Inside the experimental mind of Flying Lotus

Shifting Focus
By DAN WEISS  |  August 31, 2011

LAYERED EFFECT “There were more string sections I thought were super beautiful that didn’t end up on the album because it was just too much,” says Flying Lotus.

"I have less time to make music than I wish I did," says Steven Ellison, "so when I work on stuff, I mean it, you know?" Ellison is Flying Lotus, a soft-spoken 27-year-old from Los Angeles with a pause in his speech, like he just figured out where another piece goes in his puzzle. It's not hard to imagine him racing home à la Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network to install this missing link, either, because listening to Flying Lotus is like listening to computer code.

Much of the post-dubstep producer's generation makes a fetish of sounding half-finished, slow-moving, and not quite in tune (see: Balam Acab, Clams Casino), but Flying Lotus's third album, last year's Cosmogramma (Warp), sounded like a masterpiece in a rush. The first six or seven tracks proceed like someone's literally fast-forwarding them, as 8-bit Nintendo synths, hyperactive fusion bass, and shards of harp and string sections each sound nervously for just one or two minutes before directing your attention to some new clatter. It moves so fast it makes you miss Thom Yorke.

"As far as composition goes," says Ellison, "I think that the structures that were built over all these years — just because they make sense doesn't mean they're the only way to make sense." But when pressed to take the puzzle back apart and show how he did it, he goes mum. "I try not to think about the other stuff so much, I just like to do it."

Cosmogramma is one of the most improvised-sounding "electronic" (he balks at this term) albums in recent memory, with unquestionably organic performances popping up all over, from his buddy Thundercat's insane bass runs on "Pickled!" (see Michael C. Walsh's review of Thundercat's Golden Age of Apocalypse) to the Sun Ra drum pastiche "Arkestry." "Do the Astral Plane" builds from one of Ellison's steadier contraptions to a straight trumpet solo. And strings pop up all over.

"There were more string sections I thought were super beautiful that didn't end up on the album because it was just too much," he says. "There were so many sounds already and then it was like a big mashed what-the-fuck. . . . When I was working on that album, my mom had passed away. I was going through a lot, and it was a tough time for me emotionally. So it was really therapeutic to have that album to work on, because it was a way I could channel the intensity of something. So it was all I had, the only thing that would tell me everything is okay."

Ellison's a fan of another hyperactive wunderkind, Aphex Twin, and the evocative emotional torrent of Cosmogramma recalls Richard D. James Album, the 1996 tour de force purportedly crafted in tribute to James's dead twin brother, dominated by manipulations resembling squeaky toys and children's voices. "All the things [Aphex's Richard James] says are half-bullshit, half-possible," Ellison says. "I get this sort of folklore legend vibe about him, but he's just a dude who created some crazy shit."

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Related: Flying Lotus | Cosmogramma, 4 New Obscure Music Subgenres of 2010, Top 10 records of 2010, More more >
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