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Flying Lotus Rising

The Cosmogrammarian: Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus
PHOTO BY STAR FOREMAN

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.

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.'"

 

He did do some time on alto sax in the school band, but mainly took away a love of drum and bass — "the fastest, craziest sounds I had ever heard" — after borrowing a tape from the tuba player. West Coast gangsta rap had also been a heady intoxicant for Ellison, a mix of local pride, teenage defiance and appreciation for G-funk's infatuation with melody.

But Ellison's initial fling with music was short. He lost direction in high school and, after a brief stint "selling weed for no reason," wound up at a continuation school.

"I lived in the Valley," he says. "No one fucking cared about what a 16-year-old beat-maker had to say back then. It wasn't anything."

So he finished up, packed up and left for film school in San Francisco.

The ground floor of Ellison's apartment is brimming with DVDs and still-packed moving boxes — signs of his abdicated career path, and symptoms of his current one, respectively. The living room's lone decoration is a gigantic portrait of Alice Coltrane by L.A. artist Kofie. An adjacent den houses a piano, more boxes and a coffee table with a half-eaten Subway pita on it.

There's no rest for the figurehead of the new, internationally heralded West Coast sound. Ellison moved into his cozy hillside abode about eight months ago, but between finishing Cosmogramma, touring and fielding ravenous press, there's been no time to settle. And now he's prepping his album collaborators for their live debut at a May 15 record-release show.

Ellison's new musical steadies are an intimidating pack: harpist Rebekah Raff (Ghostface Killah, Partch Ensemble, daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra), bassist Thundercat (Suicidal Tendencies, Snoop Dogg, Sa-Ra Creative Partners), string arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (Suite for Ma Dukes, OutKast, John Cale), plus Ravi and others. But this is where Ellison is unflinching, confident.

"It's almost like playing with a classical musician," says Thundercat. "Steve knows his craft. There's no hesitation and he's great at what he does. He's in a class of his own. There's nobody that sounds like Flying Lotus."

Ironically, it was while studying cinema at the S.F. Academy of Art that Ellison discovered his calling. In his first year, he met David Wexler, the grandson of Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler who's since ditched Hollywood to become the video artist Dr. Strangeloop.

"I really do feel like the reason I even moved there was to meet him," says Ellison. "Because he was that kid I should have grown up with. We both lived in L.A. — we just missed each other. He was there for film too, but he'd be making music on his laptop in the hallway, which at the time just blew my mind. I was like, 'What? How is this possible? You're making it sound like that?'"

"We weren't finding much interest in our classes," Wexler says. His improvised projections are a staple of the Flying Lotus live set. He's also released music on Brainfeeder, the label that Ellison founded in 2008. "It was more about smoking weed, playing Atari and listening to Aphex Twin. That was the education, really."

In 2004, with only a year of school under their belts, Ellison and Wexler returned home. From that moment on, the rise of Flying Lotus has been in lockstep with that of L.A.'s beat movement.

Phase one: Ellison cut his teeth interning at hip-hop mainstay Stones Throw Records, absorbing knowledge from instrumental-rap forefathers Madlib and J Dilla. Meanwhile, in the parking lots of established clubs, the now-familiar names of a new generation began to make a scene.

"Mr. Dibiase would come through with the boom box and we'd all play our tunes," remembers Ellison. "The Gaslamp Killer, Kutmah, Ras G, Daedelus, Take ... we'd gather here and there when we could, and it was always inspiring. I felt like I was part of a secret society."

Phase two: In 2006, Ellison released his debut album, 1983, on local label Plug Research. It included tracks that Adult Swim used as bumper music after he responded to an open call for beats. This is the same year that L.A. promoter and producer Daddy Kev founded Low End Theory, the Lincoln Heights weekly that would become the scene's hub.

Phase three: Amid mounting buzz, Ellison signed to Warp Records, which released Los Angeles. The record was praised for its warmth and innovation, and rightly linked to the bass-loving, beat-steeped musicians of L.A. U.S. press moved slow, but the U.K. swooned, with BBC DJ Mary Anne Hobbs dubbing L.A. "the most exciting electronic scene on the planet."

