Question time with Flying Lotus

“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers” – Voltaire

A faint degree of trepidation hangs over me for quite some time before speaking to Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison). Not necessarily for any founded or suspicious reason, but simply because of what his music has always propelled into my brain. To me, he has created a multifaceted expansion of the unknown, oozed dark, ruminating sonic enigmas, sparked anxious anticipation and dilation-inducing curiosity. Ultimately, he leaves only questions, rarely offering answers. Which, as it soon transpires, is exactly the way he would like it.

The name Flying Lotus stems from a lucid dream Steven had some years ago, and sonically, it’s arguably a state in which he has remained ever since, existing in a state of flux between strange, tranquil, nocturnal broodings and twitchy spasmodic blasts of life in which the listener is never really sure upon which side they remain or exist. According to Steven, his new album, ‘Until The Quiet Comes’, is composed as “A collage of mystical states, dreams, sleep and lullabies.” It appears that the state that gave birth to his alter ego still remains prevalent in his creative mind-set today.

“Absolutely,” he agrees, “they are the things that make me ask questions. It’s those states of mind that allow me to search deeper within my music. Instead of just making club bangers, I’d rather ask questions about the work and try to understand the meaning of life and music.” He bubbles with gentle, humble enthusiasm as he continues. “I was going through a really crazy period making this album where I would have lucid dreams every week and have what people call out of body experiences. I would have these naturally and throughout the course of making the album. I feel like being able to access these states allows me to ask questions and the questions give me the ability to work and create [musical] worlds.”

Fitting, as ‘Until The Quiet Comes’, in title alone, continues this intermediate dreamy state, and musically, it too oozes a strange dead of night feel, fluctuating between quiet, relaxed beauty and anxious, unpredictable screams. Although initially he had many other ideas before this LP was settled upon.

“I originally wanted to make a simple drum machine record,” he says, “then I wanted to make a children’s album, then a pysch-rock album and so on…”

Although eagerly anticipated by many a music fan, this new album (released October 1st via Warp) wasn’t all plain sailing for Steven. “Halfway through the record last year I was really depressed. You know, I was in a really dark place. In a lot of different ways, I was just not happy and I wasn’t creating as much as I wanted to, I feel like a lot of last year slipped through my fingertips and I was so frustrated, but I had to go through it.”

A further burden perpetuating the negative cycle was Steven’s own harsh criticisms and expectations of himself.

“I feel I have spent enough of my time downing myself too, you know?” he says. “I spend a good amount of my free time hating myself. As much as I can sit back and say, ‘hey, that’s cool, that’s awesome I did that’, I spend enough time going, ‘oh man, I’m not doing enough work, I need to be doing more, pushing further’. I spend enough time hating and loathing.”

Steven speaks with a softness and honesty to him, not an ounce of self-pity coming across. “I understand that it’s part of the process and thankfully I have people around me that I can talk to about that and they tell me they go through the same thing,” he continues. “A guy like Thom Yorke, for example, I can talk to him about stuff like that and he knows what I’m talking about and he knows it’s part of it. He might have to deal with that shit himself sometimes but it’s all part of it and I seek comfort in knowing that my peers deal with that shit too.”

The fact he brings up Thom Yorke crosses off one further question from my list.

Yorke returns on this new album, although his instantly recognisable warble as found on ‘Cosmogramma’’s ‘…And The World Laughs With You’ is replaced by a distorted, flattened and almost unrecognisable Thom, almost as though if he is going to appear he is going to appear as Flying Lotus wants him to. “Exactly!” says Steven. “I think that’s part of the reason he fucks with me, because he knows that I’m going to do what I want with it and he knows that I’m not all about his name and trying to make a hit out of his name. It’s not really what I’m about.”
To reinforce this point, you only have to read Steven’s almost moving account of his first experience of the psychedelic drug DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) whilst choosing to listen to ‘Pyramid Song’. “An amazing roller coaster of images, patterns, and geometry,” he remembers. “It seemed at one point I felt the presence of beings communicating with me, in the same way I’d feel it in sleep paralysis states. I asked,  ‘what are you saying?’. ‘What are you trying to tell me?’. It was all moving so fast, too fast to grasp. Any worries or fears that I had about anything would quickly be replaced with overwhelming feelings of love and warmth. It felt like the universe hugged me and held me tight. Despite the chaos, there was nothing to fear, this is a place of loving energy. The curtain pulled back slowly into some kind of crazy cartoon world that was just so vibrant and wacky, colours swirling, inkblot world, crazy colour pattern world, bright colour dot world. Bugs bunny could live here…

I’d get little doses of the real world, the music would come in and out, Thom Yorke’s voice and the strings of ‘Pyramid Song’ would come through brilliantly and heavily reverberated. The familiar sounds helped me come back to this plane.”

