AFROPUNK INTERVIEW: FLYING LOTUS
By Piotr Orlov
May 30, 2019
“This one’s long,” says 36 year-old Steven Ellison of Flamagra, the sixth and newest album he has just released as Flying Lotus (aka FlyLo). “It’s an hour and some change, so I don’t expect people to actually listen to this all the way. I expect people to jump in and jump out, which is fine.” That’s a striking-ass, calm admission for an artist promoting a work as big and good, sprawling and weird as Flamagra — which also just happens to be his first new FlyLo music in about five years,
Except that it really doesn’t feel like Ellison, one of his generation’s foremost electronic musicians and hip-hop jazz beatmakers, ever went away. Because he kind of never does. We at AFROPUNK are lucky enough to see FlyLo regularly on our stage. (“Wasn’t he just in Johannesburg with a 3D live show in December?” “Yup.”) There’s also the constant stream of releases on his Brainfeeder label, home to artists like Thundercat and Georgia Anne Muldrow, cornerstones of Los Angeles music; and which shook up the jazz world in 2016 by dropping Kamasi Washingon’s acclaimed debut, The Epic. In 2018, he and Thundercat did music for Donald Glover’s Atlanta, and he regularly releases instrumental music via Adult Swim, or as his rap alter-ego, Captain Murphy. And then there’s his interest in film — producing, scoring, directing — which culminated in the shit-stained, 2017 animation feature, Kuso, released by his Brainfeeder Films. In this context…well, of course it took five years’ worth of minutes to finish Flamagra.
Which makes the album’s triumph that much more impressive. With a guest-list that includes Solange, Anderson .Paak, Denzel Curry, Tierra Whack, George Clinton and Toro y Moi, among many others, it could have appeared as an over-baked, star-studded hodge-podge, but one with impeccable timing. Instead it is joyful ride from one sonic space to another. And the bold-face name who most hangs over Flamagra is present only in spirit. That lost guest was among the topics in our conversation – as were the properties of fire, and LA’s potent music community. Read on.
So, what is Flamagra?
It’s a made up word. I wanted to come up with something that suggested the name of a fire spirit, because that’s what I wanted the presentation and the journey of the album to be about. That’s what you hear in the beginning and at the end of the album, and throughout: the voice of the fire spirit.
Why the fire spirit now? Is it the fires in LA? Is it the sign of the times?
It’s all of it. Over the past couple of years there was a lot of fire and fire imagery around Los Angeles, and it always seemed like it hit at crazy times. Those fires last year were really bad. The fire two years ago was when I first started thinking about it — but then last year, the fire was in Calabasas and up there, and some of my family’s property was destroyed. So, it just cemented the idea, and the fire always seemed like it was happening at the worst time when there’s no sign of any rain or anything possible.
I thought to myself, “What would life be like if we had a fire that could never be put out?” If it was a contained fire, but never went away and was something that we just had to deal with. In a way it’s the same thing I think of when I think of Godzilla, right? The Godzilla factor is, he’s humanity’s curse, the earth’s curse because of what we’ve done to the planet, and he decides he’s going to smash everything up. Then eventually he’s the savior of the planet. And I think our relationship with this fire would be similar — this fictional fire would be different, and our relationship to it might change. At first it would be a nuisance, then it would be something that we saw as a miracle, and then as something that we need. It would have different meanings to people, and take on a different life for everyone.
It’s interesting how you’ve long included aspects of elementalism to your music, a literal translation and a spiritual translation. Can you talk a little bit about some of the emotional baggage that went into the creation of this music?
Yeah, it’s been five years and I think a lot of us, we’ve all been through all types of things in five years. A lot of people hit me up and be like, “Man, where you been?” I’m getting texts all the time from people, like suddenly I’ve emerged. I’ve been where I’ve always been — I also happened to have made a movie in that time — but that part makes me laugh. The thing, I think more than the baggage, it was I felt the need to create something that was going to be good energy for the planet. The moment that I finally got to make some new shit, I want it to be for a good cause, and something that will just make just good vibes for people. I want to bring things to people that make them happy, and inspire them to hopefully want to create, or to want to search deeper within themselves for something in their creative heart, in their creative spirit. I also want them to hear that I’m having fun doing this.
Fun is an interesting word within the context of what we just said about fire. But Flamagra certainly feels like it’s almost giving the people something they’ve wanted out of a Flying Lotus record. You say you wanted to do something fun, but to also create an entryway into this world that you’ve made, which includes people who’ve recently become pop stars and icons. How much of that — “big cast,” audience-friendly ideas — was a conscious decision?
It’s funny, man because I actually never thought about any of that. Honestly, I feel like all the stuff that I do has just been an organic process. It just so happened that Anderson and I started making a song five years ago, long before he became “a thing.” Solange’s song I started working on with her four years ago. And so, in that regard, I didn’t think about it. But it’s tight though.
