Interview: Flying Lotus
On his new album, the mercurial producer reaches for the skies by searching for the 'god within'
Words Alex Denney
Photography Gary Manhine
Next-level shit: it’s a phrase that describes Steven Ellison’s work as Flying Lotus uncommonly well. For a few years now, the Los Angeles-based producer-DJ has been at the vanguard of a neo-psychedelic movement on the West Coast that’s spawned countless imitators and, in a funny sort of way, given affirmative voice to scores of spiritually-impoverished, pot-and-video-game-addicted Gen Y-ers.
Perhaps that’s because Ellison is the inheritor of two very different traditions. Most fans will know that Warp’s 28-year-old prodigy comes from serious musical stock — his auntie, the late Alice Coltrane, was a jazz legend and wife of the great John Coltrane, while cousin Ravi Coltrane is also a saxophonist of considerable renown. But his aunt was also an understudy of the Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba, and later founded an ashram (Hindu spiritual centre) that the young Ellison would attend on Sundays.
“It was different than regular church,” says Ellison of the experience. He’s still recovering from a weekend that’s seen him jet over to London from LA to play Bloc (billed on Saturday, he ended up playing back-to-back club sets after the festival was called off). “It was really strange at first — to any newcomer it’s a jarring experience, just these people dressed all in white up in the mountains, chanting things you never understand. [My auntie] would give these 40-minute discourses [spiritual lectures]. It was very non-denominational; it’s very open and accepting of all faiths. The idea is that you are god; god is within you.”
Next-level shit, then. Despite professing to enjoy the music at these events, however, Ellison would not begin to fully explore his aunt’s ideas for a while yet. A self-confessed Nintendo junkie in his early years (he was brought up on his own until his sister came to live with him aged 11), Ellison took enthusiastically to smoking weed in his early teens, and it’s these twin pastimes that make their presence felt on his hyper-sensory early material, from early bumper-music spots for cult cable network Adult Swim to his thrilling 2008 breakout for Warp, Los Angeles.
But even in Ellison’s early musical forays, the seeds of something deeper were being sown.
“Since I was 16 I started having sleep paralysis, out-of-body experiences and things like that,” he says. “It really opened me up to the idea of these mystical states. But I only really started to feel [my auntie’s teachings] in college. I felt like all these things I’d learned as a kid made sense. I suddenly thought she’d been onto it, you know, like, ‘Damn, she really knew what was up, she wasn’t just that crazy lady in the mountains!’ And then I started to appreciate the music more.”
Cosmogramma (2010), put out three years after Alice Coltrane’s death, was the fullest expression of this newfound connection. Hyped to the rafters on its release, it was an ambitious and emotionally raw set (Ellison says he wanted it to feel like “jumping out of an aeroplane”) fusing his signature style — roughly speaking, Dilla-inspired hip hop with garish blooms of psychedelic synth — with the cosmic avant-garde music of his youth.
Though less overtly jazz-inspired than its predecessor, Ellison’s new record Until The Quiet Comes feels like a continuation down that path, sublimating the vibrant clutter of contemporary life into a weird sort of slacker-mysticism. There’s an increased vocal presence this time round, too, with contributions coming from Thom Yorke, Erykah Badu and Thundercat, among others.
“I feel like this record is kind of an amalgamation of all the things I’ve learned so far,” he says, noisily slurping on a glass of water to dissolve a pair of aspirin. “I was using more a minimal approach, more restrained. But also there are moments that are banging — it’s not so jazz, but it’s still got that shit in there. I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget about that, because it’s very much part of who I am. And it’s been difficult releasing records because I make so much music, but I only get 30 minutes to make my statement. It’s about deciding what stories to tell; how I want to represent my ideas.”
Despite all that, there is a strong meditative aspect to the music-making process for Ellison; one that’s reflected in the title of the new record.
“It’s about that zone,” he explains, “That special place you can go where nothing else matters. That’s the closest feeling to being a god — the god within yourself. When I started learning meditation from my aunt, I had so much trouble trying to understand it, because I feel like I was thinking too much. And she was like, ‘The key is to have the quiet time.’ The only way you can achieve anything in meditation is to be open — to be that vessel. And I don’t think that people can shut off that easily [nowadays], especially with all the things you can shut on.”
Ellison’s adventures in drug-taking are well-documented, and it’s tempting to wonder if his dabbling in psychedelics didn’t have something to do with this resurgent sense of spirituality.
Not exactly, he demurs: “I don’t know about that. I think drugs made me ask questions some more; they open you up to things, like, ‘Oh, I can totally see how someone believes in angels now!’”
Famously, Ellison blogged about his experiences with DMT, a naturally occurring psychedelic some have suggested may account for near-death experiences in people. It sounds like the kind of trip you might not come back from, but Ellison is typically sanguine on the subject.
“The funniest thing is it only lasts about 15 minutes. I don’t know that it’s for everyone, but… you should try it, man, you’ll be back! We did that track [‘DMT Song’] on the album, which is beautiful but also really silly. My experience of the drug is nothing of this world. I’ve never seen anything like that with mushrooms, or whatever. It’s just… next-level shit, you know?”