Steven Ellison is the man affectionately known as Fly Lo. The psychedelic genre-bender, L.A native and steampunk master of sounds has carved out a career devoid of definition. He’s quasi-Hip Hop but also Jazz, IDM, bit-tunes and others, but it’s his penchant for improvisational song-wrangling that’s gotten yours and the worlds attention. Each release ratchets it up a notch. And beginning with Los Angeles, the great-nephew of Jazz legend Alice Coltrane has rattled off complex sonic narratives that—somehow —has achieved a manner of universal appeal.
On You’re Dead!, to try and really conjure how difficult it is for him to meld those worlds together into a cohesive Jazz synthed soul would be almost as difficult of doing the deed yourself.
“I wanted to create that sound but a lot of the improvised Jazz stuff I had to do one person at a time. We recorded one instrument at a time on different days. So that was really interesting because I kind of adopted this idea that as long as the recording and the mics and the drum-kits are the same, then I could interchange players and they should still all gel together dynamically.”
But this time the man has gone further than ever, replacing his usual heavenly voices (Nicki Randa and Laura Darlington) for Hip Hop alphas and omegas Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg. It’s created a hyper-focused record where Fly Lo simply presents the landscape through which you may try to discover yourself. Whether this particular path is for you is another thing entirely. But between Captain Murphy and getting custom artwork by mangaka Shintaro Kago as well as his new film with Khalil Joseph and Kendrick Lamar entitled m.A.A.d, Flying Lotus is spending his time like he only lives once.
How “You’re Dead” Conveys The Quintessential Death Experience
HipHopDX: The album is called You’re Dead! and you talk about it not just being a commentary on this life but a commentary on the next life. Can you talk about what that means?
Flying Lotus: Yeah. Conceptually it started off, like, I wanted it to be kind of an assault on the senses. I wanted to make some shit that just kills everything. And I wanted to—as a joke—and then the process just evolved. I Just started to think about my own life a lot and what it would mean to leave Earth, and what the next thing might be like. I thought about a lot of my friends and family who passed away… It all sort of started with that first track, and I just wanted to see what would happen if I made a record that started at the moment of death, conceptually. So, yeah, I don’t really want to put too many of my beliefs on anybody with the record, but, I wanted to convey what people consider the quintessential death experience to be like through music.
DX: During Cosmogramma, there’s a story that says you used some of the sounds of the hospital equipment in your music just before your mother passed away. Is that true?
Flying Lotus: Yeah.
DX: That’s an extremely personal thing to do. What prompted you to do that?
Flying Lotus: You know, I remember being in that space with my mom. She had a heart attack, a cardiac arrest at the end. There’s a moment when she was in a coma, and we didn’t know if she was going to come out of it or not, and we would hear these machines going off. The machines were monitoring her brain activity and her vitals—there were just all these machines. And, it was so hypnotic… And I just felt the need to capture that sound and that space so I never forget. And, Cosmogramma was my record to kind of help me get through that experience. And, ah, I wanted to have those sounds as a part of it.
DX: What records did you actually use those sounds on?
Flying Lotus: Oh, man. It’s actually throughout in different moments. Man, I haven’t heard it in so long… I’m sure if I heard the record that I’d pick up on it. It’s subtle, but I know it’s there.
Flying Lotus Explains Keeping “Never Catch Me” For You’re Dead!
DX: I wanted to go into your process. What exactly goes into a Flying Lotus record?
Flying Lotus: Well, this project is different than all the other one’s because this is the first time that I produced something that started off as an idea in my mind. Whereas in the past I’ve only done things that’re kind of like experiments as in, “What will happen if I sit in a chair and work on music today?” But this one it was like, “No. I have this idea and I’m going to bring it to the studio and try to have it fleshed out and played and replayed.” For [just] that reason alone it was way different as far as my process. But, this time around it was a lot of recording and a lot of experimenting before I even really assembled anything.
That was kind of the process. I’ve just been working on these tracks for so long… You know, in the past I would just kind of float around and produce a lot of things at once, but this time I worked on the same songs forever, man. [Laughs] I worked on these songs forever because a lot of the time what I did was… I wanted to create that sound but a lot of the improvised Jazz stuff I had to do one person at a time. We recorded one instrument at a time on different days. So that was really interesting because I kind of adopted this idea that as long as the recording and the mics and the drum-kits are the same, then I could interchange players and they should still all gel together dynamically. So I was able to just kind of craft this album and the performances in a way that felt organic but at the same time I was able to get a lot of ideas out that I wouldn’t normally get to because I’m not a classically trained musician. I got to kind of like work on the music phrase for phrase, and it was really tedious, but it was really fun at the same time. It was a challenge I had never taken on before. And, I owe a lot of that to Thundercat as well because he’s able to fill in a lot of gaps for me when communicating with musicians and stuff.
I love this record, too, because he stands out so heavy on it. He’s a part of every track. And, he’ll always have something to say musically. And, it’s awesome, I mean, I guess I take it for granted because I always hang out with him, but I guess it is really remarkable the level of communication with he and I in a room together versus I and another musician in a room together. I always feel spoiled that I’m able to work with Thundercat because his vocabulary is so large musically.
