Race for the Prize

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

NT: Yet these days, some bands seem to form specifically to get a deal and make money as opposed to making music for the sheer joy of it.

WC: Well, I think anyone who's in music for those types of things, if they don't work out they quickly move to getting attention some other way. I think music is just one area where people like, say, Courtney Love go, "I want attention. I'm not a model but I can certainly play the part of a rock star." Music has always been filled up with people who want to get attention, not necessarily people who play good music. So any way that you can get it is fine by me. I mean, I wouldn't want to do stuff that way, but the world's full of all different kinds. Some of the most poseur people in the world do make great music, too.

NT: I believe in one interview you suggested that you didn't want to leave music in the same condition you found it . . .

Hear it is: The Flaming Lips. Still getting their message across loud and clear.
Jay Blakesberg
Hear it is: The Flaming Lips. Still getting their message across loud and clear.
The Lips circa '89: High on the success of "She Don't Use Jelly."
Joseph Cultice
The Lips circa '89: High on the success of "She Don't Use Jelly."

WC: I say it only because I feel like I've been given the opportunity. If you don't have something worth saying, don't stand up and say it! But it wasn't because I felt like that from the time I was 15. I sort of felt like just because of the path we've taken, sometimes I do get the attention and I do have the capabilities. Warner Bros. is on my side, there are folks like you who know what we're all about, and then there's this huge audience right in the middle that thinks, "Gosh, these guys have the potential to do something that we've never heard before!" And I take that as like, "Well, gee, not many people are given that chance, so maybe I should try to leave my mark in some way." As opposed to saying, "Who gives a shit about what people think?" Because I do see how fleeting opportunities can be. I'm lucky I'm still in a band! How many guys do we know from the old days who wish they were in my position now but who simply aren't?

There's no shortage of things out there to entertain people. You can go see a baseball game, go to a wrestling match, or stay at home and look at porn on the Internet. I guess it's because I've been a hard working guy myself. Records aren't cheap and concerts aren't cheap, and if you work hard for your money and you walk into something and some rock star says, "Aw, I don't feel like really playing tonight. Fuck y'all." I mean, that sounds great when you're writing about it, but that sucks when you're out for a night on the town and you've spent 20 bucks! If you went to a movie theater and the movie stopped halfway through, you'd get up and say, "I want my fucking money back!" But when a rock band comes to town to entertain you, anything goes: they can suck, they can be out of tune, and you accept it! Well, I don't accept it.

NT: Have you ever done a gig that afterward you felt like you should go out and offer people their money back?

WC: Oh, plenty. But at the time I didn't think it. I thought, you know, "expressing yourself" was more important than entertaining people. It wasn't until I saw it myself -- people saying, "We don't give a shit if you paid your money. We do this every night. Who the fuck are you people?" -- that I started to realize, "Hey, when we do that, it probably looks the same way." So I don't think of it like that anymore. I don't put out records like that and I don't play shows like that. These people, this could be their big night. Let's make it something they'll talk about for the next year.

NT: But you've always seemed to approach it that way. In concert you had smoke machines, strobe lights, bubbles, a disco ball. You did your records in colored vinyl, elaborate sleeves. You hit folks with the boom-box concerts, then a four-CD set. Are you driven to keep trying harder each time out?

WC: It isn't a drive, because we always just do what we like. I'm always surprised that it comes across as more than what the next guy wants to do. I don't go out and gauge, oh, those guys are running three miles, we'll run 10! It is a lot of work, but I've done this a long time and I can organize people and money and schedules and stuff so it looks impressive if you've just got off work and come to the show. It'll look like we know what we're doing! And we've always worked hard at it.

Even back in the early days, we'd show up early and set up the lights and things. It just makes it a special night for everybody. In a way it's like vaudeville -- the Flaming Lips tradition, another form of the Greatest Show on Earth: if you saw us play two years ago, you must come back, because we're doing a different show.

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