L.A. native Steven Ellison is quite the creative polymath. The GRAMMY nominee is likely best known as his experimental electronic producer/DJ alias, Flying Lotus, but you may also be familiar with the indie films he’s directed and/or scored and the record label he runs, Brainfeeder, home to other genre-defying artists including TOKiMONSTA, Daedelus and Thundercat. It’s difficult to summarize exactly who he is or what kind of art he crafts, as he’s constantly changing it up and wearing new hats, all rather seamlessly.
Most recently, Ellison released his sprawling 27-track sixth Flying Lotus album, Flamagra (he’s also released hip-hop music under another alias, Captain Murphy). The LP, released on May 24, follows his GRAMMY-nominated 2015 project, You’re Dead!, which some might recall earned a nod for Best Dance Recording at the 58th GRAMMY Awards for “Never Catch Me” featuring Kendrick Lamar. This time, the sonically rich Flamagra is themed around fire with, well, fire collabs from Anderson .Paak, George Clinton, Little Dragon, Tierra Whack, Denzel Curry, iconic experimental director David Lynch, Solange and others.
Catching up with Ellison over the phone between shows on his visually stunning 3D Tour, the Recording Academy talks to the wunderkind about how Flamagara came together and how “Fire Is Coming,” the spooky track he worked on with Lynch, was born. Ellison also takes us back to when he first met George Clinton and how his great aunt Alice Coltrane (yes, she was married to that Coltrane!) got him started on the trailblazing musical path he’s on today.
You’re currently on tour right now with your 3D show, which looks really epic and fun. What’s been your favorite part so far about this tour?
Well, I think my favorite part so far has been seeing Brandon Coleman on stage. It has been really special for me just because he’s the main reason why I even got involved in actually playing on the keyboard and stuff like that. He’s the opener. I brought him with me because he’s kind of been my piano teacher. You know?
He’s with you on the whole tour?
Yeah. For me, ever since I started taking it seriously, I was like, okay, in five, 10 years from now I’ll be able to rock with Brandon on stage. And it has been a year and now we’re already at it. It’s also been fun riding my bike around small towns and stuff, been really enjoying that. I brought my bike with me. Riding it around really fast in Missoula, Montana made me very happy.
What has it felt like to share your new music with people in the format of this tour?
It’s nice, it’s fun. It’s a trip because there’s always, I think, there are certain people who are like, “We want to hear the old stuff.” And there’s always people like, “We want to hear new stuff.” So having accommodate for all that and figure out a good flow is nice and to also, you know, see the result of the hard work and all the efforts. When people know the words and they got the vibes, it feels really nice.
Flying Lotus plays Pittsburg | Photo: Matthew Miramontes
Flamagra came out a few months ago now and when I first listened to it, I right away felt the journey of the album. Not only does it have a lot of tracks compared to most album nowadays, but it really does feel like a journey through all these different sounds and textures.
Yeah. I’m glad. I was hoping that would come across. All the layering and all that stuff. It’s the most fun part to me.
In terms of the fire theme, can you talk about where that came from and how you developed it?
I think that the idea just came from the fact that I just felt for so long that L.A. was on fire. Everything in L.A. was burning, everything. It seems like the various points when I was seriously on the music, it was just like some fire going on, whether it was outside or internal or something. I kept coming back to specific imagery in my mind of fire and a story that I had been kind of imagining about this town that had an eternal flame. And that was kind of my vibe for a while. I was like, all right, what if where I lived, there was an eternal flame and we couldn’t do anything about it?
There would be a lot of people who loved it, a lot of people who hate it. A lot of people who wish it never happened and it would attract a lot of attention. I thought about all this stuff for some reason, I vibed with it. I was just like, “Man, what if there was this fire that we couldn’t put out in L.A.?” I think that’s the music, in a way, you know? No matter what, the music will always survive and it’s something, thankfully. It’s a thing we can leave behind. No matter if I’m here or gone, music will continue. They’ll be putting sh*t out after I’m dead. I hope not. When I’m dead, I don’t want them to drop nothing else. That’s it.
We can print that on GRAMMY.com if you want.
I don’t want no posthumous release. Don’t do that sh*t. I don’t like that. Whatever I do, whatever I’m doing, whatever I’m working on, that’s it. That’s the story. It would just kill me if people put out a bunch of half-finished stuff that I did. I would be so mad.
And I’ve been a witness to it, you know? I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen how people scrambled when [J] Dilla died. What happened with that, it was a terrible. It happened when Mac Miller died. Everybody was like, “Oh, he would have wanted this. He would have wanted this.” Everyone thinks they know. Do you know? In terms of my thing, I just feel like, I got it. I got it. If my homies don’t got it, then it shouldn’t come out.