DX: Over the past four years he’s certainly been involved in at least five really great off-kilter records including his own two – of course.
Flying Lotus: Yeah, he’s definitely… And now, one more.
DX: How did the Kendrick Lamar collaboration come about?
Flying Lotus: Kendrick and me have been working together for years at this point. I was real sad that I didn’t get on good kid m.A.A.d city. [Laughs] That was a personal one. I just thought that I had something for that record.
DX: Did you put something forward for that?
Flying Lotus: We weren’t really in touch around then and then all of a sudden his album was done and I had started communicating with them right around when it was about to hit the streets. It just kind of swooped up and was done. He’s probably going to do the same thing for this shit. He’s probably going to be like, “Oh, yeah. This comes out…” the same day as my album. [Laughs] As far as the communication stuff, he’s great for that. He’s one of the few artists that I really… The man’s a genius. I’m just going to be straight up. The dude’s a genius and we’ve been a long time coming, doing this thing. It’s funny, though, when I originally gave him the track he wanted to keep it for his shit. And he really, really wanted this track, man. I’m putting it lightly, but he wanted the track.
How Kendrick Lamar Ended Up With Flying Lotus’ Captain Murphy Tracks
DX: How badly did he want the record, man?
Flying Lotus: I’m not going to put his shit on blast, but, you know, I was flattered that he really wanted the track that much. But I had to keep it for my shit because my album would have been missing something if I didn’t have[“Never Catch Me”], man. It would have been missing that moment, musically, even if it was just the instrumental. I stuck to my guns, man. I was like, “Look, man, I’ve gotta keep this one for myself. I’ll send you some other shit.” [Laughs] I’ll work in your lab, man. Yo, I don’t care.”
Eventually, I ended up giving him a lot of the music that I was going to use for my Captain Murphy album. So I don’t know what’s going to happen to those songs, but in the end he came through and recorded at my crib and it was a really cool experience and I appreciate it because he came through by himself. He came through alone; came to the crib and recorded. And, I always appreciate it when someone comes to record by themselves because I know that they’re there to work. He didn’t come through with the homies, chicks or whatever. He just came through by himself, wrote to the song with me there. I mean, he knew about the concept already, so he just got right in there, man. I was just so glad that we could do that in the same space and work around each other energetically.
DX: Kendrick Lamar’s growth from Overly Dedicated through GKMC is similar to your growth from Los Angeles through Until The Quiet Comes, do you think your paths are similar?
Flying Lotus: Wait until you see the film, man! [Laughs] Wait until you see the film is all I have to say. [Laughs] Wait until you see m.A.A.d, dude. Wait until you see the movie. That shit is amazing, man.
DX: How did you guys meet?
Flying Lotus: We met through Twitter. Then, we’ve been in touch and he started asking for tracks to his new album. Then, I was like, “Hey, would you do one for me?” And, we kind of linked up last year when we went on the “Yeezus Tour.” He called me in to help him produce for his live show. So, it was kind of a different place for me to be involved, but I helped him develop his live show with a few friends like Khalil Joseph and Timeboy. And, we built a new show. He made a crazy film out of it. And, I got to go on the road a few days with him, and he worked on music. It was great. I’ll never forget that shit. It was a really cool vibe and seeing Kendrick in his element. And that whole Kanye factor was really interesting, too
How Flying Lotus Got A Snoop Collab & Wanting To Be On Yeezus
DX: You know, when we heard Yeezus we immediately wondered if you were on there. Was it a situation similar to GKMC?
Flying Lotus: That was another one that I was really surprised. You know, maybe it’s just my ego or whatever. I was just like, hey, that’s my…
DX: Right, that’s a sound you could have helped develop…
Flying Lotus: I don’t know. Whatever, man, it’s-all-good.
DX: Another interesting collaboration is the Snoop collab. How did that come about?
Flying Lotus: First off, it was kind of a full circle for me, man. I’m sure you could look up any interview of me talking about how I got into music and it’ll be like, “The Doggystyle album is how I fell in love with Hip Hop.” His news network, the double G thing, they hit me up for Snoop. He wanted to interview me, and they chose me for the show, so I went in there and I started talking about my album, which I was just finishing. So I was almost done with it, and I was telling him about the content and he was like “Word? It’s like that?” I was like, “Yeah. I’d love for you to hear it. And then it turned into him giving me his verse, so it was perfect. It worked out. And it was the element that I needed to finish that one song. It just worked out perfectly.
DX: Is “You’re Dead” a continuation of the short film you made for “Until the Quiet Comes?”
Flying Lotus: It feels like, to me at this point, without saying I did it all on purpose. It feels like I try to continue where I leave off. And, I feel like I try to answer the question to the last record musically. The last record I tried to do was more minimal and more of a quiet kind of a record, and then I think to counter that I tried to make more of an intense record, musically. You know, I don’t know what’s going to be next. Maybe some place in between, but I think subconsciously I think that I try not to do the same exact records.
