Transcending the universal consciousness…

Rik Mayall’s death in June 2014 robbed British comedy of one of its most maverick spirits. One of the Bottom star’s final jobs was narrating a short animation called Don’t Fear Death. You can watch it here. Go on, I’ll wait. Found it? Great. “Why should you?” Rik asks. “Everyone’s doing it these days… Death is so in right now.” He goes on to explain why being dead is “absolutely brilliant”, before concluding that death is “your passport to complete and utter freedom”.

Steven Ellison has never failed to express his freedom through music. Across four previous studio albums as Flying Lotus, the Los Angeles-based producer (and occasional rapper) has discovered and embarked on contemporary compositional tangents so inspired as to impress as singularly his own – and they’ve remained so. Nobody sounds like FlyLo.

His music is unmistakable: shades of jazz and shards of hip-hop, wrought with bass and wrapped in warmth uncommon in anything loosely defined as electronic music. That his 2008-founded label is called Brainfeeder makes sense: his music feels as if it’s leaked luxuriously from the grey matter and slithered into the pressing plant, bypassing the usual digital interfaces and mixing desk mechanics.

For his fifth FlyLo LP – coming after ‘1983’ (2006), ‘Los Angeles’ (2008), ‘Cosmogramma’ (2010, review) and ‘Until The Quiet Comes’ (2012, review) – Ellison has unambiguously addressed the matter of what happens when mortality makes itself known in the most absolute manner. ‘You’re Dead!’ (review) is, as its title so clearly conveys, a meditation on what comes after – on the brilliance born from coming through blackest feelings, that candescent lure of the unknown.

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‘Ready Err Not’, from ‘You’re Dead!’ – contains graphic images which may offend

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“No, I don’t fear death,” he says, quite matter-of-factly. “Because, all the coolest people are dead already. They’re already hanging out, man.” The laughter – and when Ellison laughs, it’s incredibly infectious, his smile as bright as a beacon – subsides, briefly: “I think, when it comes to my fears, I try to confront them, head on.” Again comes a slight pause, Ellison shuffling in his seat, before he steers the conversation in a subtly different direction.

“I always think about Michael Jackson, when it comes to this. I think about him, what it must have been like for him in his dying moments. Was he like, ‘No, wait a minute, I can’t die, I’m Michael Jackson. You don’t understand, I’m Michael Jackson.’ And as cool and as nice as he probably was, there had to be that moment where he was like that: ‘But I’m Mike.’ And I wonder if that will be a part of my own psychology, too.

“The thing is, he was already immortalised, before he died. He’d had the tributes, he saw people dressing up like him. He wasn’t like other people, when that kind of stuff happens after they die. So for him, it must have been so weird. Michael Jackson can never die, no way.”

Born in 1983, the great-nephew of jazz artist Alice and her husband John, and the cousin of New York musician Ravi – surname Coltrane, all three – Ellison is of an age where Jackson will have meant something to him – the late King Of Pop’s ‘Dangerous’ was everywhere when the nascent FlyLo was beginning to explore pop’s many permutations.

But it’s not Jackson’s passing in 2009 that’s comprised a core catalyst in the creation of ‘You’re Dead!’, as Ellison has seen death’s beady eyes from a more intimate perspective than that of a distanced fan. He’s lost family – most pertinently his mother, the impact of which played a significant part in shaping ‘Cosmogramma’ – and friends, amongst them Brainfeeder-signed jazz pianist Austin Peralta, who died in late-2012 aged just 22.

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I’ve tried to pull out the quintessential death experience that people talk about, and have that as the thrust of the album…

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“I lost a good, close friend, between albums,” Ellison confirms, referencing Peralta, whose last LP, ‘Endless Planets, came out in 2011. He doesn’t dwell on losses, though, remarking on how regular bassist collaborator Thundercat (AKA Stephen Bruner, another Brainfeeder artist whose signature grooves are all over ‘You’re Dead!’) has already released a fine tribute to Peralta, his 2013 (FlyLo-exec-produced) set ‘Apocalypse’, which features ‘A Message For Austin’ and its lyrics: “I know I will see you again / In another life.”

