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Flying Lotus spoke to Okayplayer about Alice Coltrane, spirituality, composing for film and television and more
Illustrious producer, DJ, rapper and filmmaker Flying Lotus is coming for everything he’s ever wanted. The 39-year-old Los Angeles native has served an extraordinary, nearly 20-year run with notable albums Cosmogramma, Until the Quiet Comes, and You’re Dead!. In between, FlyLo has delivered multimedia efforts just as experimental as his creativity. The musician released his 2017 theatrical debut Kuso, as well as helped helm the story of 2021 Netflix anime Yasuke (along with creating its soundtrack). This year, he released the “Ozzy’s Dungeon” segment of horror anthology film V/H/S/99, and created an accompanying score with synthy, 8-bit sound effects.
Now, FlyLo is bringing his distinct creative vision to podcasting. Along with Doja Cat, Tobe Nwigwe, Koffee and others, FlyLo has joined new Audible music series Origins. In the immersive eight-part podcast series, which uses sound design, spoken narrative, and music textures, artists give listeners a peek into their past and the foundation of their purpose. In FlyLo’s episode, the artist discusses the impact of his late aunt, musician and vocalist Alice Coltrane, the life-changing experience of attending continuation school, and exploring existential questions in his work. Saying that he doesn’t “want to tell fractured stories,” the message lends itself to FlyLo’s transition from music extraordinaire to off-kilter film director.
Along with Origins, he’s also prepping his next movie, a sci-fi thriller titled Ash. Starting production in March, the film stars Tessa Thompson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as astronauts who awake on a distant planet to find their crew has been murdered, prompting both to contemplate whether they can trust each other.
“It’s quite a massive undertaking and a step for me that’s very intimidating, but also a dream come true,” FlyLo said about the film.
Overall, FlyLo’s many endeavors are a testament to his flow of creating: trying to make sure that ego doesn’t get in the way of achieving what he calls the “God Zone” of doing what he does.
“It’s hard for me to really get down with a lot of the traditional senses of where we go and what life is all about. I just don’t feel like we’re really meant to understand it anyway,” he said. “But I do feel like when I work on music and when I create and when it’s pure and honest, I just lose myself in it. I feel very much connected to whatever that thing is. It’s a really special thing because it’s unquantifiable. You can’t box it up, you can’t package it.”
“I can’t take credit for it in a way too. I just feel like I’m a vessel sometimes when I’m at my best. I’m just a conduit and just letting it flow,” he added. “That’s what I mean, it’s something that’s kind of working through you in the way that people kind of talk about God.”
Flying Lotus spoke to Okayplayer about his Origins episode, spirituality, composing for film and television and more.
In Origins, you said that Alice Coltrane’s Lord of Lords was an inspiration in your early career. How did that album speak to you?
Flying Lotus: It’s part of my family and all that music, so it was always there. But I think the beauty of her music and the types of things she was doing, it would only get more interesting and deeper as I got older. The more I understood music and the more I pursued music, and honestly the more I understood life and all that, the music just made more sense. I feel like every two, three years, I go through a hardcore phase of getting back into it, just because it reminds me of what I want to do with my music. It’s what I hope to do with my music. I want it to be something that people can come back to and have different experiences with.
Early on when I was really, really digesting [Lord of Lords] when I was doing Cosmogramma, I had that moment where pop stars [were] hitting me up to potentially work on some stuff. I know how to make radio friendly music and whatever, and there was just that moment of, “Alright, what do we really wanna say, what are we really trying to do?” And just being like, “Yeah, this is what I want, at least for this moment in my life.” I want to be able to try to create something that will be long lasting, and deep in something that is meaningful and not just a thing that reflects the moment. That’s what I try to do still, but whether or not that works I don’t know.
How do you feel about [Alice Coltrane’s] music being ahead of its time? Do you feel like it’s more appreciated now than it was in the past?
I think it’s just more appreciated now. I think even in the past there [were] all these echoes of John Coltrane and her being in the shadows of that, and people trying to just get whatever experience of John Coltrane they can get out of this woman. Now it’s, “This woman is amazing and she did all this amazing stuff. She held it down in her own right, had her own sound and own vibe and own thing.” I think that gets seen more now and that’s what’s so cool. I remember being around her all the time and people would… always want to talk to her about John Coltrane. So now it’s like, “Let’s talk about Alice Coltrane.” I think it’s beautiful that can happen. But she doesn’t care about any of that stuff.