An unforgettable experience by the sounds of it. Is it something Steven has shared with Yorke?
“Hahaha… I remember specifically writing him an email about it and asking him what it really meant to him but I never got an email back.  I always forget to ask him things like that when we’re in the same room together, I always forget to geek out and ask him nerdy questions and then whenever he leaves I’m always like, ‘ah shit, I should have asked him about this. Fuck!’ But it’s cool, man. There needs to be some magic left in the world.”

Although an experimenter of drugs, it’s something Steven cannot ingrain into the working process. “Hell no,” he shakes. “I take that stuff as a means of inspiration in terms of asking questions, being able to ask questions and then more questions… I like to listen to my music on weed but not when making it and that’s pretty much as far as that goes, even drinking and making music doesn’t really work for me that well.”

A one time filmmaker, Steven has a highly visual sense for other artists’ music, but not necessarily for his own. “I work more on feelings than I do in a visual sense,” he explains. “I love visualising other people’s music but for me when I visualise my own, I see the works, I see the grid, I see the visual grid of what I’m creating, I can see it like a matrix almost. I don’t think I get to enjoy it like everybody else.” In respect to his stage performances, he continues, “I feel the same way in a live show. I wonder what it must be like to see my show because I will never be able to connect with it the way someone else will. When I hear [my] music, I can hear the sentiment, I can hear the memory and I can see the time that I made it.”
One area that it soon transpires has been on Steven’s mind when making this record though is death. “In my life in the past five years, I’ve lost so many people and I’ve been trying to find a way of coping with that and expressing the feelings that that leaves behind,” he says. “But then it reignites my feeling of purpose, it makes you evaluate where you stand with things. It makes you ask questions about your own worth, your own time on earth, the things we put forward and this existence.” He wraps up – as he almost does constantly today – in a musing, almost philosophical and extracting manner. “I feel I’ve been able to build my sense of faith in the beyond through death, but do I know the answers? No. But I feel a little bit closer to the source than I’ve ever been.”

Even in regards to going through a difficult period, suffering both depression and bereavement, Steven looks forward fondly. He says: “Thankfully my life is so chaotic that I can never stay in one vibe for too long. If I’m at home and I’m all depressed and I get called out on tour I have to experience different things and different people and then that changes the mind-set and then I get so inspired for when I get back home to make things.  I get that inspiration because of how chaotic things can be at times, because my life always changes.

“I feel like no-one can get in my brain,” he says. “I feel like the well will never run dry as long as I keep doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Which is to stay inspired at all costs”.
The one question that begins to become inevitable and unshakeable as our conversation traverses on, is how has Steven Ellison remained so grounded? Still only 28 and heralded by many fans of electronic music as one of the most pioneering and ground-breaking artists to have emerged in recent years, and yet his greatest personal quests still remain deeply rooted principally in music and philosophical-based self discovery, he responds in true meek form.

“I think at the end of the day I have a lot of people around me who are genius talents, so I just feel like I’m glad I can sit at the table,” he says gently.

“Shortly after ‘Cosomogramma’ came out and I started hanging out with all these people I looked up to, it definitely had an effect on me. Seeing pop star fame from people who are in the same room as me, these guys making millions of dollars by making songs that I feel I could make and all that stuff, that affects you. But at the end of the day I get reminded, I get reminded of the mission. I think I’ve seen enough to know that I don’t really want to be a part of that world, but if I can make my world and people will treat it as that, then I’m going to win, you know? I’m not changing my shit. If they like it then they’re going to play on my playing field.”

Our conversation winds down and knowing that I am the last interviewer of a day that has involved Steven doing nothing but press, I apologise if I’ve bored him rigid and asked him the same questions he’s had all day long. Even when the interview is over he can’t help but be a gentleman. “Despite what you may think, you actually asked some very thoughtful questions and I’m very grateful for that, thank you.”

It’s rare that inquisitiveness, humility and talent can all be expelled with equal force, but then, have you ever listened to Flying Lotus’ music?