In October 2008, while Steven Ellison's mother lay dying in a hospital bed, he was at her side recording her.
The L.A.-based musician, who records abstract electronic music as Flying Lotus, brought in a mobile recording rig and gathered audio samples: the hypnotic wheeze of a respirator, the ambient pings of vital-sign monitors.
In the stillness and sadness of his mother's last days, he found comfort in the rhythms of the machines.
“I know it was a weird thing to do,” Ellison said. “I'm not the type to go out recording things like that. But I didn't want to forget that space.”
For Ellison, music exists in those kinds of transcendent spaces. The 26-year-old wants his jazz-infused and beat-centric electronic compositions to evoke daydreams, hazy memories, drug trips and even the dim hours between life and death.
It's a difficult, immersive style in the spirit of his great-aunt, jazz composer Alice Coltrane. But it's also made him a superstar in the thriving Los Angeles electronic music underground, particularly at the Low End Theory club series in Lincoln Heights. With his new album, “Cosmogramma,” which came out Tuesday, Ellison may well become famous outside of that scene as well.
Erykah Badu and Radiohead's Thom Yorke sing on the album. Lotus' earlier remix of Kanye West's “Love Lockdown” turned mainstream hip-hop ears, and a generation of twentysomethings know his music for Cartoon Network's gonzo “Adult Swim” series.
“Hendrix obliterated the boundaries with guitars as Lotus does with electronic machines,” said Mary Anne Hobbs, the influential BBC Radio 1 DJ. “His live performance is totally incendiary, melting devastating primal sound and visual art into a hyper-sensory experience.”
Ellison is a prodigious marijuana smoker — on opening his door to a reporter, he mock-grumbled, “It smells like weed in here.” A steep stairway to his basement studio — piled with synthesizers, vinyl albums and Ellison's artwork — is treacherous enough while sober.
Many artists explore space travel and altered states. And like them, Lotus balances that sensibility with a maniacal devotion to his craft. “Cosmogramma” might be the most difficult work to come out of Los Angeles this year. Given the mind-bending new releases from rising Low End peers Shlohmo, Ras G and the Glitch Mob, that's a real feat.
“My time working with Steve was one of the most treasured, rewarding things I've done,” said Kevin Moo, a.k.a. Daddy Kev, the founder of Low End Theory who mastered the “Cosmogramma” LP. “But a mastering job that normally takes a few hours wound up lasting four months.”
Paradoxically, as Ellison's work grew more esoteric, his audience grew. He recently toured with Yorke's new band Atoms for Peace, and last month he performed at Coachella. Alone before a jubilant tent of thousands, he brought forth a hail of broken beats and blissed-out synthesizers. “You just look out and see girls losing it,” he said in disbelief. “You feel like you could just play air horn all night and they'd still love you.”