“There is nothing unusual about fires in Los Angeles,” West Coast author Joan Didion wrote in a 1989 dispatch later worked into an essay titled “Fire Season,” “which is after all a desert city with only two distinct seasons, one beginning in January and lasting three months during which storms come in from the northern Pacific and it rains and one lasting eight or nine months during which it burns, or gets ready to burn.” If you grew up in Los Angeles County in the ‘80s and ‘90s and stuck it out afterward, it’s likely that you have childhood memories of the earth splitting open and columns of molten flame devouring neighborhoods. It takes a certain cocktail of reserve and resignation to live in a metropolis. More people means more chances to meet some grisly end. 25 years after the devastation of the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake, the growing intensity of historic deadly wildfires like 2017’s Tubbs Fire and last year’s Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire has kept cataclysm as much of a constant in the consciousness of the state as movie stars and musicians.
Flying Lotus, the polymathic artist who witnessed firsthand those Los Angeles disasters, offered his vision of a future after “the big one” in the 2017 directorial debut, Kuso. But its blend of gore and toilet humor earned it a reputation with critics as the grossest film of the year, a designation that flagrantly undersells what it’s trying to say, which is that catastrophe challenges and changes the human spirit but never manages to break it. Lotus’s new album Flamagra is a softer rendering of a similar theme. It’s a feel-good album for a strange time and a panoramic snapshot of the state of funk, jazz fusion, and left-of-the-dial hip-hop. Flamagra processes sadness and loss — “Debbie Is Depressed” laments that “all the days just feel the same,” and “Find Your Own Way Home” and “Thank You Malcolm” salute the late Mac Miller — but it’s never consumed by them. It can be dire, but it’s never dour; fire brings death, but the clearing facilitates rebirth. The presence of legends David Lynch and George Clinton alongside modern luminaries Chaz Bundick, Anderson .Paak, and Solange as well as the young stars Tierra Whack and Denzel Curry is a note about the unbeatable, ineffable human spirit and a celebration of the versatility of the artist at center stage. Flying Lotus is a lodestone uniting rap, jazz, funk, and electronic music; few artists working today possess the audacity and the chops to schedule the soulful “Takashi” next to the devilish funk of “Pilgrim Side Eye” and the new-wave jam “All Spies” and make the journey feel seamless.
I met the man, born Steve Ellison, on a spotless early May morning in a penthouse hotel suite overlooking lower Manhattan. You could tell whose room it was by the laptop, keyboard, and limited edition Adidas Dragon Ball Z Son Goku sneakers on the floor. (Lotus noodled on the keys a bit when it got quiet at one point.) We spoke about the role of death and destruction in his art — how Flamagra and the 2014 opus You’re Dead! bring lightness to dark ideas and concepts — and the ways David Lynch and Mac Miller’s influences seeped into the album. He already knows what he wants the next album to sound like, but his schedule’s been stacked between Flamagra and work on Black Dynamite supervising director LeSean Thomas’s upcoming Netflix black samurai anime Yasuke.
It’s been five years since your last album, but it doesn’t feel like a long time. You’ve been scoring anime and films, plus making films.
Yeah, I don’t feel like I’ve been gone at all.
How do you balance all your work?
The social life takes a hit. Less time for that. Honestly, I just be in the lab. It’s different when you’re working on your own stuff, because you’re chipping away at your own universe. Balancing is rarely an issue. I have fun with it. I’m the kind of person who needs to be challenged all the time. I need my brain to go or else I just end up playing video games all day, you know? That’s cool too, I guess, at times.
You ever think about scoring a game?
Actually, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but in the early days of Red Dead Redemption 2 they was talking to me and Thundercat about doing a score. I’m glad it went the way it did, though. I think it needed to have the old sound.
I think the first time I heard your music was in the Adult Swim bumpers back in the day. Working in music and video was always your plan?
I always wanted to have the visuals as part of what I do because I come from a film background as well. I’m always seeing stuff and imagining scenes in my head when I’m making music.
