LOS ANGELES — In October 2008, while Steven Ellison’s mother lay dying in a hospital bed, he was at her side recording her.
The young L.A.-based musician, who records abstract electronic music as Flying Lotus, hadn’t been especially close to his mother until her later years. But when finally faced with the weight of the impending loss, Ellison brought in a mobile recording rig and set microphones around her room to gather audio samples: the hypnotic wheeze of a respirator, the ambient pings of vital-sign monitors.
(Brainfeeder / Warp; US: 4 May 2010; UK: 3 May 2010)
In the stillness and sadness of his mother’s last days, he found comfort in the rhythms of the machines.
“I know it was a weird thing to do,” Ellison said. “I’m not the type to go out recording things like that. But I didn’t want to forget that space.”
For Ellison, music exists in those kinds of transcendent spaces. The 26-year-old wants his jazz-infused and beat-centric electronic compositions to evoke daydreams, hazy memories, drug trips and even the dim hours between life and death.
It’s a difficult, immersive style in the spirit of his great-aunt, jazz composer Alice Coltrane. But it’s also made him a superstar in the thriving Los Angeles electronic music underground, particularly at the Low End Theory club series. With his new album “Cosmogramma,” a sprawling melange of urgent drumming, jazz-inspired synth noise and haunting samples that came out this week, Ellison may well become famous outside of that scene as well.
The R&B avant-gardist Erykah Badu and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke sing on the album. Lotus’ earlier remix of Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown” turned mainstream hip-hop ears, and a generation of twentysomethings know his work composing music for Cartoon Network’s gonzo “Adult Swim” series.
“Hendrix obliterated the boundaries with guitars as Lotus does with electronic machines,” said Mary Anne Hobbs, the influential BBC Radio 1 DJ who has championed many Low End Theory artists on her show. “His live performance is totally incendiary, melting devastating primal sound and visual art into a hyper-sensory experience.”
For such technically exacting music, Ellison’s home recording studio is surprisingly modest. He recently moved into a small hillside house that feels half verdant Zen garden, half ramshackle bachelor pad.
Ellison is a prodigious marijuana smoker — on opening his front door to a reporter, he feigned outrage and mock-grumbled, “It smells like weed in here.” A steep stairway to his basement studio — the size of a large walk-in closet piled with synthesizers, vinyl albums and Ellison’s artwork — is treacherous enough while sober.
Ellison spends most of his days down here. For him the studio is a place where he can follow his imagination through any rabbit hole. “I’ve always been connected to mystical experiences, from out-of-body experiences to lucid dreaming and astral projection to psychedelics that make you question how the universe is put together,” Ellison said.
Many artists, such as Sun Ra, David Bowie and Lil Wayne, explore space travel and altered states. And like them, Lotus balances that sensibility with a maniacal devotion to his craft. “Cosmogramma” might be the most difficult work to come out of Los Angeles this year. Given the mind-bending new releases from rising Low End peers Shlohmo, Ras G and the Glitch Mob, that’s a real feat.
Take, for instance, the highlight “... And the World Laughs With You.” Ellison filets Yorke’s guest vocals into lyric-less digital slivers while a haze of what sounds like water droplets and Galaga video game noises flits in the background. Then a Gap Band-style bass groove and airy sopranos worthy of modernist composer Arvo Part take over, and the song twists into a kind of demented hotel lounge music.
Ellison loves absurdist song titles like “Dance of the Pseudo Nymph” and “German Haircut.” But his exacting sonic demands made finishing “Cosmogramma” a trial.
“My time working with Steve was one of the most treasured, rewarding things I’ve done,” said Kevin Moo, aka Daddy Kev, the founder of Low End Theory who mastered the “Cosmogramma” LP. “But a mastering job that normally takes a few hours wound up lasting four months. Even after we sent the masters off, I’d wake up to my phone ringing and think, ‘Please don’t let it be Steve wanting to change something.’ “
Paradoxically, as Ellison’s work grew more esoteric, his audience grew. Last month, he played a brief tour with Yorke’s new band Atoms for Peace to the biggest rooms of his career.
For an artist whose home base at Low End is a hallway-sized dance floor, it was daunting. But onstage, Ellison bobs and weaves as if in the throes of an incantory rite. He makes manipulating samples behind a laptop look like more fun than a guitar solo.
Ellison’s next step is to make his live shows match his sonic vision. He’s crafting new artwork and projections for his sets, and recruited a large band of collaborators to augment his electronics onstage.
He’s also become a bit of a night-life impresario — his label Brainfeeder hosts madcap underground electronica parties across L.A. His list of collaborators on “Cosmogramma,” including bass wizard Thundercat and saxophonist (and relative) Ravi Coltrane, suggests his very private musical world is opening up.
But Ellison never looked happier than at his night-closing Coachella set last month. Alone before a jubilant (and, yes, probably stoned) tent of thousands, he brought forth a hail of broken beats and blissed-out synthesizers. All the while, he grinned. He’d finally found his space.
“It’s just a sea of faces, smiling faces,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “You just look out and see girls losing it and you feel like you could just play air horn all night and they’d still love you.”