Back in February, I rented a car and wound up in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park, to interview Stephen Ellison a/k/a Flying Lotus for Spin Magazine. To get to his pad, it required ascending steep hills and making abrupt turns onto hairpin roads. Reaching Fly Lo's home studio, tucked between dense verdure of vines and spiny palms, such a landscape befitted his music, which straddles the line between Gordian-knot complexity and ineffable gorgeousness. We rapped about his forthcoming album, lucid dreaming, and of course, his great-aunt Alice Coltrane, who remains one of my favorite musicians. I think my true admiration of her music got Ellison to go a bit deeper with me, but he truly is an open individual and the hang was a profound one.
What Warp stuff were you into back then?
I'd always loved the Broadcast stuff and obviously Aphex Twin, Squarepusher. I liked a bunch of that stuff, Chris Cunningham. I wasn't in the know. I liked those people but didn't make the connection that it was all the same label.
Aphex was one of the first guys that everyone realized you could listen to that wasn't a band. Did being on the label freak you out at all?
I never thought they'd be interested in what I was doing. I didn't think that was their avenue. They were in the UK. I was surprised. They were getting into a lot of rock and indie shit.
What is it like to have that platform?
I think it's so incredible. I think it's crazy. I'm into psychedelics and astral traveling and yet people are getting into it, a lot of people are getting that message. That's pretty wild. I just hope people dig this record.
Did you play music as a kid? Were you in a musical household?
Musical stuff was always happening. My grandmother used to write songs for Motown back in the day. There was always music happening around me. I was always messing around with instruments, playing with them like toys. I got to see my aunt a lot in the studio, see my grandmother work with people. A lot of my cousins make music, my cousin Ravi (Coltrane), my cousin Oran. Oran got me into making music in the first place. He was making music on an old Apple, the IIci, some software-based program, making tunes like that. Just the fact that you could make music like that, all by yourself with all these toys, tripped me out. He's Ravi's brother, but Ravi lives in New York, Oran lives in LA. He still does music. He's doing his thing. He's the one who gave me stuff first, toys and stuff. He's like a big brother to me.
I was born 1983, so when I was a kid, he'd have me around. I looked up to him. And he'd play video games with me and hear music together. Eventually, I started messing with toys and he got me my own piece, an MC-505. I was playing saxophone too at school, but I didn't take to it. I was on a beat thing. When I was 16, I started making beats on this machine. It was a hobby, I never had any other mentor other than my cousin. It was weird. Things have changed so much. You can go on YouTube and learn how to make beats. Back then, it was just a toy, not a tool.
If Oran is acting as your older brother, did he also act as a gateway for other music too, like Bad Brains or Public Enemy?
He turned me onto classical music, which I definitely give him credit for. He played me Stravinsky stuff. It just blew my mind, Stravinsky and then Tchaikovsky and then it was on. I learned about Prince and Björk from him. I was into west coast rap, Dr. Dre. Dre was my hero when I was 14. I was so into that g-funk shit.
When did the messing around start evolving towards what you were hearing?
When I was a kid, I just wanted to be Dre. That was it. That kind of shit. I didn't know anything about it. I made stuff and I thought it sounded cool. I wished I had a lot of that old stuff, back when I was super-innocent. I wish I had all that shit. It was just my thing. My mom knew it. I went to study film later on in life, in college. And my mom went “You're going to do something with music. I just know it.” and I was all “Really? I'm just tinkering around.”
Did you do stuff with rappers?
I tried to work with a lot of the MCs but I wasn't in a part of LA where a lot of creative shit was happening. A bunch of guys who think they're rappers. I mean, forget about producers, I didn't meet anyone making beats at all. That's why I was feeling like an alien; it didn't seem real to me at all. I let it go for awhile and made film.
What was the tipping point?
When I went to college I met this kid that I still work with. He goes by Dr. Strangeloop now. He put me onto using a laptop to make music. It had been MIDI and all that confusing stuff. But this stuff was straight out of the box making music. And I went, sign me up! And I stopped going to film school. I graduated from one school, but then dropped out. I was doing really experimental, retro-futuristic sci-fi stuff. I shot a lot of shit on 35mm. Shooting on film is my thing; I love that. I have an idea for the end of the year, a visual album. A 45-minute thing. But the music's been hitting like “bam-bam-bam-bam.” Now I can focus on the visuals for a minute. That's why I moved the studio stuff upstairs. I'm going to be doing a live AV set for tour. I also run a little label, vibing on that stuff.
Can I check out some visual stuff?
(We screen a video of him synching the music to visuals)
I actually feel like I'm in a good place to start working on it again. I kept thinking I had to do an hour long thing. But it feels better now to do shorter vignettes. At the time I was making it, there was no YouTube. The idea of it being more viral, less a feature-length thing would be better. The time I spent with her, doing this thing, it was soooo amazing and so intense. I don't want to make too many edits to it. I just want people to see her in her element, people talking about her. Just see her do her thing.
What was her element?
We were in India. People would come out to see her. She was just traveling to ashrams and temples. That was five years ago. She did a show in Paris. A lot of behind the scene stuff. I have footage from her ashram in Agorra, California. That's part of the story too, what's going to happen to that ashram.
At what point, growing up, does her influence on who she was and what she accomplished fully register with you?
It's weird. I've always admired and respected her. And as I would learn more, I would go wow. You learn more about music...wow. You learn more about life...wow. I go through waves of feeling this admiration and respect for my aunt and her life and her work. I remember being young and going “Why do people make such a fuss about Auntie?” people would come over and kiss her feet. And I kept thinking, “But this is Auntie!” I understand it now. I understand why people would treat her as they did. She was incredible. She's still here.
