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Flying Lotus Rising 

Could spiritual electronica be the next great California sound?

Thursday, May 13 2010
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There are drumrolls and arpeggiating bass notes. Cascades of harp and dancing cymbals. Sounds swirling in thick air, knocking into wood-paneled walls and chasing one another around the living room of the Echo Park cottage until they pass, like the wind, through a cracked front door.

Through the window, the source is visible. Amid a handful of musicians, a man stalks the room. He pinches his chin and listens intently. He stops the players to give direction. They start again and he jots notes into a green journal filled with arcane diagrams. This is Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus — electronic musician, Los Angeles native, force of nature.

Cut to: the previous night, same house, a floor below that beautiful cacophony. The view from Ellison's basement studio is a bit more what you'd expect from a 26-year-old. There's gluey smoke in the air, ash on everything, low shelves crammed with ashy vinyl, and an ash-gray plastic folding table cluttered with keyboards and ash-dusted hard drives.

click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY STAR FOREMAN - The Cosmogrammarian: Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus
 
 

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All that trickles in from upstairs is the sound of Teebs, Ellison's contemporary in the vibrant L.A. beat scene, playing Xbox via a wall-width projector screen, sinking into the same couch that'll be piled with instrument cases the next afternoon. Down here, Ellison's demeanor fits his age: He's thoughtful, unguarded and (only figuratively) wide-eyed.

I've just asked him how it felt to: (a) remix Radiohead's "Reckoner" in 2008, and (b) now count Thom Yorke among his collaborators on the new Flying Lotus album, Cosmogramma.

"How would you feel?" he almost whispers. "I do a reality check in the morning. Am I here? Is this really happening right now? Is this really my third record?"

But Ellison isn't naive — he's just grateful. And he has every reason to be far more confident than he lets on in interviews. That third record is a potential game-changer for electronica, instrumental hip-hop and jazz — hell, maybe even post-rock and the avant-garde.

Cosmogramma builds upon the thick, deep soulfulness of 2008's largely laptop-produced Los Angeles LP by adding loads of live instrumentation and diverse musical modes, so that it's nigh-on impossible to pry the organic from the digital, or to untangle historic nods from left-field futurisms. It's a magnum opus, imbued with a tangible mysticism.

"My aunt had an ashram in Agoura full of devotees," says Ellison. "And I was listening to one of her recorded discourses talking about how once this earthly experience is over, we won't be wearing our costumes anymore, playing parts in this 'cosmic drama,' she called it.

"But I thought she said 'cosmogramma.' That word haunted me for a long time until I found out it actually exists. It refers to the study of the universe, and heaven and hell as well."

You can't get very far in the Flying Lotus story without addressing Ellison's rarefied heritage.

He grew up in Winnetka, a Valley burg about 20 minutes east of the sprawling Vedic temple founded in 1983 by his great-aunt Alice Coltrane, harpist, pianist and wife of jazz great John Coltrane. Ellison was raised by his mother, Tammy, and grandmother Marilyn McLeod, a former Motown songwriter responsible for Diana Ross' 1976 disco hit "Love Hangover."

His father was absent, but he had older brothers, in effect, in his cousins Ravi and Oran Coltrane — both sax players. The two families were incredibly close. They lived just blocks apart before the Northridge temblor brought down Ellison's first home. ("Shaped by a quake," he quips.)

"He was a cool little kid, man," says Ravi, 44, calling from Brooklyn. "He had some chops too. He could do things that other kids couldn't — freakish things. He memorized all the dialogue to Ghostbusters when he was 3 or 4. He'd playact the scenes, mimicking the motions too."

Film was Ellison's first love. When he wasn't playing video games, he'd make stop-motion shorts starring Ninja Turtles figures. He didn't have many friends outside the family, but family was enough. Ravi sneaked him into Hollywood jazz clubs when he had gigs, and Oran would invite him over to tinker in his home studio. He also gave Ellison his first instrument.

"It was a Roland MC-505 Groovebox," says Oran, who lives in Woodland Hills. "I'd made some beats on it and wanted his opinion so I brought it over. He started playing with it, so I just gave it to him. I said, 'Look, dude, I think you could do more with it than I could.' The amount of songs he had written within a year or so was incredible."

"That opened up everything for me," Ellison recalls. He was about 15 at the time. "I didn't really know my place in the family legacy. I knew I wasn't trying to do the music they were doing — I knew I didn't want to play horn. That was like, 'Oh, wow, now I see my part in this thing.'"

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