Flying Lotus on “Until the Quiet Comes,” Working with Thom Yorke and Erykah Badu, and his Grandma
Flying Lotus' Steven Ellison tells me a story about a dream he had recently. He was stuck in a building, searching for an exit, and every time he found one, something new would pop up to obstruct his path again. Over and over, something—or someone—wouldn't let him leave. He was trapped. If you believe that dreams carry symbolic meaning—and Ellison does—that's the sort of message from the subconscious that indicates that you might be deeply conflicted about something in your life. To solve that mystery, Ellison doesn't have to look far. He just made an album about it. His third full-length release, Until the Quiet Comes, is the sound of someone creating a hiding place for himself in his music, and the resulting album is more restrained, serene, and withdrawn than 2010's frantic Cosmogramma or 2009's breakthrough Los Angeles, the two albums that established his brand and ensured that he'd never have another quiet moment. But even if Ellison used his creative space as an escape, he still invited some high-profile friends, from Thom Yorke to Erykah Badu, to join him and add their voices for texture. Now, with the phone ringing off the hook, he takes a few minutes to explain his creative mindset, his collaborative process, and why he has to keep moving, even if there's no exit in sight.
There's an article on Flying Lotus in the print version of our current Fall Issue of Under the Radar, which is on newsstands now. These are extra portions of our interview, quotes that didn't make it into our main print issue article on Flying Lotus. The digital/iPad version of the issue includes an even longer version of this interview. So be sure to check out both the print and digital versions of our Fall Issue for much more from our interview with Flying Lotus.
Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So what inspired the title of Until the Quiet Comes? That's a pretty evocative title.
Steven Ellison: A lot of things. That's the cool thing about album titles. You can try to sum up a lot of different themes in the title. Something that I was working with before didn't really fit with that ambiguous way that I like the titles to be. It means a lot of things. There were a lot of times in the making of the record where I'd say that phrase to myself, even if I said it under my breath or out loud or whatever. I found myself saying it. Mostly, it refers to a state of mind, the quiet mind. In the midst of making things and being creative and also being able to travel, it becomes really difficult to be able to find a quiet headspace, so it was really about that. A lot of times I would think about finding that quiet zone, that space. And it also refers to life and death.
Is your creative process a place you could go to find that quiet space?
It is. But there's always something. There's someone at my house. There's always the phone ringing. It becomes very difficult. I have to find strange hours to work. I have to wake up at five o'clock in the morning and get the edge on the day, before the phone starts. It's the usual stuff that you deal with. Thankfully, I don't got no damn kids. Things would be way more fucked up and miserable. All my friends with kids are miserable. They don't like to admit it. They're all fucking miserable. They're like "Just wait until you're ready, man." Then that conversation changes to "Don't ever have kids. Don't ever do it." Sorry. I don't know why we got into that. That's some real shit.
Thom Yorke contributed some vocals for this record. What was his response when you approached him?
I didn't. It just kind of happened. We just send shit back and forth on email. And he was like, "What are you doing with this?" "I don't know. It might go on the album." "All right. Let me do something." "Cool." "Send me a file." It was great. I worked on it, and then it came out. It was real organic shit. There's no cool super story about how we hooked up. We're just music nerds that share things back and forth and then a track happens magically.
How about Jonny Greenwood?
The Jonny thing didn't happen like that at all. The Jonny thing happened because I'm a fan and I sampled the soundtrack that he worked on. I asked him for permission, and he said yes.
And Erykah Badu?
Erykah, I met her through Thundercat, who is in her band. She was a big fan of his album, and she hit me up, like, "Yo, it's good." I was like, "Yo, I've got some music for you." So we were like, "Hey, let's make a fucking album while we're at it." Then the album turned into one song [that ended up on Until the Quiet Comes].
Do you think you'll ever do a whole album with her?
I don't know, man. I'd love to. It's on her, really. She knows where I'm at.
Is it difficult for two people who have such clear visions for their music to work together in that way?
It's not difficult. We do what we do. I don't step on toes like that. She wants things done a certain way, and if I didn't agree, I'd have to have a really good reason to disagree with her. She's got good ideas. I wouldn't have to worry about it. She's a true artist. She's not one of these dumb bitches, where you have to turn her into somebody. She's already Erykah Badu. Nobody made her.
When you were thinking that you were making an album, how did you approach that? Did you want to just play to her strengths as an artist?
Actually, my plan was to try to get her out of her comfort zone, initially. I tried to present her with music that she might have not gotten, if it wasn't for me. She could do the same thing she's been doing, but since she called me, let's do something that will challenge both of us. That day will come. I'm just chilling.
Since the city of Los Angeles has been one of your muses, what role did it play in the inspiration for this album?
It's actually less than before, I think. As I travel more, I get to see more, and I don't feel exactly like I did. I don't feel the same anymore about L.A. It's different now. It's not bad. I don't hate L.A. or dislike it. I see it differently, though. People change. New people come. People leave. Sounds change. Vibes are changing. People getting famous. People getting broke. Shit changes the whole dynamic. It's not just the music anymore.
Do you think you could ever leave L.A.?
I've been toying with the idea of temporarily relocating. I don't think I could leave L.A. My grandma is here, and she needs me. I'm a grandma's boy.
Oh yeah? She must be really happy with all the success you've had.
She's fuckin' stoked. She got to move into a fucking condo now. She can fucking have somebody pay for her meals and shit, so she's happy. [Laughs] Nah, nah. She was my first fan.
What's she think of the new album?
She likes it a lot. There are moments where she's like, "What? I don't get it!" Or she'll try to ask me what the words are in some part. "Grandma, just scope the vibe. It's cool."