Almost exactly one year ago, electronic hip-hop artist Steven Ellison — better known by his stage name, Flying Lotus — released one of the more imaginative and original albums of the decade: Flamagra.
What makes it such an impressive accomplishment? Perhaps it’s the all-star cast of artists who are listed as contributors, including David Lynch, Solange, Anderson .Paak, George Clinton, Thundercat, Little Dragon, Toro y Moi and more. Perhaps it’s the record’s ingenious and illustrative thematic message, which centers on the symbolism of an eternal flame. Or, perhaps it’s simply because Ellison has proved himself to be of the most expressive, creative and innovative producers on the planet. Whatever the reason may be, Flamagra stands as a testament to Ellison’s talent, skill and vision.
Music has been a huge part of Ellison’s since he was a child. His grandmother was the Motown songwriter Marilyn McLeod and his grand-aunt was the legendary jazz pianist Alice Coltrane, the wife of John Coltrane. Since making his debut as Flying Lotus in 2006, Ellison has gone on to do everything from inspiring Radiohead to producing Kendrick Lamar.
Now, a year after the release of Flamagra, Ellison is releasing the album in it’s raw, instrumental form. Not only does this open up the record to be listened to in a new light, but it also puts on full display the extent of Ellison’s artistic capabilities. Between the inimitable drum parts, the palpably textural soundscapes and the unmistakable bass lines of longtime collaborator Thundercat, Flamagra (Instrumentals) shows the genesis of Flying Lotus’s brilliance. Earlier this month, American Songwriter caught up with Ellison to discuss this, as well as his creative process, his experience in the current pandemic and what it was like growing up in a family of music legends.
Set the scene for our readers on the creation of this record — you had this idea for an eternal flame?
I think that the idea started around 2017. I was inspired by a lot of fire imagery — specifically, we were dealing with a lot of fires in California. We always have a big fire fall, usually it’s right when no one expects it. It just felt especially crazy at that time because it seemed so endless. There are a lot of things that I watched fall.
So, I got inspired by all of that imagery, which made me start to think about the eternal flame. I started thinking about what life would be like if we had this eternal flame, this fire that could never go out and how the world would deal with that. That’s what I wanted to explore lyrically, musically and thematically.
My idea was that this thing is in your neighborhood — the fire is in your area. It’s something that makes you have to deal with your neighbors and the people around you. But, I couldn’t have predicted that it would come to this… now I feel like there’s a different story to tell. I’m inspired by such different things. Musically, this record is a trip to listen to. For me, it’s all memories. It is me, it’s biographical. Making music is kinda like a journal entry.
In that respect, do you find music-making to be a helpful tool in processing and documenting your life?
Absolutely, it’s therapeutic. I’m so grateful for the fact that I basically get paid to go to therapy. I get paid to work out my stuff, figure it out musically. I’m especially grateful for that now. Playing an instrument has been almost like a godsend really, to be able to have this place to vent and work things out.
What has your pandemic experience been like?
Well, it’s not been great. But, instead of saying a terrible thing I’ll say a good thing, because I don’t know if we’re getting enough good things — I feel like this time has forced me to bond with my family in a way that I probably wouldn’t have had this not happened. I’m really grateful for that. I’m also grateful for being able to have no excuses to not practice my instruments. Like, what else am I supposed to do? It’s allowed me a lot of mental clarity to catch up on some normal life things, like taking care of my personal space. There are definitely some positive things, but it’s also definitely fucked up too.
It’s funny because there are a lot of people who I’ve talked to — like, non-musicians and people who don’t have money — who are also like ‘it’s not that bad in some ways.’ Like ‘yeah, our businesses are falling apart, but hey at least I get to spend some time with my dog!’ That’s important sometimes, I guess. You just gotta focus on the good… focus on the good… we’re fucked and we’re all doomed, but you gotta focus on the good.
You mentioned that you’re inspired by different things now — what are they?
I’m really inspired by some keyboards, synthesizers specifically. I’ve been really trying to get my sound design skills even further. I’ve been enjoying just going into space-world with my synthesizer without even recording anything, just thinking of making an ensemble of sounds that you can save the world with. I think about it in that way.
I watched this short film called Lords of Synth or something that’s about this comet coming down to Earth. It’s going to destroy Earth and all these synthesizer wizards have to save the day. I’ve been thinking about shit like that. This synthesizer here has the power to shape things. I get really excited about all the different sounds I could make.
You were quoted as saying: “I want [Flamagra] to be able to help people through tough times and inspire them to be creative.” Do you have any tips for people trying to stay creative at this time?
Yeah, speaking for myself personally, this is the time where I am in ‘student mode.’ I’m taking a lot of time to learn things and to attack things that I’ve wanted to develop, be that my playing or my knowledge of music. What better time than now?
If you’re someone who’s on the fence saying ‘oh, well I’m too old to learn this instrument’ or ‘I wish I had more time to learn Ableton’ — why not? Now’s the time to do it. Anyone who still has excuses will probably never do it. Now is the time to be in the lab or the shed. If you’re already playing an instrument, learn something different about it. Learn some new scales, some new chords. Emerge from this shit better than you were before.
How did the David Lynch feature on “Fire Is Coming” come about? I read that you heard him recite that poem at a party?
Yeah, that’s true. Though, I think people imagine that scene to be way trippier than it actually was, like he was just yelling at people in the corner or something like that. He has this festival — Festival of Disruption — and at the kick-off event he recited that poem. I could not believe what I was hearing because it was exactly the place I was going with the record. I had already been trying to get some kind of collaboration going for years at that point, so I was like ‘hey, that thing you did there is perfect — can we do something with that?’ Then it sorta worked out from there. I had been trying to get David Lynch since Cosmogramma. It was one of those things where I couldn’t believe that it was actually real.
