Cosmic track in seeking truth

By Scott Kara

Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, took the drug DMT shortly after his mother's death for an 'out-of-body' experience. Photo / Supplied
Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, took the drug DMT shortly after his mother's death for an 'out-of-body' experience. Photo / Supplied

Last year, after his mother suffered a heart attack, Steven Ellison did two things that might seem odd but are, nevertheless, in keeping with the way he approaches his life and art. One was to record the rhythmic bleeps and whirring of the machines that kept his mother alive while she was unconscious in a Los Angeles hospital - the 26-year-old electronic music prodigy, who calls himself Flying Lotus, had just begun work on his second album and wanted even this extremely traumatic moment to be part of its genesis. The other was to take the powerful hallucinogenic drug DMT shortly after her death.

Ellison had smoked weed since the age of 14, enjoyed mushrooms at university and was comfortable with taking "psychedelics at least once a year".

However, his interest in DMT was due to learning that, in some cases, the high could resemble a near-death experience.

"I was trying to cope however I could," he says. "It was a great experience.

I felt it showed that there's so much more than this life."

Ellison's psychedelic outlook has led to him being called the Hendrix of his generation. Only whereas Jimi Hendrix pointed his guitar in cosmically inclined new directions, Ellison is doing the same with computers.

Cosmogramma, his third album, completed after his mother's passing and just released bears out such comments. Toggling rapidly between dreamy jazz orchestration and the kind of thing that was once called trip-hop, it's a thrilling advance on its predecessor, 2008's Los Angeles, which was largely rooted in instrumental hip-hop and therefore exciting only to earnest young men who spend too much time with headphones on.

"He's completely torn up the rule book," says Mary-Ann Hobbs, BBC Radio 1's champion of innovative electronic music and author of that Hendrix comparison. Hobbs is also partly responsible for one of Cosmogramma's many highlights: the guest appearance of Radiohead's Thom Yorke on ... And the World Laughs with You. Ellison and Yorke's paths had briefly crossed in Japan, and when he later heard Radiohead were in Los Angeles he got in touch. "By the end of the week we'd done the track," says Ellison, who also supported Yorke on his Atoms for Peace tour last month. Inevitably, even this anecdote comes with its own strange coda. Ellison received the invitation from Yorke the morning after dreaming about meeting him in a supermarket.

"In the dream, I was an accomplice to some murder," he says. "I'd run out of a hotel and into a grocery store and Thom was in there. I woke up and had an email from him in my inbox, asking if I wanted to go on tour."

Ellison is aware of how out there he can sound and in conversation his train of thought occasionally dissolves into a short pause, followed by the phrase: "It's hard to explain." Life's more spiritual side was an intrinsic part of his upbringing: his aunt was Alice Coltrane, wife of the great saxophonist John and follower of supposedly divine, sometimes controversial guru Sathya Sai Baba.

She also ran an ashram in Malibu, where Ellison and his family - his mother was songwriter Marilyn McLeod, who co-wrote Diana Ross's Love Hangover - could be found on Sundays.

"My aunt would talk to everyone and afterwards play the organ," he says. "It was our church experience."

However, Ellison is not just some Californian space cadet with A-list hippy ancestry, he's also the product of more contemporary influences. He immersed himself in computer games and gangster rap as a teenager growing up in the San Fernando Valley, the suburban sprawl idealised in Steven Spielberg films which is also the capital of the world's porn industry.

"It was a pretty dark place," he says. "Everyone I knew seemed to have some involvement with that industry. There'd be girls from my school who were in adult films at the time. I'd think, 'Don't you have to be 18?"'

Film school followed, but musically his big break came after he did the soundtracks for a series of short promo clips for the cult TV channel Adult Swim. Now signed to influential British label Warp, Ellison has also gathered together a group of like-minded musicians on his own Brainfeeder label.

"They're all seekers after truth," is how he describes the collective when asked what they might have in common.

He could just as easily be talking about himself, his particular search for meaning occurring even when he's asleep, thanks to the lucid dreams, which often involve out-of-body experiences, that he has had since childhood, sometimes as regularly as once a week. Ellison denies they are anything to do with drugs, insisting these night-time travels through his subconscious are more vivid when he cuts down his intake.

He doesn't believe they make him a better musician either. "It can be inspiring the next morning though," he says. "It makes you consider things that are out of the ordinary."

LOWDOWN

Who: Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus
What: Third album Cosmogramma (which received five star rating by TimeOut's Scott Kara)
When: Out now

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