Leveling-Up With Flying Lotus

Flying Lotus (2017). Photo by Fabian Brennecke / Red Bull Content Pool.

Last August, a tweet from Flying Lotus caught our eye:
 
"I'm about to really go in on the whole transcribing thing. Gonna try and do at least an hour a day for a bit. See what happens. What are y'all learnin w all the extra time?"

A few days later, he tweeted a follow-up:
 
"the transcribing is really making a difference. No turning back now."

Flying Lotus has been open about his ongoing musical education since he began taking piano lessons during the making of his 2019 release, Flamagra. Sharing his newfound appreciation for transcribing parts from his favorite records was just the latest revelatory glimpse into the well-established artist's continuing education.

Flying Lotus' music is already so deep, so unique, and so beloved that he could easily keep hitting up high-level pals that he calls on as collaborators—Thundercat, George Clinton, Anderson .Paak, Solange, Herbie Hancock, and lots of others—to work on his records, and he'd surely continue breaking musical ground. Instead, he takes on new learning projects with unstoppable ambition. His hunger for knowledge and his need to continue digging deeper into the musical process is a testament to the curiosity and wonder that he brings to his music.

We live in a unique time for music-making, where the process has been democratized. Traditional paths of learning—private lessons, school bands, sight-reading scores—can easily be circumvented with a laptop or smartphone, a DAW, and a couple inexpensive accessories, with similar results to those who take years to study an instrument. When it's so easy, why choose the more difficult path?

As someone who has been at the forefront of music-making since the mid-2000s, what has Flying Lotus learned lately, what is he looking for next, and how has it affected his work as a producer and composer?

We got on a Zoom call ahead of the release of Yasuke, a Netflix anime series Flying Lotus executive produced and scored. What ensued was less of a Q&A-style interview and more of a conversation between myself and Flying Lotus about being lifelong students of music.

Yasuke is out now on Netflix.

The official trailer for Netflix's Yasuke.

When you were making Flamagra [released in 2019], you started learning how to play piano. Is that right?

Piano has always kind of been in my life, but I didn't really ever decide to take it seriously, like diligently, until I guess around then, three or four years ago now.

What brought that on? What made you start taking it more seriously?

I think I just wanted to expand my potential in all the possibilities. I wanted to do more with my live show and I wanted to just have a better grasp of the music. I think I just wanted it to evolve. Just grow.

I took lessons for a short time before and I remember when that happened that I really learned a lot of things that I used. I figured even if I took lessons for a little bit, it would help me, but I, at some point, decided to just say, "OK, well, I'm just going to commit to the instrument and really include this in my way of life, learning this thing."

You've worked with so many great musicians—who do you hit up to take piano lessons?

There's a lot of people that I'm so lucky to have around me. I think that allowed me to be able to have a deep understanding of this stuff. And also the people who I can ask, they also know where I'm at, they know what I'm familiar with—so they know how to get me over the hump that I might be at. But people like Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Dennis Hamm, Brandon Coleman, and my actual teacher—his name is Ted Howe.

He's been the biggest inspiration to me for the past three years. It's working with him. I've learned so much about harmony that I just didn't know before. And quite frankly, I didn't—I always had a good sense of harmony in me, but I feel like I was pretty hard-headed about being a student again. I'm into being humble in that way and just trying to learn, because I feel like I spent so much time trying to break rules and trying to do things that were unconventional. Like, why would I want to learn how to do things that have been done before?

But I think that was just a really hardheaded way of looking at things, really stupid, but I made a career off it, so I guess it's fine. And that's another thing I try to remind myself too, when I beat myself up for not studying before. Well if I did this, who knows where I would have been if I would've just studied from the beginning? I might've just been like everybody else... It helps me sleep at night when I'm crying about how shitty I am at piano still [laughs].

Flying Lotus feat. Thundercat - "Black Gold"

I think that's so important though. Everybody can't be a virtuoso at a young age. Music would be so boring then. And your limitations define how you create your own personal voice.

