Steven Ellison wants to be clear: He’s good with being distorted.
Ellison, better known to fans of jazz-leaning beathead odysseys as Flying Lotus, FlyLo, or just Lotus, is reflecting on his recently completed fifth full-length album, You’re Dead!, his most collaborative effort to date and a record that crackles with life.
“I hate the way a lot of records, especially jazz records, sound now, so f*cking clean, so I wanted to do my thing with one or two mics in a space and that’s it,” says Ellison. “And it wasn’t a good acoustic space, just a regular room in my house. I tried to keep things dirty, give it that texture. There are room reflections and they are a true reflection of what we did. I had a big rug and that’s it; we were just working in my living room.”
Ellison has sprinted into his role as a veteran producer of concept albums and interstitial music whose compositions can swing effortlessly between lucid sequences, transient sprawls, and holographic melodies. He established himself through highly acclaimed releases through Warp Records, efforts to promote likeminded limit and limiter pushers on his Brainfeeder label, playful bumper music for the Cartoon Network [Adult Swim] and seismic live shows, among other projects.
Now 30, Ellison has proven he is far more than the “hip-hop beat guy wanting to be J Dilla,” as he feels he was pegged on his early releases. Years separated from pounding out patterns in his grandma’s house, as quick to admit his appreciation for George Duke, King Tubby, and Madlib as he is early ’90s G-funk, Lightning Bolt, and Queen II, Ellison has continued to master his ability to manifest a one-man ensemble through Ableton Live even as he’s extended his workflow to include an increasing number of collaborators.
“I opened up so much more of my space to other people with this record,” reflects Ellison. “Even though there’s never a full band playing, even though all the instruments are recorded individually, I wanted it to sound like there were all these people in the fold together. And to get that, I had to learn how to communicate my ideas differently to each person in order to get the best performances. Everyone has his or her own energy and workflow and you have to adapt to that and find the things that make people good for the music and help bring that essence out. I went at it like a classic producer, more in terms of being a Quincy Jones type with lots of personnel and an overall vision, not a beatmaker.”
Moogs and Manga Ellison’s SoCal home studio is much the same as it has been since the production leading up to 2012’s Until the Quiet Comes, a less-sample-based excursion that opened up the path to the spatially expansive You’re Dead! His production platform of choice remains Live, with Propellerhead’s Reason ReWired in. His rig includes Focal Professional Twin6 Be threeway active nearfield monitors, an Access Virus TI synth, a sticker-encrusted Akai MPK49 USB/MIDI performance controller, and the Ableton Push controller.
Keyboards include Moog Voyager, Fender Rhodes, and Wurlitzer electric pianos, as well as a Gibson guitar, a Carvin Legacy 3 all-tube 3-channel amp head, a bank of six Moogerfooger analog effects modules, two Technics SL-1200 turntables, and shelves of vinyl inspiration spanning early rave underground hardcore breakbeat, IDM, boom-bap, free jazz, breakcore metal, and psychedelic prog-rock, among other genres.
“You’re Dead! all started with me and [thrash-funk-fusion bassist/producer] Thundercat geeking out to records and talking about how we could go places where people weren’t, how we could make some sh*t Miles Davis would trip on, saying silly stuff like that,” says Ellison.
“At first it was a joke, then we realized we really wanted to add something to the conversation, and then the whole concept expanded as we pursued the idea. At one point it was going to be an album of 30 jazz breaks that were each a minute long, just the best parts without solos and stuff, like library records, straight and to the point. Then, over time the album revealed itself as something different, but still nothing like that background cocktail sh*t you can ignore.”
