The living room of Brian Ellis' Escondido home is littered with musical instruments, music and random miscellanea. There are guitars and keyboards, and a laptop open to some studio recording software. Next to his laptop are two DJ turntables, and a long stack of records—the one on top is a rare LP by enigmatic third-stream jazz artist Moondog. Just next to the kitchen is a leather-upholstered bar with a foot-tall Ninja Turtle standing on top.
Compared to what he has in a studio space in another part of Escondido, Ellis says this isn't really that much gear. There he has an even bigger collection of guitars, amplifiers and synths, as well as his saxophone and even a sitar. Not that he considers himself particularly skilled at playing sitar, he admits.
"I've just done YouTube lessons," he says. "It would be really awesome to meet someone who actually plays. I know I'm doing something wrong. It's such a traditional thing."
As Ellis' gear would suggest, his musical scope is wider than most. Since he was a teenager, Ellis has been on an ongoing journey to broaden his musical horizons. He started the epic post-rock group Lights and Sirens as a teenager about 15 years ago, later joining psychedelic prog-rock outfit Psicomagia and heavy psych outfit Astra. He's still a member of those latter two bands, though he's since expanded his scope into even broader musical territory, having since made R&B, ambient, jazz fusion and synth-funk records.
There isn't much that Brian Ellis won't do, musically, simply because there aren't many styles of music that don't capture his interest.
"I just listen to a ton of stuff," he says. "Everything can influence each other. I like doing a lot of different types of music. Sometimes there's a lot of genre mashing that's not good, and I feel like by doing a lot of different music...I can separate the different avenues I want to pursue and it won't come out as a jumbled cacophony—kind of defining what I want to do before I do it."
Brian Ellis plays March 26 at Pour House
That endless curiosity and interest in a wide swath of music led to 2015 being one of the most productive years of Ellis' career. Last year he released three full-length albums: In the Dark, a funk record under his own name; Brian Ellis Group's Escondido Sessions, an album of electric jazz fusion; and At Dusk, a collaboration of ambient music with South Carolina producer Brian Grainger. Add to that three seven-inch singles and a handful of compilation appearances, and you have a year that'll make most other artists look downright lazy.
Even after that much output, Ellis is at work mastering a double-album slated for release later this year. The problem with trying to do so much, he says, is that he doesn't have the time to commit to all of it.
"I'm kind of swamped right now," he says. "I'm trying not to start new stuff before I finish it. It gets a little frustrating sometimes, because I distract myself. Especially when I know I have other stuff to do, that's when I really start working on stuff I'm not supposed to. I have so much stuff I have to work on right now."
Something that does work in Ellis' favor, at least in terms of increasing his productivity, is being in North County. While the region has been showing signs of an increase in musical creativity, particularly in Oceanside and Carlsbad, Ellis appreciates the fact that his hometown isn't quite as bustling. Even though playing in Astra has taken him to far off locales, going back to a sleepy burg means being able to focus.
"What I like about up here, Escondido in particular, is that you can't be cool," he says. "There's no hipsters. It doesn't really exist up here, so that kind of competition feel isn't there. It's so boring that it keeps me kind of focused on doing what I want to do. I have to create my own outlets. It's not like there's something to go out and do every night."
For how far Ellis' scope reaches, right now he's more focused on making music that's more social. His major project right now is his '80s-influenced synth-funk group, Brian Ellis' Reflection, which finds him in more of a leader role. He's been honing his chops as a vocalist via many long nights of karaoke (his go-to songs: "The Rain" by Oran "Juice" Jones and Temple of the Dog's "Hunger Strike"), and more than ever before, he's invested in making pop music—in some shape or another. He's not done challenging himself, but Ellis says that he's more interested in bringing new listeners into the tent.
"I think my pursuit is to make a universal sound that doesn't alienate a listener, but is still super musical," he says. "Someone who's really into music can take a lot out of it, but it's not abrasive. So you can't say 'This isn't for you.' There's a lot of music like that. But listening to stuff like...a lot of the early '80s funk has that sound. It has great guitar solos, it has great bass, and if you put it on at a party, everybody's into it."