Race for the Prize

After a monumental 1999, the Flaming Lips return to the road, ponder their legacy and look toward the future

The Flaming Lips saga has been told and retold an endless number of times. In fact, this very publication recounted it to a reasonable degree last year ("Unconsciously Brilliant," October 28) in a review of the group's Restless Records retrospective 1984-1990. In that article, yours truly suggested that the Lips' "accidental career" -- garage/psych band from Norman, Oklahoma makes a handful of freewheeling indie records and goes on to join the major label ranks, notching at least one bona fide hit and ultimately winding up being one of the most respected working groups of the '90s -- contained a deeply felt resonance for those who came of age in the pre-Nirvana era.

And what a ride that career has been. In truth, the group's philosophical and musical choices, despite going doggedly against the mainstream grain, have been anything but random. From the zonked-out, cranium-crunching psychedelic blowouts on both the early records and the club tours during the '80s; to the '90s parking-lot symphonies, boom-box experiments and play-'em-simultaneously four CDs of 1997's Zaireeka; to last year's sensational, multimedia-drenched tour in support of The Soft Bulletin; the Flaming Lips may have seemed at times erratic, but thanks in part to a rock-solid work ethic and investigatory skills worthy of Manhattan Project scientists, their experimental vision has never wavered.

With the success that the amazing The Soft Bulletin continues to accrue comes danger, of course. A lot of bands that craft their so-called crowning achievements either fail miserably to live up to their own standards and plummet artistically, or simply plateau out and, over time, dilute their own legacies. If the Lips were to believe their own press kudos, then their stunning transmogrification of Beatlesesque hookery, Brian Wilson orchestral nuancing, Zappa-like textural juxtaposition and Lewis Carroll whimsy into a coherent, gulping-breathing-raving-drooling sonic whole might lull them into believing their race for the prize had been won.

Not the case. The Lips' current tour, which makes a stop at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe this week, is heavy on material from Soft Bulletin but does not feature any choice oldies. Instead it finds our heroes still engaged in their own peculiar brand of rock 'n' roll guerrilla warfare. Sometimes they'll take the stage as the P.A. booms, fiddle with their equipment -- then abruptly announce that they intend to leave and come back on, instructing the audience to applaud as if they hadn't seen them yet. Films of atomic-bomb explosions, '80s aerobic-exercise classes, Leonard Bernstein conducting an orchestra, even the Lips themselves (in prerecorded segments) are projected on a huge stage backdrop while drummer Steven Drozd and bassist Michael Ivins abandon their assigned instruments to play keyboards and trigger sample and backing tapes, while Coyne sings in his trademark falsetto and drenches himself in fake blood. A wide-angle camera attached to Coyne's mike stand pans the crowd, which is armed with bags of confetti and instructed by Coyne to toss it as the urge strikes. And lest the audience misses out on some of the subtler musical nuances of the show amid the extravaganza, concertgoers are additionally armed with headphones equipped with tiny receivers (along the lines of assisted listening devices for hearing-impaired movie patrons).

The Flaming Lips, clearly, intend to leave folks with something to talk about around the water cooler the next day.

Sharp-eyed night owls may have caught the Lips performing Bulletin's "Waitin' for a Superman" on the March 3 edition of Late Night with Conan O'Brien. While television's limitations precluded any genuine looniness on the band's part, the appearance was nevertheless a memorable one: against a videoscreen backdrop (which did, in fact, show clips of a bloody-faced Coyne) and accompanied by a taped orchestra, Drozd played keyboards, Ivins plucked his bass and Coyne warbled his fractured fairy tale. The sight of Coyne darting and dipping across the stage while making the wings of a snow-white mechanical dove flap gently was an indelible image that no doubt charmed even the show's host.

New Times pinned Wayne Coyne down last winter to get some sense of where he feels his band places in the current music landscape. Erudite and self-aware to a fault, he's not completely sure if the Lips even fit in; after all, he was the one who originally described his band's trajectory along the lines of an accidental career. But he's grateful that the Lips, out of all the thousands of bands, got the chance to try.


New Times: I've been reminiscing lately about your early records and all the Lips shows I saw in the '80s.

Wayne Coyne: Yeah, you forget how magical some of that stuff was. And, I mean, none of us knew what we were doing. We were just in the right place at the right time. It's sort of the "magic" that you're the only one who understands why it's magical. Then, it seemed like there was some sort of potential for the era. Like we were gonna change the music scene or whatever. We were pursuing something, and no one in their right mind would think we were doing the right thing -- "You guys are crazy!'' -- but you end up pursuing it anyway. People do veer towards what they like in the end. Especially myself; I don't think I got any more breaks or had any more ambition than the next guy. It was just little by little -- "I wanna do this. I wanna do this . . ." And I end up doing more of what I want than what I hate.

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