“A lot of the time I compare me and Lotus working to [Japanese comic/TV series] Dragon Ball Z’ with Goku and Vegeta in the Hyperbolic Time Chamber,” says Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, Ellison’s frequent contributor, collaborator and even co-producer on swatches of You’re Dead!, as well as a fellow manga/anime otaku, or fanatic. “When we’re in our zone, you don’t realize exactly what’s going on, but when stuff starts to shape up and a person puts … a smart endpoint on it, you realize how much stuff has been happening and how long you’ve just been in the moment. I sat there for every moment, helped sway where the music was going, felt out each scenario and figured out what was called for, and then watched him continue to morph it. It’s more often than not a thoughtless, process in the best way.”
The “Hyperbolic Time Chamber” is a “room of spirit and time” where a year inside is equivalent to a day in the real world, and exploration is possible without boundaries. Armed with his custom Ibanez Artcore semi-hollowbody four-string, MTD custom shop six-string, and an upright bass, Bruner taps into his love of ’70s jazz fusion, ’80s punk-funk, R&B, neo-soul, hip-hop, Italian horror films, anime sound design, and much more to bring fluid chords and percussive rhythm to the clips Ellison arranges.
Jacked in to an Apogee Ensemble multichannel FireWire interface or miked with a RØDE NT1-A cardioid condenser through a Rane MS 1b single-channel mic preamp (the setup used for almost everything on the project), Bruner would sit with Ellison for hours, days even, to translate concepts into tone and texture through his basses and guitar. It’s a process that has been seamless and congruent since the finishing touches of Until the Quiet Comes, one Bruner likens to both continuous line drawing and Japanese pop culture.
“Numerous musicians cycled through Ellison’s home for You’re Dead!, including strings arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, saxophonist Kamasi Washington, and drummers Justin Brown, Deantoni Parks, Gene Coye, and Ronald Bruner, who contributed invaluable source material alongside featured artists Herbie Hancock, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, (Ellison’s MC alter ego) Captain Murphy, Angel Deradoorian, and Niki Randa.
“Sometimes I would record drummers for an entire day on this mutt kit in my house, just recreating ideas from records or that I’d hummed into my iPhone voice memos,” says Ellison. “I bought this Neumann mic that cost a fortune, but we didn’t even use it because it sounded too sterile. I wanted warmth, rawness, to dive into the unexpected headfirst. Once I had all that, I could dial in the EQ, draw in all the automation, really manipulate things. And one of the reasons I like Ableton’s Push controller is it has a real inviting Star Trek vibe to it, so anybody who knows a little bit about production feels comfortable quickly and can get on it in conjunction with whatever I’m doing.”
You’re Dead! Contains dark themes and imagery, but Ellison stresses that the record isn’t intended to be a scary descent, but rather an acknowledgment that the end is a condition we all share and dark moments are dark to allow the light moments to shine brightest. “It’s like, ‘Hey, you’re dead, who knows what’s next, but our spirits live forever, and you lived through the good and bad sh*t,’ not, ‘Hey, you’re dead, it’s over,’” Ellison explains. “The path to understanding isn’t always playful, but the resolution is positive.” This idea of transformative experiences is perfectly manifested by the cover art of You’re Dead!, which comes from Japanese manga artist Shintaro Kago.
Kago works extensively in the genre of body horror, showing mutations and dissections, the unnatural emergence of people and parts in/on/from others, and he disregards the conventions of page layout when he sees fit. Similarly, You’re Dead! is an album that represents the struggle of individual vs. collective, that explores the ingesting and regurgitating of others to create a greater whole, that recognizes a boiling need for self-expression so great it threatens to burst forth from the skin. And it’s a record that approaches layering and EQ as needing to be done “wrong” whenever it feels right.
“I understand why certain things work, and what rules to break,” says Ellison. “I’ve learned a lot over the last few years, stupid sh*t everybody knows but I didn’t care at first, like how you should cut things to highlight parts and get more headroom, not EQ up to bring them out. When I started out, my instinct was to make things darker, murkier, wet or grimy. But a lot of times now, I’ve been pursing a different energy. My sh*t is still really loud, I can have 40 or 50 layers in there easy, but I’ve been thinking more about when to make a cut instead of a boost, and how to leave more dynamic range for mastering.”