Rather, Ellison prefers to talk about brighter things. Not least of all how spirituality manifests in his music, and how his craft has kept him from straying into less-inspirational avenues.

“Without getting too deep into spiritual beliefs and stuff, I’ve tried to pull out the quintessential death experience that people talk about, and have that as the thrust of the album,” he says of the concept behind ‘You’re Dead!’. “I’m not saying that I know exactly what to expect, but I’ve heard enough stories about near-death experiences, and I’ve had my own fair share of experiences where I think: y’know, maybe when it comes time for us to leave, we won’t have the answers. When it’s over, maybe there are no answers coming – it’s just another experience, a new one.

“All of this absolutely plugs into my own spirituality. I’m so thankful that I have music to turn to when shit gets rugged, or when I have questions, or I feel a certain strangeness about the world. I love that I am able to put that into music, because if I couldn’t, I honestly don’t know what I’d be doing.”

For the most part the silent, vocally, protagonist in his productions – although he’s finding his voice more and more with his Captain Murphy rap alter-ego, who pops up on the new LP’s ‘Dead Man’s Tetris’ track beside guesting rhymer Snoop Dogg – Ellison has previously struggled to align his own thematic ambitions with a collective of co-conspirator mouthpieces.

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I was really against the Kendrick track coming out as the first thing from this record…

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“I might be emailing tracks between people, in the past,” he recalls, “and you’ll hear something, and it’s like, ‘That has nothing to do with this, with what I’m trying to do here.’ I wanted everything on ‘You’re Dead’ to have a unified thread, conceptually.”

With that in mind, his vocalists for album five are high quality, low quantity, each one absolutely locked into Ellison’s vision. “In the past when I have worked with other artists, a lot of the time I’d give them a great deal of freedom, to do whatever they wanted,” Ellison continues. “Not this time. In this case, the idea for the album was there, before anything else, so I was able to communicate my thoughts on the themes, and what the record is supposed to mean, to everyone. So that kept the story intact.”

Although ‘You’re Dead’ isn’t overloaded with ‘feat.’ credits, its chief architect is nevertheless wary of his more fair-weather followers getting the wrong impression of the record based on one standout lyrical turn. ‘Never Catch Me’ preceded its parent LP by a month and more, immediately turning the heads of the hardcore and previously unaware alike. Pitchfork named it Best New Track, and Radio 1’s Zane Lowe delivered his trademark heat. It’s easy to hear why it took off: the track is a perfect marriage of hyper-speed, hard-bop-recalling jazz motifs, skittering electro-beats, and a pace-keeping lyric from rapper of the moment (and, likely, many more to come), Kendrick Lamar

“Honestly, I was really against the Kendrick track coming out as the first thing from this record, the first thing that people would hear,” says Ellison. As it played out, it was actually a teaser for the album as a whole that debuted ahead of ‘Never Catch Me’, but the YouTube stats speak for themselves: 18,000 plays for the teaser in four weeks, close to a million for the Kendrick cut in just a quarter of that time.

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‘Never Catch Me’, from ‘You’re Dead!’

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Continues the producer: “I didn’t want them to have that wrong impression of the album, because that’s not what it’s like all the way through, at all. Thankfully, we were able to put something else out before that, which kinda gave a better idea of the record’s trajectory. But the Kendrick track has kind of exploded, so it could still be a bit misleading for the casual fan.” It might not be quite a perfect microcosm of its parent LP, then, but ‘Never Catch Me’ does crystallise the album’s central theme effectively, showcasing how Ellison’s guidance was taken on board: “This that outer-body experience,” says Lamar towards its close, “No coincidence you’ve been died.”