True. And plus at the end of the day, I'm a producer. I still see myself as that even though I'm digging into the piano and all that. As a composer, as a performer, but I am a producer and having all these things at my fingertips, all these ideas at my fingertips—it helps everything.

In working on this TV show Yasuke—I wouldn't have been able to do all the things that I did for that show if I didn't study the past few years. I used everything I learned in the show. There's nothing wrong with expanding and learning the stuff then. I know there's a lot of people who are, "Oh, what do you think about music school?" or whatever. I don't know if I would agree with the music school. I think people should find mentors though and learn from them and just pursue it that way and find your way with the instrument. But I don't know about music school though.

It's not for everybody, but I think I learned more by just having deep conversations with my friends and saying, "Hey, I don't understand this. Can you explain it to me?" than if I had learned in a classroom.

I think to be real, y'all, there's so many resources available like on YouTube and stuff like that. That has kept me sane in the pandemic, watching all these videos on music theory and composition. I don't know if you need to go to school anymore for it, because all the stuff is there.

Every concept you can possibly explore musically is on YouTube. I think the other part is just doing it. And I think maybe that might be the difficult part for people. Actually, you're just practicing what you're watching and not just like watching YouTube, but actually applying the stuff and grinding it out.

I do a lot of teaching myself. And that's the thing I say a lot to my students, is that by you paying me, you're obligating yourself to dig in and practice, or you're just wasting your time.

Or else you're gonna waste your money another week by not doing nothing. That's real. You're basically a person to hold them accountable for doing the work that they need to do. I mean, it's just like having a personal trainer, like saying, "I need someone who's going to push me in the gym. I need that. I know I need that." It's great to have someone with music in that way, where, "I can't bullshit this guy." [Acting] "Well, I didn't really get a chance to brush up on my finger work this week, so, uh, maybe we should just talk about chord progressions or something. My hands are trash right now."

I think people should embrace your friends around you, try to jam with folks as much as possible. It doesn't matter whatever level you're at. I think for so long, part of me was, "Oh man, I'm way too old to be doing this. I'm way too old to be kind of starting and trying to do that stuff." But you'd be surprised how much you can get done in a couple years.

"I think producers are puzzle people. We could see a thing and we can build a beautiful collage out of this stuff. But I think producers should also spend time with the instrument too."

Even just on a songwriting level. Forget trying to be a world-class performer, just on some composer—if you took a couple of years out to really dedicate yourself to this stuff, I swear to God. For a lot of beatmakers, especially, this is kind of who I'm talking to, because I feel like a lot of beatmakers are kind of—we put puzzles together. I think producers are puzzle people. We could see a thing and we can build a beautiful collage out of this stuff. But I think producers should also spend time with the instrument too, just as well.

That brings up that something else you tweeted about as far as transcribing things. You mentioned that you were trying to approach it like sampling. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Did you just start transcribing tunes you liked and solos and stuff, or…

The stuff I transcribe is not what anyone would probably think. I don't sit around and listen to Bill Evans licks and try to transcribe them. I don't think about it like that, because I'm not trying to aspire to be like anybody in that way. My ear is all over the place. I just … any melody that gets stuck in my head, even if it's something off The Simpsons or whatever, I'll just be, "What was that?" And I'll just try to hear the melody, replay it, find the chords.

For me, it's always about melody in this regard. Training your ear to hear intervals, so it becomes easier to just play songs by ear in the moment. Nick, maybe we should talk about this, because I'm not sure how I feel about transcribing in the same way that a lot of people talk about it. But at the same time, I don't want to be ignorant to it either. I know transcribing can be real tedious, especially when you're talking about transcribing licks and stuff, doing it by ear and all that.

But I've actually hit this place in my playing last week where—I haven't been depressed about my playing in a while [laughs]—but like I hit a place recently where I'm getting depressed about my playing. I know it'll pass, but I think it's because I haven't transcribed in a while. I really think it is. I think it's because I haven't sat and transcribed something that was a little bit more difficult in a long time. Whenever something like that happens, it's like some Highlander shit. And that's what I think the sampling thing that I was talking about—it's like you get a new weapon when you transcribe something.

