Steve Ellison is not a man for whom rest and relaxation come easily. We catch up with him at home in Los Angeles, on the eve of the release of Until the Quiet Comes – his fourth release under the name Flying Lotus.
Even as he picks up the phone, though, he’s still fiddling with dials, playing with presets. As he scrabbles to turn off his equipment, a huge bass line booms out of nowhere. “Wow!” he says. “That sounded great – a beautiful accident. That came from the phone call, I think … I appreciate you -already.”
You might call Flying Lotus a hip-hop producer, a beatmaker, but that would be to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of what he does. The great-nephew of the jazz pianist Alice Coltrane, he grew up in California surrounded by jazz musicians, but had his head turned to hip-hop when he was in his teens and heard Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle and later one of his key inspirations, the blunted but funky productions of the late Slum Village producer J Dilla.
As time went by, though, the jazz started to sneak back in: 2010’s album Cosmogramma was a so-called “space opera” employing a bunch of real musicians, including the bassist Thundercat and Ellison’s brother, the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. Following the album’s release, he even played the album live with a full band at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. Was that always the intention? “I’d like to say yes but I don’t think that’s true,” he laughs. “Sometimes I believe in myself and sometimes I can’t stand being in my skin. At the beginning of making Cosmogramma I didn’t have the confidence to even work with musicians – but as I got into it a bit more, it started to happen. Working with Thundercat really helps me to communicate my ideas,” he laughs. “Like, OK, I’m not completely stupid.”
Until the Quiet Comes retains much of its predecessor’s jazziness, but where Cosmogramma went to some intense places, the likes of All In and See Thru to You – featuring a guest vocal from Erykah Badu – take a gentler tack, Ellison’s trademark off-kilter hip-hop beats tethering dreamy, hallucinogenic soundscapes. “I think I’d have been in a bad position if I tried to recreate the same energy as I did on Cosmogramma – like, go in further,” says Ellison. “How about we pull back, try to do something that gets to the core of the emotional sentiment. Not so grand, more intimate. But still have the core of what it is.”
Ellison’s approach is certainly winning him fans. Venus Williams celebrated her Ladies’ Doubles win at Wimbledon 2012 by checking out that night’s Flying Lotus show. He’s been hanging out in the studio with the biggest name in dubstep, Skrillex, and recently recorded a track featuring Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt, Between Friends, for the cartoon channel Adult Swim.
One of his biggest supporters is Thom Yorke, who crops up on one of the album’s most disquieting moments, Electric Candyman. The Radiohead frontman is not immediately recognisable, as he coos quietly from a nocturnal fog of drones and voodoo rattles. “I like it when he gets into that spooky pocket,” says Ellison. “People are like, that doesn’t sound like Thom, make it sound more like Thom – but I’m like, it’s my album.” Right now, Ellison is facing a conundrum: how to take the quieter, gentler textures of Until the Quiet Comes and integrate them into his live set-up. “I’ll try to find ways to work it,” he says, “I like partying – I don’t think I’ll be able to help that, no matter what album I make.” Not that he minds: right after our interview, he’s just going to boot up that equipment again and get back to the beats. “I love working,” he laughs. “I know a lot of artists are like, if I didn’t have music I’d kill myself, but, literally, I don’t know another way to put it.”
Until the Quiet Comes is out today on Warp Records