"All the albums I make start off one way and then blossom into something totally different," says electronic trailblazer Flying Lotus, about his forthcoming fifth LP, You're Dead! This one, it turns out, was initially a jazz record, but two years later, the final product contains everything from prog time signatures to hip-hop verses, all unified as a 38-minute journey into and about the concept of death. "In the end, I thought to myself, 'I want to make an album that only I can make,'" he says, going on to discuss working with Herbie Hancock and Kendrick Lamar, the problem with "Starbucks jazz shit" and his unusual approach to recording live musicians.
A year or so ago you had said that you were working on a jazz album? Is that how this started?
That's exactly it, man. I've been working on this for about two years, pretty much since I finished the last one. The original idea was that it was going to be purely traditional instruments and more like from a hard bop kind of standpoint. I wanted to do these crazy hard bop breaks – like, 30 minutes of very short jazz breaks. That was the original idea of it: just to make the fastest, hardest, most intense jazz record.
Where did that idea come from?
It came from my frustration with a lot of the jazz stuff that's been happening in the last 20-odd years. I was just kind of frustrated with where shit was going: All this Starbucks jazz shit is just annoying to me. Me and Thundercat always sit around listening to these crazy jazz fusion albums, just bugging out like, "Man, why isn't there anything that's out like this right now?"
Why did the record end up changing?
There was just so much more to say musically. I thought, "What if we did everything we possibly could? What if I try to go as deep into this shit as I possibly could, with the resources that I have, the musicians around me? How far could I go?" You know, as my own personal exercise. More than anything, I just thought to myself, "I'd rather put something out that's completely unique than try to do something that's been done before."
When in the process of the making of this album did you develop the "You're Dead!" part?
This was the first time I ever really went in and made a record with ideas beforehand. The "You're Dead!" thing was kind of a joke at first, but I wanted it to be the thread of where everything was coming from. I wanted to write from that place, I wanted to write music from that world first, instead of it being, regular Flying Lotus. I wanted to say, "OK, you're dead. Now what?" [laughs] Or songs about death – Thundercat and myself just started writing a bunch of stuff that started fitting into that world. And not all of it sounded like hard bop after a while.
How much should a listener consider the concept when they play the record?
Completely. Every decision that I made was because of the concept. There's no loose ends in this record. There's no like, "Oh, I'm just gonna put this on the album because it sounds dope." There were a lot of tracks I could have put on there – like club tracks, bangers, whatever – but they didn't fit conceptually so there was no point. I'm not gonna call the album You're Dead! and be like pop singles and shit, wobble bass and whatever.
Was Herbie Hancock from the album's early stages?
Yeah, when I started playing him the record, I was wondering if he would understand where we were really trying to go. Did he see some sort of thread that he was connected to, like with carrying on with a conversation? And he was super enthusiastic and excited to do it, so it sort of gave me the confidence to push the concept musically, at least.
It was really cool for him to be in the same space as me and see my ideas come to life. Because I'm not a classically trained dude, I feel a little intimidated, naturally, when I can't tell a guy what key something's in or whatever. But it's like, "I can hum it to you, and you can understand what I'm trying to say," and I'm hearing it happen, it feels really good.
As someone who's not classically trained, how challenging is it to work in different time signatures and keys, things like that?
That challenge presented itself when I wanted to make this record, but I figured the best way to do it was to just try and do it like how I'd make beats, almost: work with each individual, instrument by instrument, like I would be making a track in Ableton or whatever. You lay down your drums, the you lay down your keys, then your bass. Well, that's what you do when you're working with musicians. So on different days, I'd just be recording drums. Then, OK, this fits, so I'll figure this out with another person and we'll work in the same room to get this take right. Then eventually, there's a song. Now I know where this is going, so I'll break it in half.
Was there ever a point in the sessions when there was a full band?
No. Never. Every time, it was usually just me and one other person. Which was fun – it was really fun to build this world where there were different drummers, but it all kind of sounded like it was the same drumming. And we used the same drum kit and same mics and everything, and then I tried to mix things to make it all sound like it was a band.
It was great to hear Snoop Dogg on there. How did that one come about?
I had been asked to do this interview with Snoop Dogg for his GGN Network, for YouTube. It hasn't been released, but I talked to him a bit about the album concept and told him what it meant it meant to me, and he was like, "Whaaat?" I was almost done with the record at this point, but I was missing something. And that track was not done yet and I needed something to tie it together better.
He seemed really down with the concept when I was talking to him about it. I was like, "I'd love to play it for you." And he was like, "Yo man, we should do something." I was like, "Shit." There it is. It was really cool; it happened all organically. For me, it was like one of those full circle moments. A dream come true.
What about Kendrick Lamar?
Kendrick and me, man, we had a special vibe between our chemistry. We've been trying to link up for years – I really felt shitty when I wasn't on Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, to be honest. I really wanted to be on that album. But we really only got to know each other after it. He talked about me contributing to his new album, and I was down with that. I sent him a bunch of stuff and then I asked if he'd do something for my album, and he was super into the concept of my record and really wanted to be part of it. I was just flattered.
So yeah, it just came about sort of naturally: He came through the crib and recorded it and it was great. The funny part is, though, that he wanted to keep that shit for his album. When I first sent him the track, he was trying to convince me to give it to him. Like, "Nah, man, I need that!"
At one point you talked about this album having some prog influences, and the finished product definitely shows you weren't kidding. Why go in that direction?
That music is some of the most interesting and challenging stuff to me, so I wanted to explore it because I have the means to with such amazing musicians at my disposal. You know, why not? Why not try and do something that's a little challenging? It's definitely more fun.
And I felt like there was a void: There's definitely nothing like it out there right now. All the jazz stuff right now is kind of stale and tame-y. I wanted to do something that would kind of add to the conversation and mess up the game a little bit. Plus, the last Flying Lotus record that I did was a lot more mellow. It was a quieter album, so, naturally, I wanted to do something next that was a little more intense, a little louder. This time around, at least.