I feel that. So, on “Fire is Coming” with David Lynch, I’m not gonna lie, it’s just freaky. It’s eerie.
It’s his voice. It’s funny because he isn’t really saying anything too crazy. It’s just when you hear David Lynch, it’s instantly terrifying. Almost like when you hear Rod Serling introduce the Twilight Zone or something like that. It has the same kind of feel to it.
I read that you met Lynch at a party and that spawned asking him to record that story.
The story is almost right. We met a couple times before, then I saw him at a party. He was kind of kicking off the party with that story, that same thing. I was already knee deep in fire thoughts already and then this cat did that thing. I was like, “You got to be f**king sh*tting me right now.” I’ve been trying to get David Lynch for like 11, 12 years to do something with me, asking a friend of a friend. “Oh, yeah, he told me he loves you but he’s really busy. He’s on Twin Peaks, he’s doing a billion things.”
As soon as Twin Peaks [The Return] was over, I was like, “I’m getting on it.” It was just one of those things. I made it a mission to make it happen. And he was still like, “Oh, well he’s so busy.” And then I heard that thing. I was like, “Look, he’s got that done already. Let’s just record that, that bit right there. I need that.” “Okay, well we can make that happen.” I mean, it was kind of trippy to hear him do that at a party.
[Lynch said] “Fire is coming.” I’m like, “Oh, sh*t.” It did right after that. Remember when the 405 was almost on fire and it looked like a volcano by the Getty Museum?
Oh man, yeah. That was right before I moved here, I was in San Francisco. It was on fire on both ends of California.
See? Yeah, that was one of the main catalysts right there. I had people hitting me up I didn’t even talk to often, like, “Yo, you good?” “Yeah, I’m fine. Someone else’s sh*t is burned down though.” It was weird, after I made the album all these weird fire things started happening. The day before my f**king album came out, my grandma’s house almost burned down. It’s crazy. My sister was like, “Yo, can you make an album about butterflies next? Please? Something peaceful.”
Since it was a theme that you’d been thinking about, were you making songs here and there? What was your creative process once you decided to make it into a cohesive album?
Well, I go through several stages of it. Kind of shooting in the dark for a little while and then I feel like, “Oh, I know where I’m going.” And then it’s like, life happens and then it actually shows you what the story is, you know? I try to steer it too much. It never works out. I always have to kind of step away and be like, “Okay, what are you really saying now?” Every album is like that for me. I almost predict it.
I don’t even like to say what I’m working on because I know it’s going to change and get manipulated until the day it comes out, or until I deliver it at least. Flamagra, in a lot of ways, was very easy to put together, but at the same time became very difficult, especially working with all the guests and stuff. That was a huge freaking headache, just on legal and getting clearances.
I finished most of the album last November and I ended up having to make changes for the guests. Put a song here, almost have to take a song off there or whatever. It ended up being a little frustrating. Now, I’m in the situation where I think—here we go with predictions. Right? But I feel like the next thing I do would be without guests. That was a lot. Plus I’m getting tired of this whole co-sign thing. I don’t want to have to have all these co-signs for anyone to care about my project. I feel like that’s a thing, “Who’s going to be on it?” I’m on it. It’s my thing. So the next one, who knows? Might just be one guest. Might be purely instrumental. I don’t know.
Did all of your collaborations happen organically?
Always. Except the Lynch one because some people you got to push a little harder. But pretty much everyone else. There was always someone like, “Oh, we got to do a song together. We got to work together.” I’m calling you on it right now. Is this the moment? Are we doing this? Are we going there? Especially Toro [y Moi]. He is the cat I would run into every Saturday. We’d be at the same hotel and get picked up at the same time to go to the same stage. And we’d always be like, “Oh man, we should totally do something together.” For years. And I was like, “You know what? Call this man.” So, I would say it’s natural, organic.
That’s real. When you run into someone you haven’t seen in a while and they go, “We should hang out.” And you’re like, “Okay, but when are we hanging out?” I can only imagine with artists’ schedules, there’s many factors preventing you from getting in the same room together.
That’s why artists like Coachella because everyone puts a face to a name. I was like, “Oh, I’m a fan of you.” “I’m a fan of you too. We should totally.” And then things happen.
Do you always work with people in the studio or do you ever do remote collabs?
