After a few drinks one sluggish evening this summer at Flying Lotus' two-story house in the Mount Washington hills, the fusionist producer was feeling good. So he posted a gang of unfinished tracks on his Soundcloud streaming account, including a remix of Frank Ocean's “Thinking About You.” This would be no big deal if Flying Lotus weren't always being watched. But when he awoke, his drunken impulse was scavenged and praised by Pitchfork, Spin and every click-monkey blog in the hype machine.
“I woke up and was like, 'Why did I do that?' ” The 29-year-old, Winnetka-raised producer laughs off the incident 48 hours later, after subsequently removing the rough draft from the Internet. “I wouldn't give a shit when MySpace was on, but now I feel like a lot of young producers are, like, 'What's he gonna do?' I have to always be on my shit, which is cool, but I can't fuck around.”
These producers seek a chronometer and a weather vane — a window into the current zeitgeist and where to warp next.
But this vigilance is not confined to those watching the throne. The beat samurai born Steven Ellison frequently collaborates with Thom Yorke, whose last Radiohead album revealed DNA from Lotus and the artists on his Brainfeeder label. Last year, Lotus even coaxed Yorke to perform at Low End Theory, the Lincoln Heights beat-scene hub.
Same with Erykah Badu — another guest on Lotus' new album, Until the Quiet Comes, which dropped Oct. 2 on the biblical British electronic imprint Warp Records.
It's been like this since 2010's Cosmogramma, Flying Lotus's third record, which propelled him from underground vanguard to international festival mainstay — the lone IDM (intelligent dance music) DJ in a Sargasso Sea of epileptic lights and concussive drops.
Lotus achieved stardom without compromising sonic or aesthetic integrity. There were no bro-step moves to the middle, no awkward haircuts, no dilution. What we got was a deeply personal sound clash, a dense and frantic reconciliation of psychedelic jazz, instrumental hip-hop, glitchy electronic and ethereal folk.
The emotional gravity rooted itself in the recent passing of Lotus' mother, as well as that of his great-aunt, Alice Coltrane, the harpist, pianist and Bodhisattva wedded to sax god John Coltrane.
Cosmogramma was a coronation. The totemic dance website Resident Adviser named it album of the year. Pitchfork bestowed an 8.8 rating and coveted “Best New Music” distinction. The Weekly put Lotus on its cover and called him the “electronic Jimi Hendrix,” via a quote from Mary Anne Hobbs, the iconic English DJ who broke dubstep. Even Usher proclaimed his fandom. It elevated Lotus to a position known to those in his artistic lineage: Yorke, J Dilla, Badu, Aphex Twin, John and Alice Coltrane. All of which is why Flying Lotus not only is expected to get A's but is supposed to give everyone else the answers to the test, too.
“It felt like, in the aftermath of Cosmogramma, no matter what I did next, everyone would hate it. I could walk on the moon, come back and make a album, and everyone would shit on it,” Lotus says in the backyard of the beige and white, '50s SoCal split-level ranch house that he rents. If the quiet can't come here, it settles nowhere else. It is 1 p.m. on a Tuesday and the only noise is birds chirping. Even the Jack Russell/Chihuahua mix bounding back and forth is soundless.
Lotus chills poolside, fishing a Swisher Sweet stub out of the ashtray. He's unshaven, wearing a slight goatee and a gray Red Bull Academy T-shirt, black shorts and black socks. Since the last record's release, Lotus also looks like he's been lifting enough weights to outcurl his first musical hero, Dr. Dre.
“The story and timing behind Cosmogramma was so special and unique. A lot of things made it what it was, beyond the music,” Lotus adds. “There was no way to recapture that particular magic. What happened now had to be the next story to tell.”
The psychic trek started in the basement. This is Lotus' home studio — a mess of keyboards, DVDs, video games, computers and a drum kit — all patiently waiting to be played beyond the sliding glass door. It's where bassist Thundercat is idling as I enter. Last year, Lotus produced Thundercat's Golden Age of Apocalypse, an astral trip that did more to make jazz cool than anything since the early Gangstarr records. Thundercat plays all over Lotus' new record, contributing the celestial funk you'd expect from an Indian headdress–wearing, South Central–raised bassist named Thundercat.
But Lotus is too restless to be tethered to one sound. At heart he's a playful experimentalist, flipping time signatures with each morning epiphany, remixing random tracks for fun, making one-off jams with underground rap stars ScHoolboy Q and Earl Sweatshirt, pounding out nose-breaking trap rap beats and loop-jacking soul instrumentals and incalculable weird jazz odysseys that probably will never see sunlight. Those are just pulsating ideas; the albums are journeys.
“I'd been obsessed with how big something could sound,” Lotus says. “I wanted [Until the Quiet Comes] to take a minimal approach — to remind people of the last album but without drinking from the same well. I didn't want to over-shoot or under-do it — just what we needed with no extras. That idea kept me sane, especially during the middle of making the album.”
He's smiling, which is one of two things you immediately notice about him. Whether performing or talking, Lotus almost constantly flashes an illusionist's smile, as though he's about to pull some slick act of levitation you weren't expecting. Lately he's been on a Batman kick. It's his favorite superhero because he “lacks superpowers but always finds a way to be more than a man.”
The other thing you notice is that he is unusually patient. Not once does Lotus interrupt the conversation. He seems to be always absorbing everything around him: fragments of dialogue, rhythm of the trees, ambient sounds, direction of the smoke. There is nothing superfluous. He only asks questions he's interested to hear the answers to and rarely speaks without a considered pause.
All these qualities are sublimated in the softer, more meditative, Until the Quiet Comes. The loose concept surrounds the nocturnal visions of a child lost in spacedust dreams. It spirals through wine-black skies spied but unexplored on Cosmogramma. Swirling voices seem like clouds communing. Snare crashes mimic obscene villains. Hard beats propel chase scenes. Basslines gurgle like goofy dancing sidekicks. Erykah Badu plays the all-powerful good witch. Thom Yorke guests as the gnomish sorcerer with the seraphic yawp. Think of it as Little Nemo for the narcotically inclined, directed by Michel Gondry.
“I try to be hyperaware of my feelings. It's a good thing and bad thing. Often we try to push away our feelings and curiosities for another time,” Lotus says.
Then there's another long pause, this one slightly longer than the others. Flying Lotus stands up silently, and walks back through the now-empty studio, ascending the stairwell, past the copy of The Wire with Alice Coltrane on the cover and the Indian-themed art adorning the walls. There is no evidence yet of what he did next.