Steven Ellison isn’t the biggest fan of heights. We’re standing on a fire escape, and then a rooftop, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which is cloaked in a gray, near-autumnal haze. Ellison’s movements are never particularly fast — he walks around as if he’s checking in with each piece of ground just a bit more than the rest of us do, pulling out some hidden details or stories. But today there’s a different tentativeness, a sort of nervous sluggishness, to how he moves around the fire escape. When we go back inside, he explains: “I’m trying to make sure I don’t die.”
There’s an implied “these days” on the end of that, because Ellison is about to release his new album as Flying Lotus, You’re Dead!, and, as he points out, the moment where you put out a record that tries to imagine the minutes after death would be a pretty ironic time to die. He does say it all with the smallest of smirks, like he’s aware of how it’s kind of outlandish to say, “I’m trying to make sure I don’t die” in conversation, and to mean it, but also partially be making a joke. This is the second time I’ve interviewed Ellison, and this is the paradox of his personality as I’d remembered it. There seems to be a constant push and pull between the mystical elements of his whole persona, of the sound and themes of his music, and all the normal stoner dude, gamer, sci-fi nerd qualities that either balance him out or complicate the story, depending on how you look at it. This is a man preoccupied by heavy, cosmic things, but when you talk to him he’s exceedingly down to earth and laid-back. Less strange than you’d expect, perhaps. Again — maybe he’s just another dude, but one who happens to spend a lot more time communing with the world than your average person.
After our brief discussion on mortality and death, we went back inside. And then we talked about mortality and death some more. And also Grand Theft Auto, you know, for good measure.
STEREOGUM: So this record goes back about two years right?
STEREOGUM: I think when we spoke at Ultra in 2012, which was something like seven months before Until The Quiet Comes was released, even then you were talking about the idea of doing a live jazz record.
ELLISON: It goes through a process. I think it’s going to be one way and then it reveals itself as something else, and it’s like, well, how did we get here?
STEREOGUM: So when you started on this, it was still totally live instrumentation?
ELLISON: That was the initial thrust. That was where I was going with it, but I just knew there was still so much to say. I didn’t want to just do one thing. I thought it would be kind of easy to pigeonhole myself.
STEREOGUM: If it had wound up a straight-up jazz record, would you still have released it as Flying Lotus or under a different name?
ELLISON: That was the thought. The original thought was to call the band You’re Dead!. That was an idea for a while that was floating around. Nothing was concrete yet. I was open to everything at that point.
STEREOGUM: Would you have tried to tour with a live band if you had gone that route?
ELLISON: I still have the option, it’s still there. I never really thought about that in the making of it. I don’t think about “How am I gonna bring this live?” A lot of people do, and that trips me out — I don’t like to think about that, I would rather just make the stuff.
STEREOGUM: Where’d the phrase “You’re Dead!” come from originally?
ELLISON: It was kind of a joke. Me and Thundercat, we were driving to my house, listening to George Duke. We were just tripping on this shit, because motherfuckers weren’t doing crazy shit like that. Crazy jazz fusion shit, crazy playing. And he’s like, “Man, you know we could do that, right?” It was like, “Yeah, why don’t we just make some shit that just kills everybody?” Just blows everybody’s heads off, and just like “You know what? You’re dead.” That’s it. When you hear it, oh, “You’re dead!”
STEREOGUM: When did it move beyond being a joke for you, when did it get a bit more real?
ELLISON: It became real once the music started. The order of the album, in the initial bits, it’s kind of how the tracklist flows. I try to keep it true to the order of it being made. When it started to reveal itself, I started taking it a little bit more seriously. So, “Wait a minute, if this starts at the moment of death, then…” But, along the way, I was just thinking to myself, “OK, I’m not going to call it You’re Dead!, but it’s just going to be called You’re Dead! for now.” The code name. And then eventually it was like…that is the statement. A lot of times people would be like, “Alright, man, what are you really going to call it, though?” Nah, it’s called You’re Dead!.”Really? You crazy, yo, you crazy.”
STEREOGUM: Well it’s interesting because your other titles are kind of ciphers. Cosmogramma, Until The Quiet Comes, even Los Angeles kind of takes on this abstract, almost mythic usage based on the sound of the record. I guess when I heard this one was going to be called You’re Dead!, I wondered whether you were digging into some of your other passions, like anime or video games or something.
ELLISON: I think it’s all there. I still want it to be tongue in cheek, I still want it to be referential. It’s something you hear so often. Every time I hear it in a movie I laugh. I want it to make people think about it in that way and not think about it as as off-putting as it could sound. I wanted it to be playful.
STEREOGUM: So the record begins at the moment of death? That loud sound in the very beginning? Is the rest of the record supposed to be the afterlife, or those moments between life and death?
