Dissecting Flying Lotus – Part 2 (Reset and Los Angeles)

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Photo by Mark Mahaney

This piece was originally published on the 22nd of September 2014 by The 405. Reading back over this one, it’s definitely overly flowery and faux-deep. But I suspect that would have been more tolerable if I were more incisive about the music itself. Ah well, it’s by no means the worst thing I’ve written. 

“Grieving is an individual process with a universal goal. The truest examination of the meaning of life and the meaning of its end.” – Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier, Hannibal (season one, episode thirteen)

There are immutable forces at work, universal laws that we’ve discovered and established to project a semblance of order onto the chaos of Everything. Evolution. Gravity. Relativity. These are things we know. And yet, it all seems so immeasurably fucked. Random, off-kilter, fractured. Life is strange and chaos reigns in spite of our best efforts to suppress it. But if we cannot suppress it, the least we can do is try and make sense of it, to ascribe it some sort of meaning. This, I suppose, is  one of the primary functions of all art. But it is also expressly what Steve Ellison sought to accomplish with his Flying Lotus project following the release of his first album, 1983. He sought to to create a coherent universe, worlds that made sense, an existence that wasn’t exactly independent from reality, but certainly distant enough to comprehend it.

Okay, that may read like sixth-form philosophy, but it nonetheless emphasises that each Flying Lotus album is conceptual in nature and acts as a window into Ellison’s state of mind during its creation. In the first of these essays, we explored how this approach wasn’t best suited to 1983 because, really, he didn’t have all that much to say. At that point, he was enjoying a state of equilibrium that can to some extent inhibit one’s creativity. This equilibrium was, however, and under the most unfortunate circumstances, irrevocably disrupted shortly after the release of 1983: Alice Coltrane, Ellison’s great-aunt and spiritual guide, died in January 2007, while he was planning a second album that would the next year be released as Los Angeles. Later, after he completed that record and immediately beginning work on a third, his mother died. Honestly, I feel slightly uncomfortable writing about someone’s personal life in this way, but a consideration of Ellison’s music of this sort would be lacking without at least some mention of the emotions that informed his work. Everything reported here was gathered from interviews with Ellison himself, so I hope this doesn’t come across overly prying or tactless.

Now, it goes without saying that such an overwhelming loss can throw your psyche completely out of whack. The way you see the world changes when a constant in your life suddenly disappears like that. Everything looks the same, but it feels so different and weird. Your eyes are forced open, like you’re actually awake for the first time. And it sucks, you know? Sort of like when you wake up after a couple hours of sleep and you’re bleary-eyed and lethargic and just want to go back to sleep forever. But it’s worse than that. You feel lost in the world. So you have to find yourself again, try to understand your reality better with your freshly awoken eyes. As a creative person, Ellison could — or needed to — navigate this process by channelling all his grief, his ideas and the noise whirring in his brain into his art, into his next two albums. And, more often than not, great art comes from that kind of place; not grief exclusively, but that intensity of feeling, that boundless pursuit of self-actualisation in the face of adversity, that need to articulate the soul’s incoherent ramblings. It also may have inspired Ellison’s grand designs of world building in his albums: the real one was so mangled that he sought to construct ones over which he had control; ones that he could use to make sense of reality.

We can observe this process beginning as early the Reset EP, which was released nearly a year after 1983, in October 2007. “A lot of intense stuff has happened to me. My life changed completely,” explained Ellison in an interview with the LA Record, and it followed that, despite the relatively small amount of time between the two releases, Reset served as clear evidence of a substantial change of tact for Flying Lotus. You could hear the same influences, but there was a pervasive mellow, airy quality that unified it in lieu of a conceptual framework (which, on a seventeen minute EP, wasn’t necessary). 1983 had a stuffy quality to it, which reflected its creation in a bedroom during California’s sweltering summer nights; there wasn’t much space for its layers to breathe, and it felt weirdly claustrophobic for an album mostly comprised of ostensibly danceable beats. But with Reset, it felt like Ellison needed to make music that could calm him down a bit. Thus, the EP’s stand out tracks, ‘Tea Leaf Dancers’ and ‘Massage Situation’, both had a similar invigorating coolness (think temperature, not attitude) about them despite being on completely different ends of a spectrum – the former being a softly throbbing electro-soul number with a gorgeous vocal from British singer-songwriter Andreya Triana, while the latter was the closest the EP got to a conventional banger. And their refreshing feeling — like taking a cold shower during a heatwave — was pervasive throughout Reset due to Ellison’s experimentations with both space and diverse sounds. It afforded the EP a more luxurious and professional vibe: like he was starting anew with more confidence and clearer picture in his head of what he wanted to do; like he called it Reset for a reason.

Beyond the change of direction, Reset had a special place in the Flying Lotus narrative because it was Ellison’s first release on legendary UK label Warp Records, which, in early 2007, had made him its first LA signing. Given that he was a huge fan of Warp artists like Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, and Autechre, this was a huge deal for Ellison. In an interview with Prefix  he expressed  that “initially [he] was probably overly thrilled in a ‘just happy to be there” kind of way’.” Because, above any guarantees of increased exposure that came with Warp’s reputation (‘Tea Leaf Dancers’ was played by, who else, Gilles Peterson on the BBC), he was just psyched to be working with the people that had such a profound formative effect on his sound. But that feeling eventually subsided as he realised that being awestricken wasn’t a sustainable business model, that he had to step up his game and actually make something. See, as much as I appreciate it, Reset was largely a collage of beats that were old by the time of its release. ‘Tea Leaf Dancers’ and ‘Massage Situation’, for example, had been used as Adult Swim’s bumper music for quite a while before the EP came out. So, while Reset presented listeners with a new version Flying Lotus, Ellison recognised that he had to go in and make some “raw shit” for his first Warp album. The raw shit in question was 2008’s Los Angeles, and oh boy was that shit raw.

