Before releasing 1983 — his debut album as Flying Lotus, on Plug Research in 2006 — the California-based beat maker Steven Ellison upped his profile filling in the segues on Adult Swim. It’s the type of instrumental hip-hop that’s led to comparisons to the work of Madlib, Prefuse, and J Dilla — and to a deal with the pioneering Warp label. Warp released the six-song Reset EP in 2007 and will release his full-length debut, Los Angeles, on June 10. Here, Ellison (a great nephew of John and Alice Coltrane) talks about his pseudonym, the inspiration for his music, the Holy Grail of sneakers, and Obama.
How did you come up with the name Flying Lotus?
It comes from lucid dreaming. When I know I’m dreaming, the first thing I want to do is go flying around. If I were a superhero, that’s the only power I’d want. I’d just want to be able to see the world from that different point of view. It gets deeper as we go, but fuck it. That’s a story for another time.
Most people know your music from Adult Swim. How did that come about?
I find it really crazy that people know my music from Adult Swim. They don’t watch that shit in Europe, you know? They had an ad on the television that said if you had some dope beats, send them to the show. So I put together a demo and sent it through the snail mail. That was like the first time I sent something in the snail mail in like fifteen years. I didn’t think anything was going to come of it, but I got a call about a week later, and the guys at Adult Swim said they wanted to hook something up. The rest is history.
When you’re listening to records, what are you listening for?
I look for anything that has interesting rhythmic patterns and melodies that I can try to manipulate. I don’t really chase loops anymore. It’s too hard to make something my own with a full loop. I’m looking for smaller things that catch my ear, like a unique sound or a synth chord that I can make into something different.
I know you’re into comics. Still Marvel?
I’m really not doing that much Marvel anymore. I’m more into Vertigo, like Y the Last Man. I’m in the middle of Watchmen right now. The real stuff, though, is this book called The Filth by Grant Morrison. That’s some mind-blowing stuff right there.
Why should people seek out your music?
I think I’m bridging a gap. I bring elements of both ambient and hip-hop in my sound. I’m trying to merge these worlds, because they’re not different. It’s all bass music to me.
How has Los Angeles expanded your sound and musical ideas?
The main thing is being in L.A., around all types of creative folks who push me to do what I’m not doing. I’ll play something and they’ll tell me to play my weird shit instead. They’re tired of hearing the regular stuff, so they’re supportive of what I’m doing and challenging me to take it further.
Why did you go with the title Los Angeles?
My environment is a direct influence. I wanted to tell the story of Los Angeles with music. It’s both a love letter and hate mail. Living in L.A. is a series of contradictions, and I wanted to get the good and the bad feelings in there. The point of the album is to take people on a ride and make it cinematic. I wanted this album to have a scope as big as the city.
You’re excited to be working with Warp Records?
Initially I was probably overly thrilled in a "just happy to be there" kind of way. You can only be wide-eyed for so long, though. Eventually it was time to go to work, and so I went in and made some raw shit. Warp might have put off the old fan base with some of their recent releases, but people are still looking for the raw weird stuff. That’s Los Angeles. This is bringing back a little of the original Warp sound. I needed Warp, but they needed me too.
A rough version of Los Angeles was recently leaked onto a blog. What are your feelings on the release?
I was mad that someone posted my whole damn album on a blog. On the other hand, it’s a trip that people care about my music enough to want to post it. I don’t care what happens with the whole music trip and the money thing. I know people are going to want to have the album early. I got the Portishead album early because I just needed to hear it, and I’m flattered that people feel that way about my music. The thing that bothers me is that those people may not get the full experience. They never get to see the art that we spent weeks putting together. That’s what’s disappointing to me. People who get the album from a leak have what, a blank CD with half the art? There’s so much hard work put into the other stuff on the record.
Do you find it hard to translate your music to a live setting?
Not really. It can be complicated, of course, but what’s more likely to happen is that while composing a piece I’ll have in the back of my mind that eventually I’ll have to play it live. You have to resist that feeling, though. Music is not always for the gig. I get the most enjoyment playing music at my house anyway.
Are you strictly instrumental, or have you thought about adding some nonsampled verses?
That’s what’s happening on the new album. I like to work with singers a lot, so I tried to work that vibe into Los Angeles. That’s the kind thing I want to do ideally. Working with people like Bjork, Radiohead, or Beth Givens would be the shit.
You have a picture of the Holy Grail of sneakers, the McFlys, on your Myspace page. How much would pay for a pair?
I would drop a grand, easy, just for the status. I wouldn’t even rock them. I’d build a case for them and put them in my living room. Then I’d design the whole room around the shoes. The McFlys are the kind of footwear that can carry a room.
You’re also flying an Obama banner. Is this the first time you’ve been politically active? How are you supporting your candidate?
I’ve always had something to say about the issues, but this is the first time that there’s a candidate who seems like he wants to listen. I’ve been donating what I can, and I went and voted. I’m not saying that I’m doing all that much, but it’s more than most people, which is kind of sad.
What’s the other picture there? It kind of looks like something from Alien busting out of a trash bag.
That’s the cover of the album. It’s a sculpture that was made especially for Los Angeles. I’d tell you what it is, but you have get the album to see the full piece.