The characters could be ripped from a superhero script.
Recalling the genesis of his trippy, atmospheric beat-based concept album "You're Dead!," producer Flying Lotus describes it as occurring while he was rolling around Los Angeles, "driving my car with Thundercat, who plays bass on all the stuff." "We were driving around listening to George Duke, and there was a moment when we were tripping on how crazy all that playing was," says the artist, 30, born Steven Ellison.
Deploying the same unprintable cuss word in triplicate, he adds, "We were like, 'Why aren't people doing this kind of ... now?' Well, why don't we make some ... like this now, that just kills everybody.'" Ellison laughs. "When you hear it you're like, 'Oh ... you're dead!'"
They kept listening, admiring the ways in which fusion keyboardist Duke and his band so succinctly conveyed so much melody, harmony and rhythm. A few years later — boom! — Flying Lotus and longtime collaborator Thundercat (off-duty name: Stephen Bruner) complete "You're Dead!." Out Oct. 7, the 19-track, 60-minute-plus beat-based record is a singular document — it explores the imagined moments after the soul passes the threshold into the afterlife.
Built layer by layer, instrument by instrument over the course of two years at Ellison's home studios, first in Echo Park and later in his new Laurel Canyon spot, the album draws from a mix of influences, including fusion and hard-bop jazz, hip-hop, funk, soul and rock, and features session work and verses from jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, rappers Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg, vocalists Angel and Arlene Deradoorian, Niki Randa and others.
An expansive, at times breathtaking feat of production wizardry and instrumental and lyrical acumen, "You're Dead!" sucks the listener through a wormhole and into the realm of genre-free rhythm music.
It's a place Ellison's family knows well. The grandnephew of Alice Coltrane, the late free-jazz spiritualist and widow of tenor sax genius John Coltrane, Ellison has inherited his aunt's sense of expansiveness — the stew of hip-hop, instrumental jazz, dubstep, trip-hop and drum and bass — and pushed it further toward some cosmic intersection.
That has occurred through four studio albums as Flying Lotus, another as Captain Murphy, a few singles and EPs and collaborations with artists including Thom Yorke, Earl Sweatshirt and Mac Miller. Ellison has earned another stream of fans through tracks placed on the late-night Adult Swim cable network, a longtime supporter and incubator of Flying Lotus ideas.
As the artist gained attention, Ellison helped focus the music world's gaze on the experimental beat producers living and creating in Los Angeles. His excellent Brainfeeder label celebrates the area's rich roster of avant fusion beatmakers and jazz artists including Daedelus, Matthewdavid, saxophonist Kamasi Washington and string player-arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (the latter two of whom play on the new album). "You're Dead!" addresses the devastating demise of one of their own, pianist and Brainfeeder recording artist Austin Peralta.
As Ellison explained during a recent conversation at his modest two-story ranch home, the "let's-kill-the-listener" quip gestated while he was working on the opening track, "Theme." Then he and Bruner started to take it seriously. "Maybe this is the journey here," Ellison recalls thinking. "What if, conceptually, we're right at the moment of death, and slowly it goes from there?"
Normally, the themes come later. This one drove the sessions and creation.
Initially, the goal was to craft what he described as a "hard-bop" jazz sound, to channel the tight focus of fusion, specifically the wild, tightened jams between the improvised solos. But he concluded that the realm he sought to explore need not merely be replicated. He could further its evolution. "There's so much more to do with it that no one's doing," he says. So as he added dynamics, he bent toward a fresh sound.
Ellison has the build of a linebacker but the demeanor of a yogi. Relaxed but intense, he describes his process with a quiet thoughtfulness that's at odds with his performance demeanor. In the studio, he's calm. Two bongs sit near his work station, and he employed one just as he sat down for an interview.
Onstage during one of his rolling, bass-heavy sets, though, the artist bobs and weaves like a boxer dodging punches. Known for his vivid, abstract video accompaniment, Flying Lotus live strives to physically manifest the sensation of being lost in his music.
Ellison employs his primary instrument, music production software, to track and sample his sounds. For "You're Dead!," he invited musicians to solo sessions at his home — Bruner was at many of them, and he gets cowriting credit on a number of tracks — and they took it from there. "I like to sit with people individually. I'll sing a bunch of ideas, play them a bunch of rhythm things." They'll then start recording, and Ellison took the results and weaved them in. He invited others — keyboardist, conga player, vocalists — to do the same.