In that same Prefix interview, Ellison described Los Angeles as “bringing back a little of the original Warp sound.” Now, while Warp had its origins in weird but club-friendly techno, and subsequently amassed an incredibly varied roster of artists over its twenty-five years — including the likes of Grizzly Bear, Broadcast and, uh, Maximo Park — their name will always conjure up a specific brand of experimental, slightly menacing electronica in my mind: this was a sound pioneered in the 90s by the likes of Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Plaid, one that established Warp as one of the most important independent labels in the game; a sound that befitted some nightmarish 80s science-fiction dystopia; a sound that’s still to this day intense, ice-fucking-cold, and slightly strange or uncanny; a sound that cleaves its way to your core and plants this weird longing, forlorn feeling in the pit of your stomach. That aesthetic — which one could definitely describe as raw — is what comes to mind when I think of Warp, and I also believe it’s the “original Warp sound” that Ellison referred to, what he sought to both evoke and evolve with Los Angeles. ‘Evolve’ is the operative word there, however, because rather than tacitly regurgitating the “original” Warp aesthetic, he recontextualised it: took a sound closely associated with, say, the desolate beauty of the Scottish Highlands, or Sheffield’s steelworks, and transposed it to the sweaty vistas of Los Angeles.

This choice wasn’t motivated by an abiding love for pastiche, as I think it’s fair to suggest that Warp’s dark aesthetic reflected how Ellison felt following the loss of his great-aunt. And, initially, this darkness completely overwhelmed the creation of his second record. Considering its title, it’s a given that the city was vital to Ellison’s conceptualisation of Los Angeles; he wanted to make a record about his experience and relationship to the city, and, because of where his head was at, this began to manifest itself as exclusively dark music. As time went on, however, he gradually came out of the grieving process, and he realised that he “wasn’t being honest with how [he] felt about L.A. It is dark, but at the same time, L.A. is very pretty and sunny, and it has lots of different variety and lots of things to offer a person.” He began to find himself again, opened up, and soon wanted the album to be “both a love letter and hate mail” to LA, to serve as a reflection of its multiplicity, and perhaps express what he saw with his newly open eyes. So, there were tracks in the best tradition of Warp, such as ‘Sexslaveship’ and ‘Brainfeeder’, that were gritty and intense and evoked the bleakness of the San Fernando Valley, the “suburban ghetto” of Los Angeles in which Ellison grew up (even though the latter was intended as a tribute to Vangelis’ Blade Runner score). But then there were the likes of ‘Camel’ and ‘Melt!’ that were exotic, vivacious, and ever so slightly delirious thanks to their creation during one of Los Angeles’ heat waves. Tracks that affirmed the brightness of life, the colour and energy and beauty when still exist even if one is in a bad place.

And, most remarkably, the record’s different moods, and the myriad tones and textures they entailed, coexist without jarring. While 1983 announced Ellison as a producer with the dexterity to successfully blend wildly disparate elements into (mostly) compelling individual tracks, they didn’t really fit together as a cohesive whole. Like Reset, the recording of 1983 was more like a jigsaw than a natural process: he collected, tinkered with and stuck together already finished tracks that he thought were most appropriate for his conceptual framework. Los Angeles, on the other hand, was created from scratch with something in mind that he could work towards. It was envisioned as the soundtrack to an imaginary science-fiction film about Los Angeles, which went hand-in-hand with the “original” Warp aesthetic (as well as the city’s infatuation with science fiction, but that’s an entirely different story). So, while Ellison played with the same sprawling hip-hop, jazz, and electronica influences as he did on 1983, while he broadened the sonic palette of Reset by staying true to his forward-thinking and experimental approach, Los Angeles still made sense as a unified experience because, in his own words, it all came from the same vibe and the same journey.” Or, if you will, the same coherent universe. It also took Flying Lotus’ sound to a place where even he couldn’t define it, as demonstrated in a 2008 interview with UKHH [ed. which no longer appears to be online]: “I would say it’s experimental funk, experimental psychedelic hip hop… erm I don’t know. I can’t figure it out either.” A place he has not left since.

Still, despite any difficulty regarding generic classification, there was no doubt that Los Angeles had a clarity of vision that was absent from his previous efforts. Each track had a purpose, contributed to the larger whole and functioned as a scene in Ellison’s movie, complemented both what came before and after. It felt almost like one consistent, flowing piece of music — aided by the ambient grain throughout the album, which acted as a unifying thread —  like a perfectly spherical world that made complete sense to Ellison, and it was all the more hypnotic and entrancing for it. That’s not to say that Los Angeles was bereft of tracks that stood out. Far from it. ‘Auntie’s Lock/Infinitum’, ‘GNG BNG’ and ‘Breathe. Something/Stellar Star’ showed that Ellison could make pieces of music that felt transcendent in their own right. But they still made more sense as part of a unified experience, as the part of the same narrative arc. And what was that narrative arc? Ultimately it’s down interpretation, as Ellison likes it. Personally, I believe he was telling a triumphant story. The album’s creation may have been informed by grief, yet that did not restrict it or him to darkness at all; life could still be beautiful and vibrant and warm, and it felt as if Ellison was reminding himself of this, which afforded the album an air of vitality and optimism. He may have been in a dark place, but he eventually found himself through his city and his creative process. So, for all its aesthetic and emotional rawness, it feels like lightness bleeding into the dark.

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