You were quoted as saying: “I think the next time around I’ll probably have way less guests.” Do you still feel that way? How did you come to that decision?
Yeah, that would keep it 100% because there’d be less variables. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff going on with some of the artists that made it difficult to put this record out. ‘This person has an album coming out, so we don’t want this single to drop around the same time’ or ‘this person is doing that’ or ‘this person wants you to take the song off the album’ — that last one happened to me. It was finished, it was mastered, the vinyl was already done and this artist was like ‘hey, I don’t want you to do that anymore’ and I was like ‘oh’ — I was fucked basically.
To me, those things happen, but then there’s also the moment where I’m doing all the interviews and everyone just wants to ask me about the guests. I don’t know, I don’t want to make this record all about the co-signs, that shits kinda weird. It’s expected of a producer to do things like that as well and I felt like that was a good thing to do at the time. But, having done that, I want to do anything other than what I’ve already done.
Flamagra was in the works to varying degrees for about five years — what did the timeline of your work process look like? Is there a benefit to stepping away from something and then coming back to it?
Yeah, I worked on bits of Flamagra for a while. There were bits and pieces of things floating around for a while, but the story hadn’t come together yet. That’s really important to me… to a fault I guess since it holds me up from putting stuff out. But, I just didn’t feel like I had completed the story, it felt undone. I hadn’t lived enough or something… something wasn’t finished. So, I just waited for it to reveal itself and when it finally did I was really glad that I took the time. I had been listening to some of these songs for two or three years. The track with Anderson .Paak — ‘More’ — is like five or six years old now. But, the fact that I can come back to it and it’s still good is a sign. Versus putting stuff out in the moment because it ‘feels right’ and then you look back like a month later and you’re like ‘oh man, why’d I do that?’
Now, tell me about when you come back to it and it’s not ‘still good’ — how do you handle that feeling? Do you have any remedies for it?
I think it’s important to be open to the work, let it speak to you. I try to remember to not steer things too much if it doesn’t feel right. For example, if I make a track that’s only a minute long — which I do — and that’s really the full expression, then I need to just leave it as one minute long instead of trying to push it into being a four or five minute song. Like, maybe that was the expression, that one minute, maybe that’s it. Then I can move onto something else. It’s all interesting, you just have to trust your gut.
I don’t like to force anything. I never have before. I’m not usually on a deadline to finish albums, so I like to make it easy. Writing a beat is letting it reveal itself.
You’ve released instrumentals of your work before — what is your reasoning behind this?
It’s a thing for the fans, really. I think a lot of people who listen to my stuff are like ‘oh man, I would love this without so-and-so on it.’ Some people just want to hear the beat. I think for a lot of people, an instrumental version can open up the album more. Maybe the vocals took them out of whatever the journey may have been. But, now you can just listen to the music and let that be more of a tapestry for your life experiences. I don’t ever want to push too hard on what the narrative is or what the narrative should be, especially when working with instrumental music. But, I do wonder how other people would interpret it.
So, yeah, it’s for enjoyment, but it’s also a tool for DJs and producers. I’m really excited to hear the rappers rap on some of the stuff. Especially when it’s stuff that’s already released, I don’t mind. I think it’s all fun and in the spirit of hip-hop.
So, are you generally an advocate for allowing folks to be able to repurpose music in that way despite some of the potential legal challenges?
It’s a double-edged sword. Like, if someone like Drake came after me for sampling him I’d be like ‘c’mon, dude, are you kidding me?’ But, oftentimes you’re dealing with people who are older and don’t have an income coming in, so they’re going to be like ‘please give me some money.’ My grandmother was a songwriter for Motown and when people used to sample her that meant that we got to eat better. So, I get it.
I think that having that perspective from my grandmother has helped me in so many ways and has shaped so much of my experience. She was the first person to put a drum machine in my hands when I was a child, so who knows what would’ve happened if that wasn’t a thing.
Considering the musical heritage of your family, did you ever feel pressure to be a musician?
I felt pressure to play the saxophone, which I did for a while. I played alto sax for about four or five years. It was cool and all, but I really started to feel like ‘man, this is not my instrument.’ Unfortunately, that was in my formative years, like the moment when a young kid is going to decide if they’re going to be a musician or not. I felt like it wasn’t my thing and I never took to it, I was like ‘ah, I like the beat machine better, that’s my instrument.’ Now I look back and wish I was playing the piano the whole time.
Do you think that the experience of playing saxophone in your formative years left an impression on your artistry?
Definitely. Even if you think about the stuff that’s not being played — like, taking the playing out of the equation — it was still important to be exposed to all those different pieces. We had to play all this classical stuff in band and that gave me a much deeper appreciation for music overall. I’m still grateful for it. That’s when I learned a lot of things that still help me to this day, like reading sheet music. But, the horn was just not for me… although I’ve been thinking about playing some trumpet lately.
Hey now, you said it yourself: “now’s the time to do it.”
You know, I’m still trying to navigate this piano! I know I should probably be playing all the instruments at once, but I feel super inspired by the keyboard. I can say a lot more on it than I can with a frickin’ trumpet… I don’t want to do that to myself.
‘Flamagra (Instrumentals)’ is now available everywhere. Listen to its lead single, “Black Balloons Reprise” below: