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Jazzin' Up

26 February 2014 | 8:16 am | Cyclone Wehner

"People are already staring at me, anyway, so I wanted to give them somethin’ to stare at."

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Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison) looms as a sphinx-like figure in the post-IDM underworld. The Californian muso has presented successive innovative – and cult – albums. But he's also infiltrated the mainstream, producing beats for MC Mac Miller. So why does he feel constrained? Ellison, easygoing about Aussies (especially) abbreviating his handle to 'FlyLo', is preparing for his most high-profile tour here yet. He's bringing out his ambitious audio-visual live show Layer 3. Ellison's original desire was to stimulate audiences. “People are already staring at me, anyway, so I wanted to give them somethin' to stare at,” he quips. Ultimately, the show, referencing sci-fi and video games, is “fun”. Indeed, music has always been an “escape” for him.

FlyLo's mythos begins with his being the grand-nephew of jazz great Alice Coltrane. Inspired by J Dilla, the occasional DJ advanced glitchy hip hop with 2006's debut, 1983, on Plug Research, leading him to bounce to Warp. Los Angeles would be his breakthrough album. Ellison last was 2012's cerebral Until The Quiet Comes, veering off into Coltrane-y psy-Afro electro-jazz (his collaborators included Erykah Badu, old Radiohead ally Thom Yorke and, in the Tiny Tortures video, actor Elijah “Frodo Baggins” Wood). It was Ellison's most acclaimed LP – and his most commercially successful, cracking the US Top 40. Over time he's also developed his own imprint, Brainfeeder, supporting the equally avant-garde bassist Thundercat, aka Stephen Bruner. Moreover, Ellison has composed music for the US cartoon hub Adult Swim. Increasingly, he's pursuing film projects.

Two years ago Ellison introduced an anonymous animated cloud rap alias, Captain Murphy. So secretive was the enterprise that cyber-types initially wondered if it wasn't Tyler, The Creator (The Captain did air a tune with Earl Sweatshirt, Between Friends). Ellison reluctantly revealed his involvement following the Duality mixtape. The auteur later explained to XXL that he “needed another outlet” without “any pressures or stigma.”

There's been speculation about a fifth Flying Lotus album since a flurry of tweets to fans in December. “I've started mixing it already,” Ellison updates. The perfectionist is determined to finish it before he reaches Australia. The tour will be his “little victory lap,” he jokingly suggests. The record will reportedly again be jazzy – and today Ellison confirms that Herbie Hancock features heavily. His new shadow self, Captain Murphy, will appear too – but in future he'll keep his incarnations separate. “The Murphy record that I'm working on now is way different. I'm into a lotta different music, and I'm inspired by a lotta different music, and it won't always make sense as Flying Lotus. I don't wanna even sign Captain Murphy – I just wanna be able to do it with no pressure from anybody. It's like the thing that is all me... it's just mine… I like being able to have something that is maybe the darker side of my ego that isn't really tethered to anything.”

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That Ellison should feel pressured to produce (as he implies) clubby bangers or 'hits' is surprising because contemporary music is so hybridised – and many credit him with fostering fluidity between urban, electronica and indie. “I always end up like, 'What am I doing? What is my purpose? Why do people care? Why don't people care?' I always go through those cycles of thinking, but I always come back to the very simplified fact that I'm here to do what I'm here to do – let me do my thing that only I can do… I can make rap beats, I can make electro... I can make house music, I can make trap music – I can do all that stuff. But I wanna do the thing that I can do that I just know that no one else could do. It's not to do with ability or technical whatever. I wanna just do the things that come naturally to me – and to me that's being the weirdo guy in the room.”

Ellison's latest musical fixation isn't 'hip'. He discovered Queen through a guitarist pal. “I always thought they were kind of a joke – they call themselves Queen. But then [it was like], oh, wait a minute, it is a joke… that's kinda what I like to do. I like to play with stuff like that where it's serious, but not serious at the same time. I can laugh and poke fun at myself.” And the Brit glam-rocksters have had an impact on his forthcoming FlyLo LP. “There is a lot of Queen influence, but not in the way you would think. It's subtle.”