Three Great Things: Flying Lotus

The Grammy-winning musician turned filmmaker, who is one of the directors of the new horror film V/H/S/99, on what gives his life meaning.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the current release on Shudder of the new anthology horror movie V/H/S/99, featuring segments directed by Maggie Levin, Johannes Roberts, Flying Lotus, Tyler MacIntyre, and Vanessa and Joseph Winter, virtuoso musician turned filmmaker FlyLo shared some of things that bring joy and meaning to his life. — N.D.

A Deep Connection to Music
I love the fact that I can sit and play music and it can completely heal my entire being. I think being able to play an instrument has allowed me a different type of meditation and a different type of therapy that nothing else could. There’s just some kind of connection you have with the universe when you’re able to play an instrument. Playing music and searching within yourself and your spirit to say something – it’s beautiful. I never had the same connection with music that I do now until maybe a few years ago, when I really started to focus on the piano and try to take my ability further. When I did that, I really started to see the math and all the technical beauty of music, how all the things relate to each other and how what we think is new is actually old, and how the old things have come around in all these different ways. Even if a piece of music is experimental, it’s still something that’s been done and I can find a theory in it and still it all makes sense, somehow. I can give it a name.

Learning more and more has opened up music to me in a different way. Before, I felt like I was always tripping on acid whenever I was listening to music because I was like, “Oh man, major chord, minor chord, diminished chord …” I now have a different perspective, my ears are expanded and it’s been a beautiful journey for that. When I’m really challenging myself and putting in the time and energy is when I really feel how beautiful music is and how amazing it can be. Otherwise, I’m not really growing. And that’s OK, too! Sometimes it’s fun to just play, but when I want to grow and I’m starting to see things happen, hear things happen, and I’m finding new pathways in the music, it’s a very special feeling.

I can always go to the piano and feel a little bit better about life. Always. And it’s something I didn’t expect. But musicians have been saying this stuff forever. I’m so much more free when I’m playing my guitar or playing my horn. And it’s a real thing. I find a language beyond words; it’s a spiritual language and a connector to the human experience.

Sharing Movies with Friends
I love being able to share movies with people I love, to show somebody a cool movie that freaked me out or something that moved me. I love when a movie is so good I have to sit someone down and say, “All right, we’re watching that shit, start to finish.” That’s one of those things that is really fun. And I always love when I find something so good, I’ll say, “Get off your phone. We’ve got to go to the movies. I saw this crazy thing. You’ve got to see it, and I’m making sure you’re there with me or else …”

Recently, I’ve been telling everybody to watch the new horror movie Deadstream, which is on Shudder, the same streaming network V/H/S/99 is on. I got my girl to see it. I was just like, “That movie was so good. I loved it. And man, she ain’t gonna watch this shit if I don’t show her!” She watched it and she was glad she did. It was my third time seeing the movie and it was still just as awesome. It always feels good when people say, “Oh, yeah, I get it. I get why you showed me that. I fucking loved it.”

I used to have people over a lot for movie nights at my place before the pandemic made it too difficult. I’d show something that I had a screener for or some cool films and music videos that hadn’t come out yet by directors I know. I miss those days – it was a lot of fun. And obviously we could smoke some weed, have some drinks and eat whatever food we wanted. I’ve always been the person showing people crazy movies like Ichi the Killer and Audition, because nobody in my circle of friends was looking at stuff like that. I was the guy who’d say, “Oh, you want to see something crazy, huh?” My friends are never surprised when I show them something that’s bugged out. But they also know when I hit them up for that, “OK, this is going to be something. I don’t know if it’s going to be crazy, but it’s going to be something.”

Floating in a Swimming Pool
Being in a nice, warm swimming pool, when I can just float, almost like being nothing, can sometimes be a really good way for me to get ideas. It’s good for my brain and I definitely love that kind of experience. I think actually I heard Tarantino does a similar thing and that he gets a lot of his ideas when he’s in his pool. I am the kind of person who likes to be in the water and be submerged, and I think there’s something about that stillness and not hearing or seeing anything and that lets the ideas come in. I’ve had plenty of ideas in the pool or in the shower. Water is essential. And obviously there’s also something about the opposite, about staring into a fire.

Floating in water is also a process of letting go. In a weird way, I’m a little bit closer to accepting death when I’m almost slowly letting myself drown, when I’m down there, thinking, “How long can I hold my breath?” And I just feel how fragile your humanity is, even. That weightless feeling is really interesting to me. I don’t get musical ideas so much in the pool, it’s more visual ideas and story ideas that come to me in that way. Like when I’m thinking about things I’m afraid of.

Weed is part of the experience of floating in the pool too, but I don’t really think about that aspect of it because I smoke so much weed all day, it doesn’t really make a difference. It’s like part of breathing and stretching. It’s all the same thing. Smoking weed is my job.

Flying Lotus aka Steven Ellison is a genre-bending Grammy Award-winning producer, composer, filmmaker, rapper and founder/owner of Brainfeeder Records. He wrote, directed and scored a segment for the latest installment of the anthology franchise V/H/S/99, which is out now on Shudder. Since 2006, Ellison has released six studio albums to global critical acclaim and composed much of the bumper music heard on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. An alumnus of the Los Angeles Film School, he made his directorial debut in 2017 with Kuso, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and in 2021 he executive produced and scored the successful Netflix anime series Yasuke, directed by LeSean Thomas and starring LaKeith Stanfield. Ellison’s next project is the sci-fi horror feature Ash, which he will direct and score, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tessa Thompson. Ellison has worked with celebrated visionaries from David Lynch and Alma Har’el, to Hiro Murai, Khalil Joseph and Shinichiro Watanabe, and has been mentored by legendary filmmaker Terence Malick. (Photo by Matt Lief Anderson.)