“I want it to be like a film,” says Ellison, staying on the album’s conceptual slant. “Like, an audio film - this is my chance to make a movie, albeit one you listen to. I want this cinematic experience. And I don’t want to overly push my own beliefs on anybody – more, I want to spark imaginations, and have people think about the moment of death, when you leave your body and you leave your ego and you’re stripped of who you think you are, and how people perceive you. You leave all that behind, so you have to find comfort in not being part of the earth anymore, part of these earthly things. And then, eventually, coming to the resolve of knowing that we are eternal beings – the things and the love we leave behind, that is forever.”

What’s far from eternal is Ellison’s immediate attention to his craft – in so much as he’s not some darkened studio workaholic who only sees the sun between bouncing mixes into audio files. He’s a life-liver, a self-fulfiller, and gains little satisfaction from staring at a screen when inspiration is at a premium. Rather, he stores influences, starting points, phrases and images, until the time comes where they can combine to create music: the outlet at the end of everything, the release of energy accumulated over days, weeks, and more.

“It comes in waves, for me,” he says. “Even though I am always working, and writing new ideas, it doesn’t come out too often. Every other month it’ll just be: bam, and I’ll do 10 things. But then I’ll go quiet again, for a while. Feelings will build up, and sometimes music and ideas are born out of insecurity, or will be ego-driven things. Eventually, I’ll get to a place in the creative process where there is no wall between what’s happening at the source and in my fingertips…”

And that’s when the blossoming happens, when Ellison becomes the Lotus and flowers, gloriously. “Sometimes, there’s some crazy communication happening that I don’t even know if I can take credit for,” he continues. “And then it’s almost disappointing, because I snap out of that trance, that state – and then I have to name what I’ve just made. It’s a trip.”

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No idea is off limits. I just follow my instincts. And I really did try to put my sense of humour in ‘You’re Dead!’…

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Ellison’s spoken in the past about his drug experiences – and how his music has been guided by what he’s felt in a state of realism-release – but these days the music alone is helping him achieve a sense of transcendence. Sure, he talks about “getting faded” a few times in our conversation – and the silliness that can come of it – but it’s through his art that this unique talent is truly flying. And the last thing Ellison wants is for that situation to change, for work to become too stuffy, too formalised.

“No idea is off limits,” he says. “I just follow my instincts. And, I don’t know if this comes through on the album, but I really did try to put my sense of humour in ‘You’re Dead!’. I don’t want to be super serious, dreary and dark; I wanted to have light on there, and silly moments.”

Every now and then, a little goofiness certainly does come across – yes, ‘You’re Dead’ is adeptly arranged, but there’s no saving your funny bones from a brittle demise if you can’t hear the great dollops of fun it contains. The first few minutes of the set – everything that leads up to ‘Never Catch Me’ – are a rush of rhythmically adventurous, but equally hilarious, constituents that are connected to their maker’s original intentions for this collection.

“My idea, at the beginning, was to make a record that was all the best bits of hard-bop,” recalls Ellison. “But without the soloing. So, really short but with an almost hip-hop slant – almost like the breaks of these hard-bop references. But then, that concept evolved, and I found so much more to say. But I definitely wanted to have that thrust, at the beginning, rather than to come in with sprinkles of jazz. I wanted to have the jazz thing there alongside the elements of hip-hop.”

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‘MmmHmm’ featuring Thundercat, from ‘Cosmogramma’

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Jazz isn’t just an important part of Ellison’s family tree – it forms a foundational platform for so much of his fresh material. The man isn’t afraid to embrace the word and battle any connotations it may have, any negative stigma attached to it. “To me, at this point, jazz is more a mindset than a lifestyle, or a mentality – more than just a sound. Of course there’s a sound too, but the way I think about it now, it’s how we carry ourselves, how we express ourselves.”

