Steven Ellison hates Superman. “He has too many powers,” Ellison reasons, and it’s “fucked up” that the only thing that can actually kill the hero is a rock found on a foreign planet.
Though these criticisms are valid, hearing Ellison’s strong negative opinion of Supes is surprising, since Ellison has a deep attachment to the character’s most fundamental ability: flight. The most obvious sign of this affection is the moniker of Flying Lotus—his 7-year-old electronica project—but that name traces its origins to his subconscious. For a long while, Ellison would experience lucid dreams, with them often beginning the same way. “The first thing I do is I just start flying,” says the mostly taciturn, occasionally effusive musician.
True to that spirit, Flying Lotus’ work is always aiming upward. It wants to take creator and listener alike to a higher mental state (metaphorically and literally; Ellison is an unabashed pot lover) and a platform where music is food for both mind and body without feeling like a compromise. The Los Angeles-based 28-year-old has wooed critics and devout fans through his taste for experimental jazz flourishes (a fitting move, as he’s the great-nephew of avant-garde jazz musician Alice Coltrane), synthesized harmonies as placid and sweet as wind chimes, and beats that have a subtle, amber-colored translucence to them.
Flying Lotus is signed to intellectually ambitious label Warp, has remixed Frank Ocean and RJD2, and has collaborated with Beck, Thom Yorke and Erykah Badu. But by the same token, this pivotal name in post-2010 up-from-the-underground electronica has tinkered with rugged, grinding dubstep; remixed songs by pointedly nonbrainy rappers Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane; and implemented the rowdy club banger Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard in Da Paint” into his live set. Ellison is into the idea of bridging ambient music and hip-hop, and the key tool he uses to do this in his own music is texture.
“You find a texture [in ambient music] that feels really warm—warm enough to carry the whole song on its own—and then you find some drums and you’re just like, ‘I’m good, I think.’ ”
While he can play around in multiple arenas, Ellison’s freshly released fourth record—the 18-track-long Until the Quiet Comes—is more concerned with the esoteric than the earthly. It searches for understanding in meticulously picked guitars, twinkling melodies, female vocals that sound like an ocean’s tide, and other elements that are similarly subdued and comforting. “[With] saying ‘until the quiet comes,’ I was saying that a lot is on my mind,” he says. “When I was working on the album and putting stuff together, getting stressed out about life and shit, all of the things that artists worry about, I would just think about until the quiet comes—a peaceful state of mind where I felt OK again.” As for whether “quiet” refers to rest or death, the answer is both. “That’s why I like it,” he says. “I think about all those things so often. It felt fitting with the mystical side of the album.”
“Mystical” is an excellent word to bring in for Flying Lotus because a magical je ne sais quoi is sprinkled over both this record’s spirit and Ellison’s focus on detail. While answering a question about how his perspective as a music maker has evolved over the years, he talks about the change with the awestruck quality of someone who has had an epiphany.
“When I was starting out, I was just like, ‘Fuck it, we’ll make everything loud. It’s all good,’ ” Ellison says. “But now, I’m really paying attention to dynamics and building moments. Just finding peaks and valleys in the music is really fun for me at this point. Now, it’s like, ‘OK, we can have those [loud] moments, too, but also let’s try this where it’s not so crazy.’ ”
The Urban Lounge
241 S. 500 East
Friday, Oct. 19, 9 p.m.