You came up in an era before people were going viral for their music. During that time you made a lot of classics. Do you think you have a definitive record?
Cosmogramma is probably the definitive one, if I have to examine it like that. But I think You’re Dead! is my best record still. I try not to really think too much [about] that stuff anymore, because we’re not in that world anymore. I’ve just kind of accepted that we’re in this new paradigm where it’s about the songs, and it is about the moments for some people and putting stuff out and that’s the way to do things. But I’m just like this — whatever the story calls for me — like, “Maybe it needs to just be three songs, maybe it’s 12 songs, whatever.” But it’s got to serve the vision of whatever it is.
Over the past five years, you’ve been in the director’s chair. How would you explain this recent phase of your life as a storyteller?
It’s interesting because I’m at this point where I feel like I kind of have to do both to get my creative rocks off now. It’s like I got to make a film and then make the music for it. I want to have a reason to make the music now, because currently I’m just like, “Well, I don’t really have an idea what I want to say without visuals.” [There’s] so many things I want to do and say with visuals. So, like, “Alright, well, maybe the idea now is to create the whole. Create a bigger problem for myself, then try to create visual worlds, too.”
So, the film Ash – the music for that is how I think of my next album. There’ll be a soundtrack for some, but to me that’s the purpose of the music. It’s all going to be a new album and it’s all going to make sense and connect in that way for me. I hope it goes that way with the audience.
Is composing for film or television shows methodically different from creating your own albums?
It’s totally different. A real simple thing is sometimes all you need for a film cue. Sometimes you just need some pulsing sounds in a movie, but then you mute all the sound effects, and you just have that pulsing sound. It’s like, “I’m not going to put that out.” [Laughs]
But I do think there’s ways of going about it. It all depends on what you’re working with and the material. Like Yasuke, for example. I got to do a lot of different types of sounds for it. Ash is going to have a totally different palette to work with and a bit more of a traditional sense. It’ll just have a totally different sound altogether, and limitations. But good ones — they’re creative limitations, they’re fun. Sometimes we have too many toys, right? We have Ableton and all these other plugins that go inside of it, and you can make any sound in the world. It’s nice to just kind of only have these things to work with, and this is the world to play in. That’s a cool thing that film scoring does more than albums.
When you’re creating these scores and soundtracks, you’re not just making it for your fans, but for viewers who aren’t necessarily familiar with your music. Has this pressured you to compromise your artistry?
I haven’t had to yet. I think when people work with me in this capacity, they know that they’re going to get something a little different. I can’t help but be me. So, there’s always going to be me in all of it. The talent may change, but you’re still going to know who it’s coming from.
Can you give a little insight about your next film Ash, and why you chose Tessa Thompson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as leads?
Well, first, they’re amazing people. They’re amazing actors. I’ve known Tessa for a little bit just over the years. Not really that well, but through [other] people too. She’d been to a house party of mine forever ago, and I met Joseph Gordon-Levitt forever ago at Sundance. We stayed in touch on Twitter. So, it was really that. It’s reaching out to people in their DMs and stuff. Then, “Yo, what’s up? I have this really amazing script that a really smart person wrote. So, let’s work together.”
It’s so many moving parts. If it were up to me, I’d just put the homies in the movie. The people around me, I always could find the characters for anybody. I can get a non-actor to play themselves really well. I find the things in people — their little quirks — and try to exploit that. [Laughs]
You’ve been a creative visionary for nearly two decades. Is there anything that you haven’t accomplished yet?
I’m in a cool place of creating so I can just keep working on films. I’ve learned how to make video games this past year. I made a PC Christmas horror game and I’m actually putting it out in two weeks. That’s been huge for me being able to do that. So, I really want to try and create some very simple interactive experiences that are focused around music and exploration. I’m going to probably start doing more of that. Incorporating all the music and finding a reason to create the music for these worlds and whatnot. It’s another avenue to tell stories.
Jaelani Turner-Williams is a contributing news writer for Okayplayer with bylines at Billboard, MTV News, NYLON, Recording Academy and more. Read her mind on Twitter at @hernameisjae.