Recess | Local Arts

Moogfest 2017: Hannibal Buress and Flying Lotus talk music, creative process

On Moogfest’s third day in Durham, Flying Lotus joined comedian Hannibal Buress and DJ Tony Trimm for a conversation about the producer’s creative process and multi-faceted career. Just two nights prior, Buress had surprised fans with an appearance before Talib Kweli’s headlining set Thursday. His unexpected stint in Durham capped off the festival Sunday with a stand-up set at Motorco Music Hall, and he provided Saturday’s conversation a jolt of levity and comic relief. Joined by Trimm, who also co-hosts Buress’s podcast “The Handsome Rambler,” Buress’s quick wit drove a brief yet entertaining talk that felt more like a conversation between three friends than a formal discussion.

Although his riffs on Google Drive, the laxative power of coffee and the prospect of an Animal Collective-Migos collaboration sometimes threatened to steal the thunder from his guest producer, the conversation focused on the sprawling career of multi-hyphenate Flying Lotus, who has added running a record label and a film company to a growing list of extra-musical endeavors. Born Steven Ellison, Flying Lotus filled one of the top slots in Moogfest’s lineup as the Saturday headliner. As a producer whose experimental works straddle the boundaries between hip-hop, space-age jazz and frenetic electronic music, Ellison has risen to prominence on the heels of critically acclaimed albums like 2010’s “Cosmogramma” and 2014’s “You’re Dead!” Most recently, he was intimately involved with the production of bassist Thundercat’s breakthrough album “Drunk.”

Seen on stage, Ellison comes across as the consummate tinkerer. To hear him tell it, he arrived at the Carolina Theatre just thirty minutes after landing at RDU, and he wasted no words upon taking the stage, immediately noodling with the toy chest of Moog synthesizers that festival organizers had placed in front of the three speakers. Hair askew—apparently the result of the months spent working obsessively on his first feature film “Kuso”—Ellison was already more virtuosic with these synths in a few seconds than many hope to be in a lifetime.

The following conversation was equal parts an exploration of Flying Lotus’s career and a goof-off session, punctuated by outbursts from the theremin (Buress’s instrument of choice). Fresh off the premiere of “Kuso,” a film so disturbing that it allegedly prompted dozens of viewers to walk out during its screening at Sundance in January, Ellison explained his creative process and gave hints (but not too many) at his next album as Flying Lotus.

“I’ll just say I’ve been doing a bunch of Vangelis-inspired stuff,” he said, referencing the progressive “Chariots of Fire” composer. “I have these things in mind for the new [album], so we’ll see what happens.”

He also touched on his propensity for “interlude-y” tracks that rarely exceed two minutes, a feature that is prominent on Thundercat’s album as well as Flying Lotus’s studio works, and the issue of forming an album as a unified work in an age of widespread streaming and shuffling.

“I really try not to get into that,” Ellison said after Buress asked about his streaming numbers. “I don’t want to know that ‘Never Catch Me’”—the 2014 Kendrick Lamar collaboration from that has eclipsed 12 million plays on Spotify—“is my most popular song. I don’t want to be influenced by that. There’s enough stuff going on in my head that I don’t want to think about that kind of [stuff], I just want to create and do my thing.”

Last week’s performance at Moogfest marked Flying Lotus’s third appearance at the festival after playing in 2011 and 2014 when the event was still held in Asheville, N.C. As a technically-minded electronic musician who blurs the lines of genre and medium, he seems to be a model for the festival’s vision of futurism in sound and thought. During his set Saturday night, Flying Lotus took the opportunity to praise the festival, shouting out the “synth nerds” in the crowd—a label he would undoubtedly claim for himself.

Back at the Carolina Theatre, though, Ellison did make a sly jab at Moogfest’s parent company, Moog Music, whose synthesizers are all monophonic, meaning they only play one note at a time.

“That’s an expensive-a** note,” Ellison joked. “I want to play a chord for two or three thousand dollars.”

Regardless of his qualms with the capabilities of a Moog Voyager (one of his personal choices for bass lines), Flying Lotus already appeared hopeful to return to the festival for a fourth time by the end of his whiplash-inducing set, which weaved remixes of David Lynch soundtracks with hardcore trap, jazz odysseys, psychedelic visuals and closed with final rendition of “Never Catch Me”—that is, “if they invite me.”


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