Jeff Weiss speaks to some of the key creative forces behind Flamagra and Flamagra Instrumentals, including Flying Lotus himself, Thundercat, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Brandon Coleman about the inspirations and processes that shaped the albums.
Flying Lotus ˇ
‘Debbie is Depressed (Instrumental)’
In the final days of the spring of 2019, Flying Lotus released Flamagra, a 31st Century astral symphony. A loosely conceptual journey into the collective unconscious, the Los Angeles producer synthesized grief into blinding light. The soundscapes pulse like ultra-violet labyrinths of sound and color, embodying a spirit of heroic resurrection and the unremitting hope. A symbolic conceit of an inextinguishable flame looms above all, alighted high on a hill -- threatening to swallow the city, but somehow always staying contained. And in this world, David Lynch plays Prometheus.
For the last dozen years, Flying Lotus has conjured his own cinematic universe. A generation has come of age expecting the multi-disciplinary artist to tell them what the future sounds like in real time. For Flamagra, his fifth full-length on Warp, he assembled his own ensemble of the avant-garde, featuring vocalists Solange, George Clinton, Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces, Anderson .Paak, Denzel Curry, Little Dragon, Tierra Whack, Toro y Moi, and Lynch. As always, his spiritual kinfolk, Thundercat, appears on nearly every song -- via bass, vocals, or both.
“When I first began working on the album, I really wanted to approach it with vocals in mind and consider what that would be like if I did something a bit more accessible,” Flying Lotus explains the genesis. “I’m always making beats and trying to find the balance: is this an instrumental or for a vocal? It’s part of the process of creation. People either latch onto a vocal or they don’t, but for me, I just can’t get into a vocal if the beat isn’t good in the first place.”
After all, as DJ Quik -- a fellow West Coast production legend -- so aptly stated: what good are the lyrics if the beat ain’t cracking? In the case of Flamagra, the lyrics, vocals, harmonies, melodies, and beats merge into a new element approximating fire itself: constantly shifting, unpredictable, and eternal. The songs are portals to make time move slowly, to turn bleary realities into crystalline epiphanies. It’s almost easy to overlook the musical foundation supporting these acts of levitation. Hence, the Flamagra Instrumentals, which allow for the supernal essence to shine, illustrating the continued evolution and floor-splitting funk of a generationally gifted producer.
Flamagra inherits and expands the same tradition forged by Miles and Coltrane, Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock, George Clinton and Dr. Dre. Whether the genre is labeled jazz or funk, soul or hip-hop, these are foundational artists and creative titans who directed a preternaturally talented cast of players. Flamagra finds Lotus as a next-generation bandleader, beholden to no one genre, but only the need to continually push sound forward. The spirit of Mac Miller hovers throughout as a patron saint, a reminder to play with both joy, pain, and authenticity. These are a series of transportive spells where the destinations are always different and the patterns never repeat, but the distance traveled always reflects an immeasurable calculus.
In the same way that the aforementioned greats handpicked some of the finest musicians alive to help improvise and nurture their experimentation, the cast of instrumentalists on Flamagra ranks with any celebrated modal quintet. Thundercat weaponizes his bass into intergalactic machine-gun funk; Brandon Coleman contributes Headhunters-level synthesizer glissandos and riffs. While Miguel Atwood-Ferguson remains an instinctive and virtuosic multi-instrumentalist and string arranger. But it goes beyond mere technical facility; these aren’t just session players, they’re telepathically aligned collaborators, labelmates, and friends.
“We’re always very much in each other’s mind; we just automatically know certain things about each other. But what makes it magical is that never take it for granted,” Thundercat says. “With Flamagra, it felt like all the gears were firing at once; we were on a higher plane, in terms of expressing things on the emotional spectrum. There was a sense of openness and the way we were processing it. Just a deeper level of musicianship and ton of energy and excitement behind those sessions.”
The rest of the cast is equally first-rate. One of the greatest of all-time, Herbie Hancock plays keys on the bug-eyed alien odyssey that is “Pilgrim Side Eye,” and offers a tangible link to the ancestral deities. The unfailingly inventive, Robert Glasper, casts a wide-frame piano melancholy over “Land of Honey.” Live drums are handled by the propulsive genius of Ronald Bruner (Thundercat’s older brother) and the mechanistic grace of Deantoni Parks. And then there’s Lotus himself, who picked up the piano and the clavinet around the same time that sessions began, and impresses throughout.
