ABOVE: FLYING LOTUS. IMAGE COURTESY OF TIMOTHY SACCENTI
Steven Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus, is a weirdo. Not the kind you shy away from at a party, but the kind who spends a lot of time in his room “working on stuff” before finally emerging with a masterpiece you never saw coming.
A DJ and producer in the traditional sense, unlike his fist-pumping counterparts, FlyLo (as his fans affectionately refer to him) is a hip-hop head who’s created and pioneered his own style—a blend of ambient landscapes, soulful energy, and sampled loops —and created a sound that’s truly distinctive. Simply put, when you hear a Flying Lotus record, you know it.
Over the span of his short career, he’s evolved from underground party DJ to festival co-headliner, and has managed to remain an indie hero miles away from the mainstream EDM explosion, largely because of his constant experimentation and chameleon-like collaborations with everyone from Thom Yorke to Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt. Today, his influence can be heard in like-minded new-wave weirdos like Lunice and Jamie xx.
A few days after the release of his fourth LP, Until The Quiet Comes, we spoke about Philip Glass, messing up a set in front of 20,000 people, and if people will ever be ready for Flying Lotus.
DAN BUYANOVSKY: I watched the short film Until The Quiet Comes [above], which features snippets of songs from the album. Did you have any part in creating the concept for it?
STEVEN ELLISON: Oh, yeah. The director Kahlil [Joseph] is a good friend of mine, and he’s one of the few people I trust in that way. You know, I was like, “Man if you want me to dress up like a clown, I’ll dress up like a clown for you, because you’ll fuckin’ kill it.” He’s amazing, and he’s one of the best out right now. So, I just kind of let him run with it. I told him what the album meant to me, and he took that and ran with it, and made something really beautiful.
BUYANOVSKY: Do you usually work that way with directors?
ELLISON: It all depends on who you’re dealing with. I think, with some people, you have to trust them. The reason why you choose the people is because you trust them. So, I think that, to some degree, I want to step away from the shit, but at the same time, I want them to know what it means to me.
BUYANOVSKY: Are you excited to start touring again?
ELLISON: I really am, man. I’m not usually excited to leave my house, but I feel like I have a purpose to hit the road again. I have a new show that I’ve made, and I feel fuckin’ excited to bring it to people, and start the next chapter of my life. I’ve been sitting on this album for many months, and the fact that it’s finally come out now, it’s like… [sighs] You know? I can close a door, and open another one now.
BUYANOVSKY: Tell me about your new live show setup.
ELLISON: It’s a show that we’re calling Layer 3, at the moment. We’re calling it that because it’s a 3-layer show. It feels like you’re watching a 3-D visual show, without the glasses on. It’s really simple technology, but it looks really amazing. It’s something that I designed a long time ago, that people said couldn’t work, but we tried it out and it’s really effective. It just looks fuckin’ cool. And it feels fun for me to have this stuff, because I feel that my music is so visual, so for a long time I’ve been wanting to do something like this.
BUYANOVSKY: What were your first live shows like—were you playing in places that had Top 40 DJs on other nights, or rock clubs?
ELLISON: I started out playing underground parties, illegal parties, and eventually I started getting into some decent clubs, and from those clubs came festivals, and so forth.
BUYANOVSKY: At a festival like Ultra, you were playing alongside DJ Shadow, but also guys like David Guetta. Did you feel out of place, or like a part of that world?
ELLISON: It was weird, because in that festival, I felt very out of place. I felt like the wild card, in a sense. I didn’t feel like I fit in, but at the same time, I feel like I fit in this period of time, that I’m very much a part of this musical climate. But I represent something else, so I don’t have to play like they do. I feel like as long as I do my thing, that’s all I need to do.
BUYANOVSKY: You seem motivated by young rappers like A$AP Rocky, and Odd Future. What about them inspires you? Do you feel that same type of energy from anyone your age?
ELLISON: In rap—no. I feel like all the good rappers now are pretty young. Childish Gambino—him and I are the same age—and I really like him. I think that, lyrically, he’s trying to say some things that I’ve been wanting to hear for a long time.
BUYANOVSKY: If you had a child, do you think you’d be introducing them to music in a curated, deliberate way, or just letting them discover different music on their own?
ELLISON: I’d do my best, for a little while. But kids are pretty rebellious of their parents—like “Dad, I don’t want to listen to that shit!”—which sucks. But at the same time, I still feel like I’m a young man who listens to a broad range of stuff, so hopefully my kids would put me onto something.
