Published May 23, 2019Years ago, before his new album Flamagra was even a flicker in the thoughts of Flying Lotus mastermind Stephen Ellison, he was being bombarded with constant scenes of inferno; the tragic Ghost Ship incident happened in 2016, and the California fires followed afterward. In the wake of the events, he began concocting an idea for a film that further fed into this imagery.
"I haven't thought about it for a while, but you just reminded me that this is where the concept originated," Ellison tells Exclaim! in an interview now. "This whole album came from a movie in my mind. In this movie, there was a fire burning on a hill across the street from a house. There's a little boy, and he's looking at the fire in the distance; you can see the reflection of the fire out the window, and he's staring at it, captivated. He says to his mother, 'I don't think they'll ever be able to put this fire out.' And I don't know why, but those words stuck with me."
In the following years, the idea receded to the far corners of Ellison's consciousness, when a chance encounter with David Lynch brought everything back to the forefront.
"He [Lynch] does this party called the Festival of Disruption, and he usually kicks it off with a speech, but this time around it was a narrative about fire. Now, I had already been dabbling with this fire idea for a while, so right there, I knew I had to follow it. That monologue really blew me away because he was talking about something that was so incredibly similar to the imagery that I had in my mind. Then things just blossomed from there."
You can hear that exact spiel from Lynch on Flamagra track "Fire Is Coming," where FlyLo gets him to repeat the speech, verbatim. This, along with a track featuring George Clinton (there's a staggering number of notable collaborators on the record, ranging from Solange to Anderson .Paak and Little Dragon) mark some of the more obvious nods to this burning motif, but it pops up throughout the album.
It's perhaps most interesting on closer "Hot Oct." which, as Ellison explains, "takes place inside of a burning house. It's almost as if the character in the song is seeing everything burning around them. The walls are caving in and pieces of wood are falling in the background. You start to hear police sirens, the fire trucks are coming. That's one of my favourite little nerdy details. By the end of the song, the whole house has completely collapsed, and the fire spirit from the beginning of the album is reintroduced. If you listen to it in its entirety, it loops completely — the album just starts over again as a perfect circle."
As if the multitude of guest spots on the record weren't enough, there's one more name drop to deal with here, and it's a significant one. Before his untimely passing, Mac Miller had become quite close with FlyLo and his musical clique; as a send off, Flamagra features two tracks dedicated to the deceased rapper. Firstly, there's "Find Your Own Way Home," a soft piano track that features vocals from a number of Miller's friends, including Thundercat, Taylor Graves and a host of others.
"That's a special one to me, because every one of the people you hear on that track are people who knew Mac through me and the work we've done," explains Ellison. "Even people who aren't normally singers contributed, which is just so nice."
The other track, "Thank U Malcolm," not only has more of the celestial jazz vibe that we're used to from FlyLo, but also formed a more momentous realization.
"I remember working on that song with Brandon Coleman, in the heat of the inspiration that Mac left behind, after he passed," Ellison notes. "I'm looking around at my friends, people who I knew were experimenting with drugs in the past, and every one of them had gotten sober. Everyone's clean and they're trying really hard to push their creativity. I think that is the thing I'm most grateful to Mac for. He left behind this fierce energy in us to push and to be better."
Flamagra is out May 24 on Warp Records.