—the message coming through the medium.”
“I don’t feel like I’m alienating anybody. Nobody knows that I might be more mainstream if I had a chance. They just know what I do is weird, right? But honestly, if you heard it on a regular radio station, maybe you would get into it. I don’t want to dumb it down or be or make what they want me to make, whoever ‘they’ are. I want do everything on my own terms.”
As if anything to the contrary was possible. That maverick attitude and the live free jazz improvisational vibe that runs through his music like a wild river comes from his background: grand-nephew of the late jazz pianist Alice Coltrane (wife of sax colossus John Coltrane) and cousin to the Coltrane kids Oran and Ravi. Notes Ellison, “Oran in particular, he was like a big brother to me. Ravi, he already had his thing going on. I looked up to him so much as a kid. He always had respect for craft, the idea of excelling. Both of those ideas were inspiring—that you could devise your own form of art without having to kowtow or change your style to suit people He had his own voice.”
Regarding the matriarchal pianist, Alice Coltrane had retired from music before Ellison was born. But he caught his great aunt at twice-yearly performances connected to the ashram that she attended. She was more of a spiritual influence than a musical one, yet he clung to the rarity of those performances. “I‘d get blown away when I heard her, especially since I was so used to seeing her in quiet meditation all the time.” Add the fact that Alice’s sister and Ellison’s grandmother, Marilyn McLeod, was a songwriter for Motown and penned hits for Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and Diana Ross, and Flying Lotus’ feel for music of all stripes is undeniably vivid.
I mention to Ellison that I actually hear a feminine energy in his albums. He laughs, as no one has made that observation about his feline work previously. “That’s interesting, you know, because I was raised by women exclusively. I feel an absolute sensitivity toward that.”
Ellison is sensitive about a lot of things. The reception to his work, Cosmogramma in particular is touching. He was nervous about releasing something so deeply personal, so coded, after his mom had died. “I was going through some shit after that and I think that people hear it all in the music. I thought I had that stuff locked in my mind and I got put in a position where I could go inwards and tell the best most honest story of my life possible.”
Until the Quiet Comes is no less personal or complex. The bad times he faced before the album aren’t quite so definable or easily confessable. “This one wasn’t easy—let’s leave it at that.” But he notes that he doesn’t need barriers or drama in his life to make dramatic music: “Inspiration has a weird way of showing itself through the work. It comes how it comes. You just have to be human and receptive.”
Recorded at home like his last album, Until the Quiet Comes has free jazz references (Sun Ra, Pharoah Saunders), prog rock touches (“I was listening to a lot of Gentle Giant”) and a few tips of his hat to Stereolab in the mix. Mostly though, it’s all Flying Lotus flying through air like a trapeze artist working without net or partners. “I can’t help but want to plot something out, but it really does unfold organically.” He pauses.
“It goes where it goes.”
Flying Lotus performs this weekend, Saturday Nov. 9, at the OFWGKTA Carnival in Los Angeles. Details here.