Photo: Timothy Saccenti
Nothing came together quite the way Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison) first envisioned it during the making of his second album, Los Angeles (Warp, 2008). Originally, the album was designed to be a “beat version of Blade Runner” playing out in his hometown, but the end result found influence in sounds originating far from the title city, and a single bleak perspective couldn't contain FlyLo's musical impulses.
“I wanted to make a really dark record, but I realized that wouldn't have been the best thing to do because it wasn't all dark in my life,” he says. “I had to have fun. I'd rather it's a journey than one constant movement.”
Refining and then expanding upon the trip-hop sounds of his debut 1983 (Plug Research, 2006), FlyLo uses the reverberating pads and pointed analog sounds on beatless opener “Brainfeeder” to set the scene for later tracks, showcasing the unsteady breaks and choppy noises that are leading people such as Portishead's Geoff Barrow to mention his name in the same sentence as Public Enemy, EPMD, Marley Marl and Madlib.
FlyLo is amazed by such high praise because he's simply making the music he believes in, and every aspect of his life shows up in the beats. The samba groove of “Melt!” and the echoey sitar on “GNG BNG” are influences from his travels.
FlyLo's songs are built from samples lifted from his record collection or recorded from everyday noises, but the source rarely matters because he likes to repurpose things. He likes to work imperfections on the fringes of his sounds into the rhythm, whether he's working with swaying glitch collections or ground-shaking party breaks.
“I'm not one of these guys who likes to have his samples too clean. That sample's not going to tell me what to do. I'll tell it what to do,” he says.
That same sense of control is wielded when arranging the songs, as FlyLo likes to find the narrative connections between his tracks. For Los Angeles, he starts in a dark place and heightens the tension and the mood before the amazing third act, where he teams with guest vocalists Dolly on “RobertaFlack” and Gonja Sufi on “Testament” to revise what Portishead and Tricky did so well in the mid-'90s.
Meditative closer “Auntie's Lock/Infinitum,” with its samples from FlyLo's great aunt Alice Coltrane (John Coltrane's wife), was a late addition. FlyLo planned an apocalyptic breakcore ending before Laura Darlington's mantralike vocals came back at the last minute and made a better fit. “I'm really glad because that track is a favorite of many people; it's a favorite of mine,” he says.
While recording, FlyLo sequesters himself with little more than his MacBook Pro laptop. He's tried his hand at programming beats on other gear, but nothing ever felt as comfortable. He's given up the Akai MPC, and his Korg Kaoss Pad and Roland RE-201 Space Echo just gather dust. It's all about finding the right instrument and mastering it, and for him it's the laptop.
“People get caught up in gear, but it gets in the way of making the music,” he says. “When I need to find something new, I don't have to update my shit; I just have to update my brain.”
Still, he's not too stuck in his ways to miss out on a good thing, and FlyLo gets excited talking about the possibilities he's finding since adding a Monome 40h to his live rig. Currently, he uses the charming box of light-up buttons as a sampler and a step sequencer via the MLR and 64Step programs from Cycling '74's Max/MSP programming environment, but FlyLo thinks there's no limit to the programmable control box's potential. “There's no one way to use it. You have all sorts of programs and you have all these little buttons,” he says. “It's supereasy.” In addition to the Monome and Cycling '74, FlyLo uses his M-Audio Trigger Finger MIDI drum control surface, Novation ReMote 25SL MIDI controller and MacBook Pro in his live rig.
Like the Monome, FlyLo sees that same limitless potential in where music is going these days. With the Internet bringing everything down to one level, FlyLo is ready to find other talented collaborators and keep on making the off-center beats.
“I think people think too much in general when they're working on music,” he says. “We should be able to be free and just do our shit.”