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Los Angeles electronic music producer Flying Lotus, born Steven Ellison, is exhausted. Fresh off opening Thom Yorke’s solo tour, Ellison just released his third full-length, the highly anticipated Cosmogramma—which features some guest vocals from Yorke. Ellison also runs his own label, Brain Feeder. The A.V. Club caught up with the fast-moving 27-year-old, who described the mad scientist-like thinking behind Cosmogramma’s banging, 42-minute electro-psychedelic collage, his epileptic live shows, and where he wants to grow from here.
The A.V. Club: Your live show almost feels interrogative, like it’s asking the audience to decide whether it’s even music.
Flying Lotus: Each time, I’m asking, “Can we go this far?” It’s an opportunity to build a universe and I’m really trying to take advantage of that.
AVC: Even you looked surprised by the positive reactions at your South By Southwest set in March.
FL: That was a lot of fun. I was a little drunk, but it was lot fun. I was talking shit.
AVC: At the end of your set, you semi-jokingly told the crowd, “Okay, go back out there and listen to bands making the same old sounds.”
FL: I had to say it. Walking around Austin on the way to the show, listening to all the bands playing, it was kind of frustrating. It’s like, “I know this song. I don’t know this song, but I know this song.” It just got a little stale. I was a little hesitant to even do South By Southwest. In my little experience there, the people didn’t care about the music, they were just there to say they were there. The last time I played, no one was dancing. People are talking on their phones. I was up there working and they could care less. This time, I was really surprised. I was really taken aback by how active the crowd was. The show is only going to be as good as you let me make it. If they don’t want to get into it, then I can’t get into it.
AVC: Your live show totally obscures what you’re doing. You’re just this hulking shadow. What are you actually doing?
FL: I use my computer and MIDI trigger. It’s kind of like an MPC trigger, but it hooks up to a computer full of all my clips.
AVC: So, are all your shows improvised?
FL: Oh yeah man, I don’t know where we’re going. That’s been the most fun, figuring out where we can take it. Some people know parts to the set but I don’t play the same way every night. It’s so much fun to come up with combinations. You get yourself in these pockets and tangents. I’m remixing my shit every night.
AVC: Being on the road is brutal for some. Do you travel well?
FL: The traveling is weird, but when you get on stage all that shit is left behind. It’s a really liberating experience. All these little things I come up with, and people see it live and it’s new. You can work on something that day. You can keep the drums from it and then lay them live with new melodies. It’s a little bit of everything, stuff from full releases, unreleased bits, a collage of things. And all my clips trigger visuals too, so the clips are synced up to the visuals.
AVC: Lots of audio-visual artists have tried to fuse the two, but your show seems to work because it’s much more abstract. I think I saw the clip of the brain drill scene from the movie Pi.
FL: You caught it. Basically we’ve just been chopping up bits and pieces and things, films but mostly original material. [Battles and Erykah Badu videographer] Tim Saccenti has been editing footage in his computer and doing effects and stuff to it. Every sound has a visual performance that goes with it.
AVC: It’s hypnotic and transportive, almost like light therapy.
FL: That’s the goal. I’m up there by myself. I want people to be able to have this experience and it’s an opportunity to engage with folks in a different way.
AVC: It’s been a crazy year for you. How has your day to day changed?
FL: It’s picking up a little. There’s no one knocking at my door at the moment except for you, of course. [BBC DJ] Mary Anne Hobbs hooked up the connections for my record. She knows I love Thom Yorke, and she thought this might have been the time to approach them. She made the connect happen. She sent them my stuff. In a couple days I had e-mails with Thom’s vocals in them. He’s such a fan of electronic music. I’d love to contribute a hand to his recordings.
AVC: What did you grow up listening to?
FL: All types of stuff. I fell in love with the West Coast ’90s Death Row sound. That was my shit. As a kid, it was super-melodic hip-hop, funky and just L.A. I loved listening to rock, classical, jazz. I was exposed to so many types of music.
AVC: You’re on TV all the time thanks to those Adult Swim interstitials you’re known for. Do you cut those yourself?
FL: I just send in the tracks. I keep forgetting I have certain songs on Cartoon Network. I’ll be watching a TV and it’ll be playing a track from my album. It’s cool. Also, I have a little label Brain Feeder – we just did a deal with Ninja Tune for our distribution now. We have got an album from Daedelus and we’re putting that out. He’s the best. He’s so talented.
AVC: The album art from Cosmogramma is quite striking. You’re a visual artist as well. Is that you?
FL: It was my mentor, actually, this artist Leigh McCloskey, this old soap-opera actor who quit all that shit and focused on his art. He’s very spiritual and artistic and actually believes in something. I was afraid to even ask him to do it. He doesn’t sell his work or get into the whole commercial side of stuff. His whole studio is painted and full of paintings. It’s like stepping into a nebula. I met him through a friend who actually got me into making music when I was in college. Dr. Strangeloop, this really cool kid. We always had conversations about who our mentors were and we agreed to introduce each other to our mentors. He took me to meet McCloskey. We took mushrooms and drove up to his place. I introduced him to my Aunt Alice [Coltrane].
AVC: What did she teach you?
FL: As far as what I learned from my aunt, we never really talked about music and composition. She was trippin’ on spiritual studies. She was recording in the ’80s around the time I was born. By the time I got older my aunty was our family’s spiritual leader. Music was never really our relationship. She was a spiritual mentor and I could come to her with things, questions about why the world was made the way it was and she’d break things down for me. In our family she was the matriarch, the elder, the wise person. She was there to help us find our way and when the family needed it we all kind of looked to her for guidance.