A guy from Los Angeles packs his bags and flies to Melbourne to take part in the Red Bull Music Academy 2006. There he spends two weeks jamming with other rookies, all taking instruction from giants of the music industry. He makes the track “Tea Leaf Dancers,” the first to draw attention to its maker, Flying Lotus, and a precursor to the album “Los Angeles,” which would take the electronic music world by storm two years later.
Critics compared Flying Lotus, aka Steven Ellison, to Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, because he does with his laptop what they did with their instruments: break down barriers and combine elements that weren’t thought to go together, gathering plaudits and inspiring other musicians in the process.
On “Los Angeles,” Flying Lotus built a universe of sounds with samples of old jazz records, shimmering snatches of synth and hip-hop beats that could have come from Kraftwerk-style robots high on weed.
His follow-up, “Cosmogramma” (2010), was even more inventive and highly praised. Flying Lotus’s new album, “Until the Quiet Comes,” out next month, is a record from the future: electronic, psychedelic jazz and again those rhythms, which sound as if Ellison is sticking out a leg to trip up his drum machine.
The Red Bulletin: How do you come up with such unique electronic beats?
Flying Lotus: I have no idea, I swear. There is no button that I push, but I think it has to do with me messing around with stuff in my studio that isn’t really instruments. I’ll pick up my cup of pens and just record them falling on the table, and in the sound that it makes you find some weird and interesting rhythms.
That brings to mind a quote from Miles Davis: “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”
That’s true. A big part of my process is just experimentation, and then I find the right pieces within it. I see myself as some kind of assembly man. I have all these pieces and then I’m like, “Well, these pieces go together and these pieces go together” and then you’ve got a track.
How do you keep working like that?
My guiding principle is: There aren’t any rules. I remember that when a piece I’m working on is too conventional. Then I try to think of myself as a cartoon character, because everything’s possible in cartoons. That helps blow up the limitations of your imagination. I am Bugs Bunny and I can pull beats or whatever out my pockets.
"I think if people buy my music today, they’re doing it to support me, not because they haven’t worked out how to download it illegally."
Listening to your new album, “Until the Quiet Comes,” doesn’t bring to mind cartoons. It sounds more like the soundtrack to a noir movie set in space.
I like banging club music, but at home I listen to other stuff, like Portishead and Radiohead. Or fusion jazz by people such as Return to Forever and Weather Report. By the time I started working on this record, I was listening to my aunt Alice’s stuff a lot [Alice Coltrane, jazz pianist and wife of legendary sax man John Coltrane]. At some point I started wondering, “Why are these the songs that I hold on to?”
Why do you hold on to them?
I want to be the person who makes the music you love forever. I want to be the person you listen to when you’re in the car or in your bedroom, not just on Saturday night. That was a pivotal decision for me at that time.
Your album “Los Angeles” was extremely influential. Thousands copied your style. Were you flattered?
I was in the beginning, but then it got annoying and suddenly the sound had a name -- wonky -- and I felt like I needed to separate myself from that scene. I had to move on, even if that’s risky from a career point of view.
Is it a reflection of musical ambition today that nobody is willing to risk doing something really new?
That’s not how I see things. MySpace turned the scene on its head in 2004. Suddenly, everyone could make his music available to the whole world. You could hear a tune in a club in L.A. which was produced by some guy in Argentina the night before. That sort of speed used to be unheard of in the music industry. The scene changed so fast because there were all these different players coming forward and everyone was inspired. Everyone was trying to take it to the next level.
Yet music also lost value because of the immediacy of digital availability and the prevalence of illegal downloads.
We have to come to terms with the new situation. I don’t make a shit-ton of money selling records, so giving away music isn’t weird to me. But I’d rather give things to people who support [music]. So for this record, and the previous one, people who pay for it get something for that -- extras. I think if people buy my music today, they’re doing it to support me, not because they haven’t worked out how to download it illegally.
