Flying Lotus: A Three-Dimensional Artist’s Next Phase

Flying Lotus
Dustin Downing on behalf of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
– Cover of Pollstar’s July 29, 2019, issue.
Flying Lotus performs at the Hollywood Bowl.

You’d never know it judging by Steven Ellison’s chill demeanor, quick sense of humor and even cooler music, but the influential Southern California electronic musician/producer/filmmaker known as Flying Lotus is a little nervous about his new tour, a coast-to-coast run with full 3D visuals that kicks off in August. 

“I’m nervous going into anything outside,” Ellison, 35, says with a hearty laugh from his home base in Los Angeles. “Honestly, I’m not usually super excited about being on tour because I’m a studio rat, I live here and fester in here, but I’m looking forward to this so much because by doing this tour I’ll have to evolve to my next phase, playing the keys live in front of people, which is a difficult thing considering I’ve been playing for just myself all this time.”

Those are humble words considering they come from one of the most influential musicians of the last decade-plus, as the DJ/producer founded the Brainfeeder label in 2008, now home to cutting-edge artists like Kamasi Washington and Thundercat, as well as tour openers Salami Rose Joe Louis, Brandon Coleman and Pbdy. He was also a regular at L.A.’s influential Low End Theory night (2006- 2018) that featured many influential artists.

With musical roots as the grand-nephew of jazz pianist Alice Coltrane (also wife of the late John Coltrane), he’s become known as a tastemaker with high-profile collaborations with everyone from hip-hop king Kendrick Lamar to jazz great Herbie Hancock (“my other grandpa”) who both contributed to his 2014 album You’re Dead! His latest LP, the ambitious, funk-heavy 27-track Flamagra released in May, includes funk legend George Clinton (“my other grandpa,” he says with a laugh) to rising rapper Tierra Whack, Billie Eilish tour opener Denzel Curry, Solange, recent Pollstar cover artist  Anderson .Paak and still others, such as famed director David Lynch, who recites eerie spoken word on the horror-absurd track “Fire Is Coming.” 

Reaching the astral plane:
Photo by Dustin Downing / Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.
– Reaching the astral plane:
Hollywood Bowl during KCRW’s World Festival June 17, 2018.

Ellison’s words are also humble ones from someone whose last tour stood out as one of the most creatively innovative, as he took a full 3D production on the road at the end of 2017, adding striking visuals to go along with his music, which touches on every genre from jazz to hip-hop to funk to even videogames ( “Dragon Ball FighterZ” is a new personal fave, he says). Pollstar Boxoffice reports from that tour include more than 2,000 tickets sold and $65,000 grossed at both Seattle’s Paramount Theatre and Chicago’s Riviera Theatre, and he’s remained busy in 2018, playing with Radiohead in South America, at Japan’s Summer Sonic and a show with Little Dragon at The Greek Theatre at UC Berkeley, with 5,369 tickets sold and $266,079 grossed.

The 3D element is not a gimmick or small part of the show, with Ellison’s full creative involvement and focus (“absolutely I’ll be working on it to the very last minute,” he says), and the latest tech from Los Angeles-based company 3D Live.

“It’s a whole new visual show and it’s looking really amazing,” says 3D Live co-founder and COO Ryan Pardeiro, adding that there was a small preview at a recent album release party. While no one wants to give away any details ahead of the tour kickoff, “It’s got a really unique look that matches with the Flying Lotus aesthetic on the new album, and there are some new elements and set pieces on the stage that will be very eye catching.” The company’s “Holographic 3D” effects produce brilliant visuals, allowing background effects as well as the illusion of full immersion with the performer on stage.

Although there’s the 3D Live production and a DJ performing the whole set by himself, that doesn’t mean the show – musically or visually – is turnkey or the same every night. 

“A lot of people think the show is on some kind of sync thing, just press play and all the visuals happen, but people don’t realize they’re improvising just like I am,” Elllison says of the front-of-house crew, which includes a 3D Live tech each night. “They don’t know where I’m about to go. And sometimes I like to throw them off, just to mess with them. … They’ve all been great visual artists on their own.”

While the creative package will surely be more intricate and impressive this time, so will the tech, as Pardeiro explains. 

“We have come up with a new method for scaling the 3D for these shows, which was something we didn’t have on the last tour,” he says. “We were sort of stuck with two different sizes of screen and the content was locked for those specific resolutions, but we have developed a method for scaling everything so we can do any custom resolution without having to re-render the 3D content.” 

Flying Lotus’ agent, Paradigm’s Sam Hunt, says the artist’s varied styles and fanbase that spans multiple demographics necessitate a varied tour routing as well.
“The idea is not to alienate fans with the environment but not make it a straight-up club tour either,” Hunt says of the upcoming tour, which includes everything from the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams, Mass., and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. to Outside Lands in San Francisco to Emo’s Austin. “It’s not something that intuitively works in performing arts centers or stuffier environments, but a lot of people who program those places are fans of his, because he’s so creatively diverse in his influences and output. So it’s sort of a way, by working with Mass MoCA and the Kennedy Center, to dip our toes in without going full PAC.”

Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images
– Brainfeeding:
Flying Lotus at 2018 FORM Arcosanti May 11, 2018, in Arcosanti, Ariz.

One of those not straight-up clubs is The Wilma theatre in Missoula, Mont., where Logjam Presents’ owner Nick Checota is a fan.

“Flying Lotus is one of the most forward-thinking producers in the game,” Checota tells Pollstar. “His intricate musical styles coupled with the power of the latest and greatest 3D and hologram technologies provide an unparalleled experience to fans and concertgoers.” 

As for ticket sales, Hunt, who also represents Diplo and Run The Jewels among others, says, “It’s well beyond the pace of being his best-selling tour to date” adding that the show at Brooklyn Mirage in New York while still on sale is already his biggest show yet in the city. 

Ellison, who admits he isn’t very involved with plotting his tours, joking, “They just tell me, ‘Get on this bus, fool!’” is adaptable as well.

“They don’t know it, but the audience is making the whole show,” Ellison says. “I’m very sensitive and feed off their energy. Oh, you guys are reacting to these things? Let me take you here for a little while. Uh oh, now it’s getting really quiet. Let me try some other stuff (laughs). I try to be sensitive to the moment as much as possible.”
With so much talk about the 3D aspect and Ellison’s visual work including as a filmmaker, the artist says the music is still the key.  

“As long as I can win them over with the music, that’s the job, that’s the real show. The visuals, that’s the icing, or supposed to be at least. I want this to be brand new-new, not any rehashing of anything before. 

“I want to use these moments as a chance to remix my album, really, and try things I didn’t get to do on the recording, as well as a lot of new material I’ve made since the album.”