ELLISON: All of it, that’s what I intended. I want it to be something like…the quintessential death experience that people have been talking about for hundreds of years, I wanted to give a soundtrack to that moment. The idea of leaving your body and leaving your ego behind, who you thought you were, how you were perceived. The vocal songs, I wanted to explore the perspective of dying and that perspective of leaving your identity behind and accepting the fact that you’re dead and then at some point, at the end, realizing that we never die. We live on forever and that maybe that is the transition to the next place, for real. In my mind, I imagine, if there’s a piece of your consciousness that lives on, there’s a part of it that has to let go of…Ryan. And Steven. Whoever. Flying Lotus, all that stuff. We’re stripped of these things, and I think maybe that’s the flash before your eyes that people talk about. You know, maybe that’s…your whole life flashing by in an instant, that thing people have been talking about forever. I always think about Michael Jackson. I wonder what it must’ve been like for him to die and be like, “But wait, man, I’m Michael Jackson! I’m eternal!” I wonder how long Mike was still able to hang on to who he was and all that stuff.
STEREOGUM: Do you believe in an afterlife?
ELLISON: I do believe that it’s not over. I don’t know where we’re all going to end up, what it’s going to be like, but I don’t feel like it’s just black.
STEREOGUM: You think there’s something else.
ELLISON: Yeah, yeah…we’re too complex for it to just be over.
STEREOGUM: There are some vocal parts that are abstract, not necessarily discernible words, that make a lot of sense within that context. But what about the rap verses by you and Kendrick and Snoop? Was it harder to work those in? Or are those supposed to be the more concrete memories coming to you in that life flashing before your eyes kind of moment?
ELLISON: They’re all different. It was really cool to get them involved, because they were really interested in the concept before planning music. A lot of times with collaborators, it’s like “Here, take the track, do what you want.” This was the world of it, what it was supposed to be, it was cool to get them involved in it. The song I did with Snoop, I wanted that to be the song where you just died and you’re just in disbelief. “This couldn’t be real that I’m dead.” You’re slowly but surely forgetting who you are, and it’s OK.
STEREOGUM: Since we’re on the topic — Kendrick’s maybe using some of your stuff for his record as well?
STEREOGUM: When you give tracks to other people, are they still very Flying Lotus? Or do you produce some more straight hip hop kind of stuff, or tailor it to Kendrick?
ELLISON: It’s tricky. I’m in this position where I release eighteen songs every two years, but there’s a lot of stuff that I make. There’s stuff that sounds like it’s just straight sampled off the record, straight up hip hop, straight ’90s hip hop, ambient shit, club shit. All that shit together. I feel like I’m still doing my thing. It’s all my thing. I don’t do too much tailoring beforehand. Usually when I’m making stuff it’s like, “Oh, OK, this shit’s for him.” It was cool, I saw Joey Bada$$ yesterday, and there was a few tracks I just knew were his. I didn’t have to play a whole bunch of shit. It was, one, two, three, download these, that’s it.
STEREOGUM: What’s your daily routine with all this? Are you making music every day?
ELLISON: I do mess with it just about every day, man. Whether I’m making a new idea or fucking with old shit. That’s the process. I work a lot. Like I said, not everything is always just making a new song. I’ve also been spending a lot of time, lately, learning about mixing and stuff.
STEREOGUM: When you’re working on music, do you walk around hearing melodies you want to capture, or are you sitting at a synthesizer building something up?
ELLISON: Both. This album, specifically, was the one where I actually had a bunch of ideas in mind before I sat and started stuff. Usually I just experiment and then it happens. This time around, some of them started off as voice memos. That’s just how it goes. Like “Never Catch Me” started off as a melody in my mind and it became what it was.
STEREOGUM: How do you find the process of getting those out? Do you sing them to somebody to show how you want it? I guess it’d depend on who you’re working with on a particular track.
ELLISON: Yeah, it depends. “Never Catch Me” I just started on my own. I went in and played the piano parts and built it from there.
STEREOGUM: Do you sing any of the vocal parts on the record?
ELLISON: Yeah, a lot.
STEREOGUM: Have you always done that?
ELLISON: Yeah, but not as much as this time. Which was really fun. I was super inspired, it was time to do that.
STEREOGUM: With this album you had a notion you started with — is that how you always work? Build toward an idea?
ELLISON: Nah, sometimes…like Until The Quiet Comes, that revealed itself midway through the process, what that was going to be. This one, the concept came first and then all the music around that came after. Which was really cool, because whenever I sat down it was like: You’re Dead!. Before I even started, I was in that headspace. Some things would fit, some things wouldn’t. It was nice to have that as the jump off when it was time to work.
STEREOGUM: What do you want to do with all this other stuff you’ve got stored up?
ELLISON: Shit, man. You know, it comes out in ways. I get to play it out sometimes. It’s cool to have things you can only hear at the show. There’s things I play out and then there’s things…they end up in places like Grand Theft Auto V. There’s going to be more of that stuff I think.
STEREOGUM: How was that experience with GTA V? Did they hit you up to do it or did you somehow get in touch with them?
