The idea of musical auteur in jazz is nothing new yet for Californian DJ producer Flying Lotus, real name Steven Ellison, this concept takes on a new dimension. Bridging the gap between his serious jazz links, as the great nephew of Alice Coltrane and his impeccable rep as a natural successor to much feted, late great producer J Dilla and jazz loving solo artist DJ Shadow. I spoke to him for Time Out magazine ahead of his headline performance at the Roundhouse.
What did you expect the reaction to Cosmogrammar to be? Did you have any preconceived ideas about how people might react to the record?
“I was always stressing about the reaction to the record, because when the record leaked was when I was really worried because it just made me feel really vulnerable because what’s said is said with the music and just putting it all out there. So I was in that place between the production period and journalists are digging into it, and fans are writing things online – I just felt very vulnerable and I just didn’t know what was going to happen, or whether they would like it or what. It was just a really weird place and I think that happens to all artists who have their music leaked online before it’s finished.
Did you have the sound of the record formed your mind before you created it or was it through then creative process that you found a lot the sounds on there?
Well a lot of the elements, like the jazz influences on there and the strings stuff was something that I always wanted to do, but I never really felt that comfortable to pursue that sort of sound because I wasn’t really able to speak a meaningful language to the musicians because I didn’t really feel confident in doing it for so long. But then I started working with Thundercat and the way we started building things gave me more confidence that I could take these ideas to people and then it started to happen. I was also listening to a lot of Alice Coltrane at the time too, a lot of that music was really inspiring me at the time, obviously the family connection is there but I just felt like I could see why someone could make these things, I could see a place that you go to get that sound.
Do you plan on pursuing this more experimental side of your music in future?
I don’t know man; I only do what my heart says in that way, and I just go with it. Whatever vibe I’m feeling, but I can’t really say where we’re going at the moment, but I always plan on expanding things out and I always plan on trying to do something different from the last thing. The new album isn’t going to be like Cosmogrammar at all, it just feels different, it just feels more proggy, and I’ve been more influenced by that sound lately. I’ve been listening to a lot of Gentle Giant all day, every day for the last few weeks.
You bring a lot of freedom to electronic music – keeping it very organic and playful – is that in part thanks to the technology that’s available today?
In terms of the technology it’s now limitless man, and it’s overwhelming sometimes to sit and look at these screens because there are no limitations except the imagination at this point with music. It can be very overwhelming and sometimes it stops me altogether from making things because it’s such a strange time when people are listening and you can say whatever you want, I just want to make sure I’m saying the most honest thing with the work not doing things because it’s hip, or the trendy thing to do, I just want to stay true to the stuff that’s inspiring me.
There can be such a thing as ‘option paralysis’ with all these possibilities at your fingertips today right?
That’s exactly it, especially when you are using a lot of this new software with all the plugins and this stuff, you can get so caught up in all that shit, that stuff ain’t getting made! It’s interesting.
How has jazz and improvisation affected you as a creative person?
I wish I was a better musician in that respect because that’s the most inspiring part of too now, but it’s the part that I can’t do. It’s like I can make deep all day, I can make electronic music all day but I’d much rather be playing an instrument with Thundercat on stage or whatever, and that’s the next stage in the process, that and doing more vocals on my end; I feel like more than ever I need to start speaking and saying things on songs rather than letting them just be instrumentals. Again there’s so much to say, and obviously the music speaks for itself, but I feel like I can define the experience a little bit more with words.
Has your friendship with Thom Yorke had an influence on how you make music now?
Absolutely, it’s like one of those things where I know he’s listening and we know we want to continue our collaboration, I try to keep that mind when I’m working on stuff too thinking whether this is something he can get into as well. Obviously I’ve always been into Radiohead.He seems very open – getting really into the stuff you two were doing at Low End Theory – albeit this is a very white guy from Oxfordshire…(Laughs) …hanging out in some grimy-ass club in LA! He’s great… I’m sure some people were concerned for his safety that night but he wasn’t worried at all, he was like ‘Shiiit…’
So what’s going to be happening at your Roundhouse gig?
It’s going to be really cool as I’ve been working with these guys ANTIDJ – a visual collective – and they are using some new projection stuff happen on a very huge screen and it’s a lot of fun. It’s composed in a narrative style and it’s like kind of abstract sounds that we are making but the music puts it together, it should be really fun.
Are there any themes running through it?
Yeah there are a lot of abstract themes running through it – it’s like birth of the universe – like some kind of 2001: A Space Odyssey shit… (Laughs), I’ve heard the Roundhouse is a beautiful place… right up my alley.