I like to buy stuff too, especially from new artists. Every week I go on iTunes and buy a bunch of new tracks. Even if I just listen to them once, I pay for them because I feel like I’m helping a little bit.
“How many cute kittens can I squeeze into a three-minute video to crack the one-million-visitor mark?”
Does it make sense releasing a whole album under these circumstances?
I think about that all the time. It’s changing so fast, and as much as I’m an album format type of person, in an old-school sense, I have to accept that a lot of people who listen to my stuff don’t listen to it the way that I intended it to be listened to.
Some people might just buy a single track because Erykah Badu is on it, but that’s just what it is, man. That’s cool. The past year, I put a lot of things online just because I thought they would never have a home, so why not? But not my albums. I feel like it’s definitely a special thing for me, because I put a lot of thought into the flow of everything.
Are you afraid that an album of yours will show up on a file-sharing site even before it’s been released?
Ideally I’d have just liked to release “Until the Quiet Comes” without really announcing it -- “Surprise! It’s the new Flying Lotus album!” -- like Radiohead did with their last album. But then I changed my mind, because I spend so much energy doing this shit that I want as many people as possible to know about it. Plus, I’m not Radiohead. I’m not going to sell a million records just like that in a week.
As was the case with a track on your last album, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke sings on the new record. How did that come about this time?
By chance. I sent him a couple of tracks to ask him what he thought of them. He got back to me straightaway: “Amazing. I’ve already got ideas for vocals for one song.” Thom is fantastic. He knows what he wants, and what he doesn’t. That decisiveness makes him really nice to work with.
Erykah Badu also guests on the album; last year you made a video for her.
I actually started out studying film, but to be honest I’m really bored of music videos at the moment. Music videos these days concentrate mostly on one thing: clicks. And cute kittens. “How many cute kittens can I squeeze into a three-minute video to crack the one-million-visitor mark?” As for cinematic and narrative ideas, there aren’t any.
On the other hand, I understand that there’s no budget for music videos anymore. Things were different in the 1990s. The videos made by Chris Cunningham [cult director of videos for Björk, Aphex Twin and others] cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but they were masterpieces. I’d like to do something like that, not just music videos. Real movies!
Is that why you were at the Cannes Film Festival in the spring?
I played a couple of DJ gigs, but I was pretty disappointed with the Cannes experience because it’s not about movies at all. It’s about who’s wearing what on the red carpet. The choice of movies wasn’t particularly exciting either. Okay, so there was the premiere of the new Wes Anderson movie [Moonrise Kingdom], but I could have watched that back home in Los Angeles a couple of days later. And many of the screenings I’d have liked to attend were black tie. So now I have to wear a tuxedo to go to the movies? What’s that all about?
Next year you’ll be lecturing at the Red Bull Music Academy in New York. Six years ago in Melbourne, you were a participant yourself. What did those two weeks back then give you and your music?
It was just before my debut album, “1983,” came out. It was perfect timing. I made a lot of contacts, met musicians like Mark Pritchard and Kode9, who were people I looked up to, and we’re still in touch. I also produced “Tea Leaf Dancers” with Andreya Triana [a singer-songwriter and Academy participant from London], which is still one of my biggest hits.
When your music is talked about, you often hear the word “futuristic.” How do you see the music of the future?
I feel like the future of music is that it becomes more and more personal. There is something really beautiful about comedians, because they are always so aware of the now. They are aware of what’s making society tick, and I think musicians are embracing that more and more.
There was this idea that music had to have a universal appeal to the masses, and everyone should be able to relate to these stories. Today young artists like Drake and Frank Ocean are making these very personal songs. They are like, “You might not understand my story, but I’m going to tell you anyway and you might not like it.” People are embracing that and I really like it too. [Drake and Frank Ocean] are really big because people are like, “Wow, no one’s even really said that type of shit on a record before.”
Flying Lotus’s album, "Until the Quiet Comes" (Warp), is out on October 1.
Check out the October 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands September 11) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.