"In a way, it felt like a vision waiting to be fulfilled," says Daddy Kev. He also runs Alpha Pup Records, which distributes Brainfeeder. "That said, I never cease to be amazed by all of this. The momentum is beyond us all, beyond our expectations. I feel like I'm holding on for dear life."

 

So went the "heaven" that informed Cosmogramma's universe. The attention raised the stakes, putting Ellison in a position to make a real statement this time around, not just a sequel to Los Angeles, itself a great record. He was steeling himself for this.

Then came the hell. On October 31, 2008, Ellison's mother died suddenly of complications from diabetes. This was only a year and some months after his great-aunt Alice passed. He went into a tailspin, questioning everything. What is music worth? Why is he here? Why are we here at all?

"I decided that if I was going to speak after that experience," says Ellison, "it better be something honest, and deeper than a record that was just made for the times. I wanted to do something that made her proud. Something that could last forever, hopefully."

That was when he resolved to bring others into his world. He hadn't planned on working with live musicians, but he wanted something more expansive that would connect directly with his bloodline. Those elements — the harp, the bass, the strings, live drums, Ravi's sax — make Cosmogramma what it is.

And still, it is unmistakably a Flying Lotus album. Buried within the hyperactive strains of drum and bass, four-on-the-floor thump, glitchy sound effects and freewheeling experimentalism, there are intimate intricacies, like the sounds of Tammy Ellison's hospital machines, folded into several songs, tucked away in places that only Ellison knows.

More abstractly, the warmth of the California sun comes through in the crackly texture, the rumblings of L.A.'s unstable earth are heard in the ominous bass, and the entire thing is imbued with a searching psychedelia — an interest in astral traveling common to Ellison's dual lineage, kith and kin, and fueled by his own frequent lucid dreams.

"I get those once a week," says Ellison. "Sleep paralysis too, especially now that I'm hardly ever in my own time zone. I'll be trying to go to sleep and I'll just feel the weight of the darkness. You feel yourself sinking, then see the dream space materialize from your thoughts. For a second there, at the very beginning, if you're in control then you're creating all the imagery."

Ultimately, even Thom Yorke, who sings on "And the World Laughs With You," is just a guest passing through Ellison's cosmic soup. Ellison hopes people feel all of it — the highs, the lows, the questioning, the reaching for higher ground. As for the results, let the jury tell it:

Mary Anne Hobbs, "First Lady of Bass," Radio 1 DJ: "Cosmogramma speaks in a completely new sonic language. Lotus is like Hendrix — he's completely torn up the rule book in electronic music and it's so liberating. I hear his sound echoing in every corner of the planet right now."

The Gaslamp Killer, producer, Low End Theory resident: "Remember when Fatboy Slim and Moby were on MTV? That's going to happen with Steve except he's actually the truth, and he has an insane crew of crazy-talented dudes that he rolls with."

Ravi Coltrane, world-renowned saxophonist, cousin: "I hear him speaking, you know? He played the whole thing for me last fall when I was at his crib. We listened to it top to bottom and when it was over, I just stood up and hugged him. I felt like he did it."

It's late in the basement. We've been speaking for well over two hours. We've accumulated well over two inches more ash. We've eaten two servings of cannabis-infused goldfish crackers. And we've been talking about the future.

Ellison wants to score a video game, plans to return to film somehow and admits he'd produce a track for Lil Wayne with the caveat of no murder talk. He's excited about using Brainfeeder to nurture the talented kids who have moved to L.A. to get closer to the scene, closer to him.

He's been taking calls from Erykah Badu lately — she's trying to convince him to stop being so nice to everyone, to just "do your thing" already. But he seems to get this idea on his own.

"For this record to actually come out on Tuesday, it's like a weight off my shoulders, man," says Ellison just days before Cosmogramma's release. "It sums up a chapter of my life. I feel like I can start over at this point, do whatever I want." He laughs. "I can be a doctor if I want to."

It's true — he probably could.

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