It would be unfair to describe Steven Ellison as prickly. He laughs too much for that. And it’s more of a giggle than a belly laugh. It’s the geeked-out, high-pitched sound that a lot of people make when they’re stoned and a friend has said something that wigs them out. In conversation with the producer more widely known as Flying Lotus, there are times when he’s so excited to discuss a topic you’ve raised that he’s begun answering your question before you’ve finished asking it. But there are also times when a spell of silence greets a question, times when he suddenly and unexpectedly turns standoffish. “I don’t know, man,” Ellison will say in a clipped cadence, his tone implying that he has questions of his own, mainly: Who the fuck’s asking?
While conversing with Ellison may be an up-and-down experience, his responses are steadily thoughtful and honest, attributes people have also come to associate with his music. And there’s a lot to ask him about. Last fall, he released his fourth LP as Flying Lotus, the bewitching Until the Quiet Comes, the promotion of which is ostensibly the reason he’ll be appearing this Thursday at the 9:30 Club. But in Ellison’s world, last fall may as well be a lifetime ago. “It feels weird talking about [the record] when I’m a year into my next shit,” he admits.
In the wake of Until the Quiet Comes, Ellison put out Duality, his debut as Captain Murphy, a coarse rap alter ego whose identity he kept a secret for most of 2012, and he tells BYT that he’s already made serious headway on a sequel to the mixtape. He executive produced Thundercat’s forthcoming LP Apocalypse, which will be released on Brainfeeder Records, the L.A.-based label he owns and operates. He’s played shows at SXSW and Coachella with 19-yeard-old Earl Sweatshirt, someone he’s mentored like the big brother that he never had. He traveled to the Sundance Film Festival, where the short film “Until the Quiet Comes” won the short film special jury award. He’s currently “on [his] jazz shit,” working with Thundercat and a host of others on a “geek album.” And he’s always in the process of creating new Flying Lotus music.
“I’m still in between ideas,” he tells me at the start of our phone call. “It’s like, ‘What am I gonna talk about?'”
Brainfeeder turns five soon. Are you planning anything to celebrate the occasion?
We’re trying to put a compilation together, like, a really crazy comp for the five year thing. It’ll be a lot of material that’s inspired by Brainfeeder, and a lot of new material from the artists. I want it to be a long-winded compilation of cool music.
So you’re not looking backwards. You’re trying to capture where the label is today.
Yes, exactly. But, actually, I want it to be everything, man. I want new sounds, old sounds: Anything that’s inspired by Brainfeeder and the idea of Brainfeeder. I want to roll with that.
What is the “idea” of Brainfeeder?
It’s music for the sake of feeding brains. It’s for the sake of asking questions. It’s for curiosity and mystery and intrigue and depth. Those are the things that I associate with Brainfeeder.
How active are you in the daily operations of the label? Do you give feedback to your artists’ records?
I always do, whether they take my advice or not. I’ll definitely be like, “Yo… maybe you should work on this.” There are certain artists that need my help more than others, so I just make myself available. There are some people that don’t need it. I know I could leave Lapalux alone to do the record that he wants to do. I don’t have to get involved. I know it’s gonna be good. I know he’s gonna tell the story that he wants to tell. But with a guy like Thundercat, I have produced his albums. I help him put it together, because he plays the bass, you know? [Laughs] And he likes to sing, but he doesn’t like to have to organize a lot of things. I can do that for him. So, it all depends on the person.
Given that the label’s home in L.A., I was surprised to read at one point that you wanted to move to New York, at least temporarily. Is that something you’re still mulling?
I don’t know, man. I don’t know. I always think about leaving, but there’s always a reason to stay. There’s always some reason to be here and to work on something. Everyone is out here. It’s really difficult to move. But I dream about it. I dream about just getting out of here for a minute.
How instrumental was L.A.’s Low End Theory in your development?