DX: There’s a more prominent Jazz theme on You’re Dead than on Until The Quiet Comes, why did you decide to go in that direction?
Flying Lotus: Well, I’ve always been inclined to do things with a Jazz angle. The work and people I surround myself with are all Jazz fans, and I think it just naturally it just kind of came out due to the frustration with the climate of Jazz music at the moment. I’ve heard a lot of Jazz for the past 20 some-odd years that just sounds like Starbucks Jazz music. And, it’s annoying as hell, man! It’s really annoying. I mean, to each his own. I think at some point in the great Jazz heyday people stopped taking drugs and they just tried to be like the shit that was already out. And they were like, “Okay, well we’re going to do Funk now. Okay, now we’re going to do Rock now, and it’s going to be this, that or whatever.” The true heads, the real Jazz heads are just playing My Favorite Things. So I wanted to make something that if Miles was still around he’d be like, “Okay, they goin’ over there [laughs]!”
Flying Lotus Explains What Comes After Death, Maybe
DX: We’ve often wondered if your music is what Jazz would have eventually become.
Flying Lotus: Well, I appreciate the legacy so much, and I respect it so much that I feel that, whatever the contribution, my contribution to that conversation is I want it to be trying to move things in a different direction than what they were doing. Why would I want to do In a Silent Way or Bitches Brew? Why would I want to do that record? They did it already. So, why don’t I do one that only I can make?
DX: Where did Captain Murphy come from and why did you decide to do that?
Flying Lotus: I mean, it’s just a lot of fun. I spent so much time just making instrumentals that I wanted to say some things sometimes. I think that Captain Murphy is that part of me that’s the most low-brow humor loving, cartoon watching, geek. And, I think, Captain Murphy gives me that opportunity to be a little more playful and to not be concerned with anybody’s feelings or what they perceive my music as Flying Lotus to be. I can be anybody. I can be anything. It can come from any perspective. It doesn’t have to be from a man’s perspective. It can be from a cartoon’s perspective. And all those things make it fun for me and inspiring. I like to write songs that maybe don’t have anything to do with what I’m doing. It can just be from the perspective of this character, which is way more fun from writing songs from the perspective of what Steve does. [Laughs] All day. And, you know, there are lots of parallels just disguised as jokes.
DX: There’s definitely a lot of Adult Swim in that guy.
Flying Lotus: [Laughs] There should be. They made him.
DX: So with the album named You’re Dead, what do you think is after this plane of existence?
Flying Lotus: I think that is something that is so crazy. [Laughs] It’s funny because I think that I spent so much of my life thinking that when we die we’ll get all the answers to what this was all about. And, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started thinking that that’s not the case. I think that when we die, it’s just another thing where we’re going to be like, “What the fuck is this?” Still not understanding anything, still confused, and still trying to figure out why we exist and all that stuff.
I feel like that’s right around the corner for us. I don’t feel like it’s all gonna be like, “Yo, so you know now you’re dead, right?” [Laughs] Maybe there’ll be that point where we’ll have a greater understanding of our time on earth… Lately I feel a lot different about that. I feel that we feel as people some inclination that we’re so smart and we deserve an explanation when we die, you know? [Laughs] Or, we’re so special that it’s all going to make sense to us. So I don’t know, man. I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit lately. I do feel like there’s more to the next [world] absolutely, and I do think that it’s going to be another crazy journey.
DX: Your albums seem so conceptual, but you mentioned this one was the most concentrated of all. What were you trying to accomplish with this one?
Flying Lotus: Conceptually, I’ve just been living in that. And, musically I’ve just been living in that. And whenever I would make things it would come from that thrust. It would come from that standpoint, like, trying to think of music that would fit in this world that I kind of established. Finding all these images didn’t come easy, either. There was a lot of music being made, but there are only certain things that kind of gelled. You have all this kind of crazy hard-bop shit and then you have the footwork inspired shit, but fusing those things together aren’t easy and having it make sense. So, the real journey of the record was the most difficult to put together?
DX: Speaking of artwork, you’ve got individual artwork for each one of these singles. Who is the artist and how did that come together?
Flying Lotus: Yeah. Initially I wanted to have photos for the album. But I thought they would be a little too grim. I wanted them to be playful and show the playful side of this record. I wanted to do something that was still kind of dark, but I wanted to do something with this artist that I love so much. The guy is Shintaro Kago. He’s a Manga artist out of Japan, and I’ve been a fan of his books for quite some time, and I think he’s figured out ways to transcend media. He makes comic books that break the framework – literally, man – of panels. I just loved his mind. I have some of his pieces in my house, and I’m looking at some of his stuff. Every time I would think about his artwork there was one piece specifically that I was like, “This is what the album feels like right here.” And I was looking at it and I was like, “Man, I should hit this dude up.” [Laughs] He was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it for you. You’re gonna pay me, right? [Laughs] You know, I didn’t think he knew what he was getting into when I first asked him, but he’s been great and really helpful and doing all the drawings and stuff. And he works so fast. He cranks this stuff out so fast that it’s been really remarkable to watch, but it’s very difficult to communicate. [Laughs]