The explosion of digital music in recent years has produced a volume of noise that is deafening, but from such chaos also comes the most peculiar music, like that of Steven Ellison (aka Flying Lotus, aka FlyLo). Inspired by equal parts hip-hop, jazz, and video-game sounds, FlyLo formed an early bond with Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block, which helped popularize his 2006 debut album, 1983, and the 2008 follow-up, Los Angeles. Hip-hop heads and electronic-music fans alike reveled in his spacey samples, pulsating grooves, and complex edits, but Ellison, a native Angeleno, refused to get comfortable. In 2008, he founded Brainfeeder, an independent record label dedicated to consolidating like-minded electronic artists in Los Angeles under the same roof. Under its umbrella, he’s courted artists like Thundercat, Gaslamp Killer, Daedelus, and many others.
In recent years, FlyLo’s records have begun to favor jazzy composition over straightforward beats (unsurprising, as he is the great-nephew of pianist Alice Coltrane and cousin of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane). His latest effort, Until the Quiet Comes, is an engaging, thoughtful mix that enlists the help of Erykah Badu, Thom Yorke, and others to explore textures heavy enough for a dance floor but truly deserving of headphones. The tour for the album will bring him to UCSB’s Storke Plaza for a students-only show on Saturday, September 29. Below, the man talks producers’ tips, video games, and excursions into realms unseen.
Your sound has a very “human” feel to it. As a producer punching buttons on a computer, how do you avoid being too mechanical on record? Record everything without quantizing it. Record everything raw. Don’t try to make everything perfect. Those little moments that feel human, you should leave it. It’s easy for us to nitpick as electronic musicians, easy for us to say, “Everything needs to be perfect.” But I think what keeps it fun, for me at least, is that things can be off a bit and kinda pull themselves together and do that one thing that happens one time, and it’s all good. I think just being open to the accidents is what makes it really fun.
At what point for you does a beat become a song? When it’s arranged in a way that feels complete … it’s on an emotional level, when I can’t think of any more sounds to go in there.
Were you a deejay before you became a producer? No. I’m still not a deejay, I don’t think.
Why not? I can select records, I can play records, I can play a live Ableton thing, but I’m not really a deejay, I don’t think. I respect those guys, those turntablist guys, but I don’t do all that.
So, in your opinion, if you’re not using turntables, you’re not a deejay? That’s a fine line. I feel like, in a way, I could easily in passing say, “I’m going to deejay this party,” but I don’t really feel like a deejay. I wouldn’t tell A-Trak that I’m a deejay. I’d tell the lady on the airplane that I’m a deejay. That’s the difference.
I’ve heard you’re a big gamer. Have you been playing anything lately? I played [Batman:] Arkham City; I beat that recently. Sleeping Dogs, I just got that, and the Silent Hill HD Collection.
Would you ever score a video game? I’d love to.
You often talk about telling stories in your music. What story does Until the Quiet Comes tell? It’s funny, man, because for a while, I was talking about the story and telling people what it meant to me, but I feel like it’s better when people tell me what the story is. Everyone has their own interpretation of the music, and I don’t like to take that away from people. It means a different thing to everyone, and that’s so fun. To me, it’s a look at a new nocturnal universe, in a way, or just kind of seeing a new world with different eyes and going through the good and the bad and the light and the dark. It’s kind of like an inward journey in a new place, that’s what it feels like.
There’s a song on the album called “DMT Song,” which features Thundercat. Do you have any experiences there you’d like to share? DMT is crazy, man. I’ve only done it twice, but it’s literally out of this world. It’s really, um … [laughs] I heard things, saw things, experienced things that you need a new language to describe. I found that to be really hilarious. When I realized there’s no way on Earth I could describe it, I think that I just died laughing.
Do you feel that the album describes it at all? Maybe. I don’t know. I’m so close to it I couldn’t tell you; I feel like it would take another person to say. I can only do so much. There ain’t nothin’ like DMT, man. Nothing.
What’s one thing every amateur producer should know? It’s easy to get discouraged in the initial stages, but if you’re not enjoying the doing, the process of making the tracks, it might not be for you. If people get discouraged while they’re doing it, they should know that it’s not going to come quickly, but at the same time, it should feel very natural, and it should be enjoyable getting there.
Flying Lotus plays a students-only show in UCSB’s Storke Plaza on Saturday, September 29, at 8 p.m. Attendees must present a valid UCSB ID to enter. For information, visit aspb.as.ucsb.edu.