At the same time, it’s equally frustrating because now it’s impossible to clear music. It’s part of why this album took so long to come out. Everyone’s all blown up now and they’re like, “Oh, it’s got to come out when? Well, I don’t know, because I got a thing coming out.” And everyone’s dropping, all my guests are dropping albums around now so it makes it way worse. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have done it that way. In fact, I think the next time around probably have way less guests. Way less high profile guests, for sure.
Are there any pieces of music or moments on here that have more meaning to you than others?
There’s a few that no matter what, when I hear them, I’m going to feel something just because I know the space in which they were created. But there are some that are obvious. There’s one that we did called “Thank you, Malcolm” that’s near the end of the album and to me it was really celebrating the rush of creativity that [Mac Miller] left in his passing. It was reminding me of his enthusiasm for creativity too. In that moment, while we were making it, I was reminded of all the times he would come over and play me a batch of new stuff. Every couple of months he’d come by and be like, “Oh, check out my new album.” A new album every few months. He was just super-prolific and he’d always give me that boost. I’d look at my shit like, “What am I doing? Okay, I need to make some more shit.” He’d be ready to collect too, coming over for beats. I miss that — and I’ll always miss that thing because Malcolm was one of the few people who would do that. So yeah, it was really, really sad, but at the same time I’m very grateful for the thing that he left me and Thundercat with, the people who he created with a lot. That thing that you take for granted when they’re around, but then when they’re gone then you always think about. I’m grateful for that.
So that’s one, but the other one is “Find Your Own Way Home,” which is also about Malcolm. That was special to me because it features the voices of all of the collaborators that were part of my universe who he dabbled with, [ed. Niki Randa, Ronald Bruner, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner] Because when he and I met, that’s how he met Thundercat, and how he met the Bruners, and a lot of other musicians who would come around. I wanted to make sure that we sent him off, all of us, all the people from my family that he touched. Recording that night was special, and a lot of the people on there aren’t really known to be vocalists. So I thought it was extra special. We’re all just singing for him, chanting for Mac.
Tell me about “Takashi,” the clavinet jam dedicated to a Japanese keyboard player that sounds like a Prince & the Revolution remix?
No, Takashi Kudo is not a musician at all. He’s part of this art collective in Japan, called teamLab. I went out to Japan to do some shows [in 2014] and before we started the shows I went to this exhibition. It’s not just a normal exhibition. It was so, so moving, so interactive, you know? You’re engaging with things that exist — it wasn’t anything that took you out, but things that brought you back. And you’re walking around barefoot; there’s parts where you’re walking in water and there’s projections, and you’re supposed to touch things. It just reminded me of being a kid again, first time in ages; and Takashi’s philosophy behind it was that he wanted to remind people that there is still magic in the world, and that’s part of what I want to do. That’s a thing that he reminded me of what I’m supposed to do, and after I left that I made that track. So that’s an older one too.
In 2018, Brainfeeder celebrated a 10-year anniversary. That decade corresponds with a really interesting time for music in LA, the emergence of artists like Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington and Georgia Ann Mudrew and Anderson .Paak and Thundercat. It’s a community that you and Brainfeeder are kinda one connective tissue of. Can you talk a little bit about where you see the label and yourself within the fabric of the city’s musical community? Particularly within the context of improvised music and all these people working together. How does that look and sound like from your perspective?
I think you’re just really commenting on the jazz spirit ultimately. I feel like that is a part of me even though I don’t come from it in the more traditional sense. I feel very connected to where it comes from. Especially in terms of my live shows and stuff. I don’t want to do the same thing twice. That idea sucks. So I do need some element of danger with my show, and just some element that I could mess it all up at any given moment, I need that. In terms of Brainfeeder and where I stand in all this. In LA I never really saw Brainfeeder as just being a L.A. label. It ended up being that way, because there’s so many people there that I get to see it.
I think it’s because I also get to put faces to names, but there’s also just an amazing community growing there and that’s been there before I was really doing anything with the label. There’s, Kamasi and that whole squad. They’ve been killing it. They’ve been doing since they were teenagers, they’ve been growing this thing at the World Stage [in Leimert Park], and had their own plan, all that stuff. I grew up in The Valley. So I didn’t really even know that element existed until I started hanging out with Thundercat.
Actually, when I look back on it, the huge overlooked influence in LA has been Sa-Ra [Creative Partners]. Their influence in LA is huge, because they were, I think, really the first people to start trying to reach out to the musicians in the community. They were definitely in the hip-hop side, but they saw… they had this vision for it being more of a jazz thing, and they found Thundercat and they found people who were doing that, people like Terrace Martin and Austin Peralta. They all ended up at Sa-Ra’s place with Anderson Paak. That’s kind of how we all got on, just hanging out with Shafiq Husseyn, get all that stuff, and the thing that they were brewing. I think Sa-Ra helps connect a lot of dots and put faces to names as well. Right? So yeah, I think we owe a lot to them.
OK, one last one: What does the phrase “We See You” mean to you?
It means, “I think I understand your intention.”