Flying Lotus brings a deeper hip-hop beat

by James Hadfield

Even when he’s speaking from the other end of a crackly long-distance phone line, Steve Ellison sounds a lot like he does on record. As Flying Lotus, the Californian producer makes records of woozy, largely instrumental hip-hop whose beguiling surfaces conceal a restless, fidgety energy. Nothing stays in a holding pattern for long: The rhythms are forever shifting, the melodies morphing into different shapes.

Talking to Ellison feels much the same. Though he never speaks faster than an amble, he’ll swerve halfway through a sentence, disagree with himself or suddenly change the topic. At one point he stops me mid-question, apologizes and pops off to brush his teeth, complaining that “I can smell my breath right now.” Later, we’ll spend a good five minutes talking about sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming, which certainly beats talking about synthesizer presets.

It’s been a good year for Ellison. A few months ago, his second album, “Los Angeles,” was released on influential British label Warp Records to more-or-less universal acclaim from both critics and fellow producers, sending its creator on tours to Europe and now to Japan.

If the success has gone to his head, though, he isn’t letting on. “I’ve got a feeling that my next record’s gonna be one of the best ones,” he says. “Or the best one . . . and then everybody will be like, ‘Oh, man, it (the future new material) wasn’t like the third album he made. That third album’s the best, all the other new sh*t is wack.’ ” He laughs a rich, slow-motion chuckle.

Born in the Los Angeles suburb of Winnetka, where he still lives, Ellison comes from a musical family: His great aunt was spiritual jazz icon Alice Coltrane, wife of the revered saxophonist John. He started making music of his own at the age of 14, after being turned on to the sounds of Californian hip-hop producer Dr Dre and rapper Snoop Dogg. From the beginning, though, he found that he was listening to the music differently from his friends.

“When I was listening to hip-hop, usually I was checking the beats,” he says. “People would ask me, like, ‘Oh, man, wasn’t (rapper) Nas’ new album dope?’ And I’m like, ‘sh*t, man, that sh*t is garbage. I can’t even listen to one of the tracks, because all the beats are trash.’ “

While Ellison’s music is nominally hip-hop, neither of the Flying Lotus albums features rappers, and those vocalists who do appear are woven into the fabric of tracks as if they were just another instrument.

“I don’t really like a lot of vocals, because they usually end up speaking on the sh*t in a way that I never intended,” he explains. “I prefer not to have any vocals, because I think that the beat can really help create this world for you, and it’s not directing you or (telling you) what the story is.”

This quality could serve him well in the future. A former film student, Ellison says he hopes to move into soundtrack work some day, and it isn’t hard to imagine his music fitting into a variety of settings: a Michael Mann cop thriller, a sci-fi epic, a stoner comedy. He retains a passion for visuals, too, leaving a TV on while producing music at home to keep himself stimulated. Apparently sci-fi, animation and “anything that’s not really based in reality” are good.

“I love Beetlejuice,” he says, referring to Tim Burton’s ghoulish 1988 comedy. “I put that movie on all the time. All the time. They just put out a new edition, actually. I have to go pick it up after this phone call.”

Doubtless he’ll have plenty to talk about when he shares a bill in Japan next month with the British jazz/electronica ensemble Cinematic Orchestra, whose last album was a soundtrack to an as-yet unmade film. In contrast to the lush grandeur of that group’s live performances, Ellison promises something rather more visceral. His Flying Lotus shows ratchet up the tension of the recorded material, as he splices tracks together at a frenzied pace while adding embellishments on a drum machine.

“The live sets are a little bit more intense than the (recorded) music sometimes,” he says. “I’d say it’s a little bit more aggressive. . . . I’m always trying to figure out ways to change it up, to keep it interesting for myself and the people who’ve already seen the shows once or twice.”

Describing the audiences in Europe as “f*cking crazy,” he sounds a little more concerned about how things will go down here.

“People say the Japanese audiences are a little tricky,” he says. “Because if they feel it (the music) then they ain’t gonna do anything. They ain’t gonna move. . . . I just hope they dig it, is all.”

It isn’t only Japanese gig-goers that he’s hoping to win over, either.

“I’m trying to get a date with Radiohead,” he says. (The band are touring the country at the same time, so it might not be such a stretch.) “They hit me up to do a remix recently, so I’m gonna see if they like me enough to get me on their stage.”

Coming from anyone else, this might sound arrogant. Delivered in Ellison’s laconic drawl, it seems downright normal. Radiohead? Sure, why not?

“I know they’ve got 30 minutes for me. I’ll do a 30-minute set. It’s all good.”

Flying Lotus plays Oct. 3 at Shibuya O-East with Cinematic Orchestra and others (10 p.m., ¥5,800 in advance, plus drink charge). For details, see www.beatink.com

West Coast sounds

Flying Lotus isn’t the only Los Angeles-based producer of note at the moment. Steve Ellison belongs to a fertile community of beatmakers, and recently started the Brainfeeder digital label to release “some of the weirder, more leftfield stuff” that his friends produce. The debut release was by 8-bit video-console aficionado Samiyam, with more to come from Ras G (whose pleasantly zonked “Beats of Mind” was released on the Japanese label P-Vine earlier this year).

Ellison mentions DJ Nobody as one producer who he feels deserves wider recognition: “He makes really amazing stuff, man, on a psychedelic tip. And I just think he hasn’t had the right break.” Blank Blue, Nobody’s collaboration with singer Niki Randa, offers a good alternative for anyone who found the new Portishead album too abrasive.

Then there’s the scene’s most successful producer to date, Ninja Tune records’ mainstay Daedelus, who Ellison would “like to see just take over the world.”

“I feel like he deserves it,” he continues. “I’d love to see him doing records for some of these radio people. I think that the music he makes is pretty accessible, actually, but . . . I dunno, maybe my ears are a little different. I don’t think the sh*t I do is that weird, either.”

Daedelus and Nobody play Sept. 26 at Unit, Tokyo (10 p.m.; ¥4,000 in advance, ¥4,500 on the door); Sept. 27 at Club Base, Fukuoka (9 p.m.; ¥3,000 in advance, ¥3,500 on the door); and Sept. 28 at Club Metro, Kyoto (10:30 p.m., ¥3,000 in advance, ¥3,500 on the door).

Samiyam plays Oct. 4 at Heavy Sick Zero, Tokyo (11 p.m.; ¥2,500). See www.corde.co.jp for details.