How easily does an album come together in the middle of scoring and directing other projects?
It doesn’t. Well, in the past, it hasn’t. I always feel like whatever plans I have to make things, whenever I’m like, “Oh I got an idea,” they end up showing me what they are. It’s not me saying what it is. I’m like, “I want to do the project like this,” and it ends up being totally different than what I imagined. But that’s part of it. I like to be surprised and I like that moment where it all could be anything. You get surprised by the work, the work reveals itself. It blossoms.
I was struck by a line in the new album’s intro, where you say, “The time of heroes has come again.” Do you think we’re at the crisis point before the hero’s journey starts?
Is that the most or the least hopeful part in the story?
My trajectory, my thrust, came from trying to make this positive. I want it hopeful, I want my record to inspire some hope in people. It’s from the heart. It’s trying to bring good energy to the world right now. I can’t let darkness be what guides my decisions. I can’t let that be what guides how I treat people. I can’t let that be what drives my art either. I’m supposed to do the thing that helps people, not the thing that makes people feel shitty.
Positivity is tough business right now.
It’s a stupid thing to say out loud, but it’s a real thing that as an artist I always have to be like, “Check your intentions. What is this really about right now? What are we really trying to say? What do you really want to do with this? You don’t care about being famous. You want to make people believe in magic again.”
You feel responsible for the audience.
I’m curious how you got from the ideas about mortality on You’re Dead! to this. I know it’s been a long time, but what changed your perspective?
I never saw You’re Dead! as being a morbid concept. You’re alive. You’re going to die. Let’s celebrate the beauty of that, because we ain’t got no choice. You’re dead. Now what? It should have had a dot-dot-dot instead of an exclamation point.
I’m fascinated by your work in film. I feel like Flying Lotus as a musician is trying to close gaps between genres, but as a film director you have a very specific vision. Your films are very take it or leave it. They’re not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea.
That’s how the music has been. And then eventually people came around to it. That’s how it be with films. They’re like, “Oh, that’s trippy,” and then five years from now people will be like, “Oh yeah, that’s what everyone’s doing now.”
Well, there’s pleasant psychedelic art and there’s terrifying psychedelic art. People freak out when they get to the other side of the high. I think you’re trying to show both sides. That sensibility is one that you have in common with David Lynch. I’m not surprised to see you connect and work together. His stuff seems serene, but there’s a darkness around the edge of it.
He was hugely influential on me, especially when I was young and going to film school. I was like, “What is this guy, what is that all about?”
And so you finally meet him. What is he like?
Exactly how I imagined him.
A little intense?
There was a part of me that didn’t want to be around him too much. I just want to be a fan. Like, don’t pop the bubble for me.
How did you get into extreme horror? It’s sort of like sliding into a hot bath.
Robocop? You remember in the first Robocop where they killed Alex Murphy and they, like, [imitates shooting noises] blew his arm off, and they blew his legs off, and it’s just like, “AAAAGHHHHHHH”? When I was a child, I saw that uncut in Japan. I was 10 years old.
To me, the story of Kuso, aside from people being spooked by it, is that it’s really a meditation on what happens after a catastrophe, how we try and get back to some version of our normal routine.
Absolutely. I was 10 years old when the Northridge quake happened, and I lived right in the area, so it was a traumatic thing for me. I’d never had anything like that happen before. It’s always stuck with me. People from L.A. who had that experience, we’re all like, “Okay, so when’s the big one coming? Is it going to be today? Tomorrow? Next month? Next year? Next decade?” The concept of waiting for it and what life will be like after it is something that I always think of. I think Kuso is really just about exploring my own fears. I wanted to do something that would make me go, “Ugh.” And I wanted to do something that only I could do, something that is unique to my spirit, because other people can do all the other stuff, but I know no one else would have made that movie, so I had to do it.
At first, I thought it was wild that George Clinton was in there, but then I thought about Funkadelic being wild for its time, too, and I understood the lineage.
He was talking about it. He was talking about all the stuff I did in Kuso. Like, “The Doo-Doo Chasers.” He was on that.
