“After a nightmare, I have a moment where I’m like, ‘Oh my God, ok. Wow.’ My imagination is pretty lit.”
In 2017 the musician Flying Lotus directed and cowrote his first feature film, Kuso. Until then, Lotus had built a decade-long career as a producer, beat-maker, culler of spicy jazz samples, record-label owner and occasional rapper – a man of refined musical taste; but his work as a director (done under his given forename, ‘Steve’) is a gleeful binge of tastelessness. Kuso is an unabashedly schlocky horror-comedy in four vignettes: a man fornicates with a sentient neck wound, phalluses endure torture, an anus feeds on faeces. But what I found most surprising about the film is its stark contrast to Lotus’s music, which always has a sprinkling of wonk but is usually polished clean of jarring irregularities. Few artists play across such a radical aesthetic range.
Lotus has always had an interest in the visual: he went to film school and he often projects psychedelic videos at shows to deepen the unstable dream of his music. In 2014 he commissioned a horrific anime short for his album You’re Dead, a buzzing tapestry of explosive saxophone, relentless, chugging drum and sundry cameos, including one for Snoop Dogg.
As with film, Lotus’s musical work is often a collaborative affair. In 2021 he won a Grammy for producing Thundercat – one of his closest friends and most consistent collaborators – and has worked with David Lynch, Kendrick Lamar, Radiohead, Herbie Hancock and Erykah Badu, a group of names that, taken together, seem to suggest his sound at the centre. In the last few years, FlyLo has scored three anime series, most recently Yasuke (2021), a historically based Samurai epic he produced from the ground up. On a few occasions he’s said that, in today’s music industry, soundtrack work may be his best path forward as an artist.
I spoke with Lotus over a video call, in which he did not elect to turn on his video. It began uncertainly, as if he were feeling me out, but by the end of the conversation, we found a nice shared pulse.
In the Sleepy Space
Ross Simonini You seem like a bit of an autodidact. What are you learning about these days?
Flying Lotus I’m always studying music and composition theory and trying to understand why I like certain things musically. I watch YouTube all the time. That’s kinda my thing. I don’t watch as much streaming stuff on HBO. I’ll watch the occasional show or whatever, but like I watch YouTube all day. That’s always on, some tutorial on something, or some music documentary. You have people opening up synthesisers and drum machines and stuff. I’m learning a lot about synthesisers. And I got this really nice vintage synthesiser coming that I need to learn how to tune, because it’s so rare and old that I don’t want to have to take it to a shop to get work done to it. I’m going to have to learn how to do it myself, which I’m really excited about.
RS That seems like the next level of making music, when you start rewiring the boards and electronics to change the instruments themselves.
FL To be honest, I hate having to open up my stuff to tweak it. But like I said, in this case, it’s such a rare machine. I want to know how to keep these things alive for the next, whatever, 20, 30 years I’m going to have it.
RS Do you read much? I saw you asking for graphic novel recommendations on Twitter.
FL I do spend a little time with it. I haven’t as much, just because I’ve been really busy, but I’ve been listening to audiobooks. That helps me to go to sleep. I’ve been trying to find a good one. I mean, just to get into the last stuff I was listening to, it was like some old Chuck Palahniuk books that I used to like from forever ago. When I first read it, I was like, man, this shit is ridiculous!
RS I’ve heard about people passing out at his readings, from the visceral horrific quality of it.
FL Yeah, I think he was really inspirational for a lot of writers, post-Fight Club, in that way. But now I want to get into some nonfiction stuff.
RS Less exciting for nighttime.
FL I just have trouble sleeping in general. So I’ve been trying to figure out anything I can do to kind of just stay in the sleepy space. I wake up at like five in the morning for no reason.
RS You have trouble going to sleep or you have trouble staying asleep, like secondary insomnia?
FL After a few hours, my brain is like, ‘Oh, I can get back to it. Now I can get to work.’ It’s like I always feel like I got a deadline or something that keeps my mind busy.
RS Palahniuk is an artist of disgust. You have a little of that going on in your films. Do you generally like a little disgust in art?
