Q&A: How Flying Lotus Recruited Snoop Dogg and Herbie Hancock for a Death-Obsessed Triumph

Steven Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus.
Tim Saccenti/Motormouth Media

At 30, Steven Ellison is maybe a little young to be obsessing about death. But the genre-bending electronic musician and producer—better known by his recording name, Flying Lotus—is not wallowing in grim dirges and meditative farewells. On the aptly named You're Dead!, the artist's fifth album, Flying Lotus steers into woozier, jazzier territory and brings listeners on a cartoon-paced trek through the afterlife. It's Flying Lotus's least hip-hop-driven release yet, and—with a dizzying array of guest appearances that include Herbie Hancock, Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar—perhaps his best.

"I don't believe I'm going to meet somebody when I'm dead, but I tried to get in the mindset of what people think death is all about," Ellison tells Newsweek. "I tried to approach it tongue in cheek, because no one really knows."

On an early fall afternoon at his label Warp Records' Brooklyn, New York, office, Ellison nibbled sushi and discussed the afterlife, You're Dead!'s long creative process and whether Kanye West will ever accede to his collaboration requests.

You're Dead! album cover.
Flying Lotus/Warp Records

You're Dead! seems like the least beat-driven album you've done yet. How'd that come to be?

None of that was intentional. I still think there's a lot of beats in it. Different beats, but [it's] probably my least hip-hop record.

How long did you spend making this one?

It took two years to make. But to really do it, to really focus—that was probably a year, a year and a half. With this record, I worked with so many musicians, and we never at once sat in a room together and worked. I worked with each person individually to get all these pieces.

Tell me about where the album title came from.

It was shortly after finishing [bassist and collaborator] Thundercat's last album. He and I were driving. We were listening to [late jazz musician] George Duke—this crazy, real fast George Duke shit. Crazy fusion music. We looked at each other and went, "Man, how come no one's making shit like this?" Thundercat's like, "Yo, you know we could do that, right?" He's like, "We should just make some shit that kills everybody." [Laughs.] As soon as you hear it, you're just dead. And that was the joke. It was born from that.

The first track that I really felt was the opening. I was like, Wait a minute, why don't we really go in with that concept? Why don't we make it all about a journey through the afterlife from the moment of death and what it must be like to go to the next place?

Was it inspired by people in your own life dying?

Yeah, definitely. For whatever crazy reasons, a lot of people have passed in my life, but whenever someone does, it just levels out everything again. I'm always reminded of what's really important. It's also reflective of the scene that I come from. For a while, I was watching the whole scene change around me. What if I am dead already? What if my sound is dead already? What if my ideals are old now or dead? I really tried to adopt that and every aspect once the name came to be.

It seems almost weirdly suited to some of the news from this summer.

It's crazy, man. We were announcing the record right around the Ferguson thing and the ISIS stuff happening and fucking Robin Williams and all that. I was like, "We should probably just wait a little bit! Right now I should not be trying to promote a record. There's so many things happening in the world."

Do you ever see yourself making more politically charged records?

Just to touch on what you were saying, a friend of mine recently reminded me that we're supposed to do what we do because it helps. What we do helps the world situation. People need it. They don't need to revel in all that shit all the time. People need to escape, and they need to find answers in other things. Your question…what was it?

I asked if you would ever make more politically charged records.

I've been feeling weird about that stuff lately. I feel like too many celebrities and famous people are oversharing. I'm being really cautious of that lately. I don't want to be no Twitter activist.

Do you find it hard to convey the themes of your record when so much of it is musically based rather than lyrically based?

Lately I've been wanting to say things with lyrics. I've been more inclined to write words. The instrumentals can't be enough right now. It can't be it. I have more things to say.

You're Dead! is how you imagine the afterlife to be?

Not entirely. I tried to think about it in terms of how it's perceived throughout media and stuff. How people interpret it through all the different religions. They talk about the quintessential death experience at the time of light. I don't believe I'm going to meet somebody when I'm dead, but I tried to get in the mindset of what people think death is all about. I tried to get in the headspace of "this is what you hear about in The Tibetan Book of the Dead." That was definitely a big inspiration for it too.

What sort of music were you listening to while making the record?

I was listening to a lot of Queen. I was listening to Soft Machine and King Crimson and Weather Report.

Older stuff!

I'm really into that stuff. I was learning a lot about vocals with this record. I was trying a lot of old techniques.

Were there any other forms of media that inspired the record?

I was reading a lot of books. I was reading a lot of biographies. Freddy Mercury's stuff. I was reading about Rick James. Reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead. More sources to get ideas for words. As far as feelings, I got a whole bank of feelings.

