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Steven Ellison is casting his spell on popular music, changing what it means to see live electronic shows and, oh yeah, completing a groundbreaking jazz album. The multi-monikered Renaissance man is flying high – real high.
FLYING LOTUS with THUNDERCAT at the Sound Academy (11 Polson), Wednesday (May 15), doors 8 pm. $24. TW. See listing.
After electronic musician Teebs’s opening set and before rapper Jeremiah Jae goes on, headliner Steven Ellison emerges and pulls us through a pack of gawking kids.
Typically, the star of the show doesn’t mingle with the expectant crowd, but last October there he was: Flying Lotus, taller than everyone else, cutting through the Danforth Music Hall throng with purpose – making sure his friend Holly and her friend, me, have good positioning for the spectacle he’ll never get to see.
His show is part visual art installation, part mushroom-fuelled 3-D movie, borderline spiritual experience. He stands in front of his laptop, partially obscured behind one scrim and in front of another. David Wexler, aka Strangeloop, is in the back of the venue with John King, aka Timeboy, making sure the projected psychedelic visuals are as beautiful and all-encompassing as the audio. The show concept is called Layer 3, and it’s Ellison’s invention.
“Not to sound like a dick, but I’ll never be able to see it,” he says weeks later on the phone from New York. “Like, that sucks. They show me footage sometimes and I’m like ‘What? How did – what? That’s what it looks like? Oh my gahhhd!’ I geek out a little bit.”
After the show, he emerges to meet some fans, walking around the emptying, lights-on venue, big strides, a group of disciples winding in tow behind.
It’s easy to start thinking of Ellison as a messiah for popular music. Or at least for L.A.’s electronic and hip-hop scenes. At 29, he has, after all, famously worked with Thom Yorke, Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar. He’s also produced for Mac Miller and logged studio time with Childish Gambino.
Flying Lotus is an electronic musician, but his is not the formulaic beat-pounding of today’s EDM superstars. It’s unmistakably laptop, often ambient, but spliced with epic melodies, exotic instruments, jazzy arrangements and haunting vocals.
His songs feel both ancient and new. Unexpected Delight, from his debut album, 1983, sounds like the soundtrack for a 1950s Jimmy Stewart-goes-to-India film, while Sleepy Dinosaur, from his Los Angeles record, would work as an appropriate soundtrack for the Mars landing.
“I thought of it more like lullabies before bed, some music to dream to,” he says of his most recent album, Until The Quiet Comes, “the idea of the innocent dreamer, new to the planet and dreaming up what they perceive the world to be.”
Ellison’s world didn’t involve composing on a computer until a decade ago, when he met Wexler while he was attending film school in San Francisco.
“I never, never thought you could do that. It was the early 2000s, and people weren’t making shit like they do now. It was crazy to see that reality: a kid in the hallway with his headphones on making drum and bass and electronic music, so I was like, ‘I can sit in front of the computer and make that? Uh, sssssign me up.'”
The two became fast friends and musical co-conspirators.
“We were geeks, and we liked psychedelics. We were tripping on mushrooms together. He didn’t know much about hip-hop and he knew a lot about crazy electronic stuff, so we got to bond over shit like that.”
Eventually, Ellison dropped out of school to move back to his hometown L.A. and pursue music full-time.
“I had [made music] before, but when I got into the computers I found my missing something. I remember going home and being so inspired. That summer I took out all the curtains that made my room dark and made it really bright and let the air in. It stopped being the dark movie cave and became the inspiring music lab.”
Today, between in-person interviews at the Red Bull Music Academy and sound check for the night’s concert, he displays all of that wide-eyed inspiration. He’s light, airy, quick to laugh. He answers questions in singsong.
It happens to be International Jazz Day, which is serendipitous. Ellison has released four electronic albums as Flying Lotus, plus a rap one under his Captain Murphy moniker. But right now he’s working on a jazz album, which is significant: Ellison’s family is steeped in jazz history. Most famously, his great-aunt and -uncle are the late jazz musicians Alice and John Coltrane.
“Right after we finished Thundercat’s record, we were like, ‘What are we gonna do now? Are we gonna go there? Are we gonna go there? Are we gonna go THERE? Dude, yeah. We should just fucking go there right now because we can.’ I’m really fucking stoked about it actually. It’s the one thing that I think about all the time, creatively.”
Ellison is hazy about the details – at least initially – because he doesn’t want anyone lifting his idea. “I don’t think anyone’s ever done a record like this before,” he says.
“There’s not much substantial jazz music out right now, and you hear a lot of coffee-table shit and you hear a lot of fuckin’ fake elevator shit. I want to go for that crazy-ass shit that people forgot about. So there’s a lane for us right now.”
He gets increasingly animated as he explains the writing process. “We do it layer for layer like I would make a beat. I’ll get the drummer to do this thing, then I’ll get the key guy to do this and then sometimes the keys and the bass are together…. Aw, see? I’m already giving away the shit. Most of it’s live. There’s some samples, though, some things I’m trying to clear that are bigger than other things.”
As of now, the group includes his frequent collaborator and tour partner, bassist Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat, as well as legends, Grammy winners and superstars Herbie Hancock, Ronald Bruner Jr., Kamasi Washington and Gene Coy. And now, in New York, he’s recording with yet more artists.
“It’s gonna be a fuckin’ mean-ass collab because I don’t want it to be just one drummer. There’s gonna be a whole bunch of different people drumming. There’s gonna be… dammit!” He exhales, defeated. “I still gotta finish it.”
This list of collaborators on the still-unnamed jazz group might be epic, but as Flying Lotus the producer and solo artist, Ellison’s reached a selfish point in his career.
“I was telling Thundercat this the other day,” he says. “Fuck giving away beats to people and trying to sell beats. Keep all the dope shit for us and let everybody else eat the crumbs if they want ’em. I’m not into the idea of chasing anyone to collaborate right now – just cuz there’s a lot of really cool stuff happening under my own nose.”
Under FlyLo’s nose is his mostly electronic Brainfeeder label, which turned five this year. “We still have a lot of work to do-o-o-o-o,” he sings like a tough-love parent. Plus, in New York, he’s been working with 18-year-old Brooklyn rap prodigy Joey Bada$$, among others.
He’s also very excited about Earl Sweatshirt’s upcoming album, even though he didn’t work on it – so far. “It ain’t out yet anything can happen. We got another song that…” he breaks into laughter, annoyed with himself. “Let’s just say it ain’t over yet.”
It isn’t. And like outer space, and his songs, the end is unpredictable. “To be able to live this life as a creative person – when I was a kid, that was my only goal. I was like, ‘I could have my own studio apartment? And make music all day? For real? That could be real? For me?’ So, I’m doing all right.”
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