Flying Lotus on conformity within popular music and why he needed to make ‘Flamagra’

Flying Lotus on conformity within popular music and why he needed to make ‘Flamagra’

Words by Will Brewster

“Man, you got some weirdos down in Melbourne. Y’all so strange – I love it.”

It’s ironic to hear such a barb come from Steven Ellison, yet if there’s anyone who’s got a licence to put things in the weird basket, it’s him. Having made some of the most forward-thinking electronic music of the past 15 years under the Flying Lotus moniker, Ellison’s no stranger to surreal forces.

Flamagra, his latest full-length effort, spills over with crooked grooves. The 27-track record features contributions from fellow oddballs such as Shabazz Palaces, Solange, Tierra Whack, George Clinton and David Lynch, who combine with Ellison to create the perfect soundtrack for an apocalyptic rave on top of a scorched earth.

Flamagra is apocalyptic, but it’s not,” says Ellison.“I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing. I think it’s change. Most people don’t like change, but then others do. Some people want to go and burn their diaries just so they can move forward.”

Although it arrived a whole five years after his electro-jazz opus You’re Dead!, Flamagra is by no means a return for Flying Lotus. Ellison chipped away at the record while making his directorial debut with the film Kuso and producing frequent collaborator Thundercat’s record Drunk.

However, Ellison says it was bearing witness to a changing world and the homogenisation of popular music that truly informed his direction on the album.

“I felt like I was watching the world change. I’m a reactionary artist, so I felt like I needed to be out there again. In the landscape of music and art right now, I felt like there was nothing in the realm of what I was trying to do, so I had to do it.

“It was also a time where everyone was trying to sound the exact same, everyone using the same drums, same samples, same everything. Like, what the fuck? People have been rinsing this trap shit for a long time man. It’s a cool thing, I love it, but no thank you. I think it would be healthy to be as sound-less as I can and just try make something different.”

One of the hallmarks of a Flying Lotus record is that it’s not so much an album as it is an experience; a trip to somewhere not yet conquered. It’s a prospect Ellison is currently toying with on his wildly inventive 3D tour behind Flamagra, which collides his broken beat compositions with lucid, brain-smashing visuals to create a multi-sensory encounter unlike any other.

Ellison describes the process as somewhat similar to that of performing with a band.

“It’s all improvised,” he says. “We’ve got the same people every night, that’s the only way it could work. They know my music, they vibe off of what I’m doing, they know when I’m going to drop the drums out. But that being said, they’re still trying to do their job every night.”

Ellison makes it clear that this creative modus operandi isn’t limited to the Flying Lotus canon, but to his perspective on electronic music in its entirety.

“Just because you’re working with loops doesn’t mean you can freak yourself out and try things you’ve never done before,” Ellison extols. “That’s the same thing people do in jazz, that’s just improvising, and people who improvise in jazz are never fully improvising. They’re playing licks or phrases that they know or have practised a million times, and now they’re just piecing them together in a way which flows.”

“People always rely on things that they know – they’ve got their own loops, or voicings, or chords. But they’ve got their sound. I think there’s something that can be said for setting your shit to where it can be very expressive every single night, instead of pushing spacebar or plugging in and letting rip.”

Catch Flying Lotus 3D at The Forum on Saturday January 25 with support by Mark Pritchard and a screening of the AV installation Four Worlds by Pritchard and Jonathan Zawada. Tickets via Ticketmaster.