A little bit of both actually. It all depends on who I’m dealing with. A lot of times I’ll assess if they’re the type of person that would be better to work with them or if they’re better if they’re left to their own devices. There’s certain artists who you can tell just need to be in whatever your comfort zone is to make the best track possible. But then there’s some people who you need to kind of inspire a little bit. For example, George Clinton, brilliant. Super together, he’s an older cat, but he’s still got his sh*t, knows everything. I’m like, “Man, how do you remember all these things from your history?” I don’t even remember what happened yesterday.
George is super sharp but he’s the kind of person who would love that bounce back vibe. When we did “Burning Down The House,” I wrote that with him as a freestyle. We’re sitting together, he’s holding the microphone, he’s saying something, I’m calling response with him and then eventually the song came to be what it became. But it was the result of us being in the same space, shouting at each other freely without thinking about if it’s sh*tty or not, you know?
When did you and George Clinton first work together? It was on the Kendrick [Lamar] track, “Wesley’s Theory,” right?
That’s how it all started.
Did you know him before that?
How that came to be was, I was vibing on Parliament for a while. On the You’re Dead Tour [in 2014], I was like super on it. As soon as I came back from that tour, I was making a lot of Parliament funky-type stuff after that.
The funk was in you.
I went super deep in that. And then Kendrick hit me up to help him build a show for his tour with, on [Kanye West‘s] Yeezus Tour. He hit me up, I never designed a show before but I stepped into the role and helped him. And it was right before To Pimp A Butterfly began and he was still kind of getting ideas for it and whatnot, trying to figure out what it was going to be.
I started planning some of that funky sh*t and the next day he was like, “I got it.” And it really was. It was one of the sparks that that made that record and he asked me after he recorded that song, he was like, “Who do you imagine on this sh*t?” I’m like, “George, of course George, that’d be amazing.” And then suddenly George was in the mix and hanging out with Kendrick and stuff and I was like, that’s f**king dope. And then eventually George was hanging out at the crib, telling stories about Quentin Tarantino. F**k, that’s cool.
What do you think is the biggest thing you’ve learned from working with George Clinton?
Sh*t. So much, I don’t even know. After that whole thing happened, the first thing I did, we didn’t even work on music together. The first thing I had him do was be in my movie, Kuso. That was the first time me and George really worked together and he was like, “Okay, I’ll do this, but I really want to make some music with you, man.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah. We’ll get to that.” On the first day of shooting, after he got on set, he comes up to me, he’s like, “Hey man, you got the script?” I was like, “Yeah, there’s a copy over here.” He was like, “Oh, cool. Because I don’t know any of the dialogue yet.” I was like, “Are you f**king kidding me? We’re about to shoot this sh*t right now. You don’t know the words? You don’t know what the hell is happening?”
He’s like, “I’m a doctor, right?” I’m like, “Yeah, you’re a doctor.” He’s like, “Can I just be myself?” “Yeah, of course. That’s what I thought you’d do.” And we pretty much worked it out in the doing, but he had to figure out every line as he did it and do it a million times but his performance of that sh*t is so George. It’s so great. I don’t know what the moral of the story is. But he’s that kind of a person. His personality just shines through. He can make anything happen. The sound of his voice and the vibe. He was so open-minded too.
And then when you guys were working on “Burning Down The House,” how long did it take to go from freestyle to recording it?
Oh, the freestyle is the recording. We used a sh*tty microphone. Solange taught me this thing. She told me about using the SM58 or 57 to record. It’s pretty much like the microphone everyone uses live on stage, the SM57. The reason why it’s a good mic for shows is because you can have all the monitoring on stage and all the loudness and it doesn’t feedback. So, Solange was the one to tell me, “Yo, I like to figure out a song with that because you can have the beat playing in the room. You don’t need headphones. You can just listen to it loud. Record some sketches and let that be the thing.” But for Solange, she was like, “The sketch ends up the song because the freestyle has this energy to it.” And that was something that I’ve taken and it will last me the rest of my life.
Because when it comes to that vibe, by not having headphones on and sketching ideas out freely, it’s so different and you don’t feel inhibited because the beat is loud in the room and things are vibrating and the ideas are flowing from one to another. I’m hearing George figure things out. I’m spitting ideas back and he’s looking at me. So you’re getting this different type of energy that if he just had headphones on, on his own, it wouldn’t be the same. There’s something about it and it has a raw edge to it. There’s something about doing it that way. I’ll never go back to using nice microphones and headphones, just sh*tty microphones. That’s all I do now. When Solange told me about it, I looked at her like, “Are you crazy? Why would you do this?” It made no goddamn sense. She was like, “Just trust me.” She was right.
