Race for the Prize

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

So I think the thing we achieved by doing Zaireeka and it being such a big, hard, dense, unknowing process -- because we didn't know how to do any of that, we simply had to start to do it -- and what it did was it raised our level of tolerance for the just sheer boredom of it. It's insanely boring to go and do these big projects that have to work out. Most people I simply don't think would put up with it. That is the final hurdle: you have to put up with a lot of trying things that are boring. Because ideas come to you, and it's exciting in the creation of things. But then there is the doing of them. I suppose it's like if I was both the architect and the guy who had to build the Brooklyn Bridge. "Oh, I got this bridge, this great idea for a bridge that'll look fantastic, blah blah blah!" And then it takes eight years to build. And it is a great bridge, but at the same time I'm sure that by the time you get to the end of the fifth year you're going, "Fuck this bridge, I want to start on a new one." And you can't do that. You have to finish it. I say this all the time, that I'm sure the cavemen looked at the moon and said, "Wouldn't it be great to go to the moon!" And as an idea, I'm sure everybody thinks of these things. But doing them is the hard part. Seeing it all the way through is harder.

So by doing Zaireeka, we realized how much work was ahead of us when we started, for example, a [Soft Bulletin] song like "The Gash" -- gosh, 200 tracks, three weeks' worth of just laying down the tracks, and we didn't even know if it was gonna be any good until we got these tracks on there. But we said, "Mmm, we can do it." And we just started doing it. Instead of it being so overwhelming, you can start it and say, "We'll get there, we'll see what happens." You want to believe that you can accomplish what you set out to do. Art is like that: you have to believe in it so much that you can't let anything get in the way. In music, these are great, triumphant feelings. But in the end, we're just making records that I hope people will like.

NT: Do you feel vindicated when the critics salute your efforts, when you wind up on the year-end lists?

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: Not "vindication," no. I know how hard it is to get your record reviewed. And there are a lot of records worth talking about. If people want to talk about our record, I am nothing but a grateful slave! [laughs] I would do this anyway! And if other people like them and I can make a living and be touted in some circles as having some vision or something, that's the best thing in the world and I will do my best to live up to that image of me. If people say, "Wayne is capable enough," well, I am, and I will prove it to them, I'll show them that their belief in me is not wrong. So no, it wouldn't be vindication.

NT: Do you foresee the band moving forward with the technology and Internet matters, adapting to that format and making music or shows available over the Web?

WC: It's hard to say. We're not necessarily in total control of what happens as far as people making money on our music. I don't think Warner Bros. wants to get to a point where they're giving away music for free. I don't think anybody feels you should give stuff away, whether you're selling bananas or your songs. Even though people like Chuck D think that the MP3 is gonna destroy record companies.

NT: I think his take on it is that if you give away a bag of fries, they'll come buy a burger from you.

WC: He's trippin'. The movie industry thought videotapes would destroy the business. But the opposite has become true: video stores work good, and there are more movie theaters than ever. I try to remind people who think it would be great to get music for free that the bands it will destroy, the easiest and the first, are those like Royal Trux, Smog, Tortoise, whose fan base is made up of people who know about MP3s. Ricky Martin, the Spice Girls: their fans don't know anything about MP3, and they're not gonna go and steal songs, they want to go and buy the record at the store and then go see the concert. People who are selling 10 million records at record stores are always gonna do it.

What I think MP3 will mostly do is that people will hear records, and if they don't like them, they won't buy them. If they do like them, they'll go out and buy them. That's why radio is so good in that way. People can hear a song a hundred times a day but it doesn't stop them from going out and buying it. Just the opposite is true; the more you hear it, the more you want to buy it. So I don't think hearing it replaces the urge to own it. And the urge to own it is different than just owning a "replica" that you got off the Internet.

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