Flying Lotus performs at the Hollywood Bowl. (Mariah Tauger )
About an hour before Steven Ellison's debut performance at the Hollywood Bowl as Flying Lotus last month, he got news that made his blood run cold. The elaborate audio-visual rig he'd prepared for his set was screwing up.
He'd planned to debut an immersive array of projections on a mesh screen in front of him while he performed his ethereal and beat-chopped electronica. Thousands upon thousands of fans were outside waiting for him. But minutes before his set, they just couldn't make the thing work.
"It was nerve-racking, especially because I never know what I'm going to do when I go out there, I just start and hope people's asses will follow," Ellison said in the studio of his Mount Washington home. "It was surreal. I just had to focus."
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His frantic team fixed the rig just before showtime, and his loose and improvisational set (part of a KCRW World Festival program) was a high point in a career that has made him one of L.A.'s most acclaimed musicians and scene-makers. As a roiling tide of diverse electronic music sweeps the U.S. — especially the madcap "beat music" that Flying Lotus and the Low End Theory club night in Lincoln Heights helped popularize — Ellison's new album, "Until the Quiet Comes," is an attempt to reclaim his own focus.
The album, Ellison's fourth full-length, comes two years after 2010's "Cosmogramma" and a sea change in the American electronica scene. "Cosmogramma" was indebted to the astral free-jazz legacy of his family (his aunt is Alice Coltrane and his cousin is saxophonist Ravi Coltrane). It raised his profile considerably, featuring contributions from Erykah Badu, Radiohead's Thom Yorke and samples of medical instruments taken from the hospital room where his mother passed away. He played it out with a dozen-strong live band behind him.
"Until the Quiet Comes" is a sleeker, uncluttered pivot from that sound. The ferocious restlessness of his previous work here is honed to a sadder, gimlet-eyed (or to be more accurate, prescription-strength-marijuana-eyed) world of daydreams.
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"Electric Candyman" pitches another Yorke vocal down to wraith-like lows while a warehouse of drum noises collapse around him. "Putty Boy Strut" nods to the recent snare-centric "trap music" strain of hip-hop but laces it with disembodied jazz guitars.
Internet-driven developments in hip-hop, dubstep and electronica scenes have made freak-flag producers viable in the mainstream. Ellison's ambidextrous musicianship (he still studies with a piano teacher at the Silver Lake Conservatory of Music) makes him a prime candidate for almost any sort of collaboration, wilding-out rap beats, progressive jazz (on his Brainfeeder label), ambient orchestral film scores.
Plenty of mainstream artists want in — as a draft of a recent remix for Frank Ocean showed. But as the album title suggests, "Until the Quiet Comes" also underlines the importance of tuning out noise that money, attention and the jet-set electronica lifestyle creates.
"I'm torn — if I worked at it, I could make a radio thing, and like anyone, I'm curious about that. But I hate to meet people I admire and it turns out they're just motivated by money," Ellison said. "There was someone very close to me that I asked to play a party with me, and they said they weren't into cool parties or dope music anymore — they were into getting paid. All I could say back to that was, 'That's cool … .' "
Just as electronica and beat-scene artists are earning unprecedented attention (go to any action movie and you'll hear bass-wobbling dubstep mixes in the trailers), Ellison is quietly backing away from scene orthodoxy.
A lifelong visual artist and film buff, he said his album-teaser short film with director Khalil Joseph — in which murdered kids are revived as uncanny dancers in the Nickerson Gardens housing project — is a potential preview to a full-length film collaboration (he cites avant-garde directors Gaspar Noé and Park Chan-wook as inspirations).
Flying Lotus is big enough to play Coachella and the Hollywood Bowl, and to get embroiled in Twitter beefs with Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music team (after Lotus ragged on the rapper Big Sean). But he seems to crave a private, safer world of his own. His Mount Washington home is on a placid, nondescript suburban street (replete with a pool and an adorably scruffy lap dog), and he's still a regular at his home base of Low End Theory when he's in L.A.
Perhaps he needs it. The music has become a sort of safe harbor for his haunted feelings. "I feel like after [the producer] J. Dilla passed, death became such a part of my life," he said. "For a while it was like, boom, boom, boom with people passing, and it makes you question everything. I'm going to die someday, and I have to make the work that I'm going to leave on this planet."
"Until the Quiet Comes" is a contradictory record. It's his most musically meticulous and attentive album to date. But it's an LP meant to evoke the haziness of L.A. and his inner dream life.
"I feel like I almost care too much," he said. "I just hated [the film] 'Inception.' You know the scene where they're on the snowmobiles shooting at each other? The whole time I was screaming, 'That's not how dreams work!"
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