FL Well, I love Ren & Stimpy. That is some of my favourite stuff. And I love horror and all that, but I mostly love the absurdity of it. You know, whenever I think of gross things and scary stuff, it’s never really in a malicious way. It’s always kind of like silly and cartoony. I just feel reality is pretty crazy and dark and fucked up, so I can’t deny a good fart joke.
RS I remember Ren & Stimpy’s soundtrack was pretty important to me, that kind of beat jazz sound.
FL That was a huge part of it. The music was so cool. It put me on to Raymond Scott and all that shit.
RS All of this disgust we’re talking about, it’s really about the body, right?
FL Yeah. Body horror.
RS Would you say you’re a person who is particularly aware of their body?
FL I’m definitely aware of my body. I try to be healthy and stretch. So I’m aware of my body in that sense. But I also just feel like I have a knack for knowing what makes people go, ‘ew’ about the body [laughs]. I always make the gross joke.
RS And were you always like that?
FL Always. I found all this footage recently of me as a little kid and it’s always just me making stupid faces. Every picture. And you know, my music gets kind of serious, but there’s always that silly thing in there somewhere.
RS I think Garbage Pail Kids were seminal in my education of the gross.
FL That was great. Maybe they had something to do with it, because I remember enjoying that stuff too – having the cards and seeing the movie. Plus, you know what? My mom was pretty dark. I think she was like the catalyst, you know, she was always like making like super loud, inappropriate farts and laughing about it. And going up to random strangers to be like, ‘Hey, do I have a booger in my nose?’ Like just freaking people out. She was a really crass woman. I love that about her. I think I got a lot of that from her, now I think about it. That’s a rare thing.
RS A good crass woman is a rare thing.
FL Yeah. She was. She had to be my mom and my dad. So I think that just kind of just changed her. She just gave no fucks.
RS When you say she was dark, what does that mean to you?
FL Well, the last movie I watched with my mom before she died was Irreversible.
FL And when I think back on it, yeah, that was a weird last minute. We couldn’t watch no family films. It was she and I watching Irreversible. That’s what I remember! But she put me on to a lot of movies back in the day. You know, she was the one who brought over The Lawnmower Man. She was like, you gotta see this shit! And I was like, what? She was like, you are going to love this! And The Lawnmower Man was crazy! And she put me up on like Army of Darkness and Evil Dead. I think I saw Army of Darkness way too young and I didn’t know anyone else who had seen it, really. She was a really special lady. She even put me on Nightmare on Elm Street when I was way too young.
RS When you say too young, did it bother you?
FL Being perfectly honest, I still have a Freddy Krueger nightmare here and there. I just got a replica Freddy glove, um, as a gift, actually, and I do remember being a little traumatised when I was younger. But I have this love for it now, in a way, that’s so different. I appreciate the artistry of how these things are made with the puppets and the animatronics and the special effects. I also have an appreciation for what that can do to a kid’s imagination in a good and crazy way. I think kids should have boogeymen, you know, that aren’t real, they should have that kind of stuff. A book of spooky stories. I miss that.
RS I mean, every culture has got some kind of boogeyman.
FL The boogeyman stories are cool. They’re like the true cop stories that we don’t want to lay on the kids too early, you know?
RS Right, we’re teaching them the hard parts of life through the back door. It’s also the growing pains of the imagination too, right? Like, kids have these nightmares and overactive dark imaginations that are just necessary as a way of developing. For people who are artists, probably even more so, right?
FL After a nightmare, I have a moment where I’m like, ‘Oh my God, ok. Wow.’ My imagination is pretty lit. You know, it was like, I dreamt that up! Look at the story structure of this narrative that just happened, you know? So I’m like analysing that and I’m, like, yeah, man, you’re not bad at this. This is like some film-quality nightmare happening. You know, admire that shit.
RS It’s fuel.
FL I think the fuel is good and it’s going to happen no matter what – I’m going to have nightmares – but it’s what you do with it…
RS Do you ever pull directly from nightmares in your work?
FL Absolutely. I’m a fan of using voice memos and I have a bajillion voice memos that I probably need to organise and turn into things. But yeah, I have plenty of dreams recorded and lots of ideas for movies. I’ll just be somewhere and be like, movie idea about blah, blah, blah, and then forget about it. I’m sure everybody does that though.