So you’re calling the new record your fire album. I’m wondering what fire “sounds” like to you.
[chuckles] I tried to capture that sound in the intro of the album. I wanted it to feel like when you’re pressing play, you’re summoning this fire spirit to guide you through this journey. But in terms of the sound and imagery, I think it was really the result of seeing L.A. on fire so many times, literally and metaphorically.
I wonder what long-term effects that might have on people. It’s not normal to go outside and see ash in the air.
The thing that’s fucked up is it happens often. People don’t realize. We have a really crazy fire every year usually. In the past few years, at least, that I’ve been paying attention. I always think of [the Tubbs Fire], because that was the one where people called me. This was the fire where you saw people on the freeway and then there was fire off the side of it.
It was like a movie.
It was like a volcano. And I lived on the other side of that hill. It’s in the air. I had all my friends from here calling me like, “Are you alive?” Like, I’m straight, don’t trip, but I think that shook me too. Seeing L.A. like that was like, “What?” Hearing stories about fires and whatnot visually inspired me.
Have you been sneaking elemental themes in this whole time? I started thinking about fire and this record, and then I started to think about earth and You’re Dead! and wind and Until the Quiet Comes.
Well, I think there’s some intention. Where do I go from You’re Dead! as a storyteller? How do we come back from the dead? Where do we go in the sequel world? In the cinematic universe? More than anything I try to do instruments and sounds throughout the record. So this album is the clavinet album to me. The previous album is the electric guitar album. And the one before that was the Rhodes album. And the next one, I don’t know what the sound will be. Oh, I know what it is. I’m already doing it.
Can I ask, or do we have to wait?
I probably shouldn’t say. It’s definitely a sound that’ll be pretty obvious. There’s so many tracks with it.
The new one’s your longest album, and it’s also the one with the most guests. What’s the studio like in that sort of situation? Is it a revolving door or do you just hole up with a skeleton crew and send for vocals?
It all depends. When I’m working, I like to build a lot of ideas and get some musicians to help me flesh out some of the concepts. Sometimes the musicians are vocalists. I’d say in a good one, the reality is like … Fuck, man, all my friends are musicians. I don’t have friends who don’t make art. So my social time is also like we’re working. We’re recording. We’re making shit. Sometimes it’ll be a layer. One day [instrumentalist] Miguel Atwood-Ferguson will come by, and I’ll have like four things. Then we’ll need strings and we’ll just knock them out. Then another day I’ll have like five things, and Thundercat’s finally off tour, so I’m like, “All right so I’ve got all these,” and we knock them out. That’s kind of what the vibe is like.
I want to picture you, Thundercat, Solange, Robert Glasper, and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson in a Super Session situation jamming.
It’s too crazy. I like to work with one person at a time because I feel like they’re less inhibited, unless you’re doing jazz or something like that where you want everyone to vibe off of each other. When you’re doing stuff like R&B, and the sound is a bit more intimate, you want that separation. I do, at least, because I want to be able to get into the mind of this person, get everything dialed specifically how I want it.
That’s fascinating because it comes out sounding like jazz, but you’re saying the methodology is a little bit perpendicular to that.
In a way. When I’m collaborating with people, even though it’s one-on-one, a majority of it’s still improvised. We’re working and we’re in that moment, and then that’s the layer. And then you layer another improvised moment, and you build. All the tracks are different though, I can’t say that it’s one way of working. But that’s my preferred way, because I can navigate the layers better and focus. Plus, it’s nice to walk away and come back and hear what you’ve done. You all smoke weed all day and record some shit in the moment, and you think it’s hot, and then the next day it’s just, “Eh.” You need that next day. You don’t want to just try and do everything in that day because then you lose sight of the song. Maybe what you had before was better before that came over. You want to be in it as much as possible but then have enough time to step away. Even when this album was done, I was like, “All right it’s done, I’m not listening to it too much.”