Well, what do you think about all this? What do you think about transcribing?

[So begins a sidebar about transcribing Western swing licks, feeling like you're playing with boxing gloves, and playing for fun vs. practicing.]

Let me ask you this. Now that you figured it out, what do you do with it now? Do you just say "fuck it" and just learn some other shit? Or do you play it forever and ever and ever and then just lock it into your playing? Or is it just like, That was today, tomorrow I'm going to learn something else?

Flying Lotus - "Remind U"

Sometimes I do learn things and I transcribe them and spend all this time learning something—and then I just move on the next day, and I don't know if it has any effect on my playing. But other things that I spend a lot of time on, I never forget. It just sticks with me. I don't really know what causes one thing to have more priority than another. How about you? What do you do? You feel like you remember everything or do certain things sort of fade away?

Certain things I remember. Certain things fade away, yeah. I wish I could retain it all, but there's something that's interesting—like, there's a friend of mine who reminded me. He was like, "Yo man, I haven't played the piano in a month. And it felt great when I did, because I didn't come back with all these same old ideas." Oh, that's interesting. I don't recommend that. I probably shouldn't do that, being so new to it. I also feel like anytime I take a little time away from it, I come back with some new stuff.

But also, man, my teacher though, the person we've been talking about, he's actually against transcribing. He's a person who's like—anytime I ever asked him, because everyone else is part of the whole, "You should transcribe anything, blah, blah, blah. … You should transcribe Bill Evans solos all day," whatever YouTube says—my guy, he's like, "Nah, man. The one thing you'll probably get out of it is ear training. What you need to do is practice scales and your arpeggios and just play the piano and have fun with it, find your own stuff."

I have a student that I work with who's also a recording artist and he was like, "I don't know if I really have the time for this." We've been doing this for a year and he sounds great now. He's like, "Wow. I picked it up really fast." And what I say to him is: He's already been making records that are awesome and challenging and sampling cool music and using his ear, and he knows some piano. It's the same with you. You know how to get what's in your ear out and record it. When you're learning piano, you're just learning how to channel those ideas differently. You're not learning from the beginning.

Right, that's the thing. That's kind of why I've kind of been at the crossroads of this conversation too, because I don't feel like there's any shortage of ideas, but at the same time I find myself playing things that I'm like, My hands are going to comfortable places. Well that's probably because I need more information in my hands, you know? That's the only thing that I can make sense of. But I also feel like I need to spend more time doing the whack shit like arpeggios and stuff. I don't really do that stuff enough.

In a way I think the stuff you transcribe that you remember the most, is the stuff you needed to get the most information from.

Right. It's the stuff that you'll just use little pieces of a thing. I get that, because there are things that I remember learning and it's just because it opened up my hand, almost. It opened up a movement from my fingers that I didn't think was possible or something. Now I'm, "Oh, okay. I can pull off this little [sings a riff]." I don't know how to explain it, man, but it's so cool to talk to you about it, because I'm in the trenches still. I feel like I'm in the trenches.

There's a couple of friends of mine who are kind of inspired to learn piano because they've seen me doing it and making some progress with it. They're like, "You know what? I'm going to try it out too." And I'm like , "Great. It's a great time for you to learn, because I can tell you exactly how I got here." [Laughs] Unlike a lot of people where they'll just be, "Oh, well I've been doing this for forever." They can't make sense of that. I can tell you exactly all the little mind blowers that hit me.

You had mentioned in a tweet about transcribing Bernie Worrell parts. That, to me, is just so much hipper and more personal and related to actual music-making, outside of just playing jazz piano or something. I love jazz piano and I love Bill Evans, but it's like, if you're not doing that, then there's cooler stuff to dig into.

