Race for the Prize

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

We're not exclusively the only band that could do records like we've done. But I feel like not everybody could do it because it costs a lot of money to make; there's a big hassle to get it released, have distributors pick it up and have stores actually sell it. You don't realize how hard that is because these days there are so many records available. But we were able to do it. We simply pursued the ideas that we had at the time; it wasn't as though I thought, "Wouldn't it be perfect to put out a four-CD record, do this, do that." The "accidental career" is still happening. [laughing] It hasn't ended.

NT: If the Flaming Lips were a brand-new band, do you think you could get signed? Sometimes it seems like you slipped through the industry window just before it shut.

WC: Oh yeah! I say that exact thing to people -- "The door was shutting. Some people thought it was opening, but it was shutting. And shutting hard right behind us! And we got in, and I didn't realize what it was like until we got in there, how hard it is. We thought everybody was getting in with us. We barely got in, through our ignorance and bravery. We didn't know what was at stake. Then we got lucky, because "She Don't Use Jelly" sold a bunch of records, and we got on the Batman soundtrack. Just through truly arbitrary good luck, there are weeks that come up for bands that haven't sold any records. One of those weeks came up for us around the time of "She Don't Use Jelly." And we're always a week away from being dropped, then we'll sell a bunch of records and suddenly we're back on the A-list.

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."

NT: How has Bulletin done so far, sales-wise? It's certainly getting the critical accolades.

WC: I think it's Sound Scanned 100,000 worldwide so far (Editor's Note: The Soft Bulletin is closing in on the 200,000 sales mark worldwide). And it's still fairly early. I think this record has some longevity to it, so it's not like it comes out and we have six weeks to make it with it or it stops. We can keep going out and playing this record. And we fully intend to give it the best shot we can. That's what you do: you put out a record and try to draw attention to it. The best way is to go out and perform the songs, and to go out and talk about the record. You just try little by little to gain an audience for your record. It's not unlike being a politician: you have to go out and get elected in some way. I just feel like if our record is important enough to me, then I'll go out and talk about it endlessly if I have to. We don't have a plan for another record right now; making Zaireeka and then Soft Bulletin sort of back-to-back, it was a long couple of years.

NT: While making The Soft Bulletin, was there ever a moment when you looked around the studio at the other guys and the light bulb went on: "Hey, I think we have something really special here!"

WC: No, it never occurred to us, and I don't think it ever can. I don't think we can ever be "in the audience" listening to one of our records -- we don't look at what we're doing and go, "Oh, this is unique." We simply try to do what we like, and that's the hardest part of making records, to actually know what you like and then do it. Ideas and all that are so nebulous in your mind, and to do something that's original and unique, that's an impossibility. If it ends up being unique and special, it really is a by-product of us pursuing our own trip, you know?

NT: There's a theory that the greatest records in history were those that took place when no one was looking over the artists' shoulders, almost like the classics were flukes.

WC: I've talked to Kevin Shields [My Bloody Valentine auteur], not about exactly that, but perhaps in vague conversations about how do you arrive at ideas that you actually think are good, and then pursue them. And you really can't; you simply have to pursue the ideas as they come to you, and hope that they are good, and hope that your vision is unique and all that. And if it's not, well . . . keep working!

I think at some point we do have a lot of experience in the studio and we do try for big ideas. It isn't all some accident; we weren't trying to record a simple guitar, bass and drum record and ended up with The Soft Bulletin. I mean, we went in and we were ready to do, um, something Ben Hur-ish! [laughs] We knew we were doing 200 tracks, so it wasn't as though we weren't trying. But at the same time, you can try all you want, and trying alone doesn't make the leap from it just being your ideas to actually materializing into something that's great.

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