BUYANOVSKY: Something that you might not have heard about otherwise.
ELLISON: Yeah, I’m actually curious about those times. I think that I would fuckin’ trip out the day that I have a kid who shows me some shit. That would be crazy.
BUYANOVSKY: You’ve said that you never do the same show two nights in a row. When you mess up in front of 20,000 people, do you just keep going and pretend it never happened?
ELLISON: Well, what else could I do?
BUYANOVSKY: [laughs] Does that happen often?
ELLISON: It happens all the time. Sometimes, it’s really bad, and I’m just like, “Goddamn.” But I feel that when I have a bad gig, I know there are safe combinations, like tried-and-true things that will work, so if I’m in a shitty situation, I know I can play this song and get back on track and back in the comfort zone. I try to stay open to all the possibilities.
BUYANOVSKY: Do you, at this point in your career, still hear people who rap over your songs and send it to you?
ELLISON: They still do it. A lot of times it’s pretty garbage. [laughs] But I’m flattered that they use my material. Sometimes it’s weird because they’ll be like “Flying Lotus produced the track!,” as if I was in the studio with them, which is kind of weird. But I appreciate people wanting to use my music.
BUYANOVSKY: Have you ever taken DMT?
ELLISON: I’ve never tried it. [pauses] Just kidding. [laughs] Wouldn’t that be really fucked up, though?
BUYANOVSKY: [laughs] It would be. I wouldn’t even know what to say.
ELLISON: You’d be like, “That dude FlyLo is a poser!”
BUYANOVSKY: [laughs] I imagine you don’t make music on it, though.
ELLISON: No, I’ve only done DMT twice.
BUYANOVSKY: All right. What do you think of Philip Glass?
ELLISON: I like Philip Glass. I think he’s made some really great contributions to his field. I love his style of playing—it’s very loop-style.
BUYANOVSKY: I feel like you’re akin to him, because you have those similar jazz influences, but you’re also inspired by hip-hop, which makes it sound different.
ELLISON: Yeah, we both have that ambient energy.
BUYANOVSKY: I had a friend say she wasn’t smart enough to understand Philip Glass’ music. Do you people ever say that to you?
ELLISON: What people say, which really freaks me out—people say, sometimes, “Oh man, that shit is cool, but they ain’t ready for you. They ain’t ready.” I hate hearing that, because I feel like people are ready, and if we keep saying that people aren’t ready, they’re never going to be ready. If they’re not ready—maybe they don’t like it—but they’re ready. They’re ready for some shit.
BUYANOVSKY: Have you seen The Master yet?
ELLISON: Not yet, I want to.
BUYANOVSKY: You should.
ELLISON: You like it? It’s good?
BUYANOVSKY: I loved it. And after seeing it and listening back to your albums, I started to see a similarity between you and PT Anderson, because you’re both guys who make beautiful landscapes and tell stories in a really unorthodox way. It’s beautiful, but weird. Is that a compliment, when people call you weird?
ELLISON: I like PTA. I think he’s cool, but I think sometimes—I prefer PTA at home. [pauses] His shit is just kind of boring. [laughs] I like boring, boring is cool. Boring movies are fun, I learn a lot watching boring movies, but if I’m going to the movies and paying 15 bucks, I want the soundsystem grumbling and shit to just be cracking onscreen. But I know when I see his movies, nothing’s going to blow up, I know it’s going to be really boring and talky, and I could do that at home. I could roll out of bed and watch PTA’s boring, beautiful movies.
BUYANOVSKY: All right, to finish—I found a few YouTube comments on your videos, and I’ll just read them. You can respond however you’d like.
BUYANOVSKY: “This just brain-fucked the shit out of me, oh shit.”
ELLISON: No Vaseline. [laughs]
BUYANOVSKY: Another one is: “Flying Lotus isn’t a musician, he’s an aural engineer.”
ELLISON: [laughs] That sounds dope. I feel like I’m an engineer and shit.
BUYANOVSKY: You’d be surprised, most of the comments on your songs are either about smoking weed, or people saying you don’t have to smoke weed to enjoy listening to music.
ELLISON: My music divides people!
FLYING LOTUS’ FOURTH STUDIO LP, UNTIL THE QUIET COMES, IS OUT NOW. HE PERFORMS AT TERMINAL 5 ON SUNDAY, OCTOBER 7.