RS Do you have plans for doing more features?
FL I’m actually in the running for a movie right now. I was going to do a movie with Paramount, like a couple of years ago, and I had to walk away from that. I’m actually really glad that I did. I hope to do so soon, but you know, making a film is so crazy, so difficult. So much time. Whatever film I do next is going to be something that I really love because there’s been a lot of projects that have been thrown at me that I’ve just kind of not been interested in. They’re not bad projects, but I’m not like, ‘Oh my God’. I have to love the story, you know?
RS A film seems like it can drop you down the stress wormhole if it’s not the right project.
FL And it’s two years of your life!
RS You’ve said that film school kind of ruined your mind. Music school did the same for me. How’d you fix that?
FL I spent enough time outside of it. I think I honestly had to just abandon film and the idea of doing film for so long, because film school made me second-guess myself all the time. It made me kind of say like, ‘Oh well, there’s no point in doing this because it doesn’t have all these proper things that a film needs to have’. You know? Like, this is a bad idea. I think it just added unnecessary voices to an otherwise super-innocent brain. I felt like I had way more ideas flowing all the time and I’m sure they weren’t always great, but I became inhibited once I went to film school, I think, and I just didn’t trust my instincts as much.
RS I felt there should be a warning about art schools. It seems like you’re back on it though, making notes all the time. That’s where you want to be.
FL And I think the reality with films is that you really just have to have experience being on set. I think that’s really the only film school you need: in the field. Obviously going to school you can meet people and build connections there, which is a great thing to do, so I don’t want to knock it completely, but I think the best filmmakers were already good on day one. You already knew who was dope on day one and the same people were dope when it ended. It’s just, do you have ideas or not? You’re like built for it or you’re not. And it’s easy to see.
RS I saw that you were doing the NFT thing recently. As someone who has a label, have you had any thoughts on new models for releasing music outside of streaming?
FL That environment we’ve been kind of living in the past ten, 15 years with streaming and stuff – I don’t think that’s been the most inspiring platform or environment to be creating in. I don’t sit around and be like, ‘Ooh, I can’t wait to just drop this thing for Spotify’. Like that shit sucks. You know? So just having any other possibilities is great to me. I’m so tired of getting bullied by Spotify. And now they’re kind of like doing shit, back-end deals with labels, for promo and stuff. And that shit is trash. It’s like now no one will have a chance and no one’s gonna make any money. So yeah, I’m down with NFTs a hundred percent. You know, just like trying to think of new ways to get ideas and music and art across. I think that’s amazing.
RS You recently played a 4/20 festival online, during COVID-19. What’s your relationship to weed these days?
FL I’m at that point where I don’t have a relationship with it because it’s just like part of what I do. Like some breaths are just exhales of weed smoke. I don’t even think about it anymore. Sativa… indica… it’s all the same to me! Or, well, that’s not true. Some sativa will get me to clean the house. But I have friends who are like, ‘Oh man, whenever I smoke it, I get all paranoid and all that stuff ’. Man, I smoked through that phase, like 20 years ago [laughs]. At this point, shit has been forever. So my relationship is: weed, it’s here to stay.
RS Would you say it functions as a spiritual thing or a medicinal thing or –
FL I think weed is just like something to do to cope with reality. A coping medicine. Yeah. I think that’s fair. Reality medicine.
RS Creative medicine?
FL If it is, I don’t know it. I smoke so much that I feel like I’m always stoned. It’s not like I smoke before I’m going to do something. It’s more like, when am I not stoned? People just have always seen me stoned and they don’t know what I’m like when I’m sober.
RS You’ve merged with weed.
FL Yeah, I mean, me and Snoop Dogg can smoke weed together now, probably. I’m at that point. We did once before and he got me really, really baked and I was surprised. I was like, man, Snoop does have the rapper weed that is a legend. I need some of that.
Ross Simonini is a writer, artist, musician and dialogist. He is the host of ArtReview’s podcast Subject, Object, Verb. Listen to him discussing ‘Yasuke’ with Flying Lotus, and the art of writing soundtracks.