What was the most unexpected collaboration on your record?

The Snoop one was the most unexpected. I was almost done with the album. He does this interview show for YouTube. He invited me to be interviewed by him, and he was asking me about what I was working on. I was telling him about the album I was almost done with, telling him who's on it and what it's about. He was like, "Word! That sounds crazy, I wanna do that!"

It was kind of a cool full-circle moment. Especially with the title being You're Dead!—if I died, Snoop would probably be the gatekeeper in that kind of quintessential death experience. He was my hero when I was a kid.

Did he have those lyrics already written?

I told him about the concept, and it all came after that. I think he was excited to do something that was a little more left. He was like, "Yo, man, I did some shit like that on my first album called Murder Was the Case." I was like, "Of course!"

How did the Herbie Hancock guest spot come together?

A friend of mine works at [music software company] Ableton. They've been working with him for a little bit, and they connected us. He just called one day and left a voice message, like [in Herbie Hancock voice]: "Yo, man! This is Herbie Hancock! I've been meaning to call you for months now! Let's get together." He just had me over at his house and played me some stuff. He was really excited by the direction we were going in. It was a trip to be in his studio. He had all these new keyboards and shit. I was like, "Where's the old Oberheim?" "Oh, I don't have that shit!" I was like, "Yo, we gotta record at my house." I had the old Fender Rhodes I really wanted him to be on.

He told you old stories about Miles Davis?

He'll go into those tangents. He walks into my studio, in my house, and he was like, "Oh, man, you got one of them keyboards—I helped them make that!" He'll go on a tangent for a half-hour about how he told them they should make this expression knob or something.

How about Kendrick [Lamar]?

Working with him was great. He's a mad genius of a man. I'm really fascinated by him. Because I think he's the best rapper out there. I don't think anyone's fucking with him rapping. Just watching his process, seeing how songs come to life when he hears things—there's no blockage of ideas and expression. As soon as he plays something [imitates Lamar repeating a hook], it becomes a song right there. It's so cool to watch someone do that.

Are there any other rappers you want to work with?

I want to work with all the cool rappers, man. I like when two people meet up for the right reason and they get the sound that they both are supposed to get.

Would you ever try to get Kanye on a record?

I've been trying, man!

You've been trying?

I feel like, at this point, it's been expressed enough. He knows where I'm at.

What'd you think of Yeezus?

I should have been on it. It was kind of weird that I wasn't. Just being totally real, not on some ego shit.... I was like, "They didn't even call!"

There's something about the really choppy, short song structures and the abruptness of it that works with what you do.

Exactly. That's my favorite one of his albums. I really wish I was part of it. There's a few things that came out that I really wish I was on. I wish I was on that. I wish I was on the Earl [Sweatshirt] album, the Doris album.

Have you stayed in touch with Thom Yorke since the guest spot on [2012's] Until the Quiet Comes?

Oh, yeah! I was just talking to him.

Any plans?

He's got some shit. Something happening soon. I just feel it. Something's around the corner. I feel it in my bones.

What do you have in mind for your next project?

I shouldn't say. But more than anything, whenever I start off with something, it always changes. With You're Dead!, even though that's what it was called from the beginning, the shit was going to be way different than the initial stages. I feel like I know what I want to do now. I don't know if it's going to be a Lotus record or [rapper alter ego] Captain Murphy.

You would do another mixtape [as Captain Murphy]?

Probably. I have enough songs. I'd rather produce for a little bit. I'm kind of in that headspace right now.

You've been on such a steady album-release schedule. Every two years. Usually in the fall, too.

It's not intentional. It's just really the way it works out for me. It takes me about two years to have more experiences and live and feel and come back with something to say. I don't know why. I felt like I was done a long time ago, but it's just now coming out.

It seems like it could be a really exhausting pace. Do you ever need a break?

I don't need breaks from making stuff. I just need breaks from being on tour. Traveling and stuff. Other than that, I live a pretty simple life. I just hang out, play with my dog, play video games and make music. When I start traveling is when my head starts going all crazy.

Is your schedule really chill like that when you're making the album?

Yeah. I don't ever give myself harsh deadlines. The process is pretty organic. When I'm in the thick of it, it's the most exciting time of my life. I could live in it, and it's all good. I love that. Waking up, knowing there's some new shit downstairs in the machine, I can mess with it and fix it—that's like Christmas to me.

Does your dog jive with the music?

Oh, she sleeps by the subwoofer. She's just like [imitates dog sleeping sound].