An embrace of subtractive EQ and starting tracks at -8 dB is certainly a blessing, because Ellison still hits the master hard and has established his own signature “positive distortion,” to get back to an earlier point. And the openness to outside contribution that brought in so many musicians to You’re Dead! extends to the final stages of production, as well.
Mastering You’re Dead “Of all the records I’ve mastered for Flying Lotus, this one definitely had the most dynamic range, and a lot of that was him gain staging correctly in the mix… and leaving the mastering stage more for compression and limiting,” concurs Daddy Kev, Alpha Pup Records label head and one of the key figures behind Los Angeles’ weekly “Low End Theory” club night/artist showcase, where he’s been giving out free mix/mastering advice for years. “I’m happy we’ve reached that trust point where he can give me more dynamic mixes knowing once I work with them they will be loud enough.
“At one point he went into a studio with a big-name engineer to try some mixes, and what that revealed was something I already knew: There is no one else that can mix Flying Lotus except Flying Lotus,” continues Kev. “They were using an SSL desk and it was sounding really large, but it wasn’t maximizing the frequencies or having the presence the way he does. His approach to EQ and layering, the way he balances a wall of sound and subtle details, is something someone else can’t re-create. And this is his most dialed-in album yet, in part because of something I was pushing on him, and that’s low-level monitoring, trying to listen as close to 83 dB SPL as possible. It’s obvious he concentrated on the true discipline required for quality mixdowns.”
Visit Daddy Kev’s Twitter feed (@daddykev) and you’ll be fed a wealth of thoughts on subjects such as the Fletcher-Munson equal-loudness contour, how to monitor longer without fatigue, having your perception tricked into perceiving energy, how to “zoom out” to avoid having your brain steered by certain sounds, as well as many other more technical points on everything from delays vs. EQ/compression to stacking limiters to prepping output level for MP3s (try -0.3 dB to avoid inter-sample peaks). The free mentoring is often sparked by whatever album Kev has at hand, and copious thoughts have been shared in the months leading up to You’re Dead! (Visit emusician.com for more tips from Daddy Kev.)
Monitoring with Focal Professional’s CMS 65 and the CMS SUB in Pro Tools 9 on a Mac Pro at 24/96 minimum whenever possible, Kev approaches EQ as the most integral element of mastering, establishing a highpass filter with a gentle slope on everything except the sub and using the Brainworx bx_digital V2 EQ and Sonalksis SV-517 mk2 Equaliser plug-ins to work on points in relative pitch to each other: “If I’m dialing around and find something at 2.5 k, I’m also notching out 5 k and looking around 1.25 k, trying to make moves as a harmonious effort one octave up and down from where I find the issue, because invariably, if I find some ring or clash, it’s spreading that far, if not more.”
After tweaking, often in the low-mid to compensate for subharmonics on compressed modern listening platforms, he sends the signal out an Apogee Symphony I/O into Avedis E27 EQs boosting slightly at 28 kHz, through an Empirical Labs EL7 FATSO Jr. for the Warmth circuit (a type of high-frequency gain-control circuit) and an SSL FX-G384 gray-faced stereo bus compressor for less than 1 dB of analog reduction. Once back in the box, the signal meets the Sonnox Oxford Limiter, which imparts a punch and sheen fans of the Flying Lotus sound recognize as “hyper-real,” says Kev.
Ultimately, the most hyper-real factor remains Ellison’s mind. Using basically the same gear for years, finding new ways to flip it as he orchestrates increasingly cooperative sessions, Ellison has pumped more flesh into his machine. Between the bass drops and angular runs, drums ricochet and wallop, sequencing moments of frantic, dizzy stutter before being stripped down to eerie recesses of elongated melody. In the world of Flying Lotus, jazz isn’t dead; it’s spiritual, crisp, dense, and ephemeral.
Tony Ware is a writer and editor based outside of Washington, D.C.