Freak Scene: Interview with Flying Lotus

October 12, 2012

Listening to Flying Lotus' new album, Until The Quiet Comes, feels like coming up for air. His previous LP, Cosmogramma, was monolithic. Layering dueling sounds on top of each other in an endlessly busy display of talent. It was a difficult record, but once you found your way inside it, it was plenty rewarding. Until The Quiet Comes, on the other hand, is calmer. There's room to breathe. It moves from free jazz to bass heavy sketches to songs anchored by guest vocalists like Erykah Badu and Thom Yorke. It's not an easy album by any means, but listening to it, it feels like Flying Lotus' most personal, internal album. An aural manifestation of what he loves and how he sees the world. Recently, I met up with him to talk about the album, living in LA and the importance of taking a vacation.

This album feels less busy than everything else you've done. It wasn't ever a conscious decision. I just did what was natural. what was happening in the studio. When I make albums, I get inspired by things and then I roll with it. I don't ever try to tell, Oh it's going to be this and I'll only do this. I go through phases where I'm inspired by something—whatever it was this time around…I felt like I was getting more into harmonies and melodies and stuff. That's something I really wanted to explore, just in my whole musical archive, as far as accessibility and whatnot. I never planned on making an accessible record, and to me it's not, I feel like I have even more accessible stuff in the archive. Of the 200 tracks I made between the last album and this one, I try to pick out the things that meant something to me.

How do you decide what makes it onto the album? The first thing is emotional context. I can sit and listen to the album and think of all the memories that went into it, and it means something. I feel like that might be why it works. I just try to put out the things I know I'll listen to later on because I'll remember the day, whether it's good or bad. The emotional context helps me to complete the overall picture.

Is the new album meant to capture something specific? All of them are documents of where I've been. This one, though, it's funny because I went back into taking piano lessons and really trying to study and trying to improve my shit. When I start the next one, I'll probably do the same thing again. go back to school, learn, unlearn things I've learned, try and get better. Just try to soak up different inspiration in all art.

You're prolific. What kind of self editing process do you have? I'm not in a hurry. At this point, I can look back at all the things i've done—I feel like everything I put out means something to me, whether I want to listen to it or not. I was honest when I put that shit out. I want to be able to keep saying that. There's a lot of stuff I do that's just for fun, or I think about it for a rapper or a singer or something like that, or just some ego shit to make the club I'm playing at shake—the editing process is like…again, it just comes down to: does this really mean something to me or is it something I just made because I was inspired by whatever. That's the gut thing. That's the place that I trust when it comes to putting records together.

Have you always been able to rely on your gut? It comes naturally. But the thing about it is, I forget everything. All the time. I forget where I've been. It takes really simple things—for example, when was making Cosmogramma I was really at a crossroads because I felt like at that point in my life I could either, a) continue on the path that I was going on or b) try and get into the mainstream with my music. I felt like at that point, I had a mainstream album under my belt. I remember talking to a kid in Australia at lunch—it was so stupid but I'll never forget it—I was so conflicted, like man, I don't know if I should do this really deep album or try and do this banging pop record or whatever, and he was like, I reckon if you just do what you want to do, people will be into it. I was like…fuuck. This is the stupidest thing, but I'll never forget. You've just go to do what's honest and natural, they'll know it when they hear it.

Cosmogramma was such a busy album. It felt, to me, like a reflection of the way people listen to music now. Until The Quiet Comes feels like you're taking a step back from that world. It's funny you say a step back. I was thinking about it like that for a long time, but I actually thought about it like, I'm going to take a step inside. I thought that if i did something that really felt…I want to make albums that only I can make, you know? I think I can make stuff that sounds like other people if I want to. I think that's one of the gifts that I have. I can dissect the person's sound and be like, Well shit, all you gotta do is this and this and sound like that. I really wanted to do that thing that only I can do. Maybe it works…or not.

You're at the forefront of a specific LA-based music scene. Does that pressure get to you? Sometimes. I see it as a really inspiring motivation to wake up and do the work. when the pressure's on I just show up and do what I have to do. It's a good thing. I don't take it in a way that makes me depressed. I get depressed about different things, but the pressure? I'm glad it exists. if it didn't I probably wouldn't be as motivated. It really does give me the edge, I think, to do the work.

How do the collaborations come into play? The thing with Thom [Yorke] happened super organically. I thought that after we did the one song on the last album It'd be like okay, I get it, we cool, we don't have to work anymore, but we were sending tracks back and forth and it happened naturally. The thing with Erykah [Badu] happened because I was supposed to be producing her new album, but we hadn't made much stuff so I was like I think I'm going to take the song, you don't mind do you? There's a track called "Phantasm" on the album that I actually sent to The Weeknd. He was supposed to do something for it, he was on tour and was super busy and couldn't do it, but I'm glad it worked out the way it did. He and I will work together in some capacity. That collaborative thing, it's a funny one man. I've always been the kind of guy who—I don't like when I hear producers do these albums where every track is someone new and you don't really get a sense of where you are, and I was really worried I would come across that way with this album, because there are so many different vocalists. I don't plan on having too many collaborators on the next album, but that's today.