Yeah, man. Honestly, yo, that to me, see, that answers my own question about transcribing, actually, that old tweet. Because when I did that, I knew how to do that bassline now bro—I can do it. Anytime, I can make that funky ass bassline. I know the recipe for that sound. And I probably wouldn't have learned that if I didn't transcribe a couple of those things. It was like, Oh, OK, he's doing this. This is how you get that vibe.

I don't know. It's not necessarily the notes. It's just the feel sometimes, even. I don't know. It is important. I should transcribe after this conversation [laughs].

I'm getting inspired, for sure.

I'm definitely going to do that. I should talk to my old self, shit [laughs]. I got to read some old tweets.

The Synth Sounds of Parliament-Funkadelic's Bernie Worrell

I think you said it really nicely, like there's a recipe in that bassline on how you get that sound. You're not going to get that from practicing an arpeggio. You're going to get that only one way.

Yes. That is so true.

And the filter that you put on it when you play it or you write music, that it engages with that idea, it's still going to sound like you. You're not sounding ... None of us will ever sound like Bernie Worrell. Only he sounds like Bernie Worrell, and only you will sound like you.

But there's the one thing about it that you love, or whatever, the something that you might be able to get from there. All of it, but just a little essence. It was definitely helpful.

How has having all this new information informed your music? How has it manifested itself in the music that you write and the music you create?

Mostly benefits, there's a couple of drawbacks. I think now I'm in a place where I have to remind myself to not always just make something diatonically, or whatever. It's good to know all the rules, but you have to break them too. You can't just play it safe now because you know all the stuff you're supposed to do.

When I first started taking lessons, I remember, I was showing my piano teacher stuff that I would come up with. He was like, "Dude, what the fuck is this shit?" It would freak him out. He'd be like, "Dude, I gotta play this." And he would take the whole lesson, playing out my chord progression, saying, "This shit doesn't make any sense, but I love it." [Laughs.]

He was worried about messing me up. He was, "Dude, I don't know how much of this stuff I want to teach you, because I don't want you to lose your thing." And that's something that I also... that's probably a part of the struggle, is just how to not do the same jazz progression, two-five-one and all that stuff, now that I know them.

But having all this stuff at my fingertips and being able to understand the chords and follow my friends, like that, to me, is worth it. It's so worth it. At this point, when people come over there doing stuff, I can kind of keep up with what they're doing. I can follow what they're doing. And even if I'm not recording on the song—just as a producer, it helps me to know what scales will work, or if I have to tune the song, to what degrees, and all this stuff. It really ... It's only been a benefit.

I know a lot of producers are hella hardheaded because they're just like, "Well, my instrument is Ableton," but it's only good things to come with it.

Your instrument can still be Ableton—that doesn't go away. But there's so many other ways to engage in music.

Yeah. And you can say to yourself, "Oh, well I like sound design and I like microtonal stuff that doesn't make any sense" or whatever. But you should learn what makes sense so you could make it make less sense. It's all useful and you never know.

And like I said, just being a part of this TV show, I know I would have needed help to get it all done. I know I would've actually needed people to help me if I was doing this on my own without any of the theory that I've learned. But I was able to just take this by the reins and score to picture and felt really confident the whole way through. Which was a lot different from the kinds of things I'm used to being into samples and cutting up stuff to make my project. So it was quite a journey.

I'm curious now, how much of that process would you say was kind of new ideas? Are you still using the same process at your music-making core, or something like cutting stuff up and using samples and stuff, or is this completely new process?

It's not a new process. I mean, I've always recorded synthesizers and played keys on stuff my whole career but not to the level that I can and not knowing what I'm doing [laughs]. I would just be fishing around in the dark. And that was the thing. I could do this shit, but it would take me hours and hours to figure out what I was doing.

But now that's the difference: I don't have to sit around and shoot in the dark for forever to get progressions done. But, you know, the difference with this is just—there was a lot of ideas. I couldn't sample anything, really, because it's a TV show. I kind of had to make everything. It was a lot of fun. I was really excited to record to picture and play synthesizers and use everything that I've learned. I felt like it was a perfect-timed situation.

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