Can you tell me about your new album?
Well it’s going to be out next year, I don’t know how it’s going to be, it’s too soon to say, but I kind of feel it needs to be a kind of low key thing, I don’t want it to be like…Aaaaahhhh! Or shouting from the rooftops, I want it to be for the fans for people who already know me and who have been following me, I don’t know how far reaching I want it to be this time around, I just want to do something subtle. Because I feel like Cosmogrammar was such a big statement, and there was such a big push on it, I just feel like I want to do something a little bit more low key. I don’t want to do any press on it, or any long lead ins with journalists – no offence – I just want it to a conversation with my fans.You have the Brainfeeder website / label – I was really enjoying Taylor McFerrin’s stuff…Oh Yeah Taylor McFerrin, he’s Bobby McFerrin’s son, he’s really good – he’s a great artist and he’s doing an album too for us.
You’re also working with Erykah Badu – is this correct?
Yeah I’m producing a project with her – I don’t know when or how it’s all going to happen but we’ve been making some music and hopefully it’s going to build itself and should be ready by the middle of next year but I can’t put a date on it unfortunately.
Do you find music fans more open minded today – and able to accept a wider range of music and accept more stuff that’s just good as opposed to pre-packaged?
“Yeah I do find them more open minded but at the same time but there’s also this weird situation where I feel that a lot of the mystique of creating music has gone… I mean we’re in a time where it’s hard to be a guy like Burial where you can hide behind images and cartoons and not have to engage with the fans. Maybe a better man will be able to figure out a way to do it, but a lot of the social networking and the better access we have to artists on a personal level it kind of removes some of the magic I think. Think about it, so what if in the early 90s we had Twitter and Michael Jackson used Twitter, I don’t know it just wouldn’t work for him I don’t think. Part of the magic of the Michael Jackson thing was his being unavailable, that made it work. And I think that the same for a lot of artists with that element of magic it just makes it way more intriguing for the fans – like the don’t know anything but they have these weird songs – I feel the mystery and the magic part of it is a lot harder to do nowadays because everyone has to know everything about everything. You have to hold to some element of surprise, some element of magic and mystique – especially for a new artist. It’s so difficult for them to put themselves out there without getting involved in that whole thing – you’ve got to put your name and your face out there for people to check you out. Unless you come up with some sort of awesome mysterious project that gets everyone interested. But even if you did that people look at that kind of shit nowadays and just think, “oh there’s some guy just trying to be mysterious…” or they are just like “who cares?” I mean my favourite artists write me back! (Laughs) So there are pros and cons about it.”
Your ICA show last year was very organic and you seemed to be taking a lot of risks with the music – I’m guessing that you never underestimate what your audience is capable of accepting in terms of the scale and scope of the music?
It’s not just that it’s also about being conscious of the fact that people do expect things of you – not to go into it too much but have it in your mind that people will expect something like this – for a second I felt that was hanging over my head or out-do Cosomogrammar, and go even crazier than Cosomogrammar but the way I react to it is by doing something very simple, something very bare bones but very honest again. I feel like I don’t have to prove myself in any kind of way anymore, which is a good feeling.
You’ve done a lot of revolutionise how jazz is perceived as well because jazz used to be the most radical and rebellious form of music making and sadly a lot of it can now sound very safe and predictable.
“It’s like if you’re playing songs from 20 or 30 years ago and not make it progressive or not try to change it up at all – it’s like ‘how good can we play a 35 year old song!?’ (Laughs) that shit kills me man! It kills me, and so with my label I’ve been trying to open that door for other musicians, like jazz musicians, to try to think outside and invite some of the technology into the music too. You know I always thought that if some of these dope-ass jazz musicians, like some of these really amazing players were fucking-Ableton (music software) masters too… that would fuck the whole game up man! It’s this kind of in between place at the moment but I’ve foreseen it man – like pretty soon you’re going to have these virtuoso musicians really getting in with the technology too and really accelerating the music.
Do you feel like London is a special place to play?
Yeah I feel like London in my world it’s like the second most important place to play and I feel like it’s the second city, or maybe even the first, that truly embraced me, I always have a lot of love for London. I may not like the weather or some of the vibes there but I really do feel like the people there really made me international and I feel like they’ve been down since day one – so I try to go in and do the right thing – it’s London man, it’s such a big music city. I learn so much when I go there about what’s new and I always find and I always find the new stuff gets there first and people will always be willing to embrace a new sound there before anybody else. So that’s really awesome to me – I wish more people and places were like that.