However, in terms of jazz practitioners of the present day, Ellison is forthright with his opinion that contemporary players are lacking in originality. “There’s not a lot of good jazz out there, right now. I think that a lot of jazz stuff, now, is overly referential to the 1960s and 1970s. All of these otherwise awesome jazz records that come out, they always have to have a standard on there, like a cover. They know that when people go out today, to hear jazz, they have particular songs they want to hear, like ‘My Favourite Things’, or ‘Giant Steps’ and stuff like that.

“Now, those are great songs – they were great songs in their time. But damn, man. Time’s moved on. Let’s move on, and make some shit. Because I know if those guys making those albums in the 1960s were here today, they’d be pissed off. They’d be like, ‘What the f*ck happened? Okay, I get it – y’all stopped taking acid.’ Why does everything sound so clean and pristine? I think that as far as a lifestyle, and the things that people used to talk about in jazz, is gone. It’s mostly tribute bands.

“It’s funny, because as much as jazz is supposed to be out of the box, it definitely has a fucking box around it, doesn’t it. It’s really sad, man, especially as a musical term now: you get someone calling your stuff jazz, and you might be, ‘Aw, don’t call it that, man.’”

What do we call the music of Flying Lotus in 2014, then? Jazz-hop? How about simply genius? That’s what a friend of mine says to me, when I tell him I’m meeting Ellison: “Tell him he’s a f*cking genius.” So, I do.

“I don’t know what a genius is, exactly,” he replies. “People throw the word around a lot. I feel like I have an element of genius, for sure. But, there are a lot of things about me that are completely idiotic, too. I am the worst person to calculate a tip, for example. But, I think it’s a funny one. There’s something to be said for being at the right place, at the right time – and always being just ahead of time. There’s something about being there right then, in the moment connected to the social consciousness of the time - to where people’s minds are at, and making an artistic expression at that time, which really resonates with people. To do that is brilliance.”

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I dig into myself, and challenge myself, y’know. Because that’s the most rewarding and honest thing…

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Which makes FlyLo a futurist, perhaps. Or some kind of musical time-traveller, connecting the sounds of the past with some we’re nowhere close to fully comprehending, let alone realising in any mainstream-feeding fashion. ‘You’re Dead!’ is short, sharp, aggressively concentrated with ideas, running to under 40 minutes and flitting between tones and textures enough times to feel much shorter. It’s very much an album, over a bunch of tracks bundled together to make up a long-playing length: bold as love, bound until death, but likely to echo beyond it.   

“The whole trajectory is important to me, man,” says Ellison. “I’m not the kind of artist who likes to do a club-banger EP, or little two-track singles here and there. I’m not that guy. I feel like my strengths come with going the distance, and trying to tell that bigger story. No disrespect to anyone who does things differently, but I know my place in this game, in the scheme of things.

“There have been a lot of projects that have passed by, that I wish I’d been a part of in some capacity. Every time that does happen, it breaks my heart. There’s been so many in the past couple of years. But it is more fulfilling for me to do these albums, my albums. I don’t need the money, and I don’t want the fame. A lot of producers I know have gravitated towards pop, because Rihanna cares about beats, y’know? And that’s cool, whatever. But there are so many people chasing that game. I’ve made a decent name and living for myself, enough that I don’t have to be a part of that. I only have to do the things that really interest me. Again, I’m constantly f*cking reminded of my place in all of this.

“Instead of trying to do what he’s doing, or she’s doing, and get in on the whole trap or 808 thing, how about I just do the thing that I’m good at, the best I can? So I can dig into myself, and challenge myself, y’know. Because that’s the most rewarding and honest thing.”

Challenging, rewarding, honest: if ever three words described a Flying Lotus album, it’s these. And ‘You’re Dead!’ is no different. Dig in yourself, and you’ll find more of that inimitable envelopment, the characteristic complete and utter freedom that Ellison has forged his musical identity from. If the afterlife for real is half as colourful, anywhere near as brilliant, we’ll all need shades.

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Words: Mike Diver
Photos: Janneke Van Der Hagen
Fashion: Harry Lambert

‘You’re Dead!’ is out now on Warp Records. Flying Lotus online

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