I love the song “Land Of Honey” on the album with her too. Here I am talking about all the collabs after you said you’re over them. It’s obviously a different dynamic, bringing on someone for your project and figuring out how to align your creative approaches, right? Does that sometimes pose a challenge, getting on the same page with the other person?
It has presented itself once or twice. I feel like all that being said about collaborations, I think I actually really learned how to be a producer by doing this album because I had to deal with all types of different personalities. I had to deal with different egos and stuff and how to get the best thing out of somebody, especially someone you might not know that well. It’s like, I’m meeting you for the first time and I’m trying to make a dope track with you. It’s not easy. How much time are you going to spend getting to know each other before you start playing music? How much back and forth are you going to get to go before you stumble on the right thing.
There’s an artistry in bringing the best things out of people. That’s why people love Quincy Jones and all the great producers because they’re able to tap into what makes a person great and pull that out of them. Dr. Dre is the same way, being around him. It’s the exact same thing. He’ll take way more time though and he don’t give a sh*t about if you’ve got things to do. You’ll stay with Dre, you’ll be there a little while.
What do you think was the biggest thing you learned in that context of producing and getting the juicy bits from working with someone else?
Well, I don’t know. I think everyone’s different and that’s a thing in itself. Just don’t feel like the same shit is going to work on everybody, like everything else. Right? It’s like a relationship. You can’t take a vegan to the steak house. You got to think of a different place to go on that date. It’s similar to dating, I guess, in a weird way. You want to make a good first impression, make them comfortable, all that stuff.
I feel that. Reading the vibe.
“Oh, you don’t like this? Okay. Let me change this.” Find out what works, what sticks and sometimes it doesn’t work. Collaborating don’t always go well. I feel like more often than not the idea of the collaboration was better than the result. It happens from time to time.
Let’s go back a little bit. You grew up with a musical family; Alice Coltrane was your great aunt, right?
Yeah. It gets crazier as I get older and as I pursue my instrument more. I feel like every three years I have a light bulb, a lightning strike thing happen to me with my family’s music and all that stuff. It makes more sense to me and makes me trip out even harder. Like “Whoa, what the f**k? They were? What am I doing?” And the fact that there’s new John Coltrane music coming out soon is crazy.
Speaking of posthumous music.
Yeah, exactly. See? That’s a tricky one but I ain’t mad.
How do you feel like your childhood or your family connections influenced your love of music or your relationship with it?
Oh, so much. Even though they didn’t get the sh*t when it first came out. It’s not like when my sh*t dropped they were like all about it or fully understood it. It was still like, “What the f**k is this? What are you doing? This sounds like you’re hitting garbage cans over and over again.” It’s the classic thing you’re supposed to hear as a young musician trying to find your way, even from this family of avant-garde thinkers. Eventually they came around.
But I will say, the thing that was most inspiring was seeing that it was real. That it could happen. I think that’s the difference for a lot of artists, is that they don’t have anyone near them in their vicinity that is a success in that field. My mom wasn’t mad that I was pursuing music because she was like, “Well, we know people who it worked out for.” But I’m sure it’s not the same for everyone. I’m very grateful for that especially.
Where it’s encouraged versus the, “Oh, you want to be a musician?” kind of attitude parents can give.
Exactly. I had a little bit of support early on and that made a huge difference, I’m sure. My aunt, she supported me 130% in anything I wanted to do. There were moments where I was like, “I want to program video games, auntie.” She was like, “Okay, well here’s the computer, Steve.” “Really?” Then I was like, “Hey, auntie, I want to be a filmmaker.” “Okay, well here’s the camera.” My aunt was beyond believing in me, it was crazy. She knew there was something. I was going to do something. She treated me like that at least.
When did you first start making music? What was your first instrument?
I started playing saxophone when I was 14. That’s how it started. My aunt gave me the saxophone. It was like, “I have to go to middle school now and I have to take and elective.” “Oh, you should be in the band and play the sax.” Little bit of pressure, but no problem. I played for a while and I didn’t feel like that was me, but I did enjoy it while I was doing it. I think if I was playing cooler music in middle school, high school, I would have really stuck with it. But the music was not so inspiring.
And when you were a kid, did you think you would go into music professionally? What was your dream future self when you were younger?
I never really imagined it to be like that. I never imagined I’d be on stage, that’s for sure. I did imagine being Dr. Dre-ish, being the guy behind the scenes making beats and stuff. I did see that for myself when I was like 14, 15. I loved that Dre was the cool guy in the background who was making those ill melodies and dark beats and stuff. I was like, “Ooh, that’s totally me.” He was the first kind of, “I want to do that.” And then it’s a trip to be in the same room with that cat sometimes. I’m like, what?