Low End Theory was really inspirational. It brought a lot of people together for a cause, for a reason. It helped everyone to have a platform where bass music had a place to be free. It helped to have a good underground music club. It just had a very unique fanbase. It still does. It always manages to surprise with its line-up. I love Low End Theory. It’s only been a good things for us. I could bring people in who might not know about a club like that. I brought Erykah Badu there. I brought Thom Yorke. I brought Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt and Mac Miller. I’ve brought newer people, like Underachievers, Azizi Gibson, and Thundercat. New or old, it’s been a good place for everyone. A guy like Mac Miller can try out stuff from his new album in a really cool setting with an engaged audience.
What have you been working on lately?
Right now, I’m on my jazz shit, man. I’m doing a lot of jazz stuff. We’re trying to make something that’s kind of a geek album. There are crazy time signatures and really intense playing, just because we want to go there. We want to play really fast. It’s gonna be fun, man.
Does that fall under Flying Lotus or is it a thing of its own?
We’ll see. At the moment, there a lot of people involved. I’m gonna keep it that way, so we’re probably going to call it something else.
It seems like you’ve sought out more collaboration with each passing year.
I love what other people can contribute so much. I love working alone too, but at the same time, I love that someone can bring something to the table that I haven’t thought of. They bring different textures. I want to explore different things. I make a lot of music, and a lot of my shit could have used a voice on it. Some of it doesn’t need it though. It all depends. I’m working on this [Captain] Murphy record right now. There’s not a lot of people on it. It’s mostly just me doing everything. That’s just what it calls for.
Is this a follow-up to Duality?
Yeah. All the beats are done. I just gotta write all the shit. I’m gonna try to do that while I’m on tour – try to write all the raps. It all depends on if I can get in the zone.
Are you soliciting beats from other producers again?
I got a few. I got all the beats that I need. I did most of them, but there are a couple people that I got beats from, like Jeremiah Jae, Hudson Mohwake, and Madlib. Other than that, I’m doing everything.
Are you trying to get that album out this year?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
The last Captain Murphy record had a high profile Earl Sweatshirt appearance, and you two performed together at SXSW this spring. How would you describe your relationship?
I see Earl like a little brother. I see a lot of things in him that remind me of me when I was his age. But, I didn’t have anyone around that was really into what I was doing at the time. I believe in what he’s doing. I love his music. He’s just a really cool dude, as well. I really believe in him as a person, so I like to support him. I’m down. I’m down with what he’s doing and what he’s talking about, so I just want to show that. I think it’s cool to connect the universe as two. That’s something that I always wanted for L.A. artists. I want us to be able to all be on stage together and for it to make sense, you know what I mean? [Laughs] It’s like, “Oh yeah, there’s Ariel Pink and Flying Lotus on stage. And Earl Sweatshirt. And Trent Reznor.” I want all of us on stage, partying and shit.
Have you heard [Earl’s debut] Doris?
Yeah. I love it, man. It’s my favorite rap record this year. I might be biased, because I like rapping. I think it’s a rappers’ album. It’s definitely a hip-hop album, and I like that about it. It doesn’t feel like a poppy album. It doesn’t feel like he’s trying to be on the radio. He made an underground hip-hop record, but it’s not backpacker-y. It’s deep and dark and funny at the same time.
Has your outlet as Captain Murphy had an effect on the music of Flying Lotus?
Definitely. It’s fun. It’s all fun. It’s so inspiring to feel like a new artist again, and one in a different world. There’s a rush in that. But, you know, the person is the same. I was doing that kind of stuff for fun anyway – there just wasn’t anyone hearing it. It’s not like anything is different here in my studio. It’s all the same, but people are hearing more sides to me now. The past few months I’ve producing this solo jazz fusion album with Thundercat, so I’ve been in all different modes. I did the rap record and then I did this solo record and now I’m doing this crazy jazz record and then I’m gonna do my hip-hop record and then, all the while, I’m making Flying Lotus music, so, next year, there might be another Lotus record. [Laughs] It never stops, man.