“I’d fiddled with the keyboards before, but had grown tired of not being able to keep up and felt like I was missing out on these beautiful moments with my friends,” Lotus says. “Once I started seeing all these new possibilities in the instrument, I felt like I was tripping on music. Things that I already loved suddenly had a whole new meaning.”
The sessions were recorded at Lotus’ home studio in the foothills of the San Fernando Valley. As a result, nothing feels rushed or hurried. Flashes of inspiration are captured as they unfolded. Even a game of Dragon Ball Z would suddenly trigger a burst of musical creativity.
“He was kicking my ass at Dragon Ball, but then something happened. We heard a little noise and [Lotus] was like, ‘did you hear that?’ says Coleman. The next thing you know, I’m over here in synth land figuring out how to replicate and expand on that sound. While he’s programming drum beats, bringing in all these loops.”
It was crucial to bring this organic sensibility to the music. Thundercat, Coleman, Lotus, and whoever else was in the house would play for hours each day. Afterwards, Lotus would sift through it, enhance it, sample it, and flip it into gleaming new shapes. The two-stepping Alpha Centauri stomp of “Burning Down the House” was later funkdafied by a George Clinton vocal, but it began with Coleman telling Lotus the story of how he actually nearly burned down the house when he was a child.
“There was so much joy when we wrote that song, even though it came out of a near-tragedy,” Coleman says. “My brother had fallen asleep in front of the TV and the heater was on, and I woke up first and saw a piece paper turning red. As a joke, I was like ‘I’m going to try to stick this in there and it instantly caught fire. Then the blanket caught fire. The Power Rangers were on TV and finally brother woke up and put the fire out really quick. And when I told Lotus that story, the song is what happened next. He turned around in his seat, and the rest is history.”
Genius is process-oriented. The innovators of the present apply the wisdom of the past without replicating the sounds. There’s nothing new around the sun, but every original has their own story to tell, their own emotional moods to express, and the alembic possibility of discovering their own tone. Flying Lotus no longer needs to fit into genre constraints, he built his own, one that has inspired nearly every left-of-center producer since he first dropped Los Angeles in 2008.
“He facilitates the right space emotionally and physically for the artists around him to do their best work,” says Atwood-Ferguson. “He’s incredibly smart too. He doesn’t just know himself really well, but he’s already a great student of other artist’s characters -- not to control them but to really celebrate who they are in the music.”
This is part of the reason why Lotus was able to recruit such a diverse repertory to help him create Flamagra. It’s why he’s collaborated with Thom Yorke and Kendrick Lamar (and awarded two Grammy nominations for his work on To Pimp A Butterfly). He’s composed film scores and curated video game soundtracks. But listening to the instrumentals of Flamagra is a sharply different experience.
“His mind works so fast. He’ll shape and mold what I’m doing as we’re creating,” adds Thundercat. “Despite all of comfort zones, they’ll still get challenged.”
It almost feels like an unofficial sequel to Cosmogramma, the next galaxy down the line, a combination of hover-converted hip-hop, sweatbox sequin funk, celestial soul, bruised gospel, club music, and jazz. Take “Heroes in a Half Shell,” where it starts out with drums that mimic a fluttering heartbeat, angelic vocals, and mythic clavinet riff that sounds Herbie Hancock scoring the best anime saga never to be released. Time signatures shift, tension builds and releases, before stopping on a dime for a gorgeous string coda.
These are songs created in moments of spontaneous inspiration, but refined and perfected. But it’s also rooted in something John Coltrane once said: you can play a shoestring if you’re sincere. This is deeply sincere music, instilled with purpose.
“Dealing with the loss of Mac and all the stuff going on at the time really inspired me and made me feel like everything was on fire,” Lotus adds. “I’m glad the instrumentals are getting a life now. There’s a part of me that’s really excited about what kids will come up with -- the young rappers, the producers looking to remix things. It really gives the album a second life.”
Flying Lotus original photo by Renata Raksha
Thundercat original photo by Parker Day
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson original photo by Violetta Markelou
'Flamagra Instrumentals' is out now on Warp Records.
Buy or stream here.