So much of her music is still beyond peoples' grasp. The jazz critics still don't get her.
Everyone would want to talk to her about John. She was always in that shadow. In my eyes, I didn't even know she was getting down like that. It was always, John Coltrane, John Coltrane.
I feel that Cosmogramma you really grappled with what she was up to. An acknowledgment.
Thanks, man. I'm glad you noticed that (laughs). I was so moved by her music and the making of this record, I really feel like I understood why she did what she did. Particularly, Lords of Lords.
That one never quite gets its due. There's this serenity to it, but it's so turbulent. I remember listening to it in Thailand, and seeing these gold temples tucked into this wild jungle and feeling it in that context. It had this grandeur but it was still dangerous.
Ah, man! She's just genuine, man. I think I understand this record a little bit. This is what drove me crazy.
What do you understand about the album? Because it still seems to be out at the outermost edge of music to me.
For me, this record is the story of John Coltrane's ascension. It's her understanding and coping with his death. I feel that. This song in particular, “Going Home,” that's a family song. When someone passes, that's the song we play at the funeral. When my auntie passed, we played that one. My mom died last year in October, and in making this record, hearing this sound, I went “that's it.” That's the whole journey, the whole thing, of understanding, and going deeper within. For me at least. It made sense. This is that journey through that astral life, the next place. On all levels. You die and there's still so much to go through. It's not a quick thing. You have to work and understand that you die and what it's like to die and see yourself in the world without you and a whole bunch of things.
How do you go about putting that realization onto these machines? How do you approximate that language?
I can't say where it comes from. It's all about feel though, the intent when you set down to work. I can tell where I was at making particular things. I have Thundercat, these people, they are always working with me on that record. It's collaborative. I made most of the stuff but people help me.
How did the thing with Thom Yorke happen?
I had always talked about working with this cat. I love his shit and have been a fan since I was a teenager. Eventually, Mary Anne Hobbes knew I was a fan and she said she'd ask if he was down to work on the record. He heard my remix for “Reckoner” and that was cool. He asked for some tunes and he replied that he was super-busy and that he couldn't do it. But then two days later, he sent me some vocal files for me to work with, so I got to rebuild those vocals. We were born on the same day as well. We're astral brothers! October 7th, Libras. It's funnier than that. The day I got the email from him about the tour, I had this crazy dream about Thom. He was in the dream. Are you into dreams, lucid dreaming?
Yeah, but I don't know much about it.
I was an accomplice to a murder. Someone I knew had killed somebody in this hotel and I was walking around, freaking out. And I went to Trader Joe's and Thom was there. And he asked me to have a beer later. And then I woke up and checked my email and it was like, “We're going on tour.”
1983...Los Angeles...Cosmogramma. Your titles seem to be expanding, so where do you go from there?
I think so. I'm going to try to. I don't want to do the same thing twice. I didn't want to do LA again. In the end, a lot of kids try to imitate it. And I hear myself try to imitate it. I just want to move on to a different idea. I don't want to be the kind of person to just dwell on the past. How do I go beyond the cosmos? By going the total opposite and go super-quiet, and journey within. That might be the next one, the super-quiet record, intimate sounding. That's the thing, isn't it? That last record, it was this explosion thing. And then you pull back from it. Depends on what's happening with my life.
Do you feel like the piano lessons are affecting your music?
It's only going to get better as I get these things out of my imagination. Even with this thing, I'm getting closer to what I really want to do but I still have a bajillion ideas of where I want the music to go next. It can get there. I can get there, but a couple things have to happen.
You have to realize these things through creating. Even though I've talked about working with strings, I have to get to a point where I can make sense of it all. You have to mentally see it and have experiences. I can't just … the thing about Apples sometimes, they have the iPad coming out without the camera on it. They know it needs to have a camera. They know they have to do this first, to get the idea across. And then they can add the camera next time. I can't put all the ideas there yet. It's not right yet. Technology is not there. I don't have the right people around me yet. I haven't met the killing drummer that I really want to work with. I haven't met that crazy guitarist that's going to make these runs sound the way I want them yet. These certain elements have to be in place to get these ideas across
When Mary-Anne Hobbs calls you the “Jimi Hendrix of this music” does that intimidate you?
The things people say about me, I'm grateful that people even care. At the same time, I feel the responsibility to be the best that I can be. And that's not a bad thing at all. I love it. If people really like this record, then we'll have to do some shit that's killer. I'm not going to come out and do some bullshit after that. I feel I'm in a good position right now, people want me to do whatever I want to do. They want me to take them as far out as I can, flex my imagination.
Nice. When you have an aunt like Alice Coltrane, is there normality at all? Does she take you to the mall? Get you an ice cream cone? Buy you Christmas gifts?
She definitely wasn't normal. She would never talk about her music. I'd bring up her records, when I was really getting into her in college, and I'd talk to her about it. And she wouldn't even know. She's not even tripping. She was just so far into her spiritual studies that the past was inaccessible. She would play these shows but she didn't have to practice. She would just be in meditation for days. I wondered what was up with Auntie as a kid. I would go over there and she was wearing orange all the time, deep in meditation. She's incredible. She'd come through sometimes, but she'd never drive. People would help her. She'd show up. She bought me my first car. I'd do odd jobs for her so as to buy myself video games. She thought video games were silly but was really encouraging. She was into my music stuff. She was very supportive. Before she passed, I asked her to play harp on my first album. And she went, “Okay, if you get my harp fixed, I'll do it.” But the only harp repair was out in Long Beach, so it never happened. Too bad I'm such a stoner!