You’ve mentioned a desire to do more hip-hop production for other artists. Has the attention that Captain Murphy’s received opened any doors on that front?
Yeah, well, the whole Captain Murphy thing only happened because I was working in the studio with different rappers. I’d be hanging out with guys like Earl or Ab-Soul, and I’d randomly slip on one of the Captain Murphy records and they’d be like, “Yo, what is that?” And I was like, “Oh shit. They’re tripping. If they say it’s cool, then fuck it, I can do this, because these are people that I think are dope.”
What was your reaction to Hudson Mohawke signing to G.O.O.D. Music?
I think that’s good for him. It’s such a good place for what he’s doing. There’s part of me that’s always gonna be like, “Oh man, watch yourself.” But his tunes suggest that he’s always wanted to make big records, so that’s a nice place for him.
Are you skeptical or wary of the big rap labels?
Personally, yeah, because I believe that I can build my own industry. I believe I can build my own thing. I’ve built my own thing. I’ve carved out my own sound. I’ve carved out my own label. I’ve done all of these things. I’m always gonna be wary of anyone who thinks they’re better just because they’ve got better publicists or whatever. That doesn’t matter. As long as you have a tune, that’s all that matters these days. I’m gonna be very wary of any big label, because all they want to do is get hits on Youtube. I don’t need anyone to do that. The way the operation rolls right now is great. I just need to keep making my shit. I’m happy, dude.
Given the core elements of jazz and outré electronica in your music, has your popularity felt unexpected? Or do you view it as a logical conclusion to the hours you’ve put in?
I can’t lie: I’m very blessed. I feel very blessed, and I’m always humbled by the response to what my little time in my studio elicits around the whole world. That’ll never change. But, I feel like I care so much about it too. I don’t know, man. I like the fact that I haven’t made a crazy song that I’ll never be able to get over. I haven’t made my one hit thing yet. I’m really happy for that. There have been cool songs along the way. [Laughs] I’ve built a little following, but I haven’t had a YouTube sensation that I have to worry about following up. It’s kind of cool that it can be a gradual increase and expansion, and I’m not too big to the point where I’m annoying. [Laughs] Something like, “I’m tired of hearing about this guy!”
What’s a sign of success that’s surprised you?
The people who know about what I do always surprises me. I’ve been working Herbie Hancock recently. Herbie Hancock told me that I’m a pioneer. I almost cried. [Laughs] It made me tremble. He’s seen it in his time, so that must mean something.
You haven’t shied away from sharing your opinion about music and other culture on social media. Sometimes those opinions have been picked up and circulated by blogs and online news outlets. What’s your reaction when that happens?
It surprises me every time, man! It surprises me every time. I’m just a fucking dude. I have my opinions and that’s what the Internet is for. It’s funny: Just because I feel one way about something at a moment doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind. [Laughs] I’ll say some shit, and later on I’ll be like, “Actually, I like this, but I’m not allowed to, because I said something bad about it.” [Laughs] You know what I mean? I’ve actually been retreating on a lot of that kind of stuff lately. It’s nice to embrace the quiet. I’m letting everyone else have their own fucking opinion and say some shit. I don’t have to chime in on everything. I’m trying not to. I do love to chime in when I love something, though. I try to spread the word about things that I think are working and I appreciate and are contributing to the conversation.
What was it like going to Sundance behind the “Until Quiet Comes” short film.
That was cool, man, because I was gonna go to Sundance anyway, just as a fan. It’s my new annual ritual. It was really nice. First of all, I didn’t know it was going to be in the festival, and, second, I didn’t know it was going to be in the competition. The day before I got there, I heard we won an award for Sundance, and I was like, “What?!?” I was super surprised, and I got to turn up and be like, “Oh, hey, yeah, we got this short in the festival, and we won the award. It’s kind of cool, I guess” [Laughs] It’s cool to able to say that. And I got to see some really inspiring stuff, ahead of everybody else. It’s always a good festival, because the people are so warm and loving of arts. There’s a really good community.