ELLISON: They hit me up ages ago, when they were doing L.A. Noire. I saw them at a SXSW party, and they came up to me and were like “Yo, we’re going to fuck with you man! Just wait. I don’t know how, but…” and I was like, “Alright, I’d love that.” They stayed true to their word and they hit me up and asked “What would be your ideal scenario?”
STEREOGUM: Did you find your profile raised at all from that?
ELLISON: Aw, yeah, man. Definitely. A lot of younger kids have hit me up about shit, like, “Man, I heard about your through GTA.” It’s super cool, man. It’s been just as cool to put people onto other stuff. Some people hadn’t heard of Aphex Twin before, and there’s a whole world of music…they get a whole world of music to digest because of it. Every time they put a [GTA] game out, I get switched onto stuff I hadn’t heard before.
STEREOGUM: That was actually pretty formative for me growing up, the GTA soundtracks. Like the ’80s pop music in Vice City, or west coast rap from San Andreas. I totally get what you mean. You were definitely buzzed about before, but after GTA V do you find yourself in a weird place now, between the mainstream and indie or something?
ELLISON: I definitely feel it’s a funny place to be, because I get very tempting offers and I end up in weird scenarios. I remember Usher came up to me at Coachella once and it’s like, “Are you sure you’re talking to the right person? How do you even know what I look like?! You’re not supposed to know who I am.” [laughs] I don’t know why that was a science fiction concept to me, but I just couldn’t find how we were even supposed to be in the same room together. He’s a cool guy, but, you know…I tripped off that.
STEREOGUM: Did any of those kinds of things come to fruition? Are you going to collaborate with anyone soon?
ELLISON: I’m open to it, but at the same time, I think sometimes the idea sounds better to people than the result. “You and so and so should make a beat together!” “Oh…I dunno. Maybe it should happen naturally…” I’m open to it more than I’ve ever been, working together. I’d be down to work together with other artists and shit, but I would want it to be in the same space. I’m not really into remixes anymore. I haven’t done real traditional remixes in a while. I would just much rather make new things.
STEREOGUM: That was something else I was actually curious about. You’re Dead! was so collaborative. Do you ever feel like there’s some push/pull in your process? Making electronic music can be so singular, just you sitting at a computer making music all day by yourself, up onstage by yourself. So was their an adjustment period? Were you excited, or freaked out?
ELLISON: It’s been a cool progression. I don’t think I could’ve just jumped right into it. Thankfully I’ve had…I started doing it with Cosmogramma slowly. It’s been opening up even more. Now it’s hard to imagine doing a whole record just by myself. But that’s why I did that Captain Murphy thing. I really wanted to just do something simple and silly. I really like collaborating. Especially when you hear something that you couldn’t have imagined before and it totally takes you for a ride that you didn’t think was possible.
STEREOGUM: With Kendrick and Snoop, they come in, do their verse, it’s their flow. But with someone like Herbie Hancock, do you tell him the melody you want and he embellishes it? Or is he just kind of do his own thing entirely?
ELLISON: The first time we hung and did some stuff, I had a thing in mind and I was kind of singing melodies to him in sections. We did section by section recording with him, just phrase for phrase. And then another time we did, the track was a little bit more fleshed out and he was able to just play with it. I think it’s different for everybody, and every musician is going to ask you a different way and interpret things a different way. It’s been fun adapting.
STEREOGUM: It was always in person? It was never trading stuff via email or anything?
ELLISON: No, no, we didn’t do it like that.
STEREOGUM: The more I listen to this new record, I’m having a difficult time separating all your work now. It’s all starting to feel like one long multi-part piece. I was wondering if there was, to you, a particular arc over the course of the records, or continuing themes or whatever. And if there are, where you feel You’re Dead! falls into all of this.
ELLISON: I do feel like there’s a continuous theme, and I feel like this one is kind of a culmination of a bunch of ideas, of things I’ve always wanted to dive into. Conceptually, and also with the sounds that you hear and the types of arrangements you hear. More than ever, lately, I’ve just been thinking about how I want the next thing to be…I have the starting point of the next album now, and I feel like this is kind of closing a chapter.
STEREOGUM: A capstone to a certain version of Flying Lotus?
ELLISON: Yeah, yeah.
STEREOGUM: What’s next then?
ELLISON: [laughs] I’ll tell you, and you tell me two years later if I hit the mark, right? There’s a song called “Coronus” on the record, and I feel I want to do things that are more leaning in that direction. I’m singing mostly on it. I want to do some more physical music. That’s the best way I can describe it.
STEREOGUM: Do you think you want to do a record where you’re singing on every track, being up front a bit more?
ELLISON: That’s what I hope to do. We’ll see what happens. You know how it is, man. I think that’s where it’s going to go, but it might be even more stripped back. Who knows. Too soon to say.
[Photos by Ryan Muir.]
You’re Dead is out 10/7 via Warp.