Singer Angel Deradoorian, known to many for her work when she was a member of Dirty Projectors, was invited to the 'You're Dead" sessions, along with her sister Arlene, at the behest of Ellison and singer Randa. Angel says the work was relaxed, loose and improvised. The producer didn't harp on the theme of death. "We talked about it more in a sonic sense," says Deradoorian, whose breathtaking voice, in communion with those of Arlene and Randa, is most striking on "Siren Song."
"He played us a little bit of the other track that showed us the aesthetic or the vibe of the record," she says. "He didn't go into the context so much, or the lyrical ideas. But we had a sense of what he was looking for and had free reign to experiment." Deradoorian adds that the desire was to "not overthink anything. Just go with what felt right."
The process was similar to how Ellison used to make tracks, by sampling old recordings. "Put on a record, get something off the record," he says. "Then you get some drums. Then you go to the keyboard. Then you go to the bass. It was the same process, but with people."
"The fact that things are not all recorded at once leads to a different type of magical experience," says Bruner. "I felt no pressure. I felt happy about what was happening. It's a different kind of challenge." The same could be said of working with Hancock, long an influence for both men.
"Just watching Herbie's ability to be like water in a situation was so beautiful," says Bruner, recalling the sensation of "seeing the guy that birthed the spirit of jazz fusion, watching his mind at work, and being able to see him be cool when he was out of his environment normally." (Hancock was unavailable for an interview.)
A Queen epiphany
One key influencer on "You're Dead!" might be a surprise: the British art-rock quartet Queen, whose labyrinthine early work contained the requisite drama for a journey to the afterlife.
"It was like a void in my life had been filled," Ellison says of his Queen epiphany, a recent obsession he cites while describing the encounter with raised-voice excitement: "They did that! That's the thing! The singing, and the harmonies, and the crazy" — he pauses. "It was cool. I learned so much about the vocal stuff, arranging vocals and having crazier progressions in songs." Envisioning longer transitions, Ellison tapped into Queen's use of effects.
"I literally fell in love with making music again in a different way," he says. (He later specifies his taste is for "Dungeons & Dragons Queen," not "handlebar-mustache Queen.")
Ellison harnessed this energy in service of his bubbling concept, the trajectory of which he describes as "from this confusing place to a place of understanding and perspective." In the moment immediately after death, he speculates, comes trauma, shock, disbelief.
"Then maybe you'd lose sense of who you are and what you used to do. The identity, the ego, all the baggage gets stripped away. And then maybe there's some kind of acceptance. 'OK, well, this is the next experience.' There's the understanding that we don't ever die. Our time on Earth, and all the things we've done, all the love that we shared and everything, remains and continues."
Heady stuff, filtered through the dubbed-out, smoked-out, bass-heavy, meditative post-hip-hop jams.
Grammy-winning rapper Lamar makes a searing cameo on "Never Catch Me," a psychedelic hip-hop track featuring typically heavy Thundercat bass lines. (That's Thundercat's bass solo on Lamar's new single, "i.") A song later, Snoop arrives for "Dead Man's Tetris," a creepy, gunshot-fueled crawl through the realm of the dead.
Woven throughout at well paced intervals are rapped verses and refrains that address mortality from varied angles. Lamar's verse in "Never Catch Me" is typically thoughtful: "Analyze my demise, I say I'm super anxious/ Recognize I deprive this fear and then embrace it."
Under his Captain Murphy guise, Ellison references rap producer J Dilla, Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury and, most poignantly, Ellison and Bruner's close friend Peralta, whose 2012 death in his sleep from viral pneumonia (coupled with use of prescription painkillers) at age 22 shook the Los Angeles music community.
Occurring as Lotus was contemplating his next project, Peralta's death tempers the exclamatory nature of the "You're Dead!" title with heartbreak. "It was part of the process, on so many levels," says Bruner, holding back emotion, on the loss and its effect on the album.
That listeners and writers would be so focused on such a difficult theme didn't occur to Ellison until long after he'd finished the album and started speaking about it. "I wasn't prepared," he says after talking about the song "The Boys Who Died in Their Sleep." He laughs nervously, then proceeds to speculate on his version of life after death.
"Who knows what it is? But I tried to make the journey of the record feel that way. That was the arc of it to me," Ellison says.
Bruner is more circumspect on the time they spent making this death-haunted music. "I always say it's like an episode of 'Breaking Bad,' or 'Beavis and Butt-Head.' It starts out with two guys staring at the screen, but by the end of the night it's like, 'Holy crap!'"