I want to ask about “Find Your Own Way Home” and “Thank You, Malcolm,” the two tributes to Mac Miller. I got to know him over the last few years. There’s a lot people don’t know about: He gave great advice. He was hilarious. He seemed older than he was. I always felt like “SDS,” which you produced, was the tipping point where you could no longer deny that Mac had bars. I just wish that there were more records that you guys worked on.
There are. The Flamagra track with Denzel [“Black Balloons Reprise”], there’s a whole Mac version of that song.
I think we only ever heard two official collaborations between you two. Is there a trove?
There is. Mac was the best because he was that dude who would always come over with a new batch, every season. He’d be like, “I got three albums. I want to play them all for you right now.” He lived right down the street from me so he would just come down the hill and play me a bunch of shit and pretty much check in like, “All right, what you got?” And it always reminded me that I need to get back on my shit because he was working. He made me feel lazy, and I’m working.
You were working working. Give yourself credit. Are you worried about where the spirit of [famed L.A. club night] Low End Theory goes now that the physical tradition of it is over?
No. One thing that’s inevitable is that young people are always going to make something really dope. And I’m excited for that. I remember when I first started going out and playing shows in the city, before there was any kind of institution for the shit. I remember seeing the oldheads reacting to me. Now I’m like, “Ooh, I get to be the oldhead now. I get to be the oldhead in the crowd who’s confused as fuck.” I can’t wait for that day.
Is that bizarre or is that exciting? Now that I’m in the second half of my 30s I get the impression that I’m supposed to be confused by the new stuff but I’m really just excited.
Obviously, we all go through that moment for a second. But I like being older. I feel I have less time for bullshit; everything is way more deliberate. I think the lines are just getting blurred with mainstream and underground now. It’s all fair game if you’ve got a good Instagram. If you’ve got a popping Instagram, then you’re mainstream, doesn’t matter if you’ve got a label or not. Let Chance [the Rapper] be an example. You can’t call him underground.
That’s an interesting one because there’s still an urge to call him independent since he’s not working with a label, per se, but the lines are definitely blurred.
You can call him independent. You can’t call him underground. He’s way above ground. I see that hat everywhere.
Who are the young rappers that you figure we’ll be talking about in 20 years?
None of them.
Careers are getting meteoric in the bad way. It’s crazy how Tekashi went from an internet meme to platinum records and festivals to where he is now.
It’ll be three years where we ain’t heard from him, and there’ll be somebody else ratchet on Instagram. I think 20 years is a long time. You should fucking celebrate if you make it ten years in the game, and you’re still able to survive and take care of your family. To me that was a huge thing. I could take care of my grandma, my sister, and stuff. It’s a blessing if you can make it past the six years. Madlib used to say that: “You’re a producer for six years. That’s it.”
What’d you play growing up? We know your family history, but how did you get started?
I used to play alto sax when I was in middle school. I felt a little pressure to play, considering I also was using a Coltrane horn at school. It didn’t really register until later in life, like, “What the fuck? Why did I have that?” I always kind of dabbled with keyboards and stuff but I didn’t really take it anywhere. I would sometimes take a lesson here and there, learn a couple things, but I’ve only really started digging into the instrument like a year ago, really. I’m really in it now.
I wouldn’t have guessed. Your records are pretty accomplished.
I don’t even play keys. I mean, I play chords and shit. I could play chords back then. But I didn’t know how to do stuff I can do now. On the next tour I’ll probably be playing keys on stage.
I feel like you have a totally different sense of what’s creative and what’s transgressive than most.
It’s a trip to be around normies, I have to say. I learn a lot while I’m in an Uber. I be asking more questions than the driver sometimes.
Sometimes I envy people for whom music is pretty simple. I wish I could turn on a song and not dissect it in my head. Just say, “Hey, this beat goes,” and have that be it.
One of my questions is, “What are you listening to lately?” And they’ll be like, “Oh, well, you know, the radio.”
But I wouldn’t give up the fact that I fret over music for the world. It’s a blessing and a curse.
The curse makes for good stories.
This interview has been edited and condensed.