I wanted to talk to you about the sequencing on your albums. It's obviously very important to you. It's the most important thing. I try to look at it like a puzzle, almost. I got to a point where I saw all the pieces that made an impact. I could say these are pivotal. so how do we get…you got the pieces of the puzzle, all the edges, and you have to fill up the middle parts. I think I spent at least four or five months just trying to sew everything together and mix everything the way I wanted it to be. It's really important. I can understand how some people would be like, Fuck it. But for what I do, it's so important. That's where you build the world.

Once you've got it sequenced, do you go back and work on songs so they better fit the sequence? Yeah. absolutely. There's three processes. There's drafts. I do a draft a day, just making stuff. I get to a point where I have the drafts. I kind of make a rough sequence, take a month off and not listen to it, then come back a month later and be like, Oh shit, this is fucked up. I make a ratings system on the tracks that I choose out of five, and figure out how complete they are. so I'll be like, this track is barebones so its one star. or this track, it's got the idea, but it's just a loop, it needs a sequence so thats a two star. Three star is like, well maybe it needs a vocal or something else, it's not that done yet. then you get to four stars and it's just a mix. The mix isn't right, and then when you get the mix right it's a five star. You just try to—again, it's like puzzles. you put the puzzles together.

Are any of the songs on the new record old? There's tracks that are about two-and-a-half or three years old. "Electric Candyman," the song with Thom Yorke, that track was done way long ago, and the most recent was "Only If You Wanna," that was the last thing I finished.

A lot of people aren't comfortable going back to their old work. Here's the thing: if you like a track that's three years old, that means that shit needs to come out. There's not a lot I go back to that's three years old, I just knew that that had to come out in some way.

Is the concept of producing a single that hits really hard for a month or two, and then fades away appealing to you? I feel like I'm very much that person. I only put out an album every two years. I only put out 18 tracks of things that I really care about and I have the internet and Soundcloud to leak out things that are just for fun. Also, I produce…I keep artists in mind when producing. I feel like I have a whole trap album that is done out of the enthusiasm of the scene blowing up in the past year. I feel like, even though I'm having this conversation about this record that has nothing to do with that, I'm still very much part of that too. I have an ambient album, a techno album, there's a lot of stuff. what I give is a fraction of what I'm producing.

Do you make music every day? I'd say yeah. Even if it's not physically making a track, I'm working every day. Traveling, I work on my show, when I'm home, I work on the music, producing and stuff. I don't take that when I'm traveling because it really is a different mindset. I don't like to work on my show when I'm at home. It's two different pieces of the brain working.

Do you find it hard to produce outside of Los Angeles? I feel like the city doesn't have much to do with it, it's just the comfort. I like being able to have all my toys, even if I don't use them. Have my monitors. I have my shit dialed in. That part of it—I feel like even if I'm in LA and go to a proper studio, I get invited to studios to do work sometimes, and it never turns out the way I like it. It's a challenge, but I feel like I'm never making the quality I could be at home.

Is hearing your music in a car important to the sound, since you're in LA? Definitely. when I was making this album, though, I was scared to drive around with it because I had a shitty system in the car. I didn't listen to it at all in the car. I didn't listen to any of my stuff in the car for a long time. I upgraded though, after the fact. It's very important. It's psychologically—it really makes an impact on the music. Okay, hear me out: So I have the system in my car now. A booming system, right? I'm hearing music on it and I'm like, Damn I want to make some shit that sounds good in my car. It's some weird kind of thing. Since I didn't have a good ststem in my car for a long time, I wasn't concerned with it. but now that I have it, I want to make sure my shit hits.

Your album title, Until The Quiet Comes can be taken a few different ways. It meant a lot of things to me. It meant life and death, it meant finding inner peace, it meant trying to break away from all the chatter that was happening in my mind about things. I chose that title because I kept saying it in my mind. Like, shit, I'm going to keep doing this shit until the quiet comes. It just kept coming back. Something about it—it felt very much like where my mind was at.

Do you think you've found that inner peace? No. Not at all. In fact, it's way crazier. I'm glad it hasn't come, actually. Thom is the one—he told me like, I was going through a point in the middle of making the record and I was just getting really depressed about things, and he was like, It's okay to be this way and feel the way you're feeling. Take a vacation. If I were you I'd be laying out in a field somewhere. I went to Hawaii like right after that.

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